He was the voice in every lonely boy’s bedroom. The Godfather of Gloom. But after years on Mount Baldy,
a Buddhist retreat, Leonard Cohen has finally found peace. Here he talks about
drink, drugs and women, and why nirvana is now a mean tuna sandwich (from "http://www.guardian.co.uk/theobserver/2001/oct/14/features.magazine37")
Leonard Cohen is the high priest of pathos. His voice
exudes misery. A suicidal Kurt Cobain, when describing the most melancholic
place imaginable, in his dirge ‘Penny Royal Tea’, sang of a ‘Leonard Cohen
afterworld’ where he could ‘sigh eternally’. Cohen is used to this reputation.
Even the 67-year-old singer says his record company should give razor blades
away with his records.
But two years ago, for no apparent reason, the veil of
depression lifted. For the first time in his life, Cohen sighed, looked out on
the world and felt at peace with it.
‘There was just a certain
sweetness to daily life that began asserting itself. I remember sitting in the
corner of my kitchen, which has a window overlooking the street. I saw the
sunlight that shines on the chrome fenders of the cars, and thought, "Gee,
‘I said to myself, "Wow,
this must be like everybody feels." Life became not easier but simpler.
The backdrop of self-analysis I had lived with disappeared. It’s like that
joke: "When you’re hitting your head against a brick wall, it feels good
when it stops".’
It was a remarkably late epiphany. Cohen had spent the
past 50 years ploughing his way through drugs, drink, countless women and
several religions in an attempt to find release from this ‘backdrop’ of self-doubt.
But the cure was more simple – he learned to ignore
‘When you stop thinking about yourself all the time, a
certain sense of repose overtakes you. It happened to me by imperceptible
degrees and I could not really believe it; I could not really claim it for some
time. I thought there must be something wrong. It’s like taking a drink of cold
water when you are thirsty. Every tastebud on your tongue, every molecule in
your body says thank you.’
Cohen’s enlightenment did not come overnight. Since early
adolescence, a sadness he can only attribute to an unexplained ‘biological
reason’ has afflicted him. Over a recording career spanning 33 years, he tried
all drugs – emotional, illegal and medicinal. Prozac made him feel ‘spiritually
superior’, but proved incompatible with his lifestyle: it killed his libido.
Instead, when Cohen finished touring his last album, 1992’s the Future, he decided to devote his time to his favourite drug
– the Buddhist faith.
For nearly three decades, Cohen had been following the
ways of the Za-Zen Buddhists. His teacher, a Za-Zen master called Old Roshi,
lives and runs a Buddhist retreat on Mount
Baldy, a mountain near
Cohen’s LA home. Cohen explains that Roshi is 25 years his senior: ‘I thought
I’d take that opportunity to hang with him while he’s still around,’ he says.
He has another sip of coffee, lights another Marlboro
Light, and wriggles his toes inside his pair of comfortable brown slippers.
Despite the gruelling years, Cohen is immensely relaxed, a light grin stretching
across his tanned face. His arms are thin, his frame fragile, but he radiates
Californian healthiness, like no 67-year-old should. He seems content, both
with his new record, Ten New Songs, and – judging by the slippers and the silk
tie clipped delicately behind his tailored pinstripe suit – his daily luxuries.
What attraction could such a sparse lifestyle have to a man who accompanies
most new sentences with a freshly lit cigarette?
‘I was interested in surrendering to that kind of routine.
If you surrender to the schedule, and get used to its demands, it is a great
luxury not to have to think about what you are doing next.’
Cohen’s passion for routine is evident as he describes
with relish and in detail the sparse, rigorous regime of the monk: the early
rise, the chanting before dawn and the hours spent motionless in the meditation
hall. In winter, when meditation can last for days, monks roam around on the
look-out for those who have succumbed to asleep. The remainder of the time is
given to keeping the retreat tidy – to ‘maintenance, painting, repairing pipes
and making candles’. Among Cohen’s duties at the retreat was cooking for his
master. For his part, Roshi had the job of naming his followers.
‘He named me "Jikan" after one of his teachers
that he liked very much. I was thankful for that but I never quite figured out
what it meant. He doesn’t speak English very well, Old Roshi. He’d say it meant
"normal silence; ordinary silence".’
‘Much of the time, Roshi and I were two buddies drinking.
He likes sake, I tried to convert him to French wine, but he was very
resistant. But we both agree about Cognac
While Roshi maintained much of the discipline of a
Japanese Zen monastery, some elements of the retreat, including the booze
marathons, were tailored to the varied life of LA. Women were allowed. Cohen
was permitted to wake up half an hour before everyone else, at 2.30am, to brew
coffee and have a few cigarettes.
‘I always consider myself an extremely bad monk – a sloppy
monk, compared to some of the very admirable people up there. Real monks. I have been associated with that community for
more than 30 years. It’s an existence where the emphasis is on the ordinary.
But it’s the least-easy place to lose track of time in. During the day, you hear
bells and they tell you to go somewhere – that’s the nature of those places.
They are kind of hospitals for the broken-hearted and for people who have
forgotten how to walk and talk. It wasn’t just touring that left me feeling
this way. I often do.’
Yet the routine, laden with drink as it was, began to gnaw
away at some of the self-obsession and analysis that had dogged his past 50
years in the spotlight.
‘In one of these dreary Zen meditation halls,’ he
explains, ‘it is a Zen practice to invite you to sit motionless for long hours,
with an officer patrolling the meditation hall to strike you with a stick
several times on each shoulder if you nod off. If you sit there long enough,
you run through all the alternative ways the events in your life could have turned
out. After a while, the activity of thinking, that interior chatter, begins to
subside from time to time. And what rushes in, in the same way that light
rushes into a room when you switch on the light, is another kind of mood that
‘Also, I read somewhere that as you get older the brain
cells associated with anxiety begin to die. So, I
might have saved myself the rigours of monastic life if I had just waited until
Cohen is a master of polite evasion. He will parry a
difficult question with a quip amusing enough to make you forget what you
asked. He is most touchy and evasive when it comes to women. And, for the first
time in years, a man who built a reputation and image out of womanising is
single. Is there a correlation between his singledom and happiness?
‘To be accurate, I would not want to be as deliberate as
that. But I never discuss my mistresses or my tailors,’ he says. Despite the
overwhelming evidence of his past, Cohen insists on talking only about his
platonic relationships with women – with his producer, Sharon Robertson, and
engineer, Leanne Ungar. And then, his eyebrows raised
in the hope I will share his astonishment, he declares how history has
misjudged his image as a cad.
‘I’m not involved with anybody. I read with some amusement
my reputation as a ladies’ man. My friends are amused by that, too, because
they know my life. Even when I was younger I was never aware of it, to tell the
truth, so I could not take advantage of it. But for someone who has that sort
of reputation and has spent so many nights alone, it has a special bitter
amusement attached to it.
‘You know,’ he adds, ‘that
reputation has not served me well. There are women whom I have wanted to meet
who have declined any interest in my company simply because of my reputation,
simply because they did not want to be a name on a list.’
Today, Cohen, who once roomed with Allen Ginsberg, Bob
Dylan and Joan Baez, and romanced Rebecca de Mornay and the Velvet Underground
vamp Nico (at separate times), maintains the dull regime of an eccentric LA
pensioner. Each morning he gets up and puts on a suit, even if he’s doing the
laundry that day. Then he makes coffee for Lorca (his second child by Suzanne),
who lives in the flat below his. When he was recording the record at home, his
producer and engineer would arrive at midday. They would work, then he would make what they refer to as ‘the meanest tuna
salad sandwich in North America’. Dull.
But his slippers aside, there is little in the appearance
of Cohen to suggest his fire has gone out. His eyes remain mischievous.
Instead, he insists, life is eventless through choice. With relish, he
confesses: ‘I don’t get out much’. It is little surprise that after half a
century of depression, drugs and danger ous women, the domesticity of tuna
salad sandwiches appeals.
Leonard Cohen was born to affluent middle-class Jewish
parents in 1934 in Montreal,
and considers his childhood ‘very decent’, with ‘none of the trauma that I hear
associated with other people’s childhoods’. His father died when he was nine,
leaving Cohen a considerable inheritance. Weeks after burying him, the young
Leonard took one of his father’s bow ties and a scrap of paper with a few lines
of verse on it. He wrapped the paper in the tie and buried it in the garden.
‘It was just a singular gesture,’ he recalls dismissively,
when I mention how his biographers have suggested this was the first act of the
‘artist within’. ‘I don’t know why I did that.’
At 15, he started playing the guitar, collecting folk songs
and writing them. At 17, he moved to Montreal’s McGill University,
where he excelled in English, and two years later he formed his first band, the
Buckskin Boys. This was Cohen and two friends wearing their father’s buckskin
jackets and fake ponytails, playing square dances at church halls. ‘I guess [my
attraction to music] comes from not being able to do anything else very well. I
found I had some gift for it and, with these little songs I wrote, I could
impress myself and others – including girls. That’s the hormonal rage that
cannot be ignored.’
Cohen was held in check at first by the quiet Jewish
enclave around him. But after graduating from McGill in 1956, and publishing a
book of poems dedicated to his late father, he found a place on a postgraduate
course at Columbia University, in the thriving heart of New York’s Manhattan.
Within months, his ‘rage’ had established itself in the city, Cohen spinning in
and out of three different romances – with a fellow student, a care worker at a
nearby children’s summer camp, and the same camp’s nurse.
He was also becoming a prolific poet. But soon Cohen
sought a retreat from city life, and moved to the Aegean island Hydra – the
first Mount Baldy of his life. He used part of his
inheritance to buy a house among a small community of Western writers. He wooed
Marianne, the girlfriend of Norwegian novelist Axel Jensen, and with her on his
arm, Hydra became a haven where he cherished the detachment of an expatriate.
‘Two years ago, I went there for the first time in decades,’
he recalls. ‘I was able to finish a great number of these songs that I had
begun up Mount Baldy. It really is a tranquil place.
When I went, there was an English lord who spoke fluent Greek. He said: "I
have one word of advice for you. Don’t learn Greek." I think he meant
preserve your tourist status and it will remain a tranquil place.’ But Cohen
was never much good at holding himself back. He came back to LA knowing basic
In October 1966 Cohen threw himself again at New York, with his Hydra
lover still in tow. It was the time of Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde and The
Beatles’ Help! Liz Taylor won an Oscar for her role in Who’s
Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and the number of US troops
doubled to 380,000. The 60s were passing the point of no return, and Cohen
found himself at its cultural epicentre, amid the debauchery and
experimentation of the notorious Chelsea
Hotel in New York.
‘It was dangerous to accept a potato chip at a cocktail
party then,’ he grins. ‘I speak literally. It could be sprinkled with acid. I
went to somebody’s room who was having a cocktail
party, had a few chips, and four days later was still trying to find my room.’
He found himself part of one of the most creative,
eclectic hotel corridors imaginable. The poet Allen Ginsberg – whom he
describes as ‘the sweetest man’ – dropped in, as did Beat
writer Jack Kerouac. Warhol hung around. But the sense of momentum and
historical import of what was happening around him was not apparent. People
were just doing their thing. ‘I knew that the singers I liked were very good.
Dylan, Baez, Collins, Mitchell – I knew them all and thought they were good at
an extremely high level. What their fate would be in the world didn’t even
enter my mind.’
Cohen’s own future took off one night in 1967 when he
supported Judy Collins, the 60s folk singer, at an anti-Vietnam war concert at New York Town Hall. When he took the stage, his
guitar was out of tune, his voice froze to a whimper and he ran to the wings
with stage fright. He was terrified. But both Collins and the chanting crowd
persuaded him to take the microphone again. As soon as he did, they loved him.
He was signed to Columbia
records by a maverick talent scout, John Hammond, the A&R man who had taken
similar ‘risks’ on unknowns Billie Holiday and Bob Dylan. Cohen’s debut album,
68s Songs of Leonard Cohen, was soon on the shelves. It left few doubts as to
Cohen’s main inspiration – women – containing, perhaps a little uncharitably, a
song about his long-suffering love from Hydra, ‘So Long Marianne’, but
beginning with an ode to a newer flame, Suzanne.
The 32-year-old Cohen liked variety. He befriended Lou
Reed, who introduced him to the decade’s most enigmatic blonde, Nico. And his
frustrated attempts to snare her would also prove inspiration for a song called
‘Take This Longing’. ‘She was great,’ he recalls. ‘The first time I saw her she
was singing in a little club in the East
Village, called the Dom.
It had been decorated by Warhol with aluminium foil all over the walls. She had
this beautiful deep monotone and I just drew closer and closer to her. And,
erm, she was not remotely interested in me. But we became great friends over
the years, although there were many more attractive men that she had her eye
on. I remember going to one of Jim Morrison’s first concerts in America.
It was very early on in their career, and I went with her. She asked me to
leave without her because she wanted to stay behind. But I was a tough old bird
by then. I was used to it.’
As the novelty of New
York wore off, Cohen’s career fell into a comfortable
pattern of record releases and tours. The year after, Suzanne gave birth to
their son, Adam, Cohen sought to broaden his horizons
and briefly flew to Tel Aviv to lend his hand in the Yom Kippur war between Israel and Egypt. His plan – a stint in the
Israeli army – soon fell by the wayside, and he was seconded to entertain the
troops instead. He eventually fled to Ethiopia.
The bad times continued, Cohen returning to Zen Buddhism
and serious periods of fasting. At 41, his career as a youthful folk icon was
drawing to an end. He had begun as an independently wealthy young Jew, who
moved to the Big Apple and wrote poems. By this stage in his career he was worn
out emotionally and creatively. Evidently his depression was not the passing
fad of an aesthete born into privilege, but rooted in something more
fundamental that had been apparent since his father’s death.
Over the next 12 years, Cohen tried to keep his mind on
Buddhism and away from drink and drugs. By 1977, he hit a low. It was then that
a vulnerable Cohen unwisely attempted his first co-written record, called Death
of a Ladies’ Man in keeping with his Lothario image. Even more unwisely, he
chose to team up with legendary but eccentric – and, in these sessions, armed –
‘The time we worked together, one to one, was very
pleasant,’ he begins, diplomatically. ‘Except for the
climate. He insisted on having the air conditioning set to 40 F all day.
I have no idea why he did that. He must have been suffering as much as I was.’
‘He is a very hospitable man,’ Cohen continues. ‘It was
when other people were around in the recording studio that he seemed to move
into his Mr Hyde period. One day he had a bottle of wine in one hand and a 35mm
pistol in the other. He put his arm around my shoulder, pressed the muzzle into
my neck and said, "Leonard, I love you." At which point I said:
"I hope you really do, Phil."’
Eventually, Spector’s entourage began to take over the
sessions, and without a private army of his own to impose his way, Cohen lost
control and interest. ‘I was in one of those moments where I really couldn’t
order my personal life either. It was a time of great chaos and distress. Had I
been in better shape myself I probably could have navigated the session a
little better. Although Phil’s an expert in karate, I might have taken him…’
It took eight years for Cohen to find his form again. In
1985 came Various Positions, with one of his most rapturously bleak songs,
‘Hallelujah’. Za-Zen was beginning to steer him away from his addictions and
help him reignite an ailing sense of humour. Three years later came ‘I’m Your
Man’. Its dry wit and nagging hooks proved the perfect antidote to the decade’s
extravagance, as did Cohen’s persona. At the time, the record industry was
awash with scandals about radio stations taking bribes to play singles. When
Cohen released the single ‘Ain’t No Cure For Love’, he
posted two dollars to his record company promoters, in the hope it would help.
There was a playful humour throughout ‘I’m Your Man’,
which helped secure the record’s rise up the charts. It became something of a
trademark for him in the 80s. The acerbic wit was still there, but with fewer
tunes, on 1992’s big-selling The Future . But why the absence of jokes on this new record?
‘There’s a couple of jokes,’ he insists. ‘There’s the lyric: "I don’t trust inner
feelings. Inner feelings come and go".’ He grins peevishly.
Yet in the new album, Ten New Songs, Cohen seems to have
reinvented himself. Gone is the anxiety of the last 50
years, and the one-liners of the past decade. In its place is
contentment and a much more considered set of worries.
On the album’s opener, ‘My Secret Life’, Cohen sounds as
if he has found a life of ease and fufilment. The song does not make it clear
whether this ‘life’ was up Mount
Baldy, or is at home with
his daughter in LA, or even a mix of the two. But Cohen purrs over a very civilised backing track. It is almost upbeat.
‘There’s a sense of relaxation in the tunes that comes
through, there’s a kind of pulse, an invitation to get into it – a groove. A
lot of people have danced to it,’ he insists, before correcting himself. ‘Erm, well, actually, one person. And she was erm, an
executive of Sony in France,
and she’s a trained dancer.’
But the bugbears remain, perhaps not as all-consuming as
before. There’s a withering look at America
today, as in the closing ‘Land
of Plenty’, where he
hopes the downtown streetlights will ‘shine on the truth some day’. And on
occasion, Cohen sounds a little aged, a little fragile, as in the sobering
lyric ‘the night is getting colder’. Is he at last feeling mortal?
‘I don’t think much about [death], but in a certain stage
in your life it becomes very clear that your time is not unlimited. Tennessee
Williams said: "Life is a fairly well-written play, except for the third
act." I’m maybe at the third act, where you have the benefit of the
experience of the first two acts. But how it ends is nobody’s business and is
generally accompanied by some disagreeable circumstances.’
Perhaps Cohen, more at ease and relaxed with a world that
used to puzzle and frustrate him to distraction, has decided to enjoy his days
all the more now he realises they may not be endless. He shakes his head, as if
unable to believe the reformed, cheery Cohen could write about mortality.
‘Did I really do that? On this last one? That must have
slipped by my optimism filter.’