[sixties-l] Look Whos Back at 67: Gentle Leonard Cohen (fwd)

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Date: Sat Oct 27 2001 - 16:44:46 EDT

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    Date: Mon, 22 Oct 2001 12:35:10 -0700
    From: radtimes <resist@best.com>
    Subject: Look Whos Back at 67: Gentle Leonard Cohen

    October 22, 2001

    Look Who's Back at 67: Gentle Leonard Cohen


    by Frank DiGiacomo

    Leonard Cohen's smoky baritone was almost a whisper. "It's really difficult
    to talk about these things on the phone," he said on Oct. 5. "Too bad we
    can't meet for a drink. It would take several drinks to loosen both our
    tongues to try to get to the deep truth of the matter."
    Some truths were evident. On Aug. 16, I had interviewed the poet,
    singer-songwriter and Zen monk at his suite in the Mayflower Hotel on
    Central Park West. It was a disarmingly beautiful day, and Mr. Cohen, who
    turned 67 on Sept. 21, had greeted me at the door with a little bow.
    Frailness had crept into his frame, but he was the picture of austere
    elegance in his 20-year-old charcoal-gray Paul Stuart suit, close-cropped
    gray hair and tinted drugstore bifocals. He had served me water and
    prepared coffee for himself, and after lighting up the first of a long
    chain of Turkish Tekel cigarettes, we had discussed how, after five years
    of practicing at a Zen monastery on Mount Baldy, Calif., he had returned to
    civilization and produced Ten New Songs (Columbia), one of the best albums
    of his long career.
    Less than a month later, that conversation and the city in which it had
    taken place felt like a distant, inaccessible memory. Four days before the
    album's Oct. 9 release date, I had called Mr. Cohen in an attempt to
    connect the past with the present, and to see if the man who had pursued a
    spiritual path would be able to make any sense of what had happened on
    Sept. 11.
    But what could he say? "There are people in mourning; there's shock and
    grief. I really feel that an analysis of the situation from any point of
    view is premature," Mr.
    Cohen said. "Regardless of what position we come from, we are all involved
    in some kind of way. And, as I say, in the Jewish tradition, one is
    cautioned against trying to comfort the comfortless in the midst of their
    "The most I can hope for is that the songs in some small way have some
    utility in providing solace," Mr. Cohen said. "Because they are gentle and
    on the side of healing in some sort of way."
    Ten New Songs was finished weeks before the events of Sept. 11, yet it
    sounds eerily relevant, as if it had been recorded in the aftermath. It's
    an R&B-inflected Zen pop album that, on the surface, is as soothing,
    sensuous and accessible as a Sade record. But, like any Leonard Cohen
    album, the lyrics offer a more complex, enriching experience. Though they
    are tinged with the kind of melancholy that one might expect from a
    world-class ladies' man facing the loneliest stretch of life, they are
    ultimately comforting.
    In August, those lyrics sounded more personal, the document of an artist
    confronting his twilight. "The ponies run, the girls are young / The odds
    are there to beat / You win a while, and then it's done / Your little
    winning streak," Mr. Cohen sings on "A Thousand Kisses Deep," the album's
    second track. In "Here It Is":
    "And here is the night / The night has begun / And here is your death / In
    the heart of your son."
    "I'm not necessarily the person in all my songs," Mr. Cohen had pointed out
    at the Mayflower. But he acknowledged that death shadowed a lot of the
    album's songs.
    "That's the ocean you swim in as you get older," he said. "I think any man
    of 67 has a pretty clear idea that, you know, that the sense of limitation
    is acute."
    Today, in a city haunted by death, Mr. Cohen's album feels more universal.
    It's difficult to listen to the track "By the Rivers Dark," for instance,
    and not think of the events of Sept. 11. The tune is set in Babylon, the
    city of materialism and sensual pleasure. Over an anguished synthesizer,
    Mr. Cohen, his voice a dusty croak, sings: "By the rivers dark / Where I
    could not see / Who was waiting there / Who was hunting me / And he cut my
    lip / And he cut my heart / So I could not drink / From the river dark."
    And then there's "The Land of Plenty": "Don't really know who sent me / To
    raise my voice and say / May the lights in the Land of Plenty / Shine on
    the truth some day." On Oct. 5, Mr. Cohen admitted that it's "a really
    difficult song now."
    A "sense of a global convulsion has always been present in my work," said
    Mr. Cohen, whose music has seemed clairvoyant before. On the title track
    to 1992's The Future, for instance, he sang: "Give me back the Berlin Wall
    / Give me Stalin and St. Paul / I've seen the future, brother / It is murder."
    "People just credited it to my general morbid take on things, that I
    wouldn't join the celebration about the destruction of the Berlin Wall,"
    Mr. Cohen said at the Mayflower. "It's not that I wasn't happy for people
    who no longer live under tyrannies, but I also sensed that with the
    disintegration of the Soviet empire there'd be great disorder, and that
    that was all that was keeping the various tribes from cutting each other's
    On Oct. 5, though, Mr. Cohen said: "There's nothing to gloat about."
    Much of Ten New Songs seems to be about finding peace through the
    acceptance that one does not control one's destiny. "I tried to love you my
    way / But I couldn't make it hold / So I closed the Book of Longing / And I
    do what I am told," Mr. Cohen sings in "That Don't Make It Junk." He could
    be singing about spiritual love or the more earthly kind.
    "The evidence accumulates as you get older that things are not going to
    turn out exactly as you wish them to turn out, and that life has a dreamy
    quality that suggests that you have no control over the consequences," Mr.
    Cohen said at the Mayflower as he stubbed his cigarette into an ashtray.
    Beneath his gray suit, he was wearing a textured charcoal-gray shirt that
    he said was also 20 years old, and a charcoal-gray tie with thin diagonal
    alabaster stripes. "You may believe you have some control over the
    decisions, but certainly not the consequences. But you live your life as if
    it's real ^ as if you're directing it, but with the intuitive understanding
    that it's unfolding as it should and you are not running the show."
    Mr. Cohen deals with this concept on "A Thousand Kisses Deep," one of two
    songs that refers to Boogie Street. The phrase has roots in Bugis
    (pronounced "Boogie") Street, a once-notorious red light district in
    Singapore. For Mr. Cohen though, Boogie Street is a metaphor for the
    everyday struggles and desires of life.
    "It's always Boogie Street: Boogie Street in the monastery, Boogie Street
    on Times Square. You don't get away from it," Mr. Cohen said. "No one
    masters the heart. The heart continues to cook like [a] shish kebab in
    everybody's breast, bubbling and dripping, and no one, no one, can escape."
    Call Mr. Cohen a spiritual man and he will disagree with you, but he did
    just spend five years at a Zen monastery, studying with and caring for
    Sasaki Roshi, his 94-year-old friend and teacher. Mr. Cohen came down from
    the mountain with some 250 poems and songs, returning to civilization,
    cigarettes and the duplex he keeps in an unfashionable section of Los
    Angeles. His daughter Lorca, an antiques dealer, lives downstairs from him.
    His son Adam, who has his own singing career, lives 10 minutes away. Mr.
    Cohen said that he's currently unattached. "There are women in my life, but
    nothing permanent. Maybe something will come along, but I don't know," he
    said. He added in a quiet voice: "It's pretty spacious without that
    particular component."
    Mr. Cohen has a recording studio in his garage, where Ten New Songs was
    made. The work was not all that different, he said, from life at the
    monastery. "My studio is not soundproof, so I have to get up before the
    birds and my daughter's dogs and the traffic on Olympic to do the vocals,"
    he explained. Then Mr. Cohen often cooked breakfast for his daughter. At
    noon, he was joined by two more women in his life: Sharon Robinson, his
    longtime backup singer, collaborator and friend (Mr. Cohen is the
    godfather to her 12-year-old son, Michael Gold), and his sound engineer,
    Leanne Ungar.
    Ms. Robinson wrote "Waiting for the Miracle" and "Everybody Knows" with Mr.
    Cohen, but her involvement on Ten New Songs is significant. She is credited
    as Mr. Cohen's co-writer, as the album's producer, and with arranging,
    programming and performing the lion's share of the synthesizer- and
    keyboard-dominated music. "This record wouldn't have happened if it
    weren't for Sharon," said Mr. Cohen, who included Ms. Robinson on the
    album's cover.
    Mr. Cohen has never been much for collaboration or sharing the spotlight.
    But, he said, "Sharon so deeply understands the tone of my own work that
    she was able to, I think, miraculously produce tracks that fit very
    harmoniously with the rest of my work."
    And Ms. Robinson's gorgeous alto adds a cool, creamy counterpoint to the
    charcoal smudge that Mr. Cohen's voice has become, especially on the
    album's narcotic first track, "In My Secret Life." Ms. Robinson stays in
    the background on "Love Itself," a beautiful but sad song in which the
    narrator seems to be returning to the dust from which he came. Over a
    simple slow-dance rhythm, Mr. Cohen sings: "Then I came back from where I'd
    been / My room, it looked the same / But there was nothing left between /
    The Nameless and the Name."
    Those lyrics suggest a kind of communion with God, and I asked Mr. Cohen if
    he's imagining dying in the song.
    "You can look at it that way," he said, sounding frustrated. "I'm very
    reluctant to make commentary on my own work."
    Mr. Cohen has always resisted too much analysis of his oeuvre, preferring
    to torpedo the proceedings with humor.
    When I asked him at the Mayflower if he'd ever tried psychotherapy, he replied:
    "No. But I try everything else."
    When pushed on this, Mr. Cohen said: "This is just an opinion, and I have
    very little respect for my own opinions. They're so predictable. And my own
    beliefs, also, I put in the same category. But when they dissolve, there's
    a great sense of liberation."
    Mr. Cohen realized that he'd gotten off the topic. "Therapy," he said. "So,
    it was an opinion of mine, based on no research or evidence, well,
    evidence, yes, because I saw my friends in therapy did not look improved."
    Behind the smoke, he smiled. "I preferred to use drugs. I preferred the
    conventional distractions of wine, women and song. And religion. But it's
    all the same."
    "When you say 'drugs,' do you mean something like Prozac, or the
    recreational kind?" I asked him.
    Mr. Cohen smirked. "Well, the recreational, the obsessional and the
    pharmaceutical. I've tried them all. I would be enthusiastically promoting
    any one of them if any one of those worked."
    "Well, what about the wine and women?" I replied. (Mr. Cohen has often
    waxed eloquent about Chateau Latour.)
    "They're the worst of all," he said.
    On Sept. 11, Mr. Cohen was in India visiting another teacher, Ramesh
    Balsekar. He returned to the States as soon as he could. The level of
    suffering that he believes is always present in the world had been raised
    to unfathomable heights. And Mr. Cohen knew better than to try to comfort
    the comfortless.
    "You know, there's an ancient Hebrew blessing that is said upon hearing bad
    news," Mr. Cohen said. And then he recited it: "Blessed art thou, king of
    the universe, the true judge," he said, adding, "It's impossible for us to
    discern the pattern of events and the unfolding of a world which is not
    entirely our making. So I can only say that."
    It brought to mind something Mr. Cohen had said about benedictions during
    our first meeting: "I like to hear old guys singing. I don't know if you
    heard George Jones' last record, Cold Hard Truth. It's worth looking into,"
    he continued. "When Alberta Hunter was singing in this town many years ago,
    she was 82I came to New York just to listen to her. When she said 'God
    bless you' at the end of the set, you really felt that you had been blessed.
    "It's wonderful to hear a 20-year-old speaking about love or the loss of it
    or the finding of it. As the Talmud says, there's good wine in every
    generation. But I love to hear an old singer lay it out. And I'd like to be
    one of them."
    You may reach Frank DiGiacomo via email at: fdigiacomo@observer.com.

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