Life of a Lady's Man
Leonard Cohen sings of love and freedom
By Brian D. Johnson
In the crowded upstairs lounge of an old hotel in Toronto, Leonard Cohen is holding court. A song from his new album, The Future, plays in the background, the baritone ache of his voice ebbing and flowing through the din of the crowd. Cohen stands at the bar, signing autographs and soaking up affection from a cluster of fans. By his side is his companion, Rebecca De Mornay, looking demure and a little out of her element. (When Cohen turned up at the door with the actress on his arm, the bouncer gaped in disbelief--"Is that the girl from The Hand that Rocks the Cradle?"). About half his age and perhaps twice as famous, she is the star, the one drawing stolen glances from across the room. But he is the legend, the one people are lining up to meet. One man offers a shoe to be autographed, explaining that he recently wore it at his wedding. Carefully, Cohen inscribes his name across the white leather with a ballpoint pen, then adds a quotation from his 1966 novel Beautiful Losers: "Magic is afoot."
Combining poetry, romance and wit, the gesture was vintage Cohen. And the occasion was a recent launch party for The Future, his 11th album and his first recording in four years. In 1988, the Canadian poet-singer revived his career with I'm Your Man, an album that won critical acclaim and sold more than a million copies. Since then, a new generation of bands has cited him as a major influence. Singer Jennifer Warnes filled a hit album, Famous Blue Raincoat, with his songs, and last year various artists contributed to a Cohen tribute album titled I'm Your Fan.
At 58, the Montreal-born troubadour remains relentlessly hip. Although he has occasionally faded from the scene, he has never really fallen from fashion. Strangely immune to the shifting sands of sexual politics, Cohen's lyrics still make the worship of wine, women and song a noble art. He is still the sardonic voluptuary, celebrating sex and freedom in the precious hours before an apocalyptic dawn. But on the new album, in a song called "Democracy," he also displays a political prescience that seems keenly in tune with the times.
Meanwhile, in an era of all-consuming celebrity, Cohen has found a comfortable level of fame. Comparing him to Bob Dylan and Norman Mailer, Canadian novelist Michael Ondaatje says, "All three rely heavily on their ability to be cynical about their egos or pop sainthood, all the time continuing to build it up." Cohen, who once scorned the word "career," now admits to having one. "I have a very manageable career," he said. "It's always been a very modest audience. But I'm well-paid and I'm happy to be fully employed."
In a recent interview with Maclean's, Cohen was dressed in what has become his habitual uniform, a dark suit and black shirt. The singer, who now divides his time between Los Angeles and Montreal, was in the thick of a 17-country talking tour to promote his new album (a concert tour is planned for next spring). Generous with his words, Cohen seems to treat the interview as a confessional art form. He talked about the slow agony of writing songs and the cherished ritual of performing them. He discussed his love-hate relationship with America, while offering some satirical solutions to Canada's constitutional dilemma. He also talked of sex, drugs, and failed dreams, of his current romance--and of his new album.
With just seven new songs, The Future is less ambitious in scale but more adventurous in style than I'm Your Man. The basic sound remains the same, with female choirs soaring over a cigarette-scarred voice that seems deeper and darker than ever. But the music is less regimented. Cohen lets his musicians stray into the expressive wilds of rhythm and blues. And he acts more like a musician himself--his final composition on the album, "Tacoma Trailer," is an instrumental. "You get to that place," he said, "where you're willing to stretch out, to give things a shot."
Perhaps his greatest stretch is crooning a giddy, eight-minute rendition of the Irving Berlin standard "Always." Cohen fools around with his voice like a drunk in a karaoke bar. The song goes back to growing up in Montreal. "It was very popular with my mother," he recalled. "And I used to play it on clarinet in dance bands." While recording "Always," Cohen plied the musicians with a cocktail that he invented in Needles, Calif., called the Red Needle, consisting of tequila, cranberry juice, Sprite and fresh fruit. "I prepared many pitchers," he said, "and everyone was having such a good time they refused to stop playing. I fell down in the recording booth--I was that happy."
With the exception of the title track's doomsday incantation, on The Future Cohen sounds less cynical than before, and almost unhinged by love and sex. With a dedication quoting the biblical story of Rebecca, the album contains both a marriage proposal, in "Waiting For The Miracle," and an ode to oral sex, in "Light As The Breeze." And in "Closing Time," a bracing country tune about drinking, dancing and stripping, Cohen sings of "my very sweet companion" who is "rubbing half the world against her thigh."
Few singers write about sex as rhapsodically as Cohen, who seems to treat it as a sacrament. The word "naked" appears in four songs on the album. "I don't think a man ever gets over that first sight of the naked woman," he said. "I think that's Eve standing over him, that's the morning and the dew on the skin. And I think that's the major content of every man's imagination. All the sad adventures in pornography and love and song are just steps on the path towards that holy vision."
But the two most arresting tracks on the new album are political visions: "The Future," a descent into fascistic horror, and "Democracy," an anthem of political optimism. "They are the flip side of each other," said Cohen. "I wrote them at the same time, as a reaction to the Berlin Wall coming down." "The Future," a song that sharpens the sadistic tone of "First We Take Manhattan" (1988), invokes a black-humored lust for power: "Give me crack and anal sex / Take the only tree that's left / and stuff it up the hole / in your culture / Give me back the Berlin Wall / give me Stalin and St. Paul / I've seen the future, brother: / it is murder."
By contrast, "Democracy" could almost serve as a musical covenant for Bill Clinton's inauguration. Set to the marching beat of a military snare drum, it is a sweeping, seven-minute epic of a song that ranges from "those nights in Tiannanmen Square" to "the fires of the homeless," with the buoyant refrain, "Democracy is coming to the U.S.A... It's here they got the range / and the machinery for change / and it's here they got the spiritual thirst."
When Cohen talks about democracy, it is with a mysticism that transcends politics. "I think we're on the edge of this great movement," he said. "Democracy is the great religion of the West. It's a faith. And it represents an appetite that has been animated in the heart, an appetite for some inviolable envelope of oxygen where you can breathe your own air, so to speak." Coming from an artist who spends a lot of time in smog-shrouded Los Angeles, the metaphor seems less than arbitrary. "Los Angeles is the apocalyptic landscape, both geologically and socially," added Cohen. "There you find a decay of the Western psyche, of that hierarchy of the soul."
Despite "Democracy's" fervent tone, Cohen still maintains a Canadian distance. He says that in referring to America in the lyrics, he was careful to say "they," not "we." And he spells out his ambivalence with the line, "I love the country but I can't stand the scene." Said Cohen: "We're all America-watchers, Canadians. We're brought up to watch America the way women are brought up to watch men."
Meanwhile, Cohen still keeps up with the Canadian scene. He says that he tried to follow the referendum debate but found it bewildering and arcane. Reviving the flag debate would be a better alternative, he playfully suggests. "I think there should be four flags, one for every season: a very small maple leaf for spring, sort to of yellowish green, a big green leaf for summer, a red one for fall, and just a white outline of a leaf for winter." He added: "Family rituals could be built around changing the flag."
As for Quebec, Cohen said that he favors separation, "but geographically--if all the provinces were separated by water, tension would dissolve." Canada, he added, "has an experimental side to it. We are free from the blood myth, the soil myth, so we could start over somewhere else. We could purchase a set of uninhabited islands in the Caribbean. Or we could disperse throughout the cosmos and establish a mental Canada in which we communicate through fax machines."
In a more serious vein, Cohen expresses a loyal affection for Montreal, where he still owns the house in Westmount in which he grew up. His father, Nathan Cohen, who owned a clothing business, died when Leonard was 9. Leonard and his sister, Esther, were raised by his mother, Masha Klonitzki Cohen, a nurse from a Russian family, who died in 1978.
Cohen published his first book of poetry, Let Us Compare Mythologies (1956), while still an undergraduate at McGill University. And he won international acclaim for his second, The Spice-Box of Earth (1961). Moving to the Greek island of Hydra, he wrote another collection, the controversial Flowers for Hitler (1964), and two novels, The Favourite Game (1963) and Beautiful Losers (1966). Then he returned to North America to pursue music, and was discovered by legendary Columbia Records executive John Hammond, who had also recruited Bob Dylan. The first album, The Songs of Leonard Cohen, which included such gems as "Suzanne" and "Sisters of Mercy," was a hit. And although he continued to publish poetry and fiction, music took precedence.
Now, he says that he rarely reads poetry. "After a certain point," he recalled, "I found it very difficult to expose myself to those whisperings, the myriad of private desires and dreams--I just couldn't accommodate all this data of the heart." Asked if he writes poetry himself any more, he says, "I still blacken pages, and some of the lines don't come to the end of the page. But I always thought that poetry was a verdict rather than an intention."
Cohen, who has spent the past four years struggling to compose half a dozen songs, describes writing as an ordeal. "I have always had the sense of being bone-dry," he said. "I never experienced the torrent of creative force that other people have spoken about--the ground doesn't move." Instead, he relies on discipline. "You shatter versions of the self," he explained, "until you get down to a line, a word, that you can defend, that you can wrap your voice around without choking."
For Cohen, the final year of composing an album becomes all-consuming. "There's nothing else going on," he said, "and you can see your life breaking down. Layers of friendship fall away, and you know that you're in it when you're not doing anything else but trying to find the rhyme for 'orange.' It doesn't exist. Some people say it's door hinge, but that's not right."
Cohen has tried shortcuts through what he calls "the sedentary toil" of his profession, but with little success. "I try the various anti-depressants on the market," he said, "and they never seem to work." He has meanwhile, sworn off more adventurous substances. "I spent many years in the meditation hall establishing some kind of balance in what is left of my soul, and I don't like to threaten that," Cohen said. "Occasionally, out of sheer compassion for the company, I will take a puff of a joint--and inhale it. But it throws me for a loop. Maybe, like sex, it's the sport of the young."
Still, Cohen is involved with the proverbial younger woman. He is reluctant to talk about De Mornay, 31, except to say, "She's a very old friend of mine, and much more. We have known each other for many years. I have an exclusive and highly conventional relationship." He added that he would like to live with her, but work has kept them apart. Cohen now shares a house with his daughter, Lorca, 18, who works nights answering calls on a distress phone line. His son, Adam, 20, he added, is a student at Syracuse University-"He couldn't get into McGill." (Their mother, who he never married, is Suzanne Elrod, now living in Paris.)
As Cohen faces his own future, he says that he does not mind the idea of getting old. "I think it's one of the most compassionate ways of saying goodbye that the cosmos could devise," he said. "I think it's perfect. It's an impeccable way to get off centre stage, and everything that happens to you seems so appropriate."
But there is a sadness to his sense of reconciliation. Recalling that he once wanted to be a forest ranger, he said that growing up means realizing "I am this. I'm not even a novelist. I'm not even a poet. I'm a songwriter." Eventually, he added, "you realize you're not going to be doing anything else. You're not going to be leading the social movement. You're not going to be the light of your generation. You're not going to be many of the things you thought you might be. You're this guy sitting in front of the table in the good parts of the day, and crawling around on the carpet in the bad parts. That's what you're doing. You're writing songs for the popular market." Then, he added, with the modesty of a seasoned romantic, "Maybe you have a dream that they last for a while."