IN 1968, AN IMPOSSIBLY BRASH 33-YEAR-OLD CANADIAN POET NAMED Leonard Cohen declined his country's most prestigious literary prize, the Governor General's Award. In fact, he didn't even bother showing up, sending a terse telegram to be read by the master of ceremonies. "Though much in me craves this award," it said, "the poems absolutely forbid it."
He was just being a smart-ass, Cohen now acknowledges, though why, he says, is no more clear to him now than it was then. That evening, Cohen went to a party at a hotel suite in Ottawa. Upon arriving, he was motioned into the bathroom by a fellow Jewish Montrealer, novelist Mordecai Richler.
"He asked, rather sternly, why I refused the award," recounts Cohen. " 'I don't know,' I said. This seemed to stop him in his tracks. 'Any other answer and I would have punched you in the nose,' " Richler replied.
The young poet apparently had gotten more recognition than he could handle. And it was only the beginning. Over the next 20 years, Cohen would become a national icon, a cult figure, considered possibly the most literate singer-composer ever to grace the commercial pop scene. Now 57, Cohen has been enshrined, though often reluctantly, in various works of biography and criticism, including the "Junior Encyclopedia of Canada," where, presumably, readers too young to have experienced the existential frisson inspired by such seminal ballads as "Suzanne," "The Window" and "Famous Blue Raincoat" can quickly bone up on what the poet-singer still refuses to call a career.
"I thought of myself as specifically not having a career," Cohen says, "but, rather, as having some kind of destiny. It wasn't a Messianic complex; I meant it in a microscopic sense. There was an unfolding to be done; my work was to unfold. But that notion and every other nice description of myself broke down, melted, dissolved or shattered in the ordinary abrasive conditions of a human life."
This Montreal-born poet, novelist and songwriter, with his penchant for dark expensive suits, beautiful women and affected reclusion, is a perennial comeback artist who has turned the nervous breakdown into a finely honed creative tool. It was once said that if a young French woman owned one record, it was likely to be his. Imagine "what Rod McKuen might have come up with if he'd been an artist," Canadian critic-poet Douglas Fetherling has suggested. "Or what Soren Kierkegaard would have written for laughs if he'd been that kind of fellow."
Although Cohen's star waned during the mid-'70s, when he crafted a series of albums so depressing and inaccessible as to daunt even the darkest young fancy, the old ghost came back decisively in 1988 with "I'm Your Man." It was one of the hippest bodies of music of the decade, certainly one of the funniest, and his first resounding commercial success. Despite himself, Cohen the cult figure is finally receiving acceptance from the mainstream.
Cohen has in fact staked out a surprisingly resilient stronghold as what someone once called "the Ghost of '60s Past," brazenly haunting the periphery of pop. His sudden reappearances delight old fans who thought he'd long since faded, while appealing to new, mostly young ones astounded that someone like Leonard Cohen exists at all and is permitted to make records. Typical is the case of screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin, who last spring introduced his teen-age son to Cohen's music. "He just loved it," says Rubin, who won an Oscar last year for "Ghost." But when asked what he had played, Rubin referred to "Songs of Leonard Cohen," Cohen's first album, released in 1968 and containing such songs as "Suzanne" and "So Long, Marianne." Upon discovering that Cohen had released nine other albums since then; that Suzanne Vega, Jennifer Warnes and Ian McCulloch list him as an important influence, while one heavy-metal band--Sisters of Mercy--took its name from one of his songs (there is also the lesser-known Edmonton band, Famous Blue Raincoat), and that "Everybody Knows" became an anthem for apocalyptic teen-age angst in the film "Pump Up the Volume," Rubin expresses amazement.
"I saw that movie," he says, "but I didn't know that was Cohen."
That may change; Cohen's music recently has received the kind of attention usually reserved for better-known performers such as the Grateful Dead and Elton John. "I'm Your Fan," a tribute album initiated by the influential French rock magazine Les Inrockuptibles, was released worldwide last year. It features assorted Cohen classics played by such artists and bands as House of Love, Ian McCulloch, The Pixies, Famous Dead People, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and John Cale. Cohen says he was touched by the effort.
The troubadour trickster also hopes to complete his own new album sometime this spring. Long overdue, this project is eagerly awaited by fans and no less so by Cohen, who yearns for release from the project's four-year-long tyranny.
And last March, Cohen got a chance to make amends with those Canadians whose noses were put out of joint by his earlier chutzpah. At the Juno Awards ceremony in Vancouver (the Junos are Canada's Grammys), Cohen was inducted, alongside such home-grown luminaries as Guy Lombardo, Hank Snow, Neil Young, Paul Anka, Gordon Lightfoot and The Band, into the Juno Hall of Fame. For once, Cohen was not wearing his shattered heart on his black shirt sleeve. In fact, he wore an impeccable tuxedo and adopted an expression of nearly beatific humility and gratitude quite at odds with his well-tended image as pop's crusty and lusty crank, habitually past his prime. He was open, friendly, gracious and vulnerable.
"If I had been given this attention when I was 26," intoned Cohen in his acceptance speech, "it would have turned my head. At 36, it might have confirmed my flight on a rather morbid spiritual path. At 46, it would have rubbed my nose in my failing powers and prompted the plotting of a getaway and an alibi. But at 56--hell, I'm just hitting my stride, and it doesn't hurt at all."
Well, my friends are gone and my hair is gray. I ache in the places where I used to play. And I'm crazy for love, but I'm not coming on. I'm just paying my rent every day in the Tower of Song. From "Tower of Song," Copyright 1987, Stranger Music Inc.
The idea of a pain-free Leonard Cohen takes a little getting used to, even in sunny and ostensibly hedonistic Southern California, where Cohen makes his home half the year--especially since it is the forlorn, pain-racked qualities of his music that still account for so much of his appeal. How much of it is real, however, and how much of it is a put-on has confounded journalists and critics. According to Canadian poet and critic Michael Ondaatje, author of a short critical appraisal of Cohen's literary output, Cohen's deliberate impenetrability is akin to that of Bob Dylan and Norman Mailer.
"All three," Ondaatje says, "rely heavily on their ability to be cynical about their egos or pop sainthood, all the time continuing to build it up. This paradoxical manner provides a built-in self-defense to their privacy; they can con the media men who are their loudspeakers, yet keep their integrity and appear sincere to their audiences."
Cohen's genius, adds Fetherling, has been to elevate "his personal discomfort to the level of anguish, then use it as a metaphor, and himself as a symbol, for a world whose complacency seemed to be leading to annihilation." He is, Fetherling adds, "reminiscent of some Graham Greene character one would expect to see at the scene of every retreat from imperial power, every sharp eclipse of old Western values. He is forever one step ahead of some great beneficent calamity. A single individual facing the tide of events, Cohen must content himself with love--or at least sex--among the ruins."
"Leonard will say, 'Look at the shreds of my heart; you pulled it out with a pair of prongs,' " says Jennifer Warnes, once a backup singer for Cohen. Warnes encountered widespread derision within the music industry when she suggested making an album devoted exclusively to his music. Yet six years ago, "Famous Blue Raincoat" became an unqualified success, selling close to half a million copies.
"He's acknowledging that the whole act of living contains immense amounts of sorrow and hopelessness and despair, and also passion and high hopes and deep and eternal love. His complex lyrics speak of complex mixtures of God and sex and spirituality and myth and forgiveness and lostness."
After nearly six decades at the front lines of his life, Cohen has compartmentalized his existence in a fashion that some might consider extreme. When not touring, he leads what appears to be a careful and measured lifestyle. In recent years, Cohen has also become a semi-permanent fixture in Los Angeles; the spring and summer months he stays in Montreal, where he keeps an apartment in the now gentrified St. Urbain Street ethnic ghetto made famous in the writings of Mordecai Richler. He spends his days meditating (sometimes in the company of a Buddhist monk who has been his friend for 18 years), working out with weights and a stationary bicycle, composing, tending to business and pursuing romantic relationships.
He claims he doesn't do clubs, malls, Hollywood parties or illicit substances, preferring "a quiet life in front of a desk." Calling himself a mild agoraphobe, he says he avoids confronting the sprawling reality of Los Angeles. "I don't know L.A. well, and that's one of things I like about it. I don't even know how far the city goes on." He says he rarely ventures beyond a nearby Crenshaw district cafe, where he can sometimes be found filling his notebooks or in the company of current girlfriend Rebecca de Mornay, or the recording studios, where he goes immediately after completing each song. He lives here, he says, to be close to his musicians and because of the warm weather.
Kelley Lynch, Cohen's office manager, says she's been around Cohen long enough to have seen all the disparate facets of the singer's personality. "There's the performing," she recounts, "the Buddhism, the relationships, the family--Leonard manages to keep it all quite separate. I've just come to think of him as a very nice Jewish man who happens to be unusually intelligent."
Julie Christensen, one of Cohen's backup singers, recalls how, while performing at the Prince's Trust in London a few years ago, a boyish Cohen ran into the street to buy Popsicles for his band. Others recall how a much younger Cohen chased Canada Council clerks and bureaucrats around their office in a wheelchair, trying to goad them into approving a literary grant.
"He does like to keep you guessing," adds Christensen, formerly a member of a cult band called The Divine Horsemen. "I believe I know him pretty well and think he's a really solid person at the core--someone to be depended on, not someone who cries in his beer a lot, which he gets a bad rap for."
It's coming to America first The cradle of the best and the worst. It's here they've got the range and the machinery for change. And it's here they've 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. From "Democracy," Copyright 1991, Stranger Music Inc.
WARMING SOME SPAGHETTI ON THE OVEN, COHEN OFFERS UP HIS CUSTOMARY place at the kitchen table. Here, by the window, one is bathed in a flood of Mediterranean sunlight, a steady, cool breeze, and a charmed view of a still fashionable residential block near Hancock Park.
Cohen occupies a duplex with his 17-year-old daughter, Lorca, whose older brother, Adam, another musician, divides his time between Montreal and his mother's residence in Paris. Cohen lives and writes upstairs. His living room is white on white, reminiscent of the gleaming Louis IX hotel suite constructed by unseen aliens to make their human newcomer feel at home in Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey." His bedroom is functional and neat, the bathroom clean but book-strewn. In his study, however, the drapes are drawn, and the worktable, which bears a new Mac Classic for composing, a fax machine and a synthesizer, takes up an entire wall.
Despite his affected persona as "just another L.A. songwriter," Cohen still knows how to muddy his elbows in what he and the Book of Genesis refer to in Hebrew as tohu va'vohu, chaos and desolation. He says that falling apart, even in a nice environment, is never pleasant. But otherwise, he could not emerge, once or twice a decade, with a startlingly new way of beating his well-burnished drum of alienation, personal ruin and thwarted love. We expect our artists, he has said, to flirt with madness, to send back messages from the edge. But he's quiet about it. In an industry in which shouts of "Look at me!" forge the shortest path to the spotlight, Cohen has called mass attention to himself with a whisper.
"The cabalists interpret tohu va'vohu to mean the raw material of creation," he says. "If you're really going to build the universe in the image of the Creator, the process is involved with an intimate association with chaos and desolation. Those are the building blocks, the DNA.
"Unfortunately you have to become very familiar with those elements, those out of which form and beauty emerge, and you want to keep them at arm's length as much of the time as possible. But when you're trying to make something that has an enduring form or a significance, you have to deal with some of these elements.
"Some people write great songs in the back of taxicabs. I've always wanted to be one of them. Unfortunately, I am one who deals with tohu va'vohu. "
He makes this statement with no visible irony. But though his delivery is unexpectedly earnest, engaging and friendly, there is a certain pat feeling to his words, as if he were quoting from the Portable Leonard Cohen. "I don't think my situation is unique," he continues. "I wouldn't even call what I feel anguish; it's more like discomfort. But I'm reluctant to talk about these matters because they are essentially, from my point of view, of a religious nature, intimately connected to my work. That discomfort is refined in the crucible of attention and intuition and surrender, and what there is to say of it is in the work itself."
To more graphically demonstrate the weight of his current predicament, Cohen removes his latest song from a chest in his study, all 15 pounds of it spilling out of one hefty notebook, then another and several more still, like the Song of Songs strung out on steroids.
Pared down mercilessly and arranged with fife-and-drum intensity, the recently recorded version of "Democracy," which took three years to write, sounds as though it could be a Top 40 hit, something Cohen has never really had before. The song is an earnest, ironic and often-troubled paean to America, one all the more unusual coming from someone who once stood weeping in an early-morning snowstorm outside of Ottawa's Parliament buildings, overcome by being a part of the "noble and decent Canadian experiment." It sounds like an odd poet's version of "The Ballad of the Green Beret." Had it been written 16 years ago, this poignant song might have made an ideal Bicentennial epic, a gift, perhaps, for his H-1 visa. It will probably disappoint those of his fans back home and abroad who continue to affect a fashionable disdain for this country.
But his world view is not what the arts community might construe as politically correct. Cohen, who has reportedly abused a substance or two in his time, has said he would choose the Tom Clancy approach against countries that export illicit substances: declare outright war. He backed the Gulf War and remains steadfast in his support for Israel.
But then, nobody ever believed Cohen was truly radical; not even in his bohemian days in '50s Montreal, a town Lenny Bruce called more square than Orange County. Cohen is basically a nice, middle-class Canadian, polite, solicitous, frequently ambivalent and suspicious of success, even when it's his own.
"My hat's off to this country. It's a great experiment and I think it's very small-minded of people to put it down. Montreal has other concerns that are important to the players, but this experiment has a global significance that our struggle, our drama in Quebec and Canada, doesn't quite have. In America, people have a transcendent view of their own destinies, a sense of their own community. They've got to come up with solutions, and separation doesn't seem to be one of them."
I was born like this, I had no choice. I was born with the gift of a golden voice From "Tower of Song," Copyright 1987, Stranger Music Inc.
LOOKING BACK AT COHEN'S origins is not particularly daunting, despite his occasional coyness. He was born in 1934 and grew up in Westmount, home to most of Montreal's then-largely Anglo upper crust. He recalls his father, who died when he was 9, as a formal, Edwardian gentleman who favored spats and believed in the merits of a secular education and a grounding in traditional Judaism.
Life was sedate, so much so that he would have you believe he remembers nothing of his early years. In fact, his youth is documented in home movies taken by his father; flickering images of a little boy, made pudgy by his duffel coat, sweaters and scarves, tumbling down the slopes of Mt. Royal on skis or trudging home through the snow under gray, overcast skies.
But his Canadian friends remember the adolescent Cohen mostly as "a sullen, lonely fellow with a slight weight problem," according to Fetherling. Cohen drifted to McGill University, where he fell under the influence of poet Irving Layton.
"I saw genius," recalls Layton, whom Cohen, true to a 30-year pact of mutual over-hype, calls the greatest living poet in the English language. "There was a kind of air about him of competence and wisdom and intensity. One eye was filled with joy, the other with pain."
Another mentor was poet Louis Dudek, who would eventually decry Cohen's decision to start performing at the expense of his writing. In 1956, Dudek issued a series of chapbooks containing student poetry, and Cohen, enjoying a comfortable campus career as something of a disaffected bohemian, authored the series' first title: "Let Us Compare Mythologies."
A second book of poetry, "The Spice-Box of Earth," came out in 1961, by which time Cohen was spending most of his time in Greece, writing, living cheaply on a small inheritance and hanging out with other writers and artists. He wrote an autobiographical novel, "The Favourite Game," in 1963; won a Quebec literary prize in 1964 for a third collection of poetry, "Flowers for Hitler," and was profiled in a mid-'60s CBC documentary called "Ladies and Gentleman: Leonard Cohen." He published an experimental second novel, "Beautiful Losers," and by the time he was established in Canada as the leading poet of his generation, he had turned his long-term interest in music into a career.
But when he couldn't make a living by writing, Cohen headed for Nashville, intent on cutting a country record (he would eventually do so, spending two years on a rented ranch, riding, wearing a Stetson hat and boots and packing a Winchester). He was waylaid in New York, however, by the emerging folk scene.
Folk singer Judy Collins tells of his first public performance. She'd already recorded "Suzanne" with considerable success, and at a benefit Cohen recalls was for "some Commie radio station in New York," she called him onto the stage. Wan, his hands shaking, the raspy-voiced poet picked up his guitar and began to sing. Partway through, however, he stopped, laid down the instrument and disconsolately announced that he simply could not go on.
"The crowd went wild," Collins recalls. "This was 20 years before performance art, and here was Leonard having an existential crisis on stage." In fact, Cohen recalls wryly, "the problem was that it was too cold, and I couldn't get my guitar tuned."
Cohen was signed by John Hammond to Columbia Records, the label on which Bob Dylan recorded. Hammond's idea was that if a troubadour like Dylan could garner acclaim as a poet, what might happen if he signed an already established poet eager to be a troubadour? Like Dylan, Cohen displayed a genius for posing--as the disaffected poet, the slightly ruined has-been, the mournful ascetic, and now, the world-weary survivor. And also like Dylan, he displayed painstaking word craft and the courage to change his art whenever it suited him.
There were three of us this morning. I'm the only one this evening. But I must go on. The frontiers are my prison. From "The Partisan," by Anna Marly and Hy Zarat, Copyright 1944, 1972, MCA Music.
COHEN BREWS A NEW POT OF coffee and finishes his spaghetti standing. By squinting through the window in his upstairs kitchen, one could almost imagine the sun-swept avenue is in Montreal. Did he pick this area with that in mind?
Cohen acknowledges that the area does have a similar feel. Looking out that window, he says, he can easily imagine he is in Greece, too. He infrequently returns to his house on the island of Hydra, where there is a similar table and a similar view.
Geography, insists Cohen, has always been incidental to him, and becomes more so as he grows older. Locales, he says, have become interchangeable, hardly even worth the effort of moving to, or for that matter, from, unless it's to sing. He likes to tour, and when performing, lives a more carefree life.
"I like to eat and drink with my band," he explains, noting that while on tour, he is "juiced" much of the time. "On a tour, you're part of a motorcycle gang--it's a kind of hit-and-run operation. You get road chops. You get good at living in hotel rooms and packing one bag, coming up with the concert every night and meeting a thousand people. It's very agreeable, social and largely ceremonial."
Cohen, whose bands over the years have included Warnes, Laura Brannigan and Charlie Daniels, has been around. In 1973 he sang for Ariel Sharon's victorious Israeli troops on the Egyptian side of the Suez Canal, near Ismailia. More recently, he has performed in various former Eastern Bloc countries where, as elsewhere in Europe, he is deeply and widely revered. But the market in those countries is by nature amenable to Cohen's art, which straddles a number of Old World traditions, including that of 17th-Century British poets, the French balladeer and the '60s art song.
Much of Cohen's love is for Federico Garcia Lorca, the poet killed during the Spanish Civil War. Cohen named his daughter for Lorca and set one of Lorca's poems to music. As a 15-year-old in a Montreal bookshop, Cohen encountered Lorca's lines: "Through the arch of Elvira/ I'm going to see you pass/ To feel your thighs and begin weeping." The result was instant epiphany. Cohen has consciously adopted the sensual imagery of Lorca, considering him "a poet to fall in love with." Ironically, that description would eventually befit Cohen.
Lorca's vision was of "a universe I understood thoroughly," Cohen says, "and I began to pursue it, to follow it, and to live in it." But he would not read the poet's hefty biography published last year. He won't even read his own, the recently published and scholarly "Prophet of the Heart," written by Loranne S. Dorman and Clive L. Rawlins.
"People have time to sit around reading biographies? Haven't they heard the bad news? We're in the middle of the Flood. Well, maybe that's the appropriate behavior in a flood: Get yourself a corner, slippers, tweed jacket with leather elbows; light the old pipe, and break open the bio and spend a pleasant evening."
To Fetherling, the most recent to scrutinize Cohen's doings, he sent a one-line letter. "You see right through me," he wrote. Fetherling, whose publisher sent along a copy of the letter with the book, says he is quite pleased by the recognition. He oughtn't to be.
"I have a whole drawer full of those things," Cohen says. 'With my computer, they're real easy.
"You'll get one, too," he says.