After five years in a Zen monastery at the top of a mountain with eternal winter, Leonard Cohen realized that he wasn't a particularly good monk. Instead he wrote ten new songs. Martin Oestergaard asks about life in the monastery, while Leonard Cohen plays his new record and talks about great success that has never been able to compensate for even greater depression. But first Cohen wants to hear the story of the mixed up coats.
"It sounds like the beginning of a crime novel," says Leonard Cohen and chuckles quietly when I tell him how my coat was mixed up with another man's coat on the Air France plane, one and a half hours ago at the Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris.
Leonard Cohen wants to hear the whole story before starting the interview here in room 204 at Hotel Raphael. And once again I have to explain how I didn't discover the mistake until one quarter hour after the landing while standing at the train station outside the airport about to buy a ticket for Gare du Nord. In the inside pocket of the coat was another man's passport and return ticket and in the outside pocket a red tie - but no money.
After 15 heavily sweaty and panicking minutes I managed to get an airport employee to call Leonard Cohen's hotel and tell the people from the record company that I was late and couldn't get anywhere without money. While waiting to get through to the hotel, the airport woman smilingly noted that if my coat was a Hugo Boss and his a Cessario it wasn't a good swop.
Leonard Cohen laughed again: "Did you get in contact with the man?" And I did. At the hotel there was a message and a mobile number waiting and I discovered that the man with my coat was sitting in a meeting at the cosmetics company Givenchy.
"Was he able to see the amusing aspect of the situation?" asked Leonard Cohen - and yes, the man had laughed on the phone and we had arranged to meet.
"Does that mean that you are broke?" asked Leonard Cohen, and when I shook my head he grabbed inside the inner pocket of his jacket and pulled out 200 franc, handed them across the table and the two coffee cups and insisted that I should take them.
Leonard Cohen has given me 200 franc! What a fantastic start.
Cohen is a myth for a couple of generations of seeking and sensitive intellectuals of the western world. Inspiration for self-conceited poets and thoughtful rock musicians. His first record came out at the same time as the youth rebellion in '67. I remember how back in the 70's, I saw my mother go into a coma over the classic "Suzanne." And how my nine year older brother worshipped his Leonard Cohen-records with the same awe as for his Bob Dylan-records. But Cohen's voice was more mysterious than Dylan's nasal bleating. And with his raven-black hair, the dark eyes and always well-fitting suit, he possessed a differently elegant and erotic charm. He was the ladies' man. Poetic, cool and sensitive.
Leonard Cohen suggests that we listen to the music while talking. He gets up and walks into the next room to get a CD, while he sets me to find power for the stereo. Ten New Songs, Cohen's first studio record in nine years. He has become 67 years old in the meantime. He could be my father.
Leonard Cohen has run out of cigarettes and I offer him one of my brown King's. Luckily they were not in my coat. He smokes and talks about the relaxed feeling he gets from the record.
"One can just put it on and lean back. It doesn't insist on twisting one's arm."
Why did you decide to make a record?
"I didn't really decide it. I was living in the monastery for five or six years and I wasn't sure if there was even going to be another record. It hasn't been a question of necessity to me. My previous record was released in 1993 and after that I gave 60 or 70 concerts. I was nearly 60 years old and my old teacher Roshi was close to 90. I thought that it was a proper time to intensify my studies with him. I didn't know how much longer he - or I myself - would be alive, so I went into the Zen Center.
"It's an old scouts camp at the top of a mountain, Mount Baldy. The school and the monastery are fitted out after the same model as the Japanese Zen monasteries but still a bit different to suit Americans. It's a quite strict and severe place. Not many of the visiting tourists would want to live that life. They leave quickly."
They don't like doing dishes that much? [In a Canadian interview, Cohen a bit humorously said, that he left the monastery because he was tired of doing the dishes. Ed.]
"No, they don't like doing the dishes - on all levels."
Why were you attracted by your teacher?
"First of all I liked him very much. For us it was always more of a friendship than a relationship between a master and his disciple. I met him more than 30 years ago. For many years we just drank together. I was studying on a rather superficial level, but as I started to see the great qualities of this man, I wanted to get closer and enter his teachings. At the end I became a monk, lived close to him and took care of him. But I was never looking for a new religion. I was happy with my own and I am still happy to be a believing Jew. The training and the studies in the monastery don't exclude your religious belief or your way of living life. The meaning of the training is to overpower and dissolve your self."
Were you good at overpowering your self?
"No, very bad. I was never a good disciple. My discovery towards the end of my stay as a monk was that I had no religious skills. And after that came a deep relaxation and something that reminded of peace. I didn't absolutely have to understand. Actually I couldn't understand."
How did your master react when you left the place?
"I asked him permission to leave. And he gave me his permission reluctantly, because we were friends and spent a big part of the day together. It had the sad character of a break-up, but we still manage to spend time together whenever he comes down to Los Angeles, which happens quite often. A couple of weeks ago he wasn't feeling too well and I made him the chicken soup that he is so fond of. I am still very close to the society of the monastery, and it was the living together with a group of people that attracted me. My life before was chaotic and this was one of the most important reasons why I stepped into Roshi's system, just to get some form and structure in my life."
Did it make your life less chaotic?
"I don't know if chaos disappears or not. You are so tired most of the time that you don't feel like thinking about yourself. This is one of the advantages of this very wise system. You work so hard, sleep so little and use so many resources that you find a balance by yourself."
How is everyday-life in the monastery?
"The other senior monks and I get up at half past two in the morning. The first thing I do is make a big pot of coffee, because I need a good half hour with coffee before I am ready to meet the day at three o'clock, when everybody else gets called. Then there is an hour of chanting and then a couple of hours of meditation. After that you have a whole day's work ending with two to three hours of meditation in the evening. Once a month you sit a whole day, for 12-18 hours in the meditation room."
What does the working day contain?
"There is carpentry, plumbing and painting. The place needs to be swept and cleaned. Some cook for all the monks. Others shovel snow. There's quite a lot of snow that needs to be removed from trails and roads during the winter because it lies above the snow line. Up on the mountain we have winter all year, while they get sunburned down in Los Angeles."
What's a special day like in the monastery?
"There are no special days. The whole idea is that nothing and everything is special at the same time. There is only the routine to which you surrender. If you can't do that, you become very unhappy. Everything is arranged to happen by the sound of bells or clapping. If you feel defiance every time you hear these signals, which mark that you have to do something particular, you become very unhappy after a while. That happens to some people and therefore they leave."
But you surrendered?
"You have to surrender in order to stay there. You follow the routine no matter how you feel, and this has the advantage that you stop being dependent on how you feel. As it says in one of the songs: 'I don't trust my inner feelings - / Inner feelings come and go.'"
That's a good line.
"Yes, I think that is my favorite line. The other favorite line is: 'And summoned now to deal / With your invincible defeat, / You live your life as if it's real, / A Thousand Kisses Deep.'"
I didn't quite understand that. Can you explain?
"Everybody realizes at a certain time that they aren't leading the life they want to. Life feels like a defeat. If you are lucky, you will realize later on that no one leads the life they want to. You realize that you cannot control your life, because if you could, you would have lead a different life. The awareness that you don't control anything is the first reminder of the defeat. After that, you have to understand that you have to live on as if your life is real, as if you are the director and as if your choices have got consequences that are predictable. Life is to choose and therefore we have to carry on making these choices as if they are real choices that we can control. But the deeper understanding is that you don't run the show, but live your life 'a thousand kisses deep,' and by that phrase I mean, that you have to accept the mystery and surrender to the mystery."
What is it like to surrender?
"Not even that is under your control. You can pray that it happens and try to arrange it, as if it was something that could be achieved through that path. You can also imagine that you are aware of what it's all about. But before you actually experience the surrender, you don't even know the shape of it.
"Something relaxes inside you. Everybody wants to be relaxed, but relaxing is another activity that you cannot control. For me it was very much about getting older. I read somewhere that when you get older the brain cells that are connected with fear start to die. I know a lot of older people who are very worried and bitter, but luckily it hasn't happened in my case. At some point my angst started to ease. I think it was the understanding of not mastering an understanding of what the old master was trying to tell me. I couldn't break through. I didn't really understand it. And maybe I wasn't meant to understand. Maybe it just had to sink into my heart and make it more relaxing to be alive. But I am both uncertain and unconscious of the process, and therefore I cannot give you a good description of it. But something eased inside me."
That sounds good.
"Well, it really was quite good."
I have read a small book about a German professor of philosophy who goes to Japan to study...
"Zen and the Art of Shooting with a Bow," Leonard Cohen friendly cuts in. "I read it many years ago. It's a lovely book."
I still remember how the German professor had such a hard time learning to shoot at the exact right, unconscious time, that he pretended to. As a result the Zen master took away his bow and denied to be his master for a period of time.
"Well, that's how it is with these guys. The only thing that I was completely sure of in my process of becoming a monk was that he understood my difficult and unpleasant inner condition and reacted spontaneously in proportion to it. He ignored or accepted all your small problems and instead he always talked to the fully developed, ripened and enlightened part of your nature. Therefore the things he said were sometimes unintelligible until the understanding was deepened and you realized that he was addressing the most true and intimate part of your heart. From the beginning he addresses the part of you that you want to find, and slowly you become able to see it yourself in an ambiguous, hazy and foggy way."
Sometimes you write the word "truth" in your new songs. What kind of truth are you talking about?
"We all have a sense of a truth. The truth can be the most intimate conversation with one's heart about its desire and appetite. And when this conversation appears, it comes very close to the truth and a feeling of authenticity.
"But I don't imagine to have a metaphysic system without contradictions, and I don't think this is the poet's nor the songwriter's duty. In one of the songs I start by saying: 'I smile when I'm angry. / I cheat and I lie. / I do what I have to do / to get by. / But I know what is wrong. / And I know what is right. / And I'd die for the truth / In My Secret Life.' To be understood in the way that you can deceive everybody but yourself. This is the truth viewed in a simple, pragmatic and ordinary way, but it isn't the great truth of our existence. I can't control that," says Leonard Cohen with a gentle smile and laughter in his voice.
When Leonard Cohen laughs, he does it almost silently like someone with chronic pneumonia, that doesn't have any more power to cough. But it is hard to understand, that such a lively soul like his also has become older and more fragile. You get an urge to give his warm, gentle and earnest nature and the brown eyes a big hug. And it's easy to feel what has been attracting women and men for decades - the at the same time vulnerable and sharp soul.
How are you these days?
"I am very thankful. It is a fortunate time of my life with a lot of blessings."
Can you give an example?
"People around me are healthy and working. My children are doing well and the same goes for my friends. I myself seem to be able to work. In general there is peace, and I feel this as a blessing."
That sounds good.
"Yes, it's good right now, but there are no guarantees, and things have a way of changing. Right now, I am very thankful because I have finished a good record. Just to be able to work and have close relations to those with whom you work. If our work hadn't had a good outcome, still the whole process would have been worth it. It was very intense and took almost two years of daily work."
How did your working days pass?
"Leanne and Sharon, the engineer and the producer, would come by at noon and I would have made lunch and then we worked for five to six hours. Perhaps I made them supper and then we continued working in the evening. It went on like that day after day for a long time."
What is different today compared to 30 years ago?
"For me it has always been hard work because I keep changing the songs again and again infinitely. And I am never really satisfied. But unlike before, I am not so full of anxiety along the way. And also, it isn't as hard to talk to journalists anymore."
What was hard about that?
"There is something unpleasant about having to talk about yourself day after day. And you become aware that you never tell the truth even though you want to. I am not really willing to tell the truth, and I don't know either, whether it is appropriate to reveal yourself to anybody at all."
What kind of advice would you give yourself 30 years ago?
"A big part of my life has been about overcoming depression. But as far as I could see, there was nothing to be depressed about, and that was..."
"Yes," says Leonard Cohen and laughs.
"You know, it is a sickness, and it is fun to joke about it, but it isn't funny when you are in the middle of the depression. I am not unique. Many people have to endure living under the same conditions of life. But it was hard for me to examine the depression in depth because I had success, I was distinguished, I had a gift and a reasonable talent, I was able to see things through and I had close relations to other people and wonderful friendships. I felt that I was a real asshole because I wasn't happy, but I wasn't able to be happy. I had a deep sense of suffering that influenced most of my life. Most of my activities were about drinking, taking drugs, courting women or flirting with religious studies. With all this I tried to confront this depression that I simply couldn't penetrate."
Maybe there isn't any advice that you can give yourself as a young man?
"From the letters I receive, I understand that many people who are or have been in the same situation have felt a kind of relief, a healing while listening to my songs. This is something that I have been very thankful for.
"If somebody has got enough time - or are bored enough - to examine my entire work in books and songs, there will, to a certain extent, be an exact description of the process and a few insights in the matter along the way. But I don't imagine that I am a therapist nor possess wisdom about what it is all about. I have described it as well as I could."
Maybe a part of the healing is to share it with other people?
"I think that is true. To share it as detailed and honestly as possible."
We just sit for a while and Leonard Cohen goes to get coffee and pours us a cup. I can't come up with any questions and make a blind shot.
What about the women?
"I am not living together with anybody. I have many close relationships. The record was made in close collaboration with two women, and it has been very giving with this intimate, yet not romantic working relationship. And this is another new thing for me. I have always had close relationships with women, but I have never been able to see them for real."
"I never saw them because I wanted them. And when you want something, you want it your way. The quality of desire is, that it is yours. But it has got it's own tyranny. And when something inside you relaxes - and I have to add that I am far from being delivered from desire - then you start to see the other person for real."
Leonard Cohen listens for a while and grasps at the words in the song, we listen to.
"Here is another good sequence: 'A sip of wine, a cigarette, / And then it's time to go. / I tidied up the kitchenette; / I tuned the old banjo. / I'm wanted at the traffic-jam. / They're saving me a seat. / I'm what I am, and what I am, / Is back on Boogie Street.'"
What does that mean, that you are back on Boogie Street?
"I think it just means acceptance of the normal rules of a person's life in which there is desire, work, mistakes ... blessings."
You alter your songs over and over again?
"Yes, unfortunately that is my way of working. I wish I was the kind of person who would be satisfied with doing it in one go. Because even if you spend a lot of time making changes, there is no guarantee of the quality - often on the contrary."
Then why do you keep on?
"I just don't feel that I've got it right. It is extremely irritating and it keeps you stuck with the notebook or the computer hour after hour. I have cursed the new record a bit, but I have also been happy to be fully occupied. It has been a long time since I have complained about the process, because it is my way of working, one word at a time.
"Over the years I have discovered that a song eventually surrenders, it just needs enough time. But the amount of time is beyond any reasonable conception of how much time you should spend. You might think that it is going to take the rest of the day, the week or the month. But in my case it takes years.
"One of the greatest songs in history is 'Blueberry Hill.' 'The moon stood still on Blueberry Hill.' I would be happy to have written that line. I don't know how long it took the guy to write it, but it probably didn't take years."
But then you wrote the line: "I don't trust my inner feelings - Inner feelings come and go."
"Yes and that is the beauty of the restrictions of the rhyme. I would never have come up with that line had I not been forced to find something that rhymed with the word 'know' in the previous line: 'I know that I'm forgiven, / but I don't know how I know.' I was able to write this because it described the state that I was in. But the next line only came out the way it did because I was forced to find something that rhymed."
The lady from the record company has put her head in at the door five minutes ago to indicate that the interview will soon be over.
Now I believe that we are through.
"Are we? That was very painless. Thank you."
I don't believe very much in pain.
"Ha, ha. But does pain believe in you? That is the question."
I think it does.
"Yesterday I read a quote from a French philosopher. 'The art of living is depending on one single ability. Use your suffering.'"
Then I have to ask you, what would have been painful to talk about?
"Through many of the years that I have lived everything was painful and because of that I drank."
Do you still drink?
"Yes, but only limited. Formerly I often drank without limits. But when you get older, your stomach can't take the excesses with the same enthusiasm as before. And that's what I mean by doing what you are told. The limitations emerge, and if you are lucky, you stop arguing with them. But just because you don't write as good as Shakespeare, it doesn't mean that you should stop writing."