Next-Best Thing to
Or, Why an Aging Beatnik Is
Adored by Cutting-Edge Rockers
By David Browne
Mornay wears his
On a snowy, dreary Montreal morning that looks the way his music sounds,
Leonard Cohen is taking out the garbage. No one, however, does trash disposal
like Leonard Cohen. For one thing, he's wearing a sharply cut gray suit--at
10 a.m. For another, he ends the act with a flourish: After he dumps the
trash into a can directly outside the cozy kitchen of his drab rowhouse in
Montreal's ethnic shopping district, he walks back in and takes from his
jacket what appears to be a matchbook-size piece of wood.
"You know what this is?" Cohen intones, the sound of the Lord on a bad
day. "It's old-fashioned French incense. You just light it and stand there."
So he lights it and stands there, and as a thin strand of smoke snakes its
way around his hangdog face, Cohen smiles ever so subtly. The image is the
very essence of cool, and you start to understand not only why you want to
be there (to paraphrase his song "Suzanne") but why Cohen--singer, songwriter,
poet, and patron saint of angst--is an underground hero revered by everyone
from Bob Dylan to R.E.M.
Cohen is an unlikely idol. At 58, he's even older than most aging baby-boomer
rock stars, whom he calls "mere boys." For 25 years, he has recorded a series
of intense, often lugubrious albums (the latest is The Future), singing
of romantic bondage, spiritual conflict, oppression, and depression--hardly
sunny pop sentiments. He's also part intellectual ("I'm much too preoccupied
with myself to notice changes in the commercial environment," he says when
asked about fellow CBS artist George Michael's suit to get out of his contract
with the label) and part schlumpy Jewish guy. "Have you had any of our famous
Montreal bagels?" he asks, lighting the ancient stove that, along with a
few wood tables and chairs, constitutes most of the furniture in his narrow
Suddenly there are footsteps from upstairs, and
into the kitchen pops actress Rebecca De Mornay, Cohen's "very close" partner,
wearing black jeans and a wintergreen sweatshirt. "Want some coffee?" Cohen
asks her attentively. The two have been a rumored item for five years. It's
hard to imagine a stranger-looking couple--the elegant basset hound and the
fresh-faced starlet 28 years his junior--but they seem happy. She coproduced
one song on The Future, and he accompanied her to the Oscars telecast
After a while, Cohen looks at her and says, "That's a nice shirt." She
giggles: "Well, it's yours, actually."
With that, Cohen looks straight at the reporter in his home and, with
a face so straight you could use it as a ruler, says, "I never laid a
hand on her." Not only is he a revered rock hero, not only is he worshipped
by Rebecca De Mornay--but he can deliver a great line, too.
"I first heard you when I was 10," says De Mornay, sitting next to Cohen.
"My mother was going out on a date, so she lit a candle and said, 'I'll put
a record on that'll put you right to sleep.' And I remember it did
put me to sleep. But it was comforting, too."
Cohen has elicited both of these responses throughout the idiosyncratic
journey he calls a career. Born and raised in Montreal, he published his
first collection of poems in 1956. Two novels and more poetry followed; then,
in 1967, he recorded an album. "I was trying to come up with a solution to
being a writer and not having to go to a university to teach," he says.
Songs of Leonard Cohen established him as a musician as well as a
writer. Judy Collins had a hit with "Suzanne," and his musical career was
off and running.
Or off and crawling. Cohen has heard the criticism: that his music is
too morose and downbeat, and that he can't carry a tune with two hands. To
this day, his following hasn't gone beyond a large cult, and only one of
his albums (his debut) has gone gold in the U.S., although in Europe he sells
millions. Pop music kept changing, but Cohen stuck to what he knew best,
and lo and behold, the world has come around to the bleak but amusing sentiments
of his songs. His 1988 comeback, I'm Your Man, was hailed as the return
of a conquering hero. And his pensive, reclusive image endeared him to sulking
twentysomethings, who were in pre-K when his songs were featured in Robert
Altman's 1971 McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Eighteen alternative bands,
including R.E.M. and the Pixies, recorded Cohen's tunes on a 1991 tribute,
I'm Your Fan.
The world is still a confusing place on The Future, a place where
culture is dying, where men are reduced to rubble in the presence of women.
"One idea on my new record is that the human predicament has no solution,"
he says. "We were tossed out of the garden; this isn't paradise.
And to look for perfect solutions is a very difficult burden to bear. That's
my theme: It's a mess--thank God."
Cohen has no easy theories explaining why Hollywood actresses aren't the
only people interested in him right now. But he does offer one plausible
scenario for his newfound relevance. "A catastrophe has taken place, but
now we're waiting for the flood," says Cohen, who witnessed the L.A. riots
from the balcony of his apartment there. "And if the butcher shop isn't exactly
in our backyards or living rooms, then it's certainly down the street. That
whiff of homicide and destruction is in one's psyche now.
"I say this now and nobody raises an eyebrow," he shrugs, relaxing a bit.
"But I've been saying it for a long time. They're just not raising their
eyebrows so high anymore."
They don't make bohemians like him
Take that back--they don't make people like Leonard Cohen anymore.
"Becoming what they call a bohemian was not encouraged by families like my
own," says Cohen, who was born of upper-class Russian Jewish parents. "It
was most charitably considered a phase the child would grow out of. But in
my case, I didn't grow out of it. It got worse and worse." He smiles gently.
"And so I find myself in the sorry predicament..."
Hold your sympathy, though. Cohen has lived everywhere from Greece to
Nashville and now divides his time between Montreal and Los Angeles. And
he truly is a boho. A Buddhist, he meditates daily and says he survives
on "modest" record royalties. Some of his behavior seems a little too pat,
as if he's living up to his image; today, for instance, he is wearing a beret
indoors. Yet friends insist it is no act. "There were times when he
would live in hotels for months at a time," recalls a longtime friend, sculptor
Mort Rosengarten. "All he'd need was a bed, a desk, and a pen."
His L.A. apartment, says another friend, was for quite some time furnished
with only a bed and a nightstand, until he opted for his first big purchase,
a combination washer-dryer. "He'd sit there," she says with a chuckle, "and
watch his clothes spin around."
He makes hunger sound
Cohen wants to eat. "We'd better make a raid on the smoked meat factory,"
he murmurs, "so you can have a taste of the smoked-meat sandwich for which
Montreal is famous." From the tone of his voice, you would think it was time
to head for a fallout shelter and await the catastrophe he mentioned
No one talks, or sings, like Cohen. It is a flat, verge-of-narcolepsy
voice, one that steadfastly refuses to go anywhere near high notes. "I've
never considered myself a singer," he says. Many would agree, including The
New York Times, which in 1969 compared his voice to that of craggy Western
movie sidekick Gabby Hayes. Yet few voices have such character and nuance,
full of nooks and crannies and missed opportunities.
"This guy has the voice," De Mornay says. "The thing that Leonard
Cohen doesn't have a voice--I'm so sick of that. What does it mean to have
a voice? It means to reach people."
He has great bathroom reading
Anyone can have a copy of People on the john. On top of the throne
in Cohen's Montreal home sit dog-eared copies of Edmund Spenser's Poetry
and American Indian Mythology.
He's actually a pretty funny
For all his image as a bleak sort, says De Mornay, "Leonard is one of
the most down-to-earth people I've ever met. He never feels the party is
That may partially explain his appeal to Generation X musicians like the
Sisters of Mercy, who took their name from one of his songs. "I never found
him depressing," says Tim Booth of the British band James, which contributed
"So Long, Marianne" to the Cohen tribute album. "He's dry and there's always
a sense of humor and of the ridiculous. He's not artificial; he is what he
For his part, Cohen says he was "tickled pink" by the tribute. "I've never
chosen a style that was deliberately obscure," he says. "I've always tried
to write hits. I never came up with the idea of writing a song that would
mystify anybody or prevent anyone from tapping their foot to it."
He pauses, bending down to relight his stove to make another carafe of
coffee. "It's just that nobody tapped their feet to it." De Mornay cracks
Damn, he did it again.
Mornay makes his travel plans,
Sitting with De Mornay in his kitchen as snow sprinkles his patio, Cohen
suddenly utters a phone number. It's the number of Air Canada; they need
to fly to Toronto tonight--Cohen for more media flesh-pressing, De Mornay
to return to the set of her next movie, Sidney Lumet's Beyond
"Is that my cue?" De Mornay says. Cohen calmly states, to no onein
particular, "Well, we should make reservations." She goes over to the
The adulation of hipsters, a lovely woman helping him with errands--is
this the brooding lifestyle most people would associate with Leonard Cohen?
He smiles grimly and says, without missing a beat, "Solid-gold artists would
kill for this kind of anguish." Need any more reasons?
Three of Cohen's 11 albums are out of print, and the readily available
Death of a Ladies' Man is unlistenable. In addition to The
Future, here's the best of the rest--a road map of one man's search for
self, with the help of brooding music, introspection, and female backup
SONGS OF LEONARD COHEN (1967) The Debut that shocked so many--such
pretty songs, such rich orchestration, such a croaking voice--now sounds
like a natural mix of lush and raw, sacred and profane, the sad and the
THE BEST OF (1975) This collection traces his evolution from
self-conscious "poetry" ("Suzanne") to more caustic mid-period songs like
the Janis Joplin-inspired "Chelsea Hotel No. 2."
RECENT SONGS (1979) Music that waffles between cabaret folk and
Middle Eastern violins, with lyrics that go too heavy on the metaphors. Uneven,
but intermittently rewarding.
I'M YOUR MAN (1988) The weathered romantic sage responds to the
modern world with his most accessible pop arrangements and some of the pithiest
wittiest lyrics. A-