Is the World (or Anybody) Ready for Leonard Cohen?
By Jon Ruddy
Leonard Cohen, who has been called the finest poet of his generation -- albeit by a Canadian cultural magazine no one has heard of -- is sitting there eating penny candy and drinking Welch's grape juice in the upstairs furnished duplex he rents near the McGill campus in Montreal. The penny candy, which is in a glass on a coffee table, is mostly licorice cigars with those little red things on the fat ends. About the only thing Cohen has contributed to the furnishings of the place are a lot of inflated vinyl turtles, which are on the floor around his feet. Cohen is 31, he has published six books, he has written numerous songs, he agreed to do a television show this season in Montreal and then backed out, and he is broke. He is thin and brown -- he is just back from Mexico where he partook of the sacred mushroom, a fabled psychedelic drug. He has started eating meat again after being a vegetarian for two years. He had stopped eating meat because he disapproves of the killing of animals. He wrote:
Great torsoes of meadow animals
strung in glistening exhibition
Heads piled in pyramids
like parked cannon balls
some of them cruelly facing a display
of their missing extremities.
He started eating meat again because he got to dislike a certain kind of arrogance he had developed about being a vegetarian. The arrogance was shown in his subtle and partly unconscious attempts to convince Marianna, the sweet-faced Norwegian blonde he has been living with for six years, that not eating meat somehow would make her a finer person. Sometimes Marianna would abstain, sometimes she would be fiercely carnivorous. Now, sitting there among the turtles, drinking Welch's grape juice, eating a licorice cigar, Cohen says, "I don't know, everybody has become kind of loony."
Cohen's notion of universal looniness is tied up with his diet. It seems that because he went on a fast during the late summer of 1965 he developed a theory that almost everybody went through some kind of personal crisis around that time and that the world entered some mad new age.
Cohen fasted for 12 days in his little white house on the Greek island of Hydra, where he lived for six years, returning to Canada only, as he put it, to renew his neurotic affiliation. The fast occurred after he had finished his critically acclaimed, best-selling and extremely dirty novel, Beautiful Losers. Cohen wasn't hungry, so he decided to fast. "Finally I just flipped out," he says. He hallucinated and got a temperature of 104. They had to give him protein injections intravenously. He stayed in bed for two months. Marianna looked after him.
"I think there are certain times in your life when, if you don't stop, things just stop for you. You get a fantastic singlemindedness when you are lying in one place hallucinating. For me, it ended a lot of things. I would like to say that it made me saintly."
Cohen has become convinced, from looking at people's faces and talking to people, that his fast was a personal manifestation of a universal change of consciousness that occurred during the summer and fall of 1965. "The cosmic rules changed from whatever they were before," he says. Loss of memory, a grasping at personal freedom, a difference in the way drugs act on the mind -- these are things experienced by Cohen and Cohen's friends.
"A major change occurred last year, something comparable to the beginning of the Renaissance. A lot of people now sense the change and are baffled. They feel the world has gone crazy, and they can't get their hands on what is happening. To get along, you have to become part of the chaos."
Well, you can see that Cohen's mad-new-age theory isn't going to make it with scholars and historians. But it is easy to see him there amid the chaos. "There will be no more history anyway," he says. "We won't have the old historical sense. People will live in a state of amnesia."
Such talk...is the world ready? The esoterica of Leonard Cohen, the way of life, the vinyl turtles, the fasting, the flipping out, the complacency in the face of "changing cosmic rules" -- to most Canadians, it is all kind of loony. There was this classic exchange at a press conference between Cohen, the precious poet, and Pierre Berton, who is still Canada's idea of a real writer, a real seeker of wisdom and truth:
COHEN: "I haven't a single concern."
BERTON: "Well, come now, what do you care about really? Don't you care about anything? How can you be a good poet and not care about anything?
COHEN: "No...no. I do the poetry and you do the commentary."
BERTON: "No, let's get this straight. Are you telling us that there is nothing that worries you, nothing that bothers you? How can you write poetry if you're not bothered by anything?"
COHEN: "Well, I'm bothered when I get up in the morning. My real concern is to discover whether or not I'm in a state of grace. And if I make that investigation, and discover that I'm not in the state of grace, I'm better in bed."
BERTON: "What do you mean by a state of grace? That's something I've never understood."
COHEN: "A state of grace is that kind of balance with which you rise to the chaos you find around you. It's not a matter of resolving the chaos, because there is something arrogant and warlike about putting the world in order that kind of...it's like an escaped ski, going through the contours of..."
BERTON: "You have lost me."
Leonard Cohen was born in Montreal. His father was well-off, in the clothing business. He has an inheritance of $750 a year, which he can live on, if he has to, without noticeably changing his style of life. He has a cordial but somewhat sporadic relationship with other members of his family. He took Arts at McGill, was an average student, was nominated president of the debating union but failed to call a debate. He spent a summer at a socialist camp, back around 1950, and learned to play the guitar.
"I used it as a courting procedure. Probably I got down on my knees to serenade a girl. I was shameless in those days. But I don't remember. My memory has gone. Has yours?"
For Marianna, he wrote:
Beneath my hands
your small breasts
are the upturned bellies
of breathing fallen sparrows.
Wherever you move
I hear the sounds of closing wings
of falling wings.
I am speechless
because you have fallen beside me
because your eyelashes
are the spines of tiny fragile animals.
I dread the time
when your mouth
begins to call me hunter.
Marianna works in a Montreal boutique. They spend about six months of the year together, then Cohen takes off. "It is very important for him to be alone," Marianna says. "I don't feel alone wherever he is. I believe in him so much that it gives me tremendous strength. In the beginning I believed in marriage. Now I feel it is of no importance. I feel more married than I ever did before." Marianna was married when she met Cohen. Axel, Marianna's son, was three months old when she and Cohen started living together. Now he's nearly seven. He talks about Cohen as "my father" but addresses him as "Leonard." They live quietly in Montreal.
Cohen makes more money than your average poet -- $17,000 in 1964, his best year, including awards and other fringe benefits -- and spends it all, mainly on travel. He is usually broke. He prays a lot, smokes pot and takes LSD (30 "trips" so far) -- and for him the praying and the taking of hallucinogens and the fasting are all part of the same thing, which is spiritual experience.
"I don't get high with LSD. I see people hallucinating all around me, but I don't get high. I don't mean to say that I got there first, but I just know that vision. You know, I find it very familiar. It's one that I'm in most of the time. Taking LSD for me was not the most significant spiritual experience. I don't want to put it down -- it has done beautiful things for a lot of people. But for me it was just revisiting somewhere that I am anyway. I don't think there's any danger in LSD. I would take LSD as long as it wasn't under medical supervision. I just don't think there are any doctors around who could provide you with a guide. They aren't spiritually advanced enough. It would be like...like giving somebody a diamond and then giving him a guard to prevent him from picking his teeth with it. Pot doesn't do anything for me. Want some?"
This season, Cohen's untidy life was pulled briefly into order by the CBC in Montreal, which persuaded him -- without much trouble apparently -- to sign on as host of a television series covering the local scene. Cohen agreed to do it because, he says, "I wanted to see what would happen." (Nothing did, as it turned out -- he backed off a few weeks later, before the show got on the air. According to producer Andrew Simon, "There was no fight. It was a personal-emotional thing. Leonard felt that God hadn't put him here to be a TV star.")
Even now, in early August, talking to Cohen about a still-impending TV show is like talking to Marshall McLuhan about the weather.
"Are you going to have a say in selecting the female co-star?"
"I hope not."
"I don't like choosing."
"Don't you go through life making choices.?"
"I make as few as possible."
"What about women? Don't men choose women?"
"Any man who feels he's made a choice of women is gravely mistaken. The man has nothing to do with it whatsoever."
"The woman makes the choice?"
"No. She is possessed. She is driven. When she makes that contact with that kind of energy, no man can ever turn away."
Cohen says he may "walk away" from the show. "I won't do anything I'm not good at. You have to stick to things you are uniquely good at. I don't know whether I'd be any good at interviewing people. I think I'm afraid of cameras."
He says the CBC is surprised that he turns up for work every day. "I am very dependable about such things. You must know about writing. I mean, it takes a fantastic inner compulsion. Nobody writes who doesn't really drive himself. I feel secretly that I am much more highly disciplined than anybody I meet. I know what it is to sit down at a desk for long periods of time and lay it on. Beautiful Losers I wrote every day until it was finished. I wrote a minimum of four hours a day and a maximum of 20. The last two weeks I worked 20 hours a day. That was when I flipped out."
Cohen doesn't see anything incongruous about a poet's being on television. "I've always felt very different from other poets I've met. I've always felt that somehow they've made a decision against life. I don't want to put any poets down, but most of them have closed a lot of doors. I never felt too much at home with those kind of people. I always felt more at home with musicians. I like to write songs and sing and that kind of stuff. I don't know, I seem to be a happy man."
I have not been unhappy for 10,000 years.
During the day I laugh and during the night I sleep.
My favorite cooks prepare my meals,
my body cleans and repairs itself
and all my work goes well.