Growing Old Disgracefully
by Ian Pearson
The place was a madhouse. About a hundred extras had been recruited to
play the denizens of a seedy bar for a rock video called "Closing Time."
It was a country tune about drinking and dancing and Johnnie Walker wisdom
running high, and the Matador, an after-hours country-and-western club in
west-end Toronto, was a perfect setting for it. But there was a problem on
this November afternoon. So many odd people were running around -- women
with platinum beehives, men with string ties and whisky-veined faces, actors
and dancers dressed to look like lowlifes -- that the film crew was having
difficulty getting its work done.
Like over here, in the congested foyer beside the dressing room. The
sign plainly said "Crew Only" above a catering tray of nuts, vegetables,
and dip, just as a table bearing chips and Cheesies across the room was marked
"Extras Only." It should have been perfectly obvious, but here was this guy
with a lined face and slicked-back salt-and-pepper hair heading for the crew's
tray. Actually, he was wearing a pretty nice dark double-breasted suit --
it gave him a bit of dignity -- but he was one of the oldest people in the
room, clearly some geezer who supplemented his pension by working as a film
When the elderly gent raised a stick of the crew's celery to his lips,
the production assistant had had enough. "Excuse me," he huffed officiously,
"are you an extra?"
"Yeah," replied an aged-in-oak baritone, "I'm an extra."
"Well, would you please get your food from the extras' tray."
Leonard Cohen kept a straight face and strolled over to the extras' tray,
where he started wolfing down Cheesies. He liked Cheesies anyway and he was
finding he didn't mind taking orders. This video business was a necessary
evil of the music industry these days. After a grueling couple of years trying
to finish his new recording, Cohen found it relaxing to have someone else
tell him what to do.
As it turned out, he had nothing to do but wait for six hours until his
star turn in front of the camera came up. In his role as a smiling
fifty-eight-year-old public man, he was unerringly polite to his fans as
he wandered around the club. Introduced to an eight-year-old girl, he quipped,
"Pleased to meet ya, darlin'." He greeted a wizened Willie Nelson lookalike
with a crisp "Howdy!" When a fan recalled how he had spent half a year of
high-school English studying Cohen's writing, the poet-novelist-singer-songwriter
replied, "Well, it looks like you turned out okay anyways."
And the women! The legendary ladies' man flirted with his legion of women
admirers, and displayed his unwavering allegiance to the ideal of feminine
beauty. He watched a MuchMusic crew interviewing Rebecca Jenkins, a rising
actress (Bye Bye Blues, Bob Roberts) and singer who had a role in
the video, and asked a bystander, "Who is that? She's beautiful." Moments
later, Jenkins wandered over to meet Cohen with the TV crew in tow. Cohen
shooed off the MuchMusic people, but when Jenkins started retreating as well
he begged her, "Don't leave! Come and stay with the people who love you."
Jenkins returned and admitted that she was intimidated by meeting Cohen.
He immediately became familiar with her, asking, "So, how's your life? Is
there a man?" She told him she was starting a new relationship and within
minutes she was having a heart-to-heart chat with Cohen as if he were her
Later Cohen found himself at a table with two of his band members and
one of the video's producers. The young producer was proudly showing off
her Swiss army watch and giving a testimonial to its endurance. "I've gone
diving with this watch. I've gone hiking and climbing with this watch. I've
made love with this watch on. Completely naked except for this watch."
"You made love with that watch?" Cohen asked dryly. "I don't want to
hear it. I'm a middle-aged man." He was, after all, the famous romantic who
had bemoaned the plight of the aging lover on his last record: "Well, my
friends are gone and my hair is grey. I ache in the places where I used to
But things weren't really so bad for Cohen. His career had dramatically
revived itself in 1988 when the simplicity and humour of his I'm Your
Man album won him a huge new following. He had become a rare phenomenon
in a popular culture that worships youth: an artist who gets hipper as he
gets older. Like saxophonist Ornette Coleman or writer William S. Burroughs,
Cohen seemed younger and more anarchic with each new project.
The durable hipster was enjoying himself immensely at the video shoot.
When an extraordinarily beautiful strawberry-blonde woman in a white overcoat
arrived on the set, Cohen enthused, "Hi, sweetheart" and gave her a deep
hug. She proffered a bottle of wine and he gruffly joked, "You fucking
She took off her coat and they embraced playfully. The lingerers moved
away, respecting the privacy of a celebrity in love. It could have been awkward
being half of a happy couple when everyone in the room knew your work and
your image. But Rebecca De Mornay had been around Hollywood long enough to
handle the attention.
"I have to go into the make-up room for a second," said Cohen. "Would
you care to join me?"
"Sure. Avec plaisir," replied De Mornay, who played the sultry
hooker in Risky Business and the deranged nanny in The Hand That
Rocks the Cradle, a box-office success that had made her one of the most
sought-after actresses in Hollywood. She was in Toronto filming a feature
called Beyond Innocence, and Cohen had kept her company throughout
much of the shoot.
Intermittent chuckles came from Cohen, De Mornay, and members of Cohen's
band in the make-up room. Cohen opened the door and waved. He was wearing
a woman's wig with thick brown hair tumbling down to his shoulders. He grinned
from ear to ear. He looked like a spectacularly ugly Janis Joplin imitator,
or a Neanderthal heavy-metal singer, or, as one of his back-up singers suggested,
Veronica Lake. He looked like a man who was having a hell of a good time.
Leonard Cohen has never been known as a happy-go-lucky sort, but then
it's never been safe to pigeonhole him. Through poetry, novels, songs, and
videos, his career has taken many startling twists and turns. Sometimes it's
been easy to pin him down by one element of his character. "Gloomy poet became
bard of bedsits" is how The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music
rudely stereotyped his early career; "an existential comedian" is how the
San Francisco Chronicle described his most recent incarnation. Both
are reasonable appraisals of separate corners of Cohen's work but don't do
justice to the man's complexity. For four decades, Cohen has been pursuing
what his former teacher and literary godfather Louis Dudek calls "The search
for the truth of his own being."
This search has made Leonard Cohen, circa 1993, a being of many different
guises: a poet, an apocalyptic lounge lizard, a committed Jew, a disciplined
Zen devotee, a madman in the recording studio, a blocked songwriter prone
to breakdowns, a devoted father, an incorrigible ladies' man, and the happy
companion of a beautiful young actress. Cohen says he prefers to think of
himself as "just another songwriter living in L.A." His new album, only his
ninth studio recording in twenty-five years, is the hard-earned fruit of
this new occupation. The Future is perhaps the biggest musical stretch
of his career, by turns bleak and funny, exhilarating and irritating, as
multifaceted and contradictory as the man himself.
In the title song, he casts himself as a battered prophet with a voice
as raw as a smoking gun barrel declaiming the horrors of the present age
and forecasting the coming apocalypse. ("I don't think you can divorce the
fact it's a hot little track and you can dance with 'The Future,'" he advises.
"If you couldn't, I think it would be really dismal.") He's hilarious in
"Closing Time," ironic in a sprightly number with a chorus, "Democracy is
coming to the U.S.A.," deranged when he croaks out Irving Berlin's "Always,"
sentimental in a cover version of an obscure soul hit, "Be For Real," and
just like Leonard Cohen on some romantic ballads. The addition of gospel
singers and rhythm-and-blues back-up band adds genuine fervour to Cohen's
customarily stark arrangements.
It's a challenging and sometimes grim enterprise, and no one but Cohen
could have concocted it. "He makes you think of a Jeremiah in Tin Pan Alley,"
says his friend and mentor Irving Layton. "He wants to be bareknuckled and
smash whatever remaining illusions people have about the time in which they're
living and what they can expect." Cohen immodestly calls it "a tank of a
record -- it can go over anything, it can meet all resistance." The metaphor
also applies to Cohen's career, as it steamrollers along with new-found strength
and momentum. Released last November, The Future has already sold
more than 100,000 copies in Canada, earning platinum-record status.
Cohen refers to this success as his "resurrection." After his astonishing
transformation from a popular poet and novelist into a singer-songwriter
in the sixties and seventies, his career had stalled by the early eighties.
His songs were as well crafted as ever, but he wasn't attracting new listeners.
His 1984 album, Various Positions, was one of the most consistent
of his career but was rejected in the United States by his record company,
CBS. (The Canadian branch stuck by its native son and released it here.)
Then in 1986, his longtime friend and former back-up singer, Jennifer Warnes,
recorded a selection of Cohen songs called Famous Blue Raincoat. With
Cohen's own prosaic singing, his songs were interesting and often moving;
Warnes gave them a soothing musicality. She transformed grappa into Chardonnay,
a perfect elixir for mid-eighties audiences, and Famous Blue Raincoat
sold 750,000 copies worldwide.
At the same time, Cohen started composing on an electronic keyboard instead
of a guitar, adding a playful rhythmic dimension to his music. And he wasn't
singing as much as talking, using the desiccated sack of gravel in his throat
to declare the words openly instead of trying to embroider them melodically.
On I'm Your Man, the international ugliness of his voice was both
funny and wise, especially when cosseted by an angel chorus of women singers.
And the lyrics had a balance of self-deprecating humour and emotional
With its cover photograph featuring the profound artist eating a banana,
I'm Your Man was an immediate success. John Rockwell of The New
York Times hailed it as "a masterpiece, pure and by no means simple,"
comparing its "world...of a defiant middle-aged romantic" to Frank Sinatra's
September of My Years. It sold a million copies in Europe, earned
gold-record status in Canada, and was the number-one album in Spain and Norway.
(Number one for seventeen weeks in Norway. "That was very strange,"
Cohen says. "Every single household in Norway must have had a copy. It was
indispensable for family life.") Extensive 1988 tours of Europe and North
America played to full houses and rave reviews. On stage, Cohen looked every
inch the lounge singer with his dark suits and slicked-back hair. He instructed
his band to "Orbisize" his songs, to give them the pulse, the bottom and
rhythm, of Roy Orbison heartbreakers. He would lean back, close his eyes,
tilt the microphone high in the air, and croon his way through two decades'
worth of his music.
I'm Your Man put him on the cutting edge of pop music. Cohen found
himself in unlikely collaborations with the great tenor saxophonist Sonny
Rollins and the funk band Was (Not Was). He and his band played a triumphant
set on the country television show "Austin City Limits." The Neville Brothers
had a Top-10 hit in 1990 with the Cohen chestnut "Bird on a Wire." In 1991,
eighteen disparate, mostly younger, bands and performers -- including R.E.M.,
the Pixies, and Nick Cave -- contributed variously muscular, off-the-wall,
and reverential versions of Cohen songs to a tribute album called I'm
The recognition was sweet, as Cohen explained in a speech at the 1991
Juno Awards in Vancouver, where he was inducted into the Juno Hall of Fame.
"If I had been given this attention when I was twenty-six, it would
have turned my head," he said. "At thirty-six, it might have confirmed my
flight on a rather morbid spiritual path. At forty-six, it would have rubbed
my nose in my failing powers and have prompted a plotting of a getaway and
an alibi. But at fifty-six -- hell, I'm just hitting my stride and it doesn't
hurt at all."