He's come back down from the mountaintop. And now, freed of depression
and with a Buddhist lease on life, Leonard Cohen is finally ready to
bring the world more music and words.
|Photo by Ann Johansson
LOS ANGELES -- During his five years atop Mount Baldy, his fellow monks
named him Jikan, the silent one, although in lighter moments he became
known as Bad Monk. Today, almost 30 months after his descent back into
the heat and hustle of Los Angeles, he is Leonard Cohen once again.
Still, the patterns of monastic life remain intact. On this summer day,
as always, he has risen hours before dawn, before the birds and cars and
helicopters have filled the air with sound; he has stepped out the back
door of the humble house he shares with his daughter Lorca in a
struggling downtown neighbourhood, and he has strolled into the
back-yard studio. Here he maintains the one constant in his peripatetic
life: the clean, white room almost devoid of ornamentation, like the one
in the Zen monastery, like the one on the Greek island of Hydra, like
the rooms where it all began in Montreal, five decades ago.
At midday, after eight hours of work and meditation and songs from a
room, he greets his two visitors as if they were the oldest comrades.
"Welcome, friends, welcome," he says, in the oak-aged baritone that has
won the hearts of countless listeners, thousands of drinking companions,
hundreds of lovers. As always, he is immaculately groomed, in a tailored
dark-blue suit and a necktie. Over the next hours, he will show us the
quiet corners where he laboriously crafts and recrafts his verses, the
files where he stores dozens, sometimes hundreds of drafts of every one
of his works. He will make us chopped-egg sandwiches, and he will share
a bottle of very good riesling. And, most of all, he will talk about the
10 new songs, and the 250 new poems, and the years of self-imposed
isolation that have led to this autumnal renaissance.
Leonard Cohen is once again a songwriter, eight years after he swore
he'd given up the craft for good. Ten New Songs, the title of the
recording he will release next month, is possibly his most poised,
hypnotic work yet, a set of secular and holy incantations whose
pared-down lyrics refract contradictory waves of meaning and myth. His
monotone growl seems to have dropped another octave, if possible, and
added an appealing, resined buzz, like a bowed string-bass. He is
producing poetry with the same agonizing, methodical approach as always,
but at a greater pace and a greater artistic restraint. His songs are
co-written, a concept almost unthinkable for a man who has devoted his
life to the first person, with Sharon Robinson, a musician who seems
better at writing Leonard Cohen songs than Leonard Cohen is.
"Collaborations happen so rarely in my case," he says. Robinson, herself
a sometime follower of the Zen teacher Joshu Sasaki Roshi, Cohen's guru,
had written the music for two of his best songs, "Everybody Knows" and
"Waiting for the Miracle," and she was waiting for him when he came down
from the mountain. "We didn't have an idea that there would be a record.
We just wanted to get together and write some songs together, because
the process has always been very peaceful, so we wrote one and then two
and then three. She has an extraordinary penetration of my lyrics."
And, most extraordinary, Leonard Cohen is no longer wracked with bouts
of depression. Though he has devoted every moment of his adult life to
expressing the agonies of the human condition, and has frequently fallen
completely to pieces himself, in his seventh decade Cohen seems to have
found a genuine state of grace. Something must have happened, something
profound, up there on Mount Baldy. However, it will take time, and
careful listening, to learn exactly what.
|Photo by Ann Johansson
Most surprising is that Cohen's sudden lack of angst hasn't rendered him
artistically impotent. In fact, it appears to have done the opposite.
On this visit, he talks enthusiastically about the prospect of a concert
tour, another custom he'd forsworn in 1993; he devotes even more
enthusiasm to the prospect of writing a third novel.
"I think people, perhaps legitimately sometimes, feel that anguish or
suffering is the engine of creativity. It's a very popular notion . . .
I think most people live their lives in an emergency, and I'm certainly
not unique in this respect. I have certainly battled depression over the
years, and my time on Mount Baldy was one of the remedies. And I found
that my depression might have been the background of my work, but not
the spur, not the trigger.
"Although," he says with a chuckle, "without that background, the work
isn't easier. You know, lifting boulders isn't easier when you're in a
And keep in mind that this is a very Leonard Cohen kind of good mood.
In other words, it is powered by the deepest kind of pessimism about the
human project. His album's most immediately telling tune, "Boogie Street,"
seems to mark his reappearance on the scene: "O Crown of Light, O
Darkened One, / I never thought we'd meet. / You kiss my lips, and then
it's done: / I'm back on Boogie Street."
Tellingly, it is a lament, the saddest song on the album.
It is 1964, and Leonard Cohen is predicting the future. He is 30, and he
has just to begun to write his second novel, Beautiful Losers, in a
swirl of barbiturates and acid under the Mediterranean sun of Hydra,
where he has bought a house for $1,500. "I am an old scholar," he types,
as a Ray Charles record spins on the turntable beside him,
"better-looking now than when I was young." And then he adds a note of
bathos: "That's what sitting on your ass does to your face."
Half a lifetime later, Leonard Cohen is himself an old scholar, four
years from his 70th birthday, and he may well be better-looking now than
when he was young. He has traded the laconic, smouldering appeal of the
rebellious poet and folksinger for a chiselled Bogart cool, a look of
gravity unburdened by ponderous affectation. He carries it off very
well. But this has not been achieved by sitting on his ass. Those years
at California's Mount Baldy Zen Center were constant, intense physical
labour, at high altitude and low temperature, a highly disciplined and
ordered regime of menial tasks and strenuous meditation. He quotes a Zen
saying: "'Like pebbles in a bag, the monks polish one another.'
"You're working shoulder to shoulder with one another, there's intensive
labour to keep the facility going. So the notion of spiritual aspiration
as an objective is somewhat discouraged in this particular expression."
It is a spiritual practice that seems to have been tailor-made for
Cohen: Enlightenment through household chores. Ten years older than most
of the baby-boom guitar slingers, Cohen has also stood apart from them
in his asceticism, his obsessive rigour. "I've always had an aesthetic
interest in austerity -- I'd x natnl-wir [sic] prefer a bare room to a
cluttered room," he says. "And, as one of Gandhi's aides once said, it
costs a lot of money to keep Mahatma Gandhi in poverty. I liked the life
on Mount Baldy for that reason: It's not an easy life but it's a simple
It is autumn of 2000, and Leonard Cohen is in Montreal for the funeral
of Pierre Trudeau, with whom he had shared a mutual admiration and a few
common traits. He visits the hospital bed of Irving Layton, his dear
friend and poetic inspiration, who has been in frail health. They share
an illegal smoke in the hospital lobby, and talk turns to their
Irving: Leonard, have you noticed any decline in your sexual interest?
Leonard: As a matter of fact I have, Irving.
Irving: I'm relieved to hear that, brother.
Leonard: So I take it, Irving, that you yourself have experienced
some decline in your sexual interest.
Irving: I have.
Leonard: When did you first notice this decline?
Irving: Oh, about the age of 16 or 17.
Leonard Cohen has had the rare luxury of complete self-absorption
almost all his life. From his first moment of success in the late 1960s,
he has given himself plenty of time, creating an album every four or
five years and a book less frequently; since then, he has been
financially and, in most cases, sexually independent. His one
near-marriage in the 1970s produced his two beloved children (Lorca and
Adam, both adults who live near him now, she a furniture-store owner and
he a promising musician) but never had any pretence of exclusivity. His
lovers have been many, but his commitments have never lasted, his last
major relationship fading in the late 1980s. His only real marriage has
been to himself, and to his ideals. By his own account, it has been a
fractious and abusive marriage.
In the midst of this self-absorption, more than any other artist of his
generation, Cohen has gone out of his way to make his life as difficult
as possible. Physically, emotionally and intellectually, he has been
relentlessly hard on himself his whole life. As he describes it, he is
caught on the horns of a paradox: a man who depends on the self for his
livelihood, yet who strives for the deepest kind of self-abnegation.
"I recently read a conversation by Isaac B. Singer -- he said every
creator knows the painful chasm between his inner vision and the final
expression." Cohen cocks an eyebrow. "I don't know that painful chasm. I
know other painful chasms, but that's one I don't know, because I don't
have a sense of a compelling inner vision I can locate, and that's why
it takes me a long time to write: I have to go beneath my opinions,
which long ago I ceased to have any great interest in.
"My own opinions are predictable; I can dredge them up in a conversation
over a drink to keep the talk flowing. And I feel the same way about
beliefs: My beliefs are predictable, and I find them kind of tiresome.
So I need to write a lot to avoid the opinion, the belief or the slogan,
and to come up with the freshness that determines the living quality of
a piece of work."
If these seem like rabbinical labours, his new songs like complex
prayers to someone who may or may not be a deity, it is because Cohen's
life has been taken over by the most complicated and indescribable kind
of spirituality. He has always embraced the responsibility of the
cohenim, the Jewish priestly class who kept the fires burning; his
practice of Zen has only enhanced this. Even on Mount Baldy, he observed
the Sabbath. "I certainly wasn't looking for a new religion -- I was
very happy with my own and old religion. I wasn't interested in a new
set of religious principles."
It is a cold mid-winter evening in the middle of the 1990s, and the
monks of Mount Baldy are pacing around an empty fire pit in the snow, in
a tough kind of walking meditation. Through the mountain air, they are
surprised to hear loud voices speaking Yiddish in the distance. Cohen
thinks: This must have something to do with me. He leaves the meditation
line, and encounters two Lubavitcher Rabbis, the most orthodox of the
Orthodox, who had been serving the community at the foot of the hill.
One says: "We heard there was a Jew on the mountain." They have come to
rescue Cohen, he realizes. He brings them back to his cabin, where the
last flames of the Hanukkah menorah are still burning. He finds a
half-full bottle of scotch in the cabin, and some Turkish cigarettes,
and they spend the evening singing and dancing. "After that," Cohen
says, "they visited us quite often up there."
"The ponies run, the girls are young, / The odds are there to
beat. / You win a while, and then it's done -- / Your little winning
streak. / And summoned now to deal / With your invincible defeat, / You
live your life as if it's real, / A Thousand Kisses Deep."
So begins Ten New Songs, with a statement of its most salient
theme: an acceptance of the notion that we have no control over our
As we discuss this song, Cohen is surveying the objects on the big oak
desk in the front room of his house. These objects include a half-dozen
mockup album covers, all of them designed by Leonard Cohen. The final
cover will feature a digital photo of Cohen and Robinson, taken by
Cohen. He has designed the covers of most of his 14 recordings, often
with his own photos. Since his first poetry collection, Let Us Compare
Mythologies in 1956, he has controlled cover art, paper stock and
typography in his books. His next collection, likely to be published by
McClelland and Stewart next year, will be no exception. On this album,
Cohen and Robinson sing all the parts and play all the instruments; it
was recorded in their home studios, often by exchanging music files over
the Internet. Also on the desk are several recently recorded CDs; these
contain different mixes of the album with varying tonal balances. Cohen
will choose which mix to use -- in every step of the recording and
production process, he is intensely involved.
So here we have another paradox of Leonard Cohen: A man who is
obsessively in control of every element of his art, yet who devotes that
art to telling us that we have absolutely no control.
"We don't write the play, we don't produce it, we don't direct it and
we're not even actors in it," he says, speaking of "A Thousand Kisses
Deep" in particular and his world view in general. "Everybody eventually
comes to the conclusion that things are not unfolding exactly the way
they wanted, and that the whole enterprise has a basis that you can't
penetrate. Nevertheless, you live your life as if it's real. But with
the understanding: It's only a thousand kisses deep, that is, with that
deep intuitive understanding that this is unfolding according to a
pattern that you simply cannot discern."
It is the Zen of country and western, of rhythm and blues, two genres
that influence his beliefs almost as much as his complex of religions.
At some deep level, his music remains hurtin' music. At McGill
University, he led a country group, comprised of young urban Jewish men,
called the Buckskin Boys; the last major album he listened to was by
George Jones. Ten New Songs includes one overt country song, which
continues the theme of powerlessness against fate: "I fought against the
bottle, / But I had to do it drunk -- / Took my diamond to the pawnshop
-- / But that don't make it junk."
Absent is the worldly wit of his last two albums of new material, The
Future and I'm Your Man. This material is no less clever, but slower to
reveal itself. There is one number that could be called a protest song,
"The Land of Plenty" ("May the lights in The Land of Plenty / Shine on the
truth some day.") -- but its lyrics are almost entirely devoted to the
singer's lack of worthiness. "Mostly this song is about my lack of
credentials to sing this song, and my ignorance about the place from
which it arose," he says. And then he offers the song's key line: "Don't
really have the courage / To stand where I must stand. / Don't really have
the temperament / to lend a helping hand."
And this brings us back to "Boogie Street," an address mentioned
frequently on this recording. At first blush, you might take this to
mean Cohen's return to Babylon from the mountaintop. But he has
something more universal, more despairing, in mind. He points out the
song's culmination, a lyrical kick in the face: "Though all the maps of
blood and flesh / Are posted on the door, / There's no one who has told us
yet / What Boogie Street is for."
"Boogie Street is the place where we always live," he says, settling
into an easy chair. "It's Boogie Street at the monastery, too. It's
As Buddhism's holiest cliche would put it: Life is suffering. Cohen sees
little more: "The evidence accumulates that ours is not an entirely
happy undertaking. The amount of suffering that one sees and hears about
is shattering. But the only comfort in the matter is Thy Will Be Done.
To whatever degree you want to establish that as a principle in your
life: The notion that it's unfolding according to a mechanism that you
can't possibly penetrate. Acceptance. Or surrender."
A bleak conclusion, especially from a man who says he has left
depression behind. Surely there must be a glint of hope, as he suggested
in his oft-quoted 1993 song Anthem: "Ring the bells that still can
ring. / Forget your perfect offering. / There is a crack in everything. /
That's how the light gets in."
He offers a wry smile, and a shrug of admission.
"Of course there are moments -- I suppose when you embrace your
children, or kiss your beloved, or plunge into a pool of cold water --
when you forget who you are, when you forget yourself, and that's a very
refreshing occasion, and it's paradise, there's no you. But you
resurrect immediately, into Boogie Street. If you're lucky, you
resurrect with the residue of the experience of paradise. But, as Roshi
says, you can't live in paradise -- no restaurants or toilets."
It seems that Leonard Cohen has finally managed to forget himself, even
as he prepares to place himself upon the public stage once again, after
his longest retreat. Self-erasure is a difficult way to find peace, and
an even tougher way to make art, but somehow he has managed to
"It's been a very graceful moment," he says, as he bids his guests
farewell and turns back to the plain white room. "These things are
always temporary, but I'm happy to be in it."