Uncut meets the laureate of romantic gloom – at the time of interview, a highly disciplined Zen monk…
“I knew I was no great shakes as a singer but I always thought I could tell the truth about a song. I liked those singers who would just lay out their predicament and tell their story, and I thought I could be one of those guys. But I didn’t know where to put my voice and I didn’t have the interior authority to tackle some of my greatest songs. On I ‘m Your Man, my voice had settled and I didn’t feel ambiguous about it. I could at last deliver the songs with the authority and intensity required.”
The follow-up, The Future, appeared in 1992 and remains Cohen’s last studio album. The themes of love and redemption are still dominant but, for the first time, there is a political edge as well, with songs such as the title track and “Democracy” name-checking Tiananmen Square, Stalin, Hiroshima and the Berlin Wall.
“I was living in LA through the riots and the earthquakes and the floods,” he remembers. “And even for one as relentlessly occupied with himself as I am it is very hard to keep your mind on yourself when the place is burning down, so I think that invited me to look out of the window.”
Cohen seems to have cracked the art of growing old gracefully. Three years ago he split up with the actress, Rebecca DeMornay, his partner of several years’ standing. She admitted publicly that the age gap – she is almost 30 years his junior – played its part, so I asked him how he dealt with ageing.
“It’s the only game in town,” he said. “But it puts you off a lot of other games you’ve become attached to, like romance, because there’s nothing more inappropriate than seeing an old guy coming on.
“You still feel like an 18-year-old full of hunger and desire, but there is a certain restraint because as you grow older the possibility for humiliation in these matters becomes more abundant and you have a few little experiences that cement your determination not to put yourself in dangerous situations. But the perspective that age brings, dismal as some of the views are, is fascinating.”
And Cohen’s own future work?
“I’ve got a lot of songs half-finished. There’s a few perplexing lyrics that I’ve been working on for a long time. Things are still moving on that level but it’s on the backburner and touring seems an even more remote possibility.”
Yet he is contemplating another novel, which would be his first since 1966.
“Just lately, I’ve been thinking about blackening some pages, that enterprise of writing which I blew when I got into this songwriting racket. I don’t know exactly what I would say, but I feel I’ve had some experience and would like to lay some things out.”
Nor does Cohen rule out a return to what he calls civilian life.
“Roshi is now 90,” he says, “and I want to take advantage of his time. I’ve committed myself for the duration but I don’t know how long that is and I don’t really care.
“The devil laughs when you make plans.”
Photo: Lorca Cohen