...Ring the bells that still can ring.
An Interview with Leonard Cohen
by Richard Guilliatt
At times his life has been as dark as his songs. Now Leonard Cohen the poet of the 60's angst is back and almost happy.
Night in Los Angeles, and the city is on fire, its outskirts put to the torch by anonymous pyromaniacs. After the riots and the floods, the entire city seems unnerved by this latest visitation of disaster. Yet here is Leonard Cohen - the poet laureate of pessimism, the world heavyweight champion of existential despair - getting cheerfully drunk in a Chinese Restaurant on Wilshire Boulevard.
"All life agrees with me," says Cohen, exuding the woozy bonhomie of a man being caressed by the effects of three strong bloody Marys. "I have no complaints." Having just that afternoon finished mixing a live recording, Cohen had brought us here an hour ago with the stated intention of eating a brief dinner before continuing on to his nearby apartment to conduct an interview. But the vodka is flowing and Cohen's train of thought is getting so expansive that it frequently disappears over the horizon.
"Who are you anyway?" he inquires jovially. "Why did you come here? You haven't had enough to drink, I can see that."
Considering that Cohen's poems, novels and songs constitute a 40-year exploration of life's murkiest emotional depths, this display of cheerfulness would seem grossly out of character, not to mention bad for his image. But the truth is Leonard Cohen's career is going so well these days that even Leonard Cohen couldn't complain. His last two albums, I'm Your Man and The Future, re-established him as the most literate songwriter in popular music, his 1966 novel Beautiful Losers has just been re-issued in paperback, and his best writings are now preserved between the covers of Stranger Music, a 400-page collection just published by Cape.
In the process of being rediscovered, Cohen has also undergone yet another of his periodic image transformations. In the 1950s he was a literary Young Lion in Canada, in the 1960s he was a folksinger, and in the 1970s he crafted a series of albums so irredeemably bleak that by the 1980s he didn't have much of a career left. Now, as he approaches 60, he finds himself cast as some venerable philosopher of the heart, a wordsmith whose perennial obsessions - sex, death and spiritual yearning - are once again tuned in to the zeitgeist.
"You know," he says with droll gravity, "It really is very, very nice to be resurrected in one's autumnal years." The role of world-weary Don Juan is one that Cohen, a never-married romantic with a worldwide coterie of female admirers, is clearly not averse to playing. With his double-breasted grey suit, black crew neck sweater, close cropped grey hair and prescription aviator shades, he looks like some ageing gangster sitting here on a pink leather banquette at the back of the deserted restaurant. The effect is capped off by his dolorous baritone voice, which is perfectly modulated for his deadpan bons mots.
Earlier, on the drive over to the restaurant, Cohen had pulled up at a red light and studied the face of a young brunette woman talking on a cellular telephone in a dark Mercedes next to us. "I should get that girl's number," he murmured, fishing around in his suit pocket to produce his own cellular phone as if preparing to try out an in-transit seduction routine. As the Mercedes sped off, he watched its tail lights recede and sighed.
Cohen's cellular telephone was actually a gift from Rebecca De Mornay, the 31-year-old actress who has been his companion for the past five years and who lives just a few miles north of him in Hollywood. The Future was dedicated to De Mornay with a biblical inscription and she also helped him compile Stranger Music. But tonight she is in Atlanta making a movie, and Cohen is being strangely noncommittal about their relationship, claiming at regular intervals to be looking for a companion for the night, but in the next breath describing De Mornay as "the light of my life".
Has their relationship ended? "Oh, I wouldn't say that," Cohen demurs. "I certainly wouldn't say that to you." He feigns elaborate interest in his wristwatch and his drink, then adds: "Leave Rebecca out of it, okay? Rebecca is a dear, dear creature and I don't want to bring her into this drunken talk."
It's the kind of enigmatic routine Cohen has perfected over the years. As far back as 1968 he shocked Canada's literary establishment by refusing to accept the country's most prestigious literary award, telexing an archly-worded statement which read simply: "No, the poems themselves forbid it absolutely." By then his public persona has already taken shape; the coolly self-mocking bard swathed in a dark suit and a veil of irony.
Cohen is equally hard to pigeonhole today. Although he gets up in the pre-dawn hours every day to meditate at a Buddhist temple near his home, he claims not to be a Buddhist and describes the temple priest as his "drinking partner". He has been signed to the same record company for 27 years, yet jokes constantly about its consistent failure to promote his records. He eschews religion, yet his work is shot through with biblical imagery.
Despite his contradictions, evasions and occasional lapses into Leonard Cohen Schtick, it's impossible not to be charmed by the man. His gracious, old-world manners are genuine and there is nothing frivolous about his work, which strives to lay bare what Cohen once described as "the life of the heart".
"I've always been struggling with the sense that it's pretty tricky to negotiate the day and the night," he says. "The calling in my life has been to struggle with that predicament. But," he adds with a lubrugious smile, "I've had a couple good laughs now and then, too."
As Cohen's career has wandered from poetry to prose to the pop charts, he has sometimes struggled to find both the audience and the musical format that could support the heavy burdens of his intentions. For much of the 1970s he found himself pigeonholed as a one-note depressive, a reputation not helped by his frequent and sometimes public disintegrations. But he came back swinging in 1988 with I'm Your Man, an album which modernised his sound and highlighted the scabrous humour that is often overlooked in his work. Since then he has been on a roll, staging arresting performances and releasing a strong 1992 album, The Future, on which he shifted his gaze to the social calamities shaking Europe and the US.
Cohen's "modest enterprise" can now support a full time staff of three which administers his publishing and other affairs while he divides his time between two modest apartments, one in his home town of Montreal and the other in Los Angeles. The Future is approaching sales of one million copies, and Cohen appears to have found an audience that crosses all generational lines. He was particularly gratified by the 1991 album I'm Your Fan, on which a bevy of twentysomething alternative rock bands paid tribute by recording a collection of his songs.
"I've always felt a kinship", says Cohen. "I felt it to the Beats, to the beatniks, to the hipsters, to the hippies. I've always been able to make connections."
Indeed, when Cohen signed to Columbia Records in 1967 he had already spent a decade in the literary limelight of his native Canada. Born into an affluent family in Montreal in 1934, he published his first chapbook of poems at the age of 22 while studying at McGill University, and by 1963 he was living an archetypal bohemian existence amid a cadre of writers on the Greek island of Hydra. He wrote a semi-autobiographical novel called The Favourite Game, and followed that in 1966 with Beautiful Losers. Cohen was heavily influenced by the feverish romanticism of the Spanish poet Gabriel Federico Lorca, and by the beats. Beautiful Losers was an ambitious book that leapt from long stretches of bisexual carnality to historical ruminations on the fate of the Canadian Indians to hilarious parodies of experimental writing.
Asked about his literary influences at the time, Cohen smiles. "Well, there was a lot of amphetamine around," he responds. These days Cohen prefers the more controlled comfort of a few drinks. "I think it's impossible to get through this veil of tears entirely sober," he says. "I'm more like Baudelaire: let me be drunk with wine, with women, with poetry - whatever the thing is."
Although Beautiful Losers was widely hailed by the US critics, Cohen was barely eking out a living, and in 1966 he moved to New York to check out the city's exploding folk scene. He had been writing songs and busking since he was a teenager, and when the singer Judy Collins recorded his song "Suzanne", he was signed to Columbia as a recording artist. The move shocked Cohen's peers back in Montreal, and when Songs Of Leonard Cohen was released in 1967 some of New York's rock critics were not exactly flattering either. "I'm cold as a new razor blade," sang Cohen on "So Long, Marianne," his elegiac farewell to the first great love of his life. It wasn't really a welcome sentiment in the Summer of Love, and the violins and icy backing singers owed more to European art songs than American pop. In retrospect, Cohen sounds almost exuberant compared to the gravely dirges that would soon follow, but not for the first time he found himself accused of being the worst singer in the known universe.
Living in a room at the Chelsea Hotel, Cohen was enjoying most of the pleasures that bohemian New York offered in 1967, although as a performer he was prone to fleeing the stage in panic. "There was a lot of money involved," he recalls, "there was a career, there were prizes, there were rewards. The kind of life I had led in Montreal, there were no prizes, no rewards - you mimeographed your poems and circulated them among your friends. There was nothing at stake. But yeah, when there was big money and beautiful girls and heavy competition and vicious critics - New York City, in other words - of course I got nervous. Even now I drink heavily on tour."
Cohen's first big performance was an anti-war rally in New York, and by 1968 the New York Times was hailing him as "a major spokesman" of his generation. In reality, he was 10 years older than most of his musical peers and felt ill at ease with the anti-American rhetoric he heard. Cohen's mother had fled Russia as a teenager and her stories about communism had eradicated whatever nascent Leftist ideas young Leonard ever harboured. Hence, he remained resolutely self-absorbed even as the music around him became increasingly politicised. His albums appeared every couple of years - Songs From A Room, Songs Of Love And Hate, New Skin For The Old Ceremony - chipping away at familiar themes of loss and yearning and receiving generally laudatory reviews. He moved to a 1500-acre ranch in Kentucky for a couple of years, fulfilling a long-held desire to get close to the country music he had loved since childhood. He began attending a Buddhist temple in 1970 and started a long-term relationship with Suzanne Elrod, with whom he had a son, Adam, in 1973 and a daughter, Lorca, a year later.
None of these events did anything to lighten the lyrical melancholy of Cohen's music, or broaden its musical palette. His depressions were periodic and he once broke down on stage in Israel. He was so dissatisfied with the sound of his records that he attempted a collaboration with the legendary pop producer Phil Spector in 1976, but Spector was in the midst of cocaine-induced dementia and Cohen had just broken up with Elrod. The resulting album, Death Of A Ladies' Man, was a disaster which Cohen concedes was his weakest moment. By 1983 his career had reached such a commercial nadir that Columbia refused to release the album Various Positions in the US. Despite a loyal audience, Cohen recognised that his career had reached a critical juncture.
"I was broke, I had a lot of responsibilities, and my so-called career had just about evaporated," he recalls. "I bought my first synthesiser and I started working in a way that I had never worked before. I had always worked hard, but I really threw myself into this. The work was very intense, very clear. I had to turn it around, I mean, I had a real financial crisis, for one thing. That really lit a fire under my ass and I got serious again. I had sort of lost interest in the whole enterprise."
I'm Your Man, his 1988 comeback record, opens with Cohen growling like a grizzled old prizefighter over a propulsive beat of electronic keyboards. The album climaxed with "Tower Of Song," perhaps the funniest dirge ever written on the subject of artistic angst: "I said to Hank Williams, 'How lonely does it get?' / Hank Williams hasn't answered yet / but I hear him coughing all night long / a hundred floors above me in the tower of song..."
"I don't know why, but something happened to me 10 years ago," muses Cohen. "When things got really desperate, I started to cheer up."
It would be stretching things to say Cohen has become whimsical in his advancing years. His love songs still have titles like "Ain't No Cure For Love" and the passion in them is still a poignant quest for some brief escape. Desire and disgust, the sacred and the sacrilegious all collide between the sheets in his songs: one wonders whether he believes faithfulness is even possible between men and women.
"If you're in the midst of a relationship, you should honour the terms of the relationship," he responds. "I've always believed that. I've never been able to follow it, but I've always believed it... Monogamous marriage and commitment, all those ferocious ideas, are the very highest expression of a male possibility." He pauses a beat. "I'm not good enough for that. It's a great idea, though."
By 9 p.m. the restaurant is still deserted and Cohen is munching on a fortune cookie. "I'm feeling lonely tonight," he says with mock melodrama. "I don't know who to call. It's going to be a long night and my nights don't last that long because I have to get up at 3:30."
What will happen at 3:30 is that Cohen will rise from his bed and drive into South-Central, the poor black neighbourhood south of his home, to meditate for several hours at a Buddhist temple. While it might seem characteristically weird of Cohen to pick one of the most violent neighbourhoods in America as his place of spiritual contemplation, the Zen monk who opened the temple 20 years ago chose the location because of its cheap rent. Cohen has been going there ever since and bought his apartment because of its proximity to the temple, which he visits every day. Zen meditation is usually perceived as a path to blissful equanimity, but Cohen takes a more idiosyncratic view. "It's usually misery that drives you there," he says. "I mean, who really wants to get up at 3:30 in the morning, as I am going to do tomorrow morning, and drive down into a dangerous neighbourhood, cross your legs in a very unnatural way and sit motionless for a couple of hours? I don't think happiness is the motivation for this kind of activity. It's just the opposite. It's confusion and suffering that leads you to these kind of stern measures."
It's the temple that keeps Cohen in his current apartment, against the advice of friends who were spooked by last years riots. Driving home after dinner, he points to some of the destruction in his local neighbourhood - a Tandy store that was levelled, an incinerated gas station. The riots confirmed a certain apocalyptic view he has long harboured, and which became explicit on his recent album The Future. It's two central songs, "The Future" and "Democracy," depict the political turmoil of Europe and the US as flip sides of the same coin, the agonies of societies trying to transform themselves or perish. "We're going to have the same kind of revolution here," he says, "and it's just a matter of who's going to run it, whether it's going to be democrats with a compassionate position or people with a chip on their shoulder about race." Unlike many Canadians, Cohen is a passionate defender of the American ideal, but the solutions he sees to the country's present problems are surprisingly authoritarian - more police on the streets, the censoring of violent television, the application of force.
"At certain times of crisis, like in every other society, extraordinary and emergency measures have to be invoked... The fact is that the predators - on all levels, whether it's Wall Street or the streets - are about to take over," he says darkly. "And they're laughing at our laws."
We arrive at his LA pad, a duplex on a quiet tree-lined street in an unfashionable, predominantly black neighbourhood. Cohen lives on the top floor, a fastidiously neat five-room apartment with polished wood floors and a spartan ambience that denotes a life devoid of unnecessary luxuries. The walls are white, the furniture wooden; there are a few rugs, a few books, a small wall unit containing a ghetto blaster and some CD's and tapes. Instead of the framed awards and album sleeves that usually dot a performer's walls, there is a photo of Cohen with Roshi, his Zen monk. Apparently these few touches are an improvement on the more austere periods of Cohen's life, when he has lived with little more than a desk and a bed.
"Poke around, make yourself at home," he offers, ushering me into his study. The room looks like any office - a couple of high backed grey caster-wheel chairs facing a large wooden desk, on top of which are a fax machine, a Macintosh computer and a printer. The one thing that denotes Cohen's profession is the black Technics synthesizer which occupies the centre of the desk like an oblong spaceship. Nearby is a glass-doored stained cabinet that contains Cohen's notebooks and sketches. It's a disarmingly modest set-up, the kind of place one would expect to find a struggling writer with a day job toiling in obscurity. Cohen's earlier description of his modus operandi suddenly seemed very apt: "I'm always scratching away, y'know, I'm always working. I'm a very hard-working fellow. But I don't have any luxury in the matter, I don't have any choice. There's no virtue involved. Unless I keep working at it diligently, I tend to begin suffering very acutely."
Sitting cross-legged on the floor in his grey suit, Cohen is now leafing through a notebook filled with his scribblings, reciting lines from a new song he has half written. The notebooks are filled with pencil sketches and computer-graphic renderings of a voluptuous black woman who visits regularly to pose nude for him. He holds aloft one sketch, a back view of her naked in the bath. "Beautiful ass," he murmurs appreciatively.
Cohen's life suddenly seems like it would have its salutary moments. When the telephone rings, he lifts his head expectantly. "I wonder," he intones gravely, "if that's someone who wants to spend the night with me?"
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