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.
This whole documentary thing is a bit foreign to Cohen, who says he hasn't seen many, though there've been a few made about him by the BBC and CBC. He remembers a little-known one, Bird on a Wire(no relation to the Mel Gibson–Goldie Hawn vehicle), which focused on a 1972 tour. "[Director] Tony Palmer was using some experimental techniques that involved superimposing one image on another. I think I bowed out when I saw the bass player playing my nose."
I'm Your Man finds Cohen in a rather dark, fatalistic frame of mind, talking about the "vale of tears," about being born "alive in the horror," and about how we live without recognizing that "we've already been killed." Today, though, he says he's feeling cheerful.
"They say that as you get older, the brain cells associated with anxiety begin to die and you start feeling better." Is there any way you can kill those early? "That's a good question. But the longer it goes, you get a kind of . . . divine amnesia. The memories remain, but the charge that disturbed you dissolves. Often when you review your past, you think of these experiences —'That motherfucker,' y'know. Now I don't remember the emotional charge."
He asks how old I am. "Yeah, 55 I found difficult," he says. "I found I was losing my powers in some way. I had no currency in the sexual marketplace, but there didn't seem to be anything to take its place. I remember at that time I had trouble with people and relationships and myself, and I was on every antidepressant you can think of."
Since we're not talking about the movie anymore, I indulge an old curiosity by asking Cohen about the word body, two blunt lyric syllables only he and Kris Kristofferson have written with any regularity. He's pleased with himself about it. "I use the word thigh a lot, too. Lately I've moved on to shoulder. You sort of feel like a butcher or something." (He has a song called "The Butcher," whose title character is God.) "There's a Tom Lehrer song where he's holding her hand, and it really is just her hand." Cohen follows with a quite creditable Bela Lugosi impersonation.
Forgetting that Cohen sidetracked an acclaimed literary career to become a pop star, people think of him mostly as some kind of sage. Every 10 minutes, though, his behavior reminds me of his showman side.
There are three guitars in Cohen's living room, and two of them have a broken string. When I ask him what happened to his roadie, he explains that his strings are hard to replace; he has them specially made to accommodate the tension required for the way he tunes the instruments—two full steps down from the standard. He wrote many songs when his voice was higher, and instead of reconfiguring the picking patterns, which are intricate, he just tuned the guitar to his lowered range. He picks up the lone fully strung ax, and the famous arpeggiation mode he invented swells out effortlessly from his fingers. He's thinking about a tour, and he's been practicing.
"That's my chop," he says. "I'm working on another one, and when I've got that down, I'll have chops."
Cohen goes to a little stereo and puts on a homemade CD of the "rap" music (ha) he's been working on. The sparely stated rhythm that supports his lyrics reminds me of Jamaican toasting, but when the instrumentation fills in, the feel is more like the music of the Greek islands he frequented in the '60s. Hypnotic.
He also plays a couple of tracks from Blue Alert, the new album he produced for Anjani, a friend and former backup singer in his band. She has set some of his words in spacious, floating jazz arrangements; it's just how you'd think he would want it to sound.
Finally, Cohen reads me a poem from his new Book of Longing, which is alive and contradictory, like the Zen he practices, and you should read the whole volume. The poem is about following his words into the world—a humble but complex sentiment. Possibly, he's also drawing my attention to the adjacent verse, which is illustrated by his small drawing of his teacher/friend Roshi:
with the old man—
his exquisite hospitality
in the shack by the river—
that is, no hospitality
just emptying the bottle into my glass
and filling my plate
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and falling asleep
when it was time to go
Leonard Cohen walks me to my car, and I drive off. He remains standing on the sidewalk, looking at the eastern sky.
Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man is reviewed here.