“I’m ready to die.”
It’s the comment that jumped off the page of the New Yorker’s recent in-depth profile of Leonard Cohen, the 82-year-old Canadian singer, songwriter and poet.
Looming mortality surfaces in various songs in his new album, “You Want It Darker,” due Oct. 21. Specifically, the title track that opens the album, in which he seems to double down on the remark to his interviewer as he sings, “I’m ready, my Lord.”
Such was the backdrop when Cohen visited Los Angeles last week to showcase the work.
“How are you feeling?” KCRW host Chris Douridas asked Cohen early in the session.
“I said I was ready to die recently,” Cohen said in the coal-mine deep bass-baritone voice that makes his recordings often feel like a journey to the center of the Earth.
Then a sly smile came to his lips: “I may have exaggerated.”
That prompted a round of laughter from the assembled music journalists and others who gathered for an early listen to the album at the Canadian Consulate, which co-sponsored the early evening event with his label, Sony Music Canada.
“One is given to self-dramatization from time to time,” he added, before inspiring a round of applause when he finished the thought. “I intend to live forever.”
Head-on engagement with the biggest questions of human existence has been this 2008 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee’s expressive milieu since the beginning of his career.
Next year marks the 50th anniversary of his 1967 debut, “Songs of Leonard Cohen,” which quickly established him as a songwriter of the first order on a par with Bob Dylan and one of his countrywomen, Joni Mitchell.
Take this verse from “So Long, Marianne,” which he wrote to a former lover and recorded in his early 30s: “We met when we were almost young/Deep in the green lilac park/You held on to me like I was a crucifix/As we went kneeling through the dark.”
His songs have been rife with religious imagery, and on his latest, that’s as true as ever. He sings of angels and devils, of changing water into wine, of turning the other cheek, raising a glass of blood and saying grace.
Yet Cohen was full of surprises. “I've never thought of myself as a religious person,” he said. “I don't have any spiritual strategy. I kind of limp along like so many of us do in these realms….
“This is a vocabulary that I grew up with. This biblical landscape is very familiar to me, and it’s natural that I use those landmarks as references. Once they were universal references and everybody understood and knew them and located them. That’s no longer the case today, but it is still my landscape.
“But outside of that,” he said, “I can't — I dare not claim anything in the spiritual realm for my own.”
During a segment in which international journalists posed questions, he offered up his comment about the day’s news that Dylan had just been chosen to receive the Nobel Prize for literature.
“It’s like pinning a medal on Mt. Everest,” he said, “for being the highest mountain.”
He also referenced Dylan when Douridas asked about the quality of writing he has sustained over 50-plus years, a question Cohen gracefully deflected.
“I don't know,” he said. “I think that any songwriter [knows] — and I think that Bob Dylan knows this more than all of us — you don't write the songs, anyhow.”
His gait entering the parlor where the playback took place was measured, and he came in with the assistance of a cane. Yet his sense of humor was undiminished.
Noting the international makeup of the audience, he said, “Friends, thanks so much. Some of you have come a long, long way, and I appreciate it. Some of you have driven across Los Angeles. It takes about the same time. Thank you for that too.”
Yet the toll of recent bouts with illness was apparent, lending him a different physical presence than he projected the last time he performed in Los Angeles at the then-Nokia, now-Microsoft Theatre downtown.
At 79, he delivered a solid 3 1/2-hour show with no intermission, and literally skipped his way on and off stage during that concert. Three years earlier, he’d turned in a positively magical performance at sunset for a crowd of predominantly young hipsters at the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival.
Perhaps Cohen’s most reassuring remark came in response to a question about his use on several albums of images of hummingbirds.
After explaining his fascination with the birds, he recited a poem he said he’d recently written about them.
Listen to the hummingbird whose wings you cannot see
Listen to the hummingbird, don't listen to me
Listen to the butterfly whose days but number three
Listen to the butterfly, don't listen to me.
Listen to the mind of God, which doesn't need to be
Listen to the mind of God, don't listen to me
“Will that be on your next album?” he was asked.
“Yes,” he said. “God willing….I intend to stick around until I’m 120.”
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