Sunday Supplement to
La Vanguardia, La Razón, and others,

August 26, 2001

Songs to Remember

by Javier Laborda

Contributed by Juan Luis Corcobado Cartes
Translated by Marie Mazur (using translation software)
and aided by Juan Luis Corcobado Cartes

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Photo by Monserrat Velando
Photo by Monserrat Velando
He has returned. The much respected Canadian singer returns with Ten New Songs. It is not a very complicated title to baptize his new album. At 67, and after having stayed for a long period of time in a Buddhist monastery, he offers us a new collection of his always interesting songs interpreted with that unmistakable voice carved to penetrate in a million small ways.

There is a crowd of hopeful fans at the door of the Palace Hotel of Madrid. A similar commotion has been mounted by the presence of Mariah Carey. Leonard Cohen remains isolated from the racket in one of the most favored rooms. Over the years many celebrities have come to Madrid and have stayed at this hotel, one of the most preferred in the world. Cohen waits comfortably on the sofa while sending slow whiffs of smoke into the air and playing with a "comboloi" (a Greek string of beads like a rosary). He is relaxed and contented. He indicates his satisfaction with the new record. "Did you see the young black woman who was here?" he asks. "She is Sharon Robinson. We made this record together. We met in 1979 and have been close ever since then. I am godfather to her son, so our families have always been linked. In addition, she is a very good sound engineer as well. Sharon has done most of the music on this record. I gave her the lyrics and she worked on the melodies or did the choruses, but everything was done with excellent mutual understanding." They have recorded this album in the garage of his house in Los Angeles. Sharon has been requested to work on many other important records including those for Diana Ross, James Brown, Aaron Neville, Cat Stevens and Laurie Anderson, among others.

"During the last two years we have worked intensely on this new album that we entitled simply, Ten New Songs. I know it doesn't sound very dramatic, but I like it. The record was created in very relaxed conditions, because it was made in the study beneath my house. I would rise early to record it because I like to work before the birds begin to sing, the dogs bark and the traffic becomes unbearable. I was used to rising at two or three o'clock in the morning and working clad only in my underclothes, in very calm and pleasant circumstances. For that reason, it was much easier to complete than my previous records. Although it was hard to work alone most of the time because I committed many errors with the equipment. But at least I did not have to see anyone dying of laughter!"

Leonard Cohen cannot be considered a very prolific songwriter: in thirty or so years he has only released fifteen records, some of which were compilations and others live concert albums. "It it true that it takes me a long time to make a new record. I would love to make them quicker but it takes great effort for me to find the essence of each song. I have to throw it all away to begin to write carefully, rejecting the bad ideas and retaining only the good ones. I know that sometimes this can become an obsession, but I'm not trying to do anything better than what I have already done. I'm satisfied if it is done well, when I am making something positive. Most of what I write does not have a traditional formal structure, so I simply dedicate myself to writing until the song is sufficiently clear."

Many of these new songs were written throughout the last years. Some were begun in the monastery on Mount Baldy and others in Los Angeles. Almost all of them were finished in Greece, a recurrent place in the life of Leonard Cohen. "I returned to Hydra, Greece, two years ago and there I finished them. I had previously lived there for a time very long ago. I love Greece and the Mediterranean. It was a solution for my life at that moment long ago, mainly an economic solution because you could live there for $11,000 a year. Therefore I would go to Canada to work and earn the $11,000 and then return to Greece. I bought a house there for very little money."

Leonard Cohen is undertaking a full promotional campaign. He comes from Paris and in the next weeks he will visit all the important European capitals. He even considers a concert tour to present the new songs. It is difficult to imagine such activity for anyone 67 years of age. "I am not thinking about retiring. It is very hard to stop working. I don't believe that it is healthy. I believe one of the highest moments of stress one can experience is when one is unemployed. I can undertake a new tour, but what I would like to do is make another record. I like to work and I like to go on tour, to drink, to sing. I hope I don't die tomorrow because I have a good many new ideas that I would like to continue working on."

After his last tour to present his previously released studio album, The Future, Leonard Cohen announced that he was retiring to a Buddhist monastery. This California temple of meditation, called Mount Baldy, has provided the Canadian songwriter with a tremendous experience. "When I finished the last concerts, I turned 60 years old, and my great friend and teacher Joshu Sasaki Roshi had turned 90. I thought that it was a good moment to intensify our relationship and continue my studies with him. I like the life in that community. I believe that when I was on tour I drank too much. I needed a new structure, so there they gave me form, a cause, and an opportunity for me to work very closely with my old teacher.

"In this type of training there is not much emphasis on books. Your own experiences are accentuated. Your days are very occupied. The romantic idea is of a tranquil, silent, perfect monastery for a solitary life, but the reality is the exact oppposite. I would rise very early, so I was always tired, and I continuously worked side by side with the other students and monks. I cooked, painted, and cleared the snow in the winter...There were no private spaces, you were always with people. It is a much more involved life than the one I had in the city. It did not leave me much time to write, but some of these new songs are from that period."
Photo by Monserrat Velando
Photo by Monserrat Velando

Leonard Cohen had been educated in a Jewish family originating from Lituania and Poland. He indicates that his main reason for entering the monastery was not to search for a new religion. "I am not a Buddhist," he insists. "My old religion is fine. I still feel like a Jew and I like to follow some of the old traditions. My contact with Buddhism has simply been that of a student. So, I have been able to understand it better. It has been simply a study and nothing religious because one does not learn another type of dogma nor another type of God. It was a mechanical study of the techniques to live.

"I do not know why but there seems to be a certain connection between artists and Buddhism. There is something pragmatic in Buddhism when it speaks of the relationships between people and the correct ways that they are to think, to speak, to act...Buddhism limits itself to instructions, you may put into practice the theories without necessarily believing in them."

On Mount Baldy, each one of the people had a name in "Dharma." Leonard Cohen's was Jikan, that means curiously, "silent." "Well, it does not translate well. It is better translated as 'habitual silence.' The silence to which my name refers was not habitual as opposed to speaking or singing: it is an inner silence that includes the power to sing or not to. My room even had a small keyboard in it and I played it very often."

Many others have recorded his songs, from REM to Bono to Sting and Peter Gabriel. He is proud that two tribute records have been made including some of the most well-known artists interpreting his songs. "When somebody sings a song of mine, I cannot be critical. I like what has been done and I am happy when someone sings them again. There have been some incredible tribute records released in Norway, South Africa, and Croatia, even Enrique Morente sang some of my songs with Lagartija Nick. I love it, it is the best, brilliant, very original and beautiful. It has been an honor to have him sing my songs."

Leonard Cohen continues to be enchanted with the Spanish culture and Federico Garcia Lorca, one of his favorite poets. It was for that reason he participated in the recording of the Poets in New York and called his daughter Lorca. "Now my daughter is true to Lorca. I don't know why I liked him so much, perhaps because he was the first poet I studied. I began in the university, with a very elementary translation, but even traslated, his world touched me, the landscape in which he lived, his imagination, his way of expressing himself, his poems inspired me to begin writing poetry. I am thrilled to have been in Granada, in his house, touching his piano."

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