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From the archives: Leonard Cohen, our post-9/11 poet

In this story weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, Brian D. Johnson posits Leonard Cohen as our Poet of the Apocalypse


 

We are remembering Leonard Cohen—a Canadian artist, poet and visionary we have written about many times in the pages of our century-old magazine—with stories from the Maclean’s Archives. Here, Brian D. Johnson finds Cohen reflective and unburdened at last of his depression—just as Sept. 11 changed everything.

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It was the August heat wave, that mirage of endless summer. We talked in the stillness of his un-air-conditioned house in Montreal, as he smoked cigarettes and I drank his strong coffee. After five years in a Zen monastery on California’s Mount Baldy, Leonard Cohen was down from the mountain—“back on Boogie Street,” to quote his new album. His clinical depression had mysteriously lifted. And in the immobilizing heat of the afternoon, he was buoyant, almost jaunty, as if still discovering the novelty of happiness.

Now it seems like eons ago, the last innocent August when Canadians could choose to worry about global warming, or bask in it, unaware that before the end of the summer they would be worrying about the end of the world. In the wake of Sept. 11,1 e-mailed Cohen to ask where he was when he’d heard the news, and to suggest the need for a fresh interview. His reply floated back from cyberspace in the form of an efficient little stanza: writing this from bombay connections uncertain will be back in LA end of week we should talk

And we did, in a series of phone conversations from his house in Los Angeles— which Cohen calls home most of the time, although he still maintains the house in Montreal. Our first call coincided with his 67th birthday, on Sept. 21. Cohen had just come back from visiting friends in India, which is where he found himself on the morning the sky fell in Manhattan. “That afternoon,” he says, “I went back to my little hotel in Bombay, and the clerk behind the counter, an Indian man, said, ‘I’m sorry, the Empire State Building has been knocked over.’ ” Cohen went up to his room and, like the rest of us, turned on the television. “It was a shock, but not a surprise,” he says. “I’ve been living in an exploded landscape for a long time. I have a place to situate all of this. Because I’ve felt that things were going to blow up—it wasn’t as specific as the twin towers—but I’ve felt for some time there was going to be a shaking of the situation.”

Leonard Cohen may be best known as a poet of romantic disaster, a troubadour who makes “music to slit your wrists by,” as one critic famously jibed—or, to a legion of female admirers, simply the sexiest monk alive. But although he is too modest, or shrewd, to admit it, he could also be considered a prophet of the new world disorder: Our Poet of the Apocalypse.

Cohen’s incendiary anthems of the late ’80s and early ’90s, from First We Take Manhattan to The Future, went much farther afield than his own exquisitely tortured soul. And to listen to them now is a revelation: they illuminate the current geopolitical landscape with chilling prescience. I’ll get to the new album later— Ten New Songs is a deeply interior meditation on love and death, a balm for the soul that now feels more essential than ever. But first let’s go back to The Future—and the title song, which has acquired an eerie relevance nine years after its release.

It’s a dire manifesto, a fm-de-siècle Sympathy for the Devil, in which Cohen assumes the voice of a sinister oracle: “I’ve seen the future, brother:/it is murder/ Things are going to slide in all directions/Won’t be nothing/Nothing you can measure any more/The blizzard of the world/has crossed the threshold/and it has overturned/the order of the soul.” Cohen goes on to imagine the conflagration of a culture based on privacy and individual freedom: “There’ll be the breaking/of the ancient western code/Your private life will suddenly explode/There’ll be phantoms/ there’ll be fires on the road.”

Going further back, to 1988, we find Cohen sounding the psyche of extremism with images that could serve as a profile of a suicide bomber: “I’m guided by a signal in the heavens. I’m guided by the birthmark on my skin. I’m guided by the beauty of our weapons. First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin.”

There’s no great satisfaction in being a successful prophet of doom, and Cohen feels awkward discussing it. “You can’t rub people’s faces in it,” he says. And this Zen monk—known as Jikan, the Silent One— believes “we’re not running the show,” so doesn’t take any credit for originality. “You don’t originate your own thoughts. As Einstein had the humility to say about his equation, these things come from outside. You respond to stimuli, things arise, and a second or two later you claim them.” Cohen’s sense of the inevitable, however, doesn’t mean he feels America deserved its tragedy, or that we should talk about it in terms of hubris. In fact, he’s reluctant to talk about it at all, but when he does he’s surprisingly unequivocal.

I don’t feel comfortable putting America down or putting George Bush down,” he says. “I hear people in Canada saying George Bush is stupid. First of all, I very seriously doubt whether it’s true. And this is not a time to depend on the clichés of the irresponsible—those who are not going to be called on to make any sacrifice. So yes, I think we should get behind America. Or give up Coca-Cola and Nike shoes and gasoline. It’s easy to embrace the idea that Ozymandias—the Great—must fall. But we live in the Great and we benefit from the Great, and we drive our cars and wear our clothes and cherish our freedoms of movement and speech. An attack has been made on these institutions.

“In different circumstances,” he continues, “it’s OK for Canadians to take a slightly superior attitude to America. But we all exist—even the capacity to criticize—all this exists under the umbrella of America’s willingness to defend both itself and its critics. So I don’t think it’s the appropriate moment to bring out our chronic anti-Americanism and parade it as some kind of insulation against events that could very easily have been directed against us ourselves—and still might be. More than 5,000 people have been wiped out. It’s not that we haven’t done worse. That’s not the point. You can say we deserve what we get because we live fat and they starve to death. But this is not the moment. Private discussion, yes. But there’s a clear enemy and public discussion weakens us in their eyes. I think it says in the Bible: ‘Do not stand idly by your brother’s blood.’ ”

It’s jarring to hear Cohen speak so categorically. This is a man you imagine to be beyond the fray of global politics. I asked if the cataclysm made him want to go back up the mountain. “I’ve always tried to operate on the front line of my own life,” he said. “And as I’ve been at pains to explain, going up to Mount Baldy is not a retreat.” Life in the monastery was an engagement. Coming back down was the retreat.

I’m wanted at the traffic-jam.

They’re saving me a seat.

I’m what I am, and what I am,

Is back on Boogie Street.

Distilled from those years of ruthless meditation, Cohen’s new album is the most intimate of his career. Spare, hypnotic and wise, it plays as a psalm of reconciliation. It’s an aftermath album, finding beauty in the ruins of a life. And after Sept. 11, Cohen was in no mood to promote it. But his Montreal friend Nancy Southam, a theology student, encouraged him, in the belief that the album’s timing is providential. “In a wounded world,” she says, “these songs have to get out. They provide a spiritual consolation.”

LOVE IN THE RUINS Raise a tent of shelter now/though every thread is torn/Dance me to the end of love/Dance me to your beauty/with a burning violin/Dance me through the panic/till I’m safely gathered in. -Various Positions, 1984

The album’s tone is one of luxurious solitude. Like a Zen koan, In My Secret Life goes behind the lines of a heart that’s “crowded and cold,” and tries to warm the soul. By the Rivers Dark plays as a slow drip of narcotic confession from the depths of Babylon. And the album’s masterpiece is an ancient-mariner elegy on unrealized love called A Thousand Kisses Deep—a phrase that describes the seacave timbre of Cohen’s voice throughout the record. Sinking through uncharted octaves, like a free-diver setting a new record, he finds a register that is low, even for him, a sepulchral rapture of the deep. Ten New Songs may not be his swan song, but, like Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind, it would do the job nicely, as a coda for a brilliant career. It reminds us that no one sounds remotely like Leonard Cohen. For 40 years, he’s steered his own course, as a nomadic sentry in a no man’s land between the sacred and the profane, a scorched domain of Greek islands, vintage hotel rooms and monastery bells. Fie has published two novels, eight volumes of poetry and recorded 13 albums. His first novel, The Favourite Game, is now being filmed in Montreal 38 years after its publication. Still cool after all these years, Cohen is the enduring bohemian. And he’s achieved the ideal niche of celebrity, the kind that doesn’t get in the way—and lets him wait nine years between albums.

Cohen is Canada’s most famous poet. Fle’s also our answer to Dylan, a prophetic troubadour with an unlikely voice and a self-made persona. Their styles are as different as sand and glass, but both launched their careers on the tide of Sixties folk music. Now they’re pioneering the curious new genre of “elder pop”— like Dylan, Cohen has found fresh authority as a sage staring down the white tunnel of love and death. When Pierre Trudeau was in the last weeks of his life, the former prime minister found solace in listening to some advance tracks from Ten New Songs. Cohen, a friend of Trudeau, was an honorary pallbearer at his funeral. And like Trudeau, he is one of those iconic Canadians who came out of a time when anything seemed possible.

May everyone live,

And may everyone die.

Hello, my love,

And my love, Goodbye.

I was on vacation at a Laurentian lake when I got the call to interview Cohen in Montreal. I picked up a quart of raspberries at a farmer’s stall on the highway, because ... well, because some kind of offering felt appropriate. Cohen has always prized gentle acts of supplication, like Suzannes tea and oranges that come all the way from China. And whenever a journalist shows up on his doorstep, Leonard is offering something. Plying our photographer with chopped liver on toast at his house in Los Angeles. Offering a shower to a writer from Saturday Night.

His Montreal home is a century-old, three-story row house on a parkette off Blvd. St-Laurent, not far from where the late Mordecai Richler grew up. He bought it for just $7,000 in 1972, and eventually bought the house next door, where he created a small Zen centre. Inside, Cohen’s home is plain and unrenovated. Bare white walls, a scattering of oriental rugs. I find him in a tiny courtyard at the back, posing for pictures. In the sweltering heat, he looks unnaturally cool: pinstriped pants, black shirt and matching suede slippers.

Urging coffee on me, Cohen steps into the small kitchen and heaps a Melitta filter to the brim with espresso. Perched on the stove is a little figurine of Catherine Tekakwitha, the 17th-century Mohawk saint from his novel Beautiful Losers. When I mention it, Leonard ushers me into an adjoining bathroom, which is bigger than the kitchen, and shows me an old portrait of her above the sink. It’s a bathroom you could spend time in, with an old-fashioned tub, a chair and a Persian rug. “It was handy when the kids were growing up,” he says, referring to Adam and Lorca, his children with former partner Suzanne Elrod (not the Suzanne of the song)—Adam, 29, is a singer-songwriter and Lorca, 27, owns an antique store; both live in Los Angeles.

In the kitchen, two publicists from his record company compose a fruit plate. I add my raspberries, which Leonard samples with reverence. And he opens up a wicker basket, as if it contains a miracle, and offers bagels— “they’re two days old, but they’re still good.” Then suggesting we talk upstairs “where it’s quiet,” he nimbly mounts a narrow staircase to his bedroom, coffee and cigarettes in hand. We sit at a large antique pine table by the open window. In the room there’s a fold-up writing desk. A glass-fronted bookcase displays some Hebrew tomes, and The Essential Guide to Prescription Drugs. In the corner, a white bed. Next to it nothing but a small old TV and a box of Kleenex.

I ask Cohen why he came down from the mountain in 1999. “I don’t know,” he says, lighting a Vantage. “For the same reason I went up, which is also unclear.” He laughs, then explains he’d been associated with Mount Baldy’s Zen community for 30 years and wanted to “intensify” his relationship with it, and with his Japanese teacher, Kyozan Joshu Sasaki—or Roshi—who’s now 94 “and in radiant health.” For five years, Cohen followed a punishing regimen of rising before dawn to meditate for long hours. But he tempered his piety with creative truancy.

“I found the meditation hall an excellent place to work on songs. I was supposed to be calming my mind or directing it to other areas, but I was working on rhymes for A Thousand Kisses Deep.” One day Cohen—who also served as Roshi’s cook, driver and occasional drinking buddy— confessed he wasn’t really meditating. In his broken English, Roshi gave him his blessing: “Follow song OK.”

Cohen is at a loss to explain where his depression went. “I’d tried everything going,” he says, “from self-medication to pharmaceuticals to all the excesses that were available in rock ’n roll. And nothing seemed to work. But I read that the brain cells associated with anxiety begin to die as you get older. I don’t know if they’re dead, but they’re ailing. The depression has lifted in the past three years, and this record comes out of that graceful event.”

While Ten New Songs may be Cohen’s most ascetic album, it’s also his most collaborative. He wrote the words, but his friend Sharon Robinson wrote, arranged, produced and performed virtually all the accompaniment on the record, as well as enveloping his wine-dark voice with layers of her own ethereal vocals.

“My range is very limited,” says Cohen. “The four notes I can sing get lower and lower. I like it down there. It’s close to speaking.” It’s a voice that sounds like incense. But aside from one guitar track, the instrumentation is completely electronic—“dinky factory music” is how Cohen has described the sound he feels comfortable with. He doesn’t like the notes to compete with the words. Even when he’s touring with live musicians, he says, “you’ve got to keep beating them back.”

On the new album, however, there is no band. And it has such a haunting intimacy it sounds like Cohen and his co-writer are singing with one mouth. “I feel its really Sharons record in a certain way,” he says. “Her presence is very strong.” Robinson also co-wrote Everybody Knows on his 1988 album, Em Your Man. And they’d been planning to write again together ever since. “Out of the blue,” recalls Robinson, “Leonard said, ‘I’d like you to work on a record with me and it would just take a couple of weeks.’ It took two years.”

In Los Angeles, Cohen and Robinson worked out of their home studios, swapping digital tracks back and forth. The third partner in their musical menage was Cohen’s veteran engineer, Leanne Unger. Because Cohen’s studio is in his garage, which isn’t soundproof, he had to get up very early to record his vocals-—before the birds started to sing. “It was the same sort of regimen I led up on the mountain,” he says. “I was the cook. Leanne and Sharon would come around noon, and I’d make them lunch. We’d work all day, then I’d often prepare them dinner.”

Robinson, who’s been married for 15 years, has known Cohen since 1979, when he recruited her to join his tour as a backup singer. He’s also the godfather of her 12year-old son. Asked if she and Leonard were ever involved, she declines comment, then, after a pause, she laughs. “I guess I just answered the question.” When she was on tour with Cohen 20 years ago, women were constandy drawn to him, she says. “They would always be trying to get in to see him after the show, and there always seemed to be one—not always, but frequendy—who would end up spending the evening with him.”

Cohen’s mystique among women is legendary. They seem to like the fact that he worships them. I’ve interviewed the likes of Tom Cruise and Harrison Ford, but no one has elicited as much vicarious interest from my female friends as Leonard. Even my wife still says, wistfully, “If only I’d slept with Leonard Cohen.” She wrote him a fan note in the late ’60s. He replied from Manhattan’s Chelsea Hotel, in purple ink on onionskin paper with one sentence: “Thank you for your most perfect letter.” A friend of mine once spent a night with him in Montreal around the same time. “I went back to his hotel,” she says, “a Greek hotel where all the staff spoke Greek and everyone seemed to know him as if he’d lived there for years. In the morning, I awoke to find him already up and sneaking into his jeans as if to escape. With one leg in and one leg out, he caught me watching and hastened to the bed to assure me it had been a great night, but that he had to leave because ‘I’m a poet and I have to move on.’ Later, in New York I ran into quite a few girls who knew Leonard and claimed to be in constant contact by some sort of cosmic arrangement.”

Ellen Seligman, the poet’s editor at McClelland & Stewart, says, “Not all men are as good as Leonard is in making women feel that he’s completely interested. He’s not garrulous in a small-talk way. He always invites other people to talk. That is the sexiest thing of all.” Seligman says that, phoning from another time zone, he would leave messages for her in the middle of the night. “You’d hear this incredible, husky voice, saying, ‘Darling, I just have one more revision.’ I’d play it on the speakerphone, and the women in the office would swoon.” Cohen’s last visible romance, with actress Rebecca De Mornay, ended when he found he couldn’t commit to settling down and having more children. Asked if he’d prefer to live the rest of his life alone or with someone, he says: “I want to live with everyone. That’s Boogie Street.” There is, in fact, an actual Boogie Street, he adds. “It’s in Singapore. I don’t know if it’s still there.” He stumbled across it years ago when coming home from an Australian tour. By day, he says, it was a bazaar—he found a box of Leonard Cohen boodeg tapes on sale for a dollar apiece—“and at night it was a scene of intense and alarming ß sexual exchange. To me, Boogie Street is I that street of work and desire, the ordinary I life, that is relieved by the embrace of your children or the kiss of your beloved, or the peak experience in which you yourself are dissolved. As my old teacher said, ‘Paradise is a good place to visit but you can’t live there because there are no toilets or restaurants.’ ” For Leonard Norman Cohen, all Boogie Streets lead back to Montreal, where he was born in 1934, one of two children in an affluent Westmount Jewish family. His father, who owned a clothing business, died when Leonard was 9. “Outside of that event, which seemed to be perfecdy natural at the time,” Cohen dismisses his childhood as “very ordinary.” His says his teenage rebellion was limited to the “mild delinquency” of sneaking into movies restricted to those over 16. “We’d dress in suits and ties and put Kleenex in our heels to make us look older.” As a 17-year-old student at McGill University, Cohen formed a country-and-western trio called the Buckskin Boys, and began to publish poetry. Winning acclaim for Let Us Compare Mythologies (1956) then The Spice Box of Earth (1961), he travelled to Europe on a grant and spent seven prolific years on the Greek island of Hydra.

Cohen came from the same generation of Jewish Montreal as Richler, though from its upper crust. And like Richler, he showed a talent as a comic novelist, casting a version of himself as The Favourite Game (1963), the portrait of a Jewish poet coming of age in Montreal. From the first love scene— of his hero undressing a girl and experiencing the “kind of surprise when the silver paper comes off the triangle of Gruyère in one piece”—his gift for prose was obvious.

But unlike Richler, he didn’t stay put. With the verbal acrobatics of his next and last novel, Beautiful Losers (1966), a profane feat of acid-inspired delirium, Cohen catapulted himself out of the literary fold and never looked back. He was recruited by Columbia’s legendary John Hammond—who also discovered Dylan and Bruce Springsteen—and Songs of Leonard Cohen became the folk-boudoir sound track for 1968. Cohen would earn his place in the CanLit canon, but it could not contain him. As his longtime friend poet Irving Layton once said: “Leonard’s always had yearnings for sainthood.”

When I raise the notion of sainthood with Cohen, he deadpans without missing a beat: “It’s right down the line. There’s the Governor General’s Award, the Pulitzer, the Fulbright and then sainthood.”

Cohen shows me a small bronze bust of Layton, who at age 89, is now afflicted with Parkinson’s disease. “I saw him when I was here for Trudeau’s funeral. It was one of his good days. But he pretended not to recognize me. I said, ‘It’s Leonard.’ He said, ‘Leonard who?’ I said, ‘Leonard Cohen.’ He turned to his nurse and asked, ‘Who’s Leonard Cohen?’ I was completely taken in. Then he laughed—‘Leonard!’ ” Layton then talked about how his sexual desire had diminished with age. Cohen asked when that had begun to happen. “Oh, when I was about 15 or 16,” Layton replied. When I ask about his own famous libido, Cohen demurs: “It’s a very uneventful landscape, very peaceful.”

He doesn’t spend much time in Montreal these days. He prefers to be close to his children in Los Angeles. And he is nicely anonymous there, an obscure star in celebrity heaven. In Montreal, he is more easily recognized “But it’s not an inconvenience or a menace,” he says. “A few days ago, I was walking down St. Lawrence Boulevard and stopped to look in this window. A young man beside me said, ‘Thanks, Leonard, have a nice evening.’ And much of it is on that level.”

To see him in his white room, in the house he bought for a song three decades ago, Leonard looks so completely at home. So I wonder:

“Where would you like to ... ?”

“Die?”

“That’s the word I was looking for.”

“In that bed would be nice,” he says, pointing to the soft whiteness in the corner of the room.

The ponies run, the girls are young,

The odds are there to beat.

You win a while, and then its done— Your little winning streak.

And summoned now to deal With your invincible defeat,

You live your life as if it’s real,

A Thousand Kisses Deep.

At his front door, Cohen steps out and looks around, as if dipping his toe into the city. I want to take some groceries back to the lake, so I ask if he knows a fish store in the neighbourhood. There used to be one up the street, he says, then offers to take me there. As we cross the parkette, he explains it once was Carré Vallières but is now called Parc Portugal. It occurs to me that one day it probably will be Carré Leonard Cohen. We pass a handsome grey-haired woman who smiles hello without breaking stride. Leonard smiles hello back.

“See what I mean?” he says.

“Do you know her?”

“No,” he replies, having confirmed his fans are cool enough to leave him in peace.

We find the fish store. Even on ice, the salmon looks wilted from the heat. I deliberate for an awkward moment, wondering how I’ve ended up shopping for fish with Leonard Cohen. We head back without buying. Leonard talks about his plans: to finish a book of some 250 poems, to record another album of his own music, to tour again—“I like singing and drinking”—and first to spend some time with friends in India. But he is cautious to add, as he has learned to do when looking forward to the Future: “God willing.”

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