|Angst & Aquavit
Leonard Cohen in the afternoon
by Brendan Bernhard
(C) 2002 LA Weekly and Brendan Bernhard
(Photo by Max Gerber)
LEONARD COHEN IS THE ULTIMATE CROSSOVER ARTIST.
A SINGER WHO published two novels and four books of poetry before he ever set foot in a
recording studio, he exchanged the old, adult realm of the printed word for the brave new
electronic youth culture that arose in the mid-1960s. Put it this way. In 1962, when Cohen
was a promising young Montreal author with short hair and neat clothes and two collections
of poetry to his name -- Let Us Compare Mythologies (1956) and The
Spice-Box of Earth (1961) -- he was flown to Paris by the Canadian
Broadcasting Corporation to moderate a panel discussion between Mary McCarthy, Malcolm
Muggeridge and Romain Gary on the "crisis in Western culture." Eight years
later, after recording Songs of Leonard Cohen and Songs
From a Room, he performed in front of 300,000 people at the Isle of Wight
Festival while stoned on Mandrax. Evidently, Cohen had found his own solution to the
crisis: He went to where the action was. On a modest level, he became a part of the mass
media, the mass mind. Now the mass mind is part of what he's worried about, and the crisis
is no longer just Western, it's global. Eight days before the attack on the World Trade
Center, I sat with the famously gloomy singer in his home near a rundown section of Pico
Boulevard, and found him surprisingly upbeat. Maybe it was the fact that Songs
of Leonard Cohen had just gone gold in America -- 34 years after its
release. Or perhaps it was the satisfaction of having completed his first record in almost
a decade, Ten New Songs. Possibly it was the thought of his
upcoming trip to Bombay, where he planned to study with one of his gurus, Ramesh Balsekar.
But probably it was none of these things. In all likelihood, Leonard Cohen was upbeat
simply because, these days, he feels happy.
"Is this a good period in your life?" I asked.
"It is, but I hesitate to affirm it," Cohen said, laughing. "My mother
would be spitting and throwing salt over her shoulder."
Sitting at a small kitchen table, the 67-year-old composer of such songs as
"Suzanne," "Bird on a Wire," "Famous Blue Raincoat,"
"Chelsea Hotel," "I'm Your Man" and "Democracy" plied me
with pâté and gorgonzola, with red wine and aquavit. He drank strong coffee and smoked
cigarettes. He looked less like a singer than an unusually cultivated business man of
indefinite provenance -- the face Jewish, the accent Canadian, the manner Old World and
faintly elusive. A cosmopolite, but not quite at home anywhere. A Jew with a shrine to the
Virgin Mary in his kitchen. A bohemian in a jacket and tie.
It was a pleasure to meet him. His hair is close-cropped and gray now, his smile
wonderfully embattled. He makes you laugh. The man known as the most doleful singer in the
world is really a kind of comedian, obsessed with hierarchies and judgments at a time when
the world has been trying to forget that they exist. "I started out scraping the
bottom of the barrel," he once said, and he has fashioned a career out of creative
impotence, stylish desolation and a wry cataloging of his artistic shortcomings. In one of
the best tracks on 1988's I'm Your Man, he placed himself 100
floors below Hank Williams in "The Tower of Song," and last year he wrote a poem
about the number of fake poets crowding "the sacred precincts." "Needless
to say," Cohen concluded in a trademark gesture, "I am one of the fakes."
You have to like a guy like that, even if at times you half believe him.
Cohen has never been a prolific artist, but one reason his fans have had to wait nine
years for his 10 new songs is that he spent five of those years living as a monk in a Zen
monastery atop Mount Baldy, an hour's drive from Los Angeles. At some point during his
stay there, the depression that has afflicted him for most of his adult life lifted, and
he is still not sure why. But whatever the reason, he does seem to be content, with his
daughter living downstairs, his son around the corner, and a small apartment in the annex
reserved for his sister when she comes to visit. Only a wife is missing: though he has had
countless affairs and several long-term relationships, the most famous recent one being
with Rebecca De Mornay, Cohen has never married.
Rebecca De Mornay
"Just cowardice," he explained.
"But it's hard to be alone, too," I pointed out.
"I think that's one of the reasons I went up to Mount Baldy. I didn't seem to be able
to put a civilian life together, and that worked some sort of solution."
It may seem odd for a popular singer to refer to daily life as "civilian," but
that's how Cohen thinks: for him, the normal state of things is, at the very least, on
high alert. Though he made his name in the hippy era, he's never been a peace-and-love
kind of guy. His father and uncle served in the Royal Montreal Regiment in World War I,
and during the Yom Kippur War, Cohen went to Israel to lend support. He drank tea with
Ariel Sharon and sang for the troops in the desert. If he hadn't been a writer, he would
probably have entered the army or the police. "I like activities where there's a
strong sense of commitment and a daily regime that's compelling," he told me.
On Mount Baldy, he found the regime he was looking for. Waking every morning at 2:30, he
spent hours meditating, chanting, cooking, making beds, washing dishes, shoveling snow and
acting as personal secretary to Sasaki Roshi, the portly Zen monk to whom he has been
devoted since the late 1970s. Then, in 1999, he came down from the mountain armed with a
sheaf of poems and lyrics and set to work on a new record with his friend and sometime
co-composer and backup singer, Sharon Robinson. The result is a record in Cohen's most
introspective mode, even as it celebrates his return to the fray. In "Boogie
Street," probably the album's most immediately captivating song, Cohen's
re-engagement with the world is made explicit:
A sip of wine, a cigarette,
And then it's time to go
I tidied up the kitchenette;
I tuned the old banjo.
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.
Boogie Street, the actual physical thoroughfare in Singapore, is
given over to business by day and prostitution by night. But in the song, Cohen says, it
symbolizes "ordinary human struggle and life, the place of work and desire. It's
where we're meant to be, it's what we're born into. There are moments when the burden of
the self is lifted, but those are only temporary situations. As I say in the song, 'You
kiss my lips and then it's done/I'm back on Boogie Street.' Whatever the experience is --
the god, the woman, the insight, the epiphany, the penetration -- those are temporary
events. Or as my old teacher says, 'You can't live in Paradise -- no toilets or
But you can live in a modest but pleasant home on a quiet street in Los Angeles and get by
happily enough -- these days, at least, Leonard Cohen can. Well-off, but not too well-off.
Famous, but not cripplingly so, and unknown to almost all the neighbors. I asked him if he
felt fortunate to have achieved a modest rather than enormous level of fame.
"Tremendously," he answered. "It has none of the burdens of celebrity. It
suits my nature. I never really wanted to be in the center of things, if there is such a
place. Most singers feel that they're not there, but I know I'm not there. I've been able
to make a living and send my kids to school. It's a very acceptable level of renown."
"Did you always dress this well? Or is it something you've developed?"
"No, I always wore a suit, pretty much. I grew up before blue jeans hit. I always
felt better in a jacket."
"So you put on a jacket even if you're not going out?"
"Especially if I'm not going out."
Evidently, wearing a jacket and tie was a matter of discipline, a poet's version of a
uniform. The jacket, which was purchased at a thrift store on Fairfax, cost $7, and most
of Cohen's suits are years, sometimes decades old. "I don't like shopping," he
explained, showing me a threadbare Armani in his closet. Next to it was another jacket
with a small gold badge on the lapel. The badge said: Canadian Border Patrol.
ONE OF THE IRONIES OF COHEN'S CAREER IS THAT although his name is a byword for gloom, he
has always appeared to others as a thoroughly enviable figure -- wealthy, suave,
articulate and a ladies' man to the core. That has been his genius: to make depression
seem profoundly alluring. (But then, depression has always been alluring, from Hamlet and
"Ode to a Nightingale" on down.) But the suspicion remains that he is too
smooth, that he is a man who talks about God to Details, and that the depression he offers
up is of the designer variety. At least Cohen seems wise to the problem. The one book he
has been reluctant to discuss is The Book of Mercy (1984), which
is, more or less, a book of prayers. It's hard to talk about stuff like that, he once told
a reporter. "It doesn't go with your sunglasses."
Cohen's glum view of his own life has often extended to the world around him. For years he
has been predicting The End, and his announcements of imminent apocalypse have
occasionally sounded like shtick. But in two of his best albums, I'm Your Man
and The Future (1992), his ability to articulate a profoundly
uneasy sense of what was coming reached new heights. Suddenly he wasn't just talking about
his own warring psyche anymore, but writing songs about the world. As it happens, they're
some of the best political songs of our era.
In part, Cohen's donning of the prophet's mantle was a reaction to the disintegration of
his own life. His relationship with Suzanne Elrod, the mother of his two children, had
fallen apart, and his career was in the doldrums. His first three records, Songs
of Leonard Cohen (1967), Songs From a Room (1969)
and Songs of Love and Hate (1971), had turned him into a cult
figure, and thanks to his fame as a singer, his book sales picked up too. His novels, The
Favorite Game (1963) and Beautiful Losers (1966),
were republished, and his Selected Poems 195668 sold 200,000
copies. He was riding high.
But in the late '70s and early '80s, Cohen found himself increasingly out of favor. There
were no more novels. Records such as New Skin for the Old Ceremony
(1974), Death of a Ladies' Man (1977), Recent Songs
(1979) and Various Positions (1984) attracted less and less
notice. Cohen did continue to publish poems. Since he was now thought of as a singer,
however, critics felt free to ignore them. Unfortunately, he was being ignored as a
singer, too. It wasn't that the quality of the work had deteriorated; on the contrary, it
had steadily improved. Some of his greatest songs -- "Field Commander Cohen,"
"Paper-Thin Hotel," "The Gypsy's Wife" and "Hallelujah" --
were written during this period. But a consensus had developed that his work was maudlin,
suitable only to slit your wrists by.
Cohen still had loyal fans, particularly in Europe, but by the time he sat down to write
the songs for I'm Your Man, he was broke and beginning to feel
marginalized and desperate. Sitting at his kitchen table in L.A., he started to write
songs unlike any he had written before. Until this stage in his career, he had set most of
his lyrics to acoustic guitar, writing music that owed as much to the French chanson and
the Jewish minor key as it did to folk or rhythm and blues. The accompaniment was sparse
and the tone intimate, very much one-on-one.
I'm Your Man and The Future changed
all that. Composed on the synthesizer and set to an ironic Euro-disco beat, both records
featured songs in the form of "demented political manifestos." His voice had
grown deeper and his lyrics had a harder, more ironic edge. "They sentenced me to 20
years of boredom/For trying to change the system from within," he intoned on
"First We Take Manhattan," I'm Your Man's opening
salvo. Usefully dramatizing his own feeling of having been "eliminated from the
landscape," Cohen wrote the song from the viewpoint of the leader of an imaginary
government-in-exile, bent on revenge. There were lines for a terrorist to savor:
I'm guided by a signal in the heavens.
I'm guided by this birthmark on my skin.
I'm guided by the beauty of our weapons.
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin.
Cohen's fascination with religion of all kinds served him well on these records. He seemed
to be tuned into two frequencies -- the religious and the secular. The result was a
televisual vividness, a CNN of the soul. (On "Ain't No Cure For Love" he sang of
"rocket ships . . . climbing through the sky" while "the holy books are
open wide.") But it was in two songs on The Future, the
title track and "Democracy," that Cohen's political vision received its richest,
most sophisticated expression. In the spirit of Norman Mailer, Cohen calls himself a
"left-conservative" and has generally maintained a very positive view of the
U.S. "In the hearts of the world some kind of prayer is being said for American
democracy everywhere," he told an interviewer in 1993. "This is where the eyes
of the world are turned. Is it going to work? It's here the experiment unfolds."
Both the optimism and doubt went into "Democracy." Set counter-intuitively to a
martial drum-and-fife beat, the song was a genuinely complex and moving hymn to a
political experiment teetering on the edge of banality and chaos. Despite its title, the
song's central conceit was that true democracy had yet to arrive in the U.S. A new, more
radical democracy was entering the country "through a hole in the air,"
"through a crack in the wall," "from the sorrow in the street":
It's coming to America first,
the cradle of the best and of the worst.
It's here they got the range
and the machinery for change
and it's here they got the spiritual thirst.
It's here the family's broken
and it's here the lonely say
that the heart has got to open
in a fundamental way:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.
Unlike your average pop singer, Cohen had a fairly sophisticated understanding of the
world. As a result, his political songs were based on close observation rather than the
naive idealism usually found in the entertainment community. Like most Canadians, he had
learned to study America the way women study men -- as a force to be reckoned with -- and
he had also traveled the globe. He spent much of the early '60s living on the Greek island
of Hydra, and he was in Cuba during the Bay of Pigs crisis. This wasn't someone likely to
pen an anthem along the lines of "We Are the World." On the contrary, if you
take as dim a view of the universe as Cohen does, then an outbreak of love and peace can
only look like an anomaly. Given his conservative instincts, you suspect that he was as
troubled by much of what he recorded in "Democracy" as he was moved by it. It's
good that hearts should open, but as Cohen no doubt realizes, there's often a streak of
fundamentalism to that "fundamental way."
"The Future," which was inspired both by the fall of the Soviet Union and the
L.A. riots (which Cohen observed at close-hand), took a considerably bleaker view.
Ostensibly written by a deposed Eastern European autocrat ("It's lonely here/there's
no one left to torture"), the song put us on notice that "Things are going to
slide in all directions" and depicted a world in which people longed for the return
of Stalin and the Berlin Wall. "There'll be the breaking/of the ancient Western
code," he warned. "There'll be phantoms/there'll be fires on the road/and the
white man dancing." Until a few weeks ago, "Democracy" and "The
Future" balanced each other perfectly. They were like a fork in the road. Depending
on your mood, you might incline to one or the other, but each seemed equally plausible.
Lately, the balance has shifted considerably in favor of "The Future":
Your servant here, he has been told
to say it clear, to say it cold:
it's over, it ain't going any further
And now the wheels of heaven stop
you feel the Devil's riding crop
Get ready for the future: it is murder.
ALTHOUGH HE WASN'T IN THE MOOD TO TALK about politics when I met
him, Cohen did allow that his perception of the world as "a butcher shop" had
not been altered by the flush economic times of the '90s. "I guess fundamentally I
prefer order to disorder," he told me when I pressed him on his political beliefs.
"The details change from time to time, but I think that society is fragile and that
the things we take for granted are not written in stone. Some sense of preservation
operates in my work."
I asked Cohen what he meant when he sang about "the breaking of the ancient Western
"I think I meant the end of privacy as it developed in the West, which was the real
feature of our civilization," he answered. "The notion that there was private
space, which wasn't really terribly available in the world until we in the West started
establishing private rooms and studies and walls. So I think I felt at a certain point
that this was beginning to reverse itself with a very potent mass culture. This notion of
a private space in which to develop certain ideas and cultivate certain aspects of the
psyche. I felt that was disappearing, and that we were moving into a kind of mass mind.
"That's why I think the notion of being able to shut one's door and find that place
is becoming more and more urgent. You just need to turn things off. And it's harder and
harder to turn them off with every story that's going on, with every story being decided
by all of us to be worth listening to. It's not just like the media is some special
reserve of individuals who are deciding. All of us are cooperating in these decisions that
it's going to be O.J. or Chandra Levy, or whatever the going preoccupation is. We all
cooperate in that decision, and it becomes pervasive and inescapable. It becomes part of
your mind. The notion that began in the Bible with cities of sanctuary, where you could go
to escape the general mechanism of the situation, those spaces are dissolving. And it
produces a sense of breakdown in the psyche. You get the kind of chaos and meaninglessness
and data that can't be distributed along the lines. It can't be deployed usefully, and it
Which is one of the reasons, presumably, why Cohen sought seclusion in a monastery for
five years. That, and being so depressed he couldn't get out of bed in the morning. Or
perhaps he was simply watching too much television, "getting lost in that hopeless
little screen," as he sang in "Democracy." Who knows? Back then, Cohen
probably wouldn't have told you he was depressed in the first place.
"How could I dare to complain?" he asked rhetorically. "Because I think the
appropriate and legitimate response would have been, 'What have you got to complain
about?' When you recognize that you're living in this incredibly privileged, tiny pocket
of mankind, where there is the luxury to discuss these questions, one dare not complain --
except in a good, sad song!"
And since so many people listen to Leonard Cohen when they're depressed, who does Leonard
Cohen listen to?
Cohen seemed to shrug, as if it wasn't a matter of great importance. "I can listen to
George Jones in those moments -- or Chopin," he said. "Most of the songs that we
love are sad songs, because we experience profound disappointment in our lives, all of us.
And to hear it sung" -- he laughed -- "Well, that's what this whole racket is
about, isn't it?"
I asked him, now that he was no longer depressed, if he felt that he had been sick in some
way, if his depression had actually been biochemical. He had already told me that none of
his experiments with Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft and Wellbutrin, as well as their cruder
pharmaceutical ancestors, had helped him.
"I don't know what it was," he answered. "And except in my own work, I
tried to keep it quiet. You don't want to lay that on your friends or acquaintances or
children, you know. That was the background of my life, and most of my activity was to
address that sense of anguish. I tried everything -- wine, women and song, legal and
occasionally illegal medications, severe spiritual practice -- until somehow the sheer
fatigue of the effort required me to stop the effort. And then things started to change
rather swiftly. But I don't know what it was."
"You never went to a therapist?"
"For one reason or another, I didn't have any confidence in the therapeutic model.
Therapy seems to affirm the idea unconditionally of a self that has to be worked on and
repaired. And my inclination was that it was holding that notion to begin with that was
the problem -- that there was this self that needed some kind of radical adjustment. It
didn't appeal to me for some odd reason."
Cohen did go to a therapist once, actually -- out of desperation. He was so depressed that
he called a friend and asked if she could arrange for him to see her therapist
straightaway. Then he drove to St. John's Health Center in Santa Monica "at about
five miles an hour," barely able to negotiate the traffic. When he got there, the
therapist asked him to describe his feelings. After Cohen had finished, she said,
"How can you stand it?"
Up on Mount Baldy, Cohen found a notion of the self -- or non-self -- more conducive to
his way of thinking than the one handed down by Freud et al. "Events happen, deeds
are done, but there is no individual doer thereof," he told me, quoting Buddha. Not
curing the self, but releasing one's grip on it -- that was the solution. Also of help was
the monastery's rigorous daily schedule, so filled with menial chores that he had no time
to think about his problems. And then there was his friendship with Roshi, and the
companionship of the other monks. For Cohen, one of the beauties of Zen is that, because
there is no discussion of a deity, it has never threatened his own Judaism, which has
strengthened over time.
"It just deepens," he said almost dreamily. "You just enter into that
4,000-year-old conversation with God and the sages."
Although he doesn't consider himself religious in the strict sense, Cohen is clearly
enamored of religious ritual. He lights the menorah on the Sabbath, burns "Gentle
Smile" incense and bows his head before a meal. Cohen's maternal grandfather, Rabbi
Solomon Klinitsky-Klein, known in Montreal as "the prince of grammarians," was a
rabbinic scholar who wrote a guidebook to Talmudic interpretations and a dictionary of
Hebrew homonyms and synonyms. When Cohen was a boy, the rabbi would read the Book of
Isaiah with him. Entire evenings would be spent on one or two lines. But Cohen got a
glimpse of other religions, too. His nanny was Catholic, and would often take him to
church with her. Cohen looked at Catholicism as an outsider, seeing it only in terms of
ritual and prayer and the figure of Jesus, but found it appealing nonetheless. He still
"I like the company of monks and nuns and believers and extremists of all
kinds," he explained. "I've always felt at home among people of that stripe. I
don't know why exactly, it just makes things more interesting. I very much enjoy the
formality of a place like the Mt. Baldy Zen Center. The kind of cordiality and courtesy
that are common to the life there makes things easy. People know how to behave with one
Cohen retained his newfound monastic discipline and community feeling when he returned to
Los Angeles and set to work with Sharon Robinson (who co-wrote the music) on Ten
New Songs in the studio behind his house. The studio wasn't soundproofed, so
Cohen would get up before the birds and the dogs and the traffic to record the vocals.
Robinson and the sound engineer, Leanne Ungar, would arrive at the house around noon, and
Cohen would cook them lunch. Then they would work together until dinner, with Cohen
cooking again. "It was a very peaceful, agreeable time," he said. "A very
The good vibes are reflected in the record, which has a hushed, almost becalmed
atmosphere. Death shadows many of the songs, and at times seems to be taking up residence
in Cohen's voice, reduced now to a ragged croak that even further restricts an already
tiny vocal range. (Wisely, he has Robinson sing with him throughout, which considerably
sweetens the overall effect.) The lyrics are as mournful as ever. "I'm always
alone/And my heart is like ice/And it's crowded and cold/In my secret life," Cohen
sings in the opening track, sounding like a desolate lounge lizard with an empty glass in
his hand. "Here It Is" unfolds to a jaunty little tune, but the words foretell a
grim future of illness and death:
Here is your wine,
And your drunken fall;
And here is your love,
Your love for it all.
Here is your sickness,
Your bed and your pan;
And here is your love
For the woman, the man.
May everyone live,
And may everyone die.
Hello, my love,
And my love, goodbye.
"It's a pretty bleak song," I told Cohen.
"I would call it, I don't know, more . . . realistic," he replied, laughing.
Then he poured out two more glasses of aquavit.
WITH HIS VOICE DISINTEGRATING, COHEN HAS turned into something close to a spoken-word
artist. On much of Ten New Songs, he doesn't sing so much as
lightly tilt his voice in the direction of a tune. Occasionally, he'll hand an entire
verse over to Robinson. As he moves toward the end of his seventh decade, he appears to be
coming full circle. He wants to write another novel, he's preparing a book of poems for
publication, and his lyrics sound more literary than ever. Which was why it was surprising
to note the paucity of books in Cohen's house -- at least by the standards of a working
writer. A copy of J.T. LeRoy's The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things lay on a
chair by the front door, but Cohen told me it was a gift. One suspected it wasn't going to
be read. More likely to be read was the copy of Ramesh Balsekar's A Net of Jewels:
Daily Meditations for Seekers of Truth, which had pride of place on the living-room
coffee table. Ditto the Talmud and Buddha's Diamond Sutra. "I tend to read the same
things over and over," he explained.
In his living room and bedroom and study, we stood together and looked through the
contents of his small bookcases. Many of these books were gifts, too. Joseph Heller's Portrait
of an Artist as an Old Man, for instance. Cohen took it off the shelf and looked at
it. There were books by Lorca and Rumi and Bukowski, and a study of Cohen's early work by
Michael Ondaatje. Cohen handled the books gently, as if they were distant, unfamiliar
things. "He's a real poet," he said, pulling out a book by the New York School
poet, Kenneth Koch. He and Koch had become friends when Cohen lived in Greece. "A
"Did you ever meet John Ashbery?" I asked, referring to Koch's more celebrated
"Yeah, I did. He mentioned a poem of mine he liked."
The music collection was even smaller than the book collection. There were CDs by Tom
Waits and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Om Kalsoum, as well as some by Cohen's son, Adam.
There was one called Made to Order by a singer named John Ivey.
"Who's that?" I asked.
"That's my dentist," Cohen said, brightening.
"Is it good?"
Cohen wasn't reading much, and he wasn't listening to a lot of music either. His children
were close at hand, and his social circle appeared to consist mainly of his current and
former backup singers, several of whom lived nearby. (Tipped over on the carpet in his
living room was a pair of gorgeous, ivory-colored high-heeled shoes.) The impression was
of someone concentrating on his writing and soul, gathering his forces for one last
sustained decade of work before he prepared to meet his Maker. By then he'd be ready:
I did my best; it wasn't much.
I couldn't feel, so I learned to touch.
I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool ya.
And even though it all went wrong,
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but
(C) 2002 LA Weekly and Brendan Bernhard