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Leonard Cohen: “I didn't have the interior authority to tackle some of my greatest songs”

Leonard Cohen: “I didn't have the interior authority to tackle some of my greatest songs”

We thought it time to return to this rare, amazing interview from Uncut’s December 1997 issue (Take 7). Cohen, then a Zen monk, looks back on 30 years as the laureate of romantic gloom and erotic distress. Words: Nigel Williamson

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Leonard Cohen is running two hours behind schedule. After a hectic day of media interviews, lesser mortals would be feeling frayed at the edges. That Cohen is still fresh, courteous and insightful is a powerful advertisement for the spartan lifestyle he has been leading for the past three years in a Zen monastery 6,500 feet up a Californian mountain.

Cohen has come down from the mount for a rare engagement with the world to talk about his life, his loves, his faith and, above all, his music – an extraordinary back catalogue of profound and confessional songwriting which over 30 years has brought him both a reputation as the most doom-laden troubadour of them all, and a dedicated following, second only to the Dylanologists in their fastidious dissection of his every nuance.

For this day only, the mountain cabin in the old scout camp which now serves as his monastic home has been swapped for the swankiest beach hotel in west Los Angeles, and his customary Buddhist robes have been replaced by a black suit of expensive cut. Only the closely cropped hair, which he rubs constantly with his right palm, and the simple, flat rope shoes betray his Zen calling.

At 63, Cohen is more charismatic than ever. Conditioned by up to 18 hours meditation a day, at times he remains so impassively still that you want to check he is breathing. When he speaks, the voice is deep and resonant, sometimes reduced almost to a whisper, full of calm but animated at the same time. It is a serene performance that makes you want to ask what he’s on and whether it's available on prescription. It is - but only in the natural pharmacy high up Mount Baldy, about two hours drive from downtown LA.

“The macho feeling is that we are the Marines of the spiritual world. It is a severe regime, but you get used to it,” he says.

Cohen’s day starts at 2.30am and, after an hour's chanting (“It's good for the bowels because you start vibrating inside”), the day proceeds through meditation and work periods (“Plumbing, carpentry, shoveling snow, whatever has to be done to keep the place going"). Cohen’s special task is to cook for Roshi, the 90-year-old Zen master of the order whom he first met 28 years ago at a friend's wedding. “lt’s vegetarian, lots of lentils. But, recently, the doctor said he wasn't getting enough protein, so I’m cooking a lot of fish." Much of their food is begged mendicant-style from local Japanese farmers and storekeepers.

“We wear robes, everything is done very formally in single file - it’s-very ritualised,” he says. “You pretty well know what you’re doing every moment of the day. It sounds boring but it’s nothing to when you’re actually living it. At the beginning, people have difficulty with the lack of sleep, but you find that you don’t need as much sleep as you imagined and you go into a different gear.”

There are no newspapers, television or radio, but Cohen denies feeling deprived.

“In civilian life you close the door, switch on the television, crack open a beer and you’re really alone. There's a saying in Zen that, like pebbles in a bag, the monks polish each other. You get very close when you’re sitting with a group of people day after day meditating. You’re not improvising in the way you have to in civilian life, so you relax into the regime. After a while, you're just thinking about your meal, your work and sleeping - so that is refreshing, because you don’t have to speculate on matters that are really quite irrelevant and just produce anxiety. Over 2,000 years, most of the kinks have been ironed out, so it’s an effective tool for removing unnecessary distractions and providing a space to live quietly. That’s hard to find in the world.”

It's certainly a long way from New York's Chelsea Hotel, where Cohen once famously described in song getting a blow job from Janis Joplin while her limo waited outside.

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Leonard Norman Cohen was born in Montreal in 1934 to a family of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. His grandfather was Polish, his mother Latvian and his father, who owned a clothing concern, died when he was nine. He went to McGill University and, despite an early affection for country music and a trio called The Buckskin Boys, his first love in those bohemian, beatnik days was poetry. By 1956, while Presley was recording “Heartbreak Hotel”, Cohen was publishing Let Us Compare Mythologies, his first collection of verse. By the late Fifties, he had pitched up in New York at Columbia University and his second volume of poetry, The Spice Box Of Earth, was published in 1961 just as Dylan was appearing on the Greenwich Village scene.

Cohen drifted to Europe, missing the great folk explosion and eventually settling in Greece. The search for the world’s quiet places was to become a recurring motif in his career, and, when he bought a house on the island of Hydra (where he lived on-and-off for several years with Marianne Jensen and her son, Axel, the inspiration behind “So Long, Marianne”), Cohen was met with the same incomprehension that greeted his retreat to the monastery.

“Everyone asked how I could isolate myself," he reflects now. “This world is very alienated and lonely, but the two places I have felt least isolated are on the island and up the mountain.”

Two acclaimed novels followed: The Favourite Game in 1963, an autobiographical work about his early days in Montreal, and the ambitious Beautiful Losers in 1966, which had reviewers comparing him to James Joyce. But Cohen was restless - and, more to the point, broke. Good reviews don’t put food on even Greek tables and his books initially sold fewer than 3,000 copies. Yet he recalls the novel-writing days with affection, fulfilling his desire for order in a similar way to the regimented monastic life.

“In retrospect, writing books seems the height of folly, but I liked the life. It's good to hit that desk every day and have your meal on the table every evening. There's a lot of order to it that is very different from the life of a rock’n’roller. I turned to professional singing as a remedy for an economic collapse. I'd always played guitar and made up songs, and I decided to go to Nashville to get a job."

He never got as far as Tennessee.

“I went through New York and got ambushed. In Greece, I'd been listening to Armed Forces Radio, which was mostly country music. But then I heard Dylan and Baez and Judy Collins, and I thought something was opening up, so I borrowed some money and moved into the Chelsea Hotel.”

After Collins recorded “Dress Rehearsal Rag" on her 1966 album, ‘In My Life’, he was invited to appear at the Newport Folk Festival and was introduced to John Hammond, the legendary Columbia A&R man, who had signed everyone from Billie Holiday to Bob Dylan.

“He took me to lunch and then we went back to the Chelsea,” Cohen recalls. ‘‘I played a few songs and he gave me a contract.” That it was such a mature, assured debut is partly explained by the fact that Cohen was already 33, yet the sheer intensity of such songs as “So Long Marianne” and “The Sisters Of Mercy” took the musical world by surprise. Some of it was Dylanesque ("I walked into a hospital where none was sick and none was well/When at night the nurses left I could not walk at all”), but Cohen was a unique voice with his own literary style and a bold romantic streak to match the dark, smouldering good looks that stared out from the austere cover.

Accompanied by not much more than a nylon-stringed guitar, the confessional quality detailing highly tangled emotional relationships immediately established a huge bedsit appeal, particularly in Europe, and his debut camped out in the British charts for 18 months.

“Yes, it’s autobiographical,” he says. “I can’t just establish a narrative and fill in the characters and action in the ways some writers do, so people like Suzanne and Marianne and the Sisters of Mercy all exist. And it seems that in the manifesting of the song I have to get to what is really going on. That's why it takes me so long to write, because I discard so much along the way."

Cohen is full of envy for those who routinely pluck songs fully-formed out of the ether.

“The only time that ever happened to me was ‘Sisters Of Mercy’. I was in Edmonton during a snow storm, and I took refuge in an office lobby. There were two young back-packers there, Barbara and Lorraine, and they had nowhere to go. I asked them back to my hotel room – they immediately got into the bed and crashed while I sat in the armchair watching them sleep. I knew they had given me something, and, by the time they woke up, I had finished the song and I played it to them.”

It is more usual for Cohen to spend several years over a song.

“We had an intermittent friendship with Dylan for years. I don't see him very often but we always connect in a very satisfying way and I met him in Paris a few years ago when he was performing my song, ‘Hallelujah’.

“He asked me how long it took to write, and I lied and said three or four years when actually it took five. Then we were talking about ‘I And I’, one of his songs, and he said it took him 15 minutes.”

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Cohen was now at his commercial peak, and 1969's Nashville-recorded follow-up, Songs From A Room, and 1971’s Songs Of Love And Hate were both Top Five albums in Britain. In between, he appeared at the 1970 Isle of Wight festival. It was an era in which anyone who warbled about “The unicorns of my mind” was hailed as a poet, but Cohen was the genuine article as songs such as “Bird On The Wire” and “Famous Blue Raincoat” continued to expand the songwriting envelope. Cohen was anxious to develop beyond the acoustic folk image, and for the first time he was credited as co-producer on 1974's New Skin For The Old Ceremony.

“When I started producing myself, I had a lot of problems. You have to speak specifically to musicians and I didn't have the technical language. I wanted to make it full and rhythmic, but I couldn't get what I wanted, and that's why I eventually turned to Phil Specter.”

Before that, however, Cohen decided to take one of his periodic “rests” from the music business and retired to his Greek island for a couple of years. He was by now the father of two children, but his personal life was in a mess by the time he returned. The combination of the volatile Spector and a half-crazy Cohen (‘‘I got into drugs and drinking and women and travel and feeling that I was part of a motorcycle gang or something,” he says) was bound to be explosive, and in 1977’s Death Of A Ladies Man, they produced one of rock’s true curios.

“I thought that Phil could bring my music into the place I wanted it to be, rock’n’rolI with a heavy rhythm. He invited me back to his house and locked the doors so I couldn’t leave. He had the air conditioning down to about 35 so it was freezing and I was really uncomfortable. I didn't want to be in that place but l said, ‘Since you've locked us in here, Phil, Iet’s do some music,’ and we started writing that night. After that, he lightened up a lot and we spent two months writing the album.

“When other people were around, he produced this horrendous persona, like Ivan The Terrible. In the studio, you were slipping on bullets on the floor. He pulled a gun on the fiddle player [Bobby Bruce] because he didn't like the way he was playing. He was a good ol’boy and he just put his fiddle away and walked out. It was a very disagreeable time.”

Cohen’s own low ebb did not help.

“I think my performance leaves a lot to be desired. I didn't know where I was going and I was in as big a mess as Phil. My marriage was breaking up and I'd lost confidence in my work and in my capacity to write a song, otherwise I would not have written with Phil because I was never a great collaborator. Even if Phil had been different and encouraged me, which he didn't, I don’t think I could have pulled it off.”

Was it true that Spector took the tapes home under armed guard every night?

“He used to confiscate them in case I did somthing on my own. I'd never come across this kind of megalomania. The record wasn’t finished, they were scratch vocals. Phil mixed it secretly and I never really had much to do with it. We've been able to laugh about it since.”

By the mid-Eighties, Cohen’s career was in the doldrums but the spiritual concerns, always present in his work, were coming to the fore.

“I found myself broke again and I knew I had to resurrect not just my career but myself and my confidence as a writer and singer. I became interested in how things really operate, the mechanics of feeling, how the heart manifests itself, what love is. I think people recognise that the spirit is a component of love, it's not all desire, ‘I there’s something else. Love is there to help your loneliness, prayer is to end your sense of separation with the source of things.”

The full flowering of Cohen’s rehabilitation came with 1988’s I'm Your Man. It was his most successful work in an age, and on the back of it he played three nights at the Royal Albert Hall, took part in the Prince of Wales’ Trust rock gala with Peter Gabriel and Eric Clapton, and was the subject of a BBC television documentary.

“I had been pretty well wiped out in the marketplace but I was very happy with that album. I produced it myself and got the sound I wanted.”

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By this time, Cohen’s basso profundo had dropped almost another octave, reaching improbable depths.

“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.”

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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

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