The Joking Troubadour of Gloom
Leonard Cohen, that master of sexy melancholy,
is giving two sell-out concerts in London next month.
And, he tells Tim Rostron, he is feeling fairly cheerful.
By Tim Rostron
Leonard Cohen has a famous face. He is fond of telling the story of how a fan once stopped him on the street and congratulated him on his performance in Midnight Cowboy. A fan of Dustin Hoffman, that is. The anecdote is old now, and so is the face. At 58, the Canadian songwriter and groaner could be Hoffman's father.
In photographs, the face is a picture of hangdog sadness. In the flesh, he never stops smiling.
It is not a huge surprise. Fans have always found Cohen peculiarly uplifting. For them he is an intellectual bluesman who finds liberation in facing up to the awful mess we're all in. Who finds bleak humour there, too. This aspect of his writing is more conspicuous on his recent records, but for many years he was an underrated purveyor of jokes.
"I'm glad you've introduced that word into the conversation," says Cohen. "I am so often accused of gloominess and melancholy. And I think I'm probably the most cheerful man around. I don't consider myself a pessimist at all. I think of a pessimist as someone who is waiting for it to rain. And I feel completely soaked to the skin."
The troubadour of gloom continues: "I think those descriptions of me are quite inappropriate to the gravity of the predicament that faces us all. I've always been free from hope. It's never been one of my great solaces. I feel that more and more we're invited to make ourselves strong and cheerful." This graduate of McGill University adds: "I think that it was Ben Jonson who said, I have studied all the theologies and all the philosophies, but cheerfulness keeps breaking through."
The touts will be smiling when Cohen's world tour reaches London next month. Tickets for his only two British dates sold out within hours. After years in the doldrums, "I'm hot again," he beams. His album of 1988, I'm Your Man, was a bigger commercial success than his previous nine put together. Last year's The Future was less successful, but still did respectably in the charts.
He says of his material: "I said in 1975, these are the final days, this is the darkness, this is the flood. There has been some kind of interior catastrophe. People no longer feel situated in any recognisable landscape. The landmarks are down, the lights are out. And we find ourselves in some kind of flood, holding on to pieces of orange crate and flag staffs. What is the appropriate salutation in this kind of situation?"
The musical arrangements, though, promise to be upbeat in concert. He is bringing over a band to reproduce the ironically rocking sound of his two latest albums and to remove some of the earlier songs from their stark, nylon-stringed guitar settings. "We have a joke in the band: Orbisonising. That's is, to take Roy Orbison's approach to the old tunes."
With an electric group behind him he will also be able to indulge in another under-celebrated aspect of his work, its sexiness. It is because so many of hyis lyrics come across like chat-up lines, rather than suicide notes, that he became big in bedsits. Lately, this tendency has blossomed in his work. No one growls the word "baby" quite like Cohen.
Cohen, a life-long bachelor and father of two grown-ups, has lately been living in what a press officer calls "an exclusive dating situation" with Rebecca De Mornay, who played the delectable psycho in The Hand that Rocks the Cradle. Dating has always been an important source of comfort in his art.
The money he is now making must be a consolation, too. He gave up a promising early career as a poet and novelist when he found that he could not make a living even as a bestseller. But there were lean times for him as a rock cult, too: the mid-1970s to mid-1982, for example, when his muse became unreliable and the public came to think of Cohen as his own best joke.
"Well, I have always been able to satisfy the dictum that I set myself, which was not to work for pay but to be paid for my work," he says. "So I have always been able to make a modest living and send my kids to school and take care of the things that need taking care of. Also it's protected me from the bitterness that poverty might have engendered.
"As one's family grows and one's sense of responsibility grows, yes, you need more money, but I've always been drawn by the voluptuousness of austerity. I would say that the sole extravagance that I indulge myself in is caviare. Unfortunately I have developed I won't say a need, but a taste for caviare.
When not making a rare tour, Cohen spends his days writing. He takes a novelist's approach to lyrics, producing Wagnerian stacks of verses which then must be pruned down to a performing time of around five minutes. "The verses I discard, I work on as hard as the ones I keep. It's a curious method and I don't recommend it to any songwriters."
Are the records a substitute for the novels he would rather be bringing out? He claims not. He loves songs, he says -- the way their meanings "move swiftly from heart to heart". And come to that, he loves sitting at a desk. "What I liked about the novel was the regime, that foreknowledge of the day, the commitment to the desk."
He doesn't love songs enough to buy records, but then he doesn't need to. "My children (a son, 20, and daughter, 18) buy enormous amounts of them. I do know quite a bit about what's going on. Some of it's through watching MTV. A lot of it comes through the walls from my daughter's room."
When he is left in complete peace, Cohen bolsters his hopeless contentment by practicing something called Za-Zen. "I made the acquaintance of an old Japanese gentleman many years ago, and we've become fast friends, mostly drinking companions of late. And he taught me Za-Zen. It's sitting without a goal. All the versions of yourself arise if you sit long enough. You tire of them. And when they finally vacate the consciousness, free from answer and free from question, you experience peace. And peace is the embrace of the absolute." A newcomer to Los Angeles, he is beginning to sound like a native Californian. But he adds reassuringly, "Of course, you can't stay in that state too long, because you have to eat and you have to go to the washroom."
And you have to smoke a cigarette. Except that Cohen whose vocal chords have become increasingly kippered over the years, has not touched one throughout the interview. Can he have given up? "Yeah, two years now. And of course, when you give up smoking you give up drinking a great deal too. The pleasures of the bar diminish considerably." How is he coping? "It's hell," he says, deadpan.