ROBERT HILBURN INTERVIEWS LEONARD COHEN

Telling It on the Mountain


Album Review


A Master's Reflections on His Music


Copyright 1995/The Times Mirror Company Los Angeles Times Sunday, September 24, 1995, Home Edition (pp. 5, 90, et al of the calendar section)

Ann Schranz was kind enough to pass this along to me. I formatted it as you see here.


Telling It on the Mountain

Although Leonard Cohen has retreated to a Zen center to write music and poetry, a tribute album being released this week could bring new fans.


Like a bird on a wire
Like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free.

--Lyrics by Leonard Cohen



It's hard to imagine being startled in a setting as peaceful as the Zen Center on the edge of the tiny resort village of Mount Baldy, but that's the likely reaction when you discover that one of the most respected songwriters of the modern pop era lives on the center grounds in a cabin no larger than a budget motel room.

Leonard Cohen has spoken for years about his interest in Zen. But who ever figured that this pop icon, whose classic tales of restless longing include "Bird on a Wire" and "Suzanne," would make such a spartan spot his permanent home and would trade in his finely tailored suits for modest robes?

"They have been very kind to me here," Cohen says matter-of-factly about his change of lifestyle as he sits on a narrow cot that would look at home in an Army barracks. "This was originally two cabins, but they broke through [the wall] and made it one cabin to give me a bit more room.

"I stay here and do my work and help look after Roshi, who is the old teacher. He's 88, and three or four of us are charged with doing that. Cooking is my contribution."

The 61-year-old songwriter and poet hasn't turned his back on the world. He frequently heads down the mountain to Los Angeles in his four-wheel-drive vehicle, either to visit an affiliated Zen center, to visit his daughter in the Mid-Wilshire area or meet with Kelley Lynch, his manager.

But this two-room cabin has been home for two years for Cohen, who hasn't toured since 1993 or recorded a studio album since 1992. The cabin is where he rises at 3 each morning to begin preparing the day's first meal.

"Please stay for lunch," he says warmly. "I've made some lovely vegetable soup for today."


Cohen's graceful, confessional songs--described as "elegant, bittersweet mood music for the dark nights of the soul" in the latest edition of the Rolling Stone Album Guide--have had a major impact on a wide range of rock, country and pop musicians.

The reason he is accepting a visitor today is to talk about the tribute album that will be released Tuesday by A&M Records ( see review, Page 90 ). The collection, titled "Tower of Song: The Songs of Leonard Cohen," features versions of his works by such artists as Bono of U2, Peter Gabriel, Elton John, Willie Nelson, Sting, Billy Joel, Aaron Neville, Tori Amos and Trisha Yearwood.

The gracious, soft-spoken songwriter is delighted with the collection.

"I have had a good following in Europe and Canada, but I felt my position on the pop landscape in America was getting smaller and smaller until I kind of disappeared from view on the pop scene for about 10 years--say, 1975 to 1985," he says.

"But things started to change. My daughter [in her teens at the time] pointed out a few years ago that her friends were listening to my music, and that pleased me. People used to say my music was too difficult or too obscure, and I never set out to be difficult or obscure. I just set out to write what I felt as honestly as I could, and I am delighted when other people feel a part of themselves in the music."

Cohen was a late starter in the pop world. Born to a well-to-do couple in Montreal, he grew up in a house that was filled with music. As he got older, he enjoyed a wide range of musical styles, from commercial country and folk to synagogue music.

Inspired by the songwriting of Hank Williams and other Nashville heroes, Cohen was in a country group, the Buckskin Boys, briefly during his teens.

While a student at McGill University in Montreal, he gravitated toward poetry and prose, eventually gaining acclaim in Canada for his poems and two novels. But the books didn't sell well, and he turned to his first love--songwriting--in hopes of making some money.

He was quickly rewarded when Judy Collins recorded one of his songs, "Suzanne," for her "In My Life" album in 1966. The song became a staple of her live show and is still strongly identified with her.

Although Cohen had planned to simply write songs, John Hammond, the legendary Columbia Records executive who signed artists ranging from Bob Dylan to Billie Holiday, was so impressed by Cohen's own versions of his songs that he signed him to a record contract.

Cohen's debut album, 1968's "Songs of Leonard Cohen," contained some of his most memorable compositions, including "Suzanne," "Sisters of Mercy" and "Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye." Sales were modest, but critics and other songwriters hailed the collection. One fan, Robert Altman, even used it as the background score to his film "McCabe and Mrs. Miller."

While Cohen was frequently written about in the context of the New York folk movement, he stood apart in several ways. Cohen was in his 30s by the time his first album came out, and he favored expensive suits rather than blue jeans and work shirts. He also didn't share the movement's interest in left-wing or radical politics. He preferred to concentrate on themes of loneliness and desire.

"I grew up wearing suits," he says. "I wasn't trying to make a statement or set myself apart. I was never into blue jeans. I was older. I wasn't ashamed of my education. I didn't pretend that I came out of the country. I wasn't trying to be Paul Bunyan. My name was Leonard Cohen. My father was a clothing manufacturer. I wrote books. I went to college."

Cohen doesn't answer so quickly when asked why his music seemed so relentlessly stark and revealing--characterized by such lines as these from "Sisters of Mercy":

You who must leave everything
That you cannot control
It begins with your family
But soon it comes round to your soul.

"It was all I could write about," he says finally, rubbing his shaved head as if trying to stimulate thought. "You have to dig down for that true voice, which you've heard in others--a Billie Holiday or a Hank Williams--and you try to find it in your music. It's a way of proving you deserve to be here. . . . You deserve to get a girl or deserve to walk out on the street.

"I know this is a very poverty-stricken view of things, but that's the way it was. I never had the luxury of standing in front of a buffet table saying, 'I'll write this kind of song today and that kind tomorrow.' It was like: 'Can I scrape some words together and write anything? . . . Can I dig deep enough inside to say something that matters?'"

So how did Cohen get to the Zen Center?

"I was never interested in Buddhism," he says later, leaving his cabin and heading to a larger building where he does most of his cooking. "I was never looking for a new religion. The religion I had was fine as far as I was concerned, but this particular kind of training interested me. I have been studying with this old teacher, who happens to be a Zen master."

At the main cabin, he takes off his sandals and steps into the kitchen to test the soup that's heating on the stove.

Cohen began his embrace with Zen in the early '70s, during a period of deep depression.

"It's the same thing that happens to lots of people," he says after sampling the soup. "You don't do anything [to help yourself] unless you are in trouble. I got into a bit of trouble myself, and I noticed a friend from Greece seemed to have a much calmer life than mine. I had done a couple of records by then and done a tour of Europe. I had made a little money, but I was very lonely and dissatisfied. So, I phoned up my friend and he introduced me to this old teacher.

"There was something very intriguing about the Zen training. It was very rigorous. We were like the Marines of the spiritual world, and I enjoyed that. But after a while, I thought, 'This is crazy,' and I went over the wall.

"Yet something had touched me, and I started coming back here from time to time. It became integrated into the rest of my life, my songwriting, my touring, my duties to my family. As events in my life allowed it, I began spending more and more time until I just moved in."

Cohen gazes across the room, at the trees through the window, when asked about the fulfillment he receives at the center.

"I think finally it is the freedom from questions like 'What is life? Why are we here?' This is the study of the self--your relationship to this entity that we call the self. One of the things that appealed to me about this particular [discipline] is that they don't demand an answer."

On this afternoon, Cohen is making plans to accompany Roshi on a tour of Zen locales on the East Coast. "You might say I'm the road manager of the tour," he says, smiling at his joke.

"I have done this type of trip before. Sometimes people recognize me at airports, but the people at the centers are used to me taking Roshi around for many, many years, and it's no big deal. Besides, there are other people at the centers who have distinguished careers."

An outsider might interpret Cohen's decision to live in a Zen center as akin to dropping out of society, but Cohen objects.

"This is the very contrary of dropping out," he says. "Most people can't wait to get home to their house or apartment and shut that door and turn on the TV. To me, that's dropping out. There is a saying: 'Like pebbles in a bag, the monks polish each other.' You are continually involved with people here in a way you are never involved [on the outside]. You wake up with it and you go to sleep with it. There is this community. Any tendency toward dropping out is immediately spotted in a community like this."

Cohen has plenty of time here to devote to his writing. At present, he's working on an illustrated book of poems and songs for a future album. His workroom contains a primitive Macintosh computer and a synthesizer, tools for his music and his graphic art. There is also a radio in the room but no CD or cassette player. He has to go out to his vehicle to play a CD.

Though he has a daughter, Lorca, 21, and a son, Adam, 23, Cohen has never been married. He was engaged for a while to actress Rebecca De Mornay, but that relationship has ended.

"I've never felt myself as a civilian," he says when asked about relationships. "This kind of life suits me. I tried domestic life. I did my best. I had a good relationship with the mother of my children and my children, but I never felt I was any good at it."

Cohen finishes eating his soup and carries the bowl over to the sink. He puts on his sandals and then leads his guest back across the dirt trail to the parking lot.

He pauses at the car to answer a final question--whether he plans to tour if the response to the tribute album suggests there is a big U.S. audience to hear his songs again.

"Well, you know, the devil laughs when we make plans," he says. "I wouldn't want to say never, but I'm not waiting for the phone to ring."


There's a color photo at the bottom of the article (Photographer: Lori Shepler / Los Angeles Times) with the following caption:

"I never set out to be difficult or obscure," says songwriter Cohen, 61, in his cabin at the Zen Center in Mount Baldy.

Album Review


VARIOUS ARTISTS
"Tower of Song: The Songs of Leonard Cohen"
A&M
* * 1/2

Unlike most folk or pop compositions, the songs in the Cohen canon ask the singer to submit. They aren't vehicles for a personality or smooth seals awaiting a stamp, and they reveal their many layers most fully when touched most gently.

On this uneven tribute album, Trisha Yearwood's solid, mainstream- country "Comin' Back to You," Suzanne Vega's direct "Story of Isaac" and Willie Nelson's courtly "Bird on a Wire" best exemplify the virtues of modesty.

That doesn't mean the songs can't be wrestled into some kind of distinctive shape. Bono's "Hallelujah" challenges the original's hymn- like form with a minimalist, ambient-techno track and deadpan spoken lyrics, yet remains fascinatingly faithful to its spirit.

Then there are the selections that merely call attention to the arrangement or to the vocals: Don Jovi's, er, Henley's histrionic "Everybody Knows," Sting and the Chieftains' rushed "Sisters of Mercy," Tori Amos' tremulous "Famous Blue Raincoat."

About the time Elton John is thumping "I'm Your Man" into dance- floor submission, you might start to wonder what the point is. From Collins to Cocker to Concrete Blonde, there's never been a shortage of Cohen coverage, so "Tower" doesn't really fill a void.

And after all, there are always his own albums. Cohen is often dismissed as a non-singer, but if it does anything, "Tower of Song" should create new appreciation for the Master's monotone.

New albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor) to four (excellent).


A Master's Reflections on His Music

Scores of today's most acclaimed musical figures, from U2's Bono and Willie Nelson to Courtney Love and Trent Reznor, have spoken with awe about the music of Leonard Cohen, frequently asking how anyone was able to write in such a deeply personal, unguarded style.

But Cohen himself speaks with disarming ease about the songs that have made him such a respected force for the last quarter-century. Here, he gives his feelings about my 10 favorite Cohen songs, listed in chronological order:

"Suzanne" (1966)

"I was very excited when I finished it because it had all the qualities of the kind of song I loved myself. It sounded a little like a folk song, but it had a modern feel."
"Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye" (1967)
"It's hard to be honest when I talk about this song because the song is connected with somebody and I don't feel like disclosing the name. I was leaving one woman and courting another, and I wasn't quite sure what I was feeling at the time. I think both of these songs would be in my own top 10. I've revived them for every tour."
"Sisters of Mercy" (1967)
"This was inspired by two young women that I met in a snowstorm in Edmonton. I was on tour, singing in college towns just by myself, and we were in the same doorway.

"They didn't have any hotel and I had one, so we all went back and they fell asleep on the double bed and I sat in the armchair. They were so lovely, just sleeping. You have to remember I was someone who had always struggled with this problem of loneliness, and I was always hoping to meet women on the road. . . .

"I was awake with my pen and pad, and I remember the moonlight shining on the ice of the river and thinking it was like as good as it was going to get."

"Bird on a Wire" (1968)
"I wrote it on this island in Greece, right after they put up electrical wires for the first time. They were stretched right across my window, and I was very disturbed for a long time because they obstructed this lovely view. Then, one morning I saw a bird on a wire and the bird made me see everything in a new light--the bird who didn't distinguish between this wire and the branch of the almond tree. Somehow, the wires became quite beautiful to me."
"Famous Blue Raincoat" (1971)
"That's also a song that perplexes me because I thought there was something unclear about it. I like hard edges and very, very clear imagery, and I wasn't ready to accept that I had written an impressionistic song. I worried that I was asking the listener to make certain leaps, and I still don't know if that's legitimate."
"Chelsea Hotel" (1974)
"I wrote it about Janis Joplin, and it wasn't very gallant of me to tell people I wrote it about her, because there's an intimacy described in it. I regret doing that. It was an indiscretion that I never expected myself to make, but it just shows you are not as cool as you think you are. I loved Janis' work, and I still do. There is something so real, so passionate in her voice."
"Dance Me to the End of Love" (1988)
"I'd put that high on my list. There are dozens and dozens of verses of that song that I've written over the years. I usually rewrite songs for a long time, sometimes for years. I keep trying to uncover what it is I am trying to say. I know that if I stop too soon I'll end up with slogan
"Hallelujah" (1988)
"I wanted to write something in the tradition of the hallelujah choruses but from a different point of view. I think the other song that is closely related to that is 'Anthem.' It's the notion that there is no perfection--that this is a broken world and we live with broken hearts and broken lives but still that is no alibi for anything. On the contrary, you have to stand up and say hallelujah under those circumstances."
"Everybody Knows" (1988)
"I wanted to write one of those tough guy songs, one of those saloon songs. If you look closely, you can see it is a guy on the road or in the bar affirming his feelings but in a friendly way. It's not like someone spitting on your grave. It's like we are all in this together- -everybody knows."
"Anthem" (1992)
"I think it is one of the best songs I have written, maybe the best. It's up there with 'If It Be Your Will' and 'Take This Waltz.' It is saying there is a crack in everything--forget about your perfect offering. I knew that song was everything that my whole work and life had somehow gathered around. It is absolutely true to me."


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