Exquisite

Embarrassed and undestroyed, Leonard Cohen at 71

Leonard Cohen wasn't sure he wanted to do this interview. There's a rather worshipful new film featuring him—I'm Your Man, which documents an Australian concert that music producer Hal Willner organized in tribute—and he didn't want to look as if he were hyping his own consecration. He's not that comfortable with praise.

"It has nothing to do with virtue," he says, "but only with one's own nature. It is not my favorite circumstance."

Cohen hadn't been sure he wanted to participate in the film, either. "If you're me," he says, "you say no to everything. But occasionally something gets past you." As it turns out, he was favorably disposed enough toward I'm Your Man and its producer-director, Lian Lunson, that he was willing to say a few words that might smooth the public's path to the box office, a little.

So here he is, his gray-green eyes welcoming me with quiet grace into his modest Central Los Angeles home on a sunny afternoon. Not tall, he's dressed as usual in a neat black suit with button-down shirt and a most elegant narrow tie; he wears no socks with his black shoes. His gray hair is short but present. He hasn't smoked for five years, so his voice has regained much of its low clarity. At 71, one of music's foremost poets and poetry's foremost musicians looks calm and healthy. He pours us each a Beck's pilsner, and when we're finished with those he pours some more.

Cohen starts by insisting he's known as quite a bore. I suggest his friends don't see him that way.

"I never try to say very interesting things to my friends. I think that's one of the privileges of friendship."

Of course, he tells me many interesting and hilarious things in just an hour or two. That's one of the privileges of journalism.

And he says some good stuff in the film, for which he gives Lunson credit: "If you stick around long enough, through careful editing . . ."

Cohen himself wasn't involved as a performer or facilitator in the concert (which features, among others, Nick Cave, Rufus and Martha Wainwright, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Beth Orton, Julie Christensen and Perla Batalla), and neither at first was Lunson, who wasn't even allowed onstage while she was shooting it. But she persisted, telling Cohen she wanted to add segments with him, U2 and others to the concert footage, and eventually winning him over by showing him her 1997 PBS documentary, Willie Nelson: Down Home.

"I'm a great admirer of Willie Nelson, and there was a lot of footage of him playing with his band, and it was so skillful and so generous," Cohen recalls. "You were able to see the creation of his music, and the comradeship. No one in his band has been with him less than 12 years.

"The film so clearly demonstrated a real appreciation, contrary to exploitation, and it touched me. So I felt some ease about cooperating with Lian, and she said she didn't want to embarrass or destroy me—which some people do in this cruel world, as you may know."

I admit to having done my share of embarrassing and destroying. Cohen says he's been known to receive such treatment, even "irregularly appearing in the public realm as I do," such as the reaction of the British press after his 1970 appearance at the Isle of Wight Festival. "They said, 'He's a boring old drone, and he should go back to Canada, where he belongs.'"

When it comes to assessing Rufus Wainwright, whose swishy samba on "Everybody Knows" and translucent prayer on "Hallelujah" are the documentary's musical pinnacles, few could be destructive. "I love Rufus," says Cohen. "He and Martha are friends of the family," the children of songwriter Loudon Wainwright III. "Rufus has a sublime way, thoroughly generous"—a word, along with hospitable, that constitutes Cohen's highest praise.

But there must, I speculate, have been occasions when someone has covered one of Cohen's songs and he went ouch. "To tell you the truth, it hasn't happened yet," he says. "Because I go into some kind of suspended animation. I'm not a person who has critical concerns. I'm so deeply interested in what they're doing with the song that it doesn't rise to the level of criticism. Sometimes I'll just be ravished, and I'll be in tears."

Does he learn anything about his songs from hearing someone else sing them? "There are some I would like to do again based on the information I got from hearing others." He leads me to his computer, apologizing for its Radio Shack speakers—"You probably care about music"—and selects Billy Joel's take on "Light as the Breeze" from his iTunes list. It's gospely and climactic, with uplifting key changes. As it plays, his lips move slightly, following the words of lust and reverence. "My version, I was never happy with it."

Would he have been as good of a songwriter if . . . ". . . I had been able to sing? No. But I always thought I could sell a song. I always thought I could get it across. With some exceptions. 'Light as the Breeze' is one. And 'Hallelujah' is another one. It's had a very curious life, that song." Cohen says it almost didn't see the light of day. When he had finished the album that contained it, Various Positions (1984), Columbia executives weren't enthusiastic. "They said, 'We know you're great, but we don't know if you're any good.'" Now this pensive celebration of broken love has been covered by many, including k.d. lang, who scores a special obeisance from Cohen for her inter­pretation.

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