Our Birthday Man (Leonard's 65th birthday on September 21, 1999).
Photo © August 1999 by Ratnesh Mathur, Mumbai, India. All rights reserved.
by Juan Rodriguez
The Montreal Gazette, September 18, 1999
Leonard Cohen, Senior Citizen: Poet, singer and songwriter Leonard Cohen relaxes in his Los Angeles home.
Leonard Cohen has come down from the mountain. That's this year's big news for fans of the Montreal poet-singer as they prepare to celebrate his 65th birthday on Tuesday, a celebration that includes gatherings in London, Paris, Prague and Helsinki.
The proverbial ladies' man had been living for nearly five years as a monk at the Mount Baldy Zen Centre, a former Boy Scout camp 80 kilometres south of Los Angeles, 2,000 metres above sea level. Cohen was known as Jikan (or Silent One), and he would rise at 3 a.m. - once his favourite hour in those bygone nights of drinking, talking and bedding women - to drink tea in silence, meditate, chant, study, shovel snow, scrub floors, cook and serve as secretary for 92-year-old Joshu Sasaki Roshi, leader of the most rigorous brand of Zen, known as Rinzai.
Although his departure was made official in June, Cohen exchanged his robes for his customary natty attire (read: Armani) in January and has since been traveling throughout India and Asia.
"I might be here for five minutes, five months or five years," he announced in February.
His current travels and work have placed him incommunicado.
But as he traveled - to Los Angeles in May to record a new album, to India in June - I drifted through clippings, books, yellowed scraps and haunting songs, like a lodger in the Memory Motel.
Meanwhile, for Cohen, a day in Bombay meant discussions with Ramesh Balsekar, a guru of Vedanta (or core Hinduism), a visit to the Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue (the city's oldest) and perusing Rhythm House, India's largest record store.
"Religion is my favourite hobby," the practicing Jew who studied Zen told La Nazione of Florence late last year. "It's deep and voluptuous. É Nothing is comparable to the delight you get from this activity. Apart, obviously, from courting."
While Cohen habitually works at a turtle's pace, "blackening pages," these are fertile times for him and, he has said, "something I've learned not to question when it's happening." In addition to paring down 130 "amusing" poems for a new volume, The Book of Longing, he's been working on an album to follow his critical and commercial successes I'm Your Man (1988) and The Future (1992). After decades of emotional roller-coaster rides, Cohen seems to have recharged his batteries.
"Nowadays, my only need is to jot everything down. É I'm just the voice, a living diary.''
Montreal, "the Jerusalem of the north," has always been an intimate part of that diary. The long-standing joke is that if you count the number of Montreal women who claim to have had an affair with him, you might be able to compile a small telephone directory. The word "naked" figures as prominently in his work as "hotel."
"I don't think a man ever gets over that first sight of the naked woman," he noted in 1992. Thus in I'm Your Man, he intones with a wink, "If you want a doctor, I'll examine every inch of you."
He's shared his lovers with us. It's only right: the women of Montreal set the standard for the poet's international conquests. And if we've been privy to his desires and depressions, Montrealers instinctively know of what he speaks. "Beware of what comes out of Montreal, especially during winter," he wrote in Death of a Ladies' Man (1978). "It is a force corrosive to all human institutions. It will bring everything down. It will defeat itself. It will establish the wilderness in which the Brightness will manifest again."
His "neurotic affiliations" with the city surfaced earlier this year, in a poem called The Best:
I died when I left Montreal
I met women I didn't understand
I pretended to be interested in food
But it was all the Fear of Snow.
And when he sings (in Suzanne) "And you want to travel with him / You want to travel blind / And you think maybe you'll trust him / For he's touched your perfect body / With his mind" we take it personal.
Yet Cohen is an acquired taste. His voice is a mournful monotone, his songs dirge-like. "Only an extremely inattentive listener would willingly follow Suzanne to her place by the river after hearing Cohen's song," sniped The Rolling Stone History of Rock and Roll. While Europeans, with poetry in the blood, embrace him as a hero (and bona-fide pop star), Americans have marginalized him: "songs to slit your wrists by." He's been dubbed "Beautiful Creep" and "the Dr. Kevorkian of song," "the poet of pessimism" and "bard of bedsits," "the prince of bummers," and "the poet laureate of commitophobes."
He once read an ad in National Lampoon titled Leonard Cohen: The Prophet of Despair. "I laughed my head off," he told me years ago, "because I thought it was the Lampoon spoofing me. Then I saw the same ad in Rolling Stone, and I wasn't laughing any more." He told a British reporter of confusing "seriousness with gloominess," that "we can be destroyed just as easily by mindless frivolity as we can by obsessive depression."
His biographer, Ira Nadel, characterized Cohen's conundrum as "Tibetan desire," a phrase that appears in his 1966 novel Beautiful Losers. It represents "the unholy union between renunciation and longing and the difficulty in divorcing one from the other." Lust, love, betrayal, loss, cruelty, war, God and prayer. Between the sacred and the profane, Leonard Cohen's examined every inch of it.
As literary critic Leon Wieseltier noted in the New Yorker: "There is no denying that Cohen's stylish, self-regarding abjection is present in almost everything he writes and sings. His records are not distinguished by a vastness of feeling. But the feelings he studies, he masters. Cohen does not digress, but he plumbs."
Quebec rock'n'roll icon Michel Pagliaro, on the other hand, said Cohen is "able to turn all these so-called serious things he dwells on into something that becomes a lot of fun. É I think it's something a lot of people don't realize about his work." Perhaps only a Montrealer, faced with six months of winter, can say that. But audiences around the word now smile when Cohen sings in Tower of Song:
I was born like this, I had no choice
I was born with the gift of a golden voice.
- - -
Cohen's voice has informed and transcended the zeitgeist of five decades of change.
In 1949, the adolescent from upper- middle-class Westmount stumbled upon a used volume of poems by Federico Garcia Lorca, the avant-garde romantic poet-dramatist who was shot by Franco's firing squad in the Spanish civil war. In 1986, Cohen adapted his hero's work in Take This Waltz ("With its very own breath / Or brandy and death / Dragging its tail in the sea"), commissioned by the Spanish government to mark the 50th anniversary of Lorca's death. Twelve years earlier, Cohen had named his daughter Lorca. (He also has a son, Adam.)
During the 1950s, he was the youthful spirit behind the tweedy, slightly boho literary set from McGill led by mentors Irving Layton, Louis Dudek and A.M. Klein; he performed poetry readings with a combo at Dunn's Progressive Jazz Parlour, above the famous smoked-meat joint on Ste. Catherine St. Already ahead of the curve during the heady swirl of sex and politics in the 1960s, he decided to pursue a singing career during the intermission of Bob Dylan's fabled 1966 Place des Arts concert with The Band. He sang Suzanne over the phone to Judy Collins, who quickly recorded it, and migrated to Manhattan's motley artists' garrison, the Chelsea Hotel.
When I was a teenager, having devoured Spice Box of Earth (1961), the "scandalous" Flowers for Hitler (1963) and the scatological-spiritual Beautiful Losers (1966), Cohen was the man. I would spy him in his famous blue raincoat striding downtown ("I am a Citizen of Mountain Street"), and admire his lope, his uprightness (and his nose), his eyes in the sky. Or spot him holding court at the zinc bar of Le Bistro Chez Lou Lou les Bacchantes - a favoured spot for everyone from Pierre Trudeau to Genevieve Bujold to Nick Auf der Maur - where he scrawled a famous poem, "MARITA / PLEASE FIND ME / I AM ALMOST 30" to a woman who rebuffed his come-on with "Come back when you're 30."
The 1965 National Film Board documentary Ladies and Gentleman Mr. Leonard Cohen was required viewing, showing him rising from bed in a seedy Ste. Catherine St. hotel, gazing at the lurid posters of sex cinemas on the Main.
It was hard not to be seduced by Cohen's crooked smile, his graceful come-on, and there were some in this town who resented him for it all coming so easily (as they did his comfortable upbringing). By most accounts, a woman's time with Cohen is well-spent, gratifying in more ways than one. From the word go, he likes to know everything about you. "He felt that women had a power and a beauty that most did not even know they possessed," a longtime female friend said.
"Mostly what I was trying to do was get a date," Cohen said of his early poems. Let Us Compare Mythologies, indeed (wanna come up and see my etchings?). So he grandiloquently announced that he wanted to apply and isolate myth in "contemporary experience, thus making new myths and modifying old ones É so they can be identified with every true fable ever sung." One 18-year-old, after a spell in Cohen's motel room, said, "He acts taller than he really is. I've heard other women say the same thing." He became his own myth, and fast.
Nearly 40 years ago he tagged his potential audience as "inner-directed adolescents, lovers in all degrees of anguish, disappointed Platonists, pornography-peepers, hair-handed monks and Popists, French-Canadian intellectuals, unpublished writers, curious musicians.''
I was among them, and met him par hazard in 1967, tremulously handing him a slim volume of "poetry" I printed up (and just happened to have handy in case of chicks). A few short years later I was a newspaper critic, and he hit Place des Arts as a singer with a cult following, fans hanging on every precious word.This was the insufferable era of navel-gazing singer-songwriters. He droned on and on, frozen by the spotlight, backed by a country band's somnolent slip-slidin' twangings. I wrote that I had a vision of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans galloping down the aisles to liven things up. The next day, an upset Cohen demanded a showdown at a Crescent St. bar.
"That review was alley talk," he fumed. "I've got a bunch of big guys in my band who would love nothing more than to take you into an alley." (The band was dubbed the Army.) Three years later, he asked on the stage of Theatre St. Denis, "What do you have to do to get a good review in this town?" (He later told me that his mother worried he was doing something wrong.)
By the late 1970s, Cohen found himself in the wilderness of a world bent on boogying.
An unlikely turning point was the tumultuous recording of Death of a Ladies' Man (1977), produced by the legendary eccentric Phil Spector, who built the "wall of sound" around the Ronettes (Be My Baby) and the Righteous Brothers (You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling). Cohen was suffering from a dying mother and a dissolving relationship with the mother of his children. Spector suffered delusions of pop intellectual grandeur. Both drank heavily. But Spector had the guns and the keys to the locked studio. One night he staggered over to the poet, a bottle of Manischewitz in one hand, a .45 in the other, put his arm around Cohen's neck, and cocked the trigger.
"Leonard, I love you, man," said the megalomaniac who wrote He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss). "Well, I sure hope you do, Phil," said the ladies' man, fearing death.
With the poet's voice practically buried under an avalanche of Spector sound, the album was universally panned. Cohen himself tried to disown it.
"People really don't know how great or how bad this album is," he told me. Still, it spurred a more musical approach in Cohen and the need to control it, eventually yielding the lovely Various Positions (which complemented his 1984 Book of Mercy, 50 prose-poems based on psalms). While he still commanded a large following in Europe, Cohen's stock was so low in the U.S. that Columbia passed on the album. He fought depression with everything from Prozac to speed.
Never mind that Lech Walesa asked him to play for the Solidarity movement in Poland, where Cohen was a hero: his American profile in 1986 was limited to a cameo as the head of Interpol on Miami Vice.
A year later, however, his longtime backup singer, Jennifer Warnes, issued a collection of his songs, Famous Blue Raincoat, a bittersweet clarion call that eventually sold 1.5 million copies. Warnes said that working with Cohen was learning that "life was art and God was music." That year, Chatelaine named him one of "the 10 Sexiest Men in Canada." Things were looking up.
Then came I'm Your Man, eight magnificent songs totaling 41 minutes, one of the most perfect albums ever made, the result of endless rewriting and rerecording. He announced his dogged intentions in the opening song, breaking out in a horror-movie cackle while uttering, "I thank you for those items that you sent me / The monkey and the plywood violin / I practiced every night and now I'm ready / First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin." (The last line became a hip greeting phrase in Europe.) And a new classic, Ain't No Cure for Love: "All the rocket ships are climbing through the sky / The holy books are open wide / The doctors working day and night / But they'll never ever find that cure for love."
The synthesizer-based sound was stunning, sleek and sophisticated. Cohen's voice, an octave lower than when he started out, was commanding. He "played" the microphone, an innovation of early Sinatra, all deep tone and heavy whisper, working the same trick as the seductive soul mumbler Barry White. Dressed in dark double-breasted suit and matching T-shirt, clutching the mike in one hand while gingerly holding its cord with the other, he was the quintessential pro. No longer a helpless mystic, but a torchlight singer, a smoothie. (Backstage after his 1988 Theatre St. Denis show, he closeted himself with that other smoothie, Pierre Trudeau. Recalled Cohen: "He more or less asked, 'What do you have to do to get a good review in this town?' ")
Some older fans were alarmed - "People are always inviting me to return to a former purity I was never able to claim," he said - but he consolidated with a corrosive "catchy little dance number" The Future ("It is murder"). He whittled 80 verses to six for Democracy - coming to the U.S.A. "From the wars against disorder / From the sirens night and day / From the fires of the homeless / From the ashes of the gay." It was performed at Bill Clinton's inauguration ball. Songs from the album insistently infiltrated Oliver Stone's violent film Natural Born Killers ("There is a crack in everything / That's how the light gets in").
Cohen was cool again, honoured by a new generation in the tribute albums I'm Your Fan and Tower of Song. As of last month, there were 532 cover versions of his songs, from such unlikely places as South Korea, Croatia and the Czech Republic. Suzanne tops the list with 89, followed by 51 versions of Bird on the Wire (with its self-defining refrain "Like a drunk in a midnight choir"). He released the magnificently meditative 13-song, 72-minute concert album Cohen Live (1994), the best introduction to his work. And he regularly contributed to The Leonard Cohen Files, a 600-page Web site.
Words on a page speak to us in silence, and songs can only be heard fleetingly. But in Stranger Music, his talisman-like 1993 anthology of poetry, prose and song, his lyrics stand erect in stark black and white. Of course, now you can't read them without hearing Cohen's breathy baritone behind them.
Stranger Music is "a kind of spice box," wrote Leon Wieseltier. "In Jewish law É the spice box is blessed and then inhaled after sundown on Saturday evening, in the ceremony that marks the boundary between the Sabbath and the week, between the sacred and the profane. The spice, you might say, is the tradition's opium, except that it is designed to produce the opposite of a hallucination. And the effect of Cohen's verses is rather similar. They inebriate with the aim of temperance. They are a fragrant accompaniment of the slide from the holy to the unholy, perfumed exercises in the art of sinking."
Graceful, articulate, self-deprecating, Cohen seems comfortable confronting old age. He told me 20 years ago, "A lot of people enjoy success in their youth, but when someone is still doing it past the age of 40, I think the work becomes more interesting."
Getting old, he told the Times of India this year, is "an unpredictable process full of pleasant and unpleasant surprises. Either way, those gray cells of anxiety diminish. Yes, it's true that I had a suicidal streak in me once. I would go through deep bouts of depression. But all that seems so far away now."
The writing process, Cohen once said, is "something like farming in the sand, something like scraping the bottom of the barrel." He's interested in simplicity. "It doesn't mean it's not complex, but it's not complicated. You want to hear how somebody loves somebody else, whether it's 'I found my thrill on Blueberry Hill' or 'There ain't no cure for love.' "
A few years back he said there was something about old men going to their workshop that always got to him. "I'd like to be one of those old guys going to work."
See, at 65, Cohen isn't the retiring type. Happy birthday, Leonard.
© 1999 The Montreal Gazette and Juan Rodriguez.