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Leonard Cohen: You Want It Darker

02 November 2016

The legendary songwriter talked about the lyrics that linked threads to his childhood landscape in this interview with Dan Cairns.

The legendary Leonard Cohen live on stage © Route66 /
The legendary Leonard Cohen live on stage © Route66 /

This interview was published on our website on November 2, just over a week before the sad news that the legendary singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen had passed away on November 11, 2016.

He might have said he was ready to go, but the singer’s extraordinary new album looks to have brought about a change of heart. He’s sticking around.

In a large, sun-dappled garden in the leafy, deep-lawned Los Angeles district of Hancock Park, the atmosphere has that air of LA perfection that makes you immediately suspicious. It’s early evening in mid-October, yet you could comfortably be in shorts and a T-shirt, and plunge into the Canadian consul’s Hockney-perfect pool without nether-region trauma. An open-air bar dispenses cocktails, beer, single malt, fine wine. Guests either air-kiss in a brittle sort of way or mingle, then part, with unease.

There is no music, but if there were, the setting would inspire you to cue up Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, Carole King, maybe some early Eagles. But definitely, emphatically not Leonard Cohen. Spare, morose, introspective, mordant baritone balladry has no part to play here. Yet we are, to paraphrase Lou Reed, waiting for that very man. It’s incongruous, to say the least.

The anxiety of expectation means the party never quite achieves lift-off. Behind us, through french windows, a ballroom with row upon row of functional, rapidly assembled plastic seating is visible, ready for a playback of Cohen’s new album and his Q&A with a motley crew of international journalists, all eyeing one another warily. Someone says (not to me): “Leonard would be fine if you come visit. You know how we run the green room. Nobody comes back.”

Which is further incongruity. Bob Dylan with his Nobel prize, Bieber, Taylor, Madonna, Jagger? All have battalions of security, you imagine. But this is Leonard Cohen in an inner sanctum — an octogenarian Canadian whose work is, bar Dylan’s, many millions of miles away from those glitzy names and the company they keep.

But let’s be charitable. The ring of steel around him seems to exist because the 82-year-old is frail (his hand shakes as we talk), and his willingness to discuss or dissect his work, both historic and recent, is now, for the most part, limited to the point of parsimony. A face-to-face interview is dangled, before disappearing in a puff of PR speak. Emailed questions are invited, and off they go. The answers that ping back to me are terse, weary, barely usable. Cohen is guarded in both senses of the word, because he is a poet, functioning, fecund, inquisitive, but also because he is fragile, unsteady and needs a degree of genuine protection. And he is, if you believe some — trust me, don’t believe it all — of what he says, about done with the game. Almost. Maybe. Not quite.

Leonard Cohen on songwriting

Dapper though he is, in a three-piece suit, topped with the ever-present fedora, Cohen presents a picture of fading health: stooped, shrunken, clutching his walking stick. Watch his eyes, though, and the years fall away. When you put a question to him, they sparkle with mischief, even as you observe the shutters going up. Five decades in the business mean there are no exposed flanks: he can see you coming a mile off. Ask him his view on people’s insistence on describing him as the epitome of the tortured artist (he spent years working on Hallelujah, writing more than 80 verses for it before whittling them down) and he swats the query away. As we speak, he says: “There are human beings being tortured. Let us not trivialise the unspeakable horror by adding songwriting to that category.”

At one point on You Want It Darker, the 14th studio album Cohen has made in his 50-year career, he sings: “I’m leaving the table, I’m out of the game.” The gone-viral quote from an extensive New Yorker profile — “I am ready to die” — hangs heavy and buttresses that lyric’s sentiment. With characteristic waspishness (and contrariness), Cohen scythes through this: “I said I was ready to die. I think I was exaggerating. One is given to self-dramatisation from time to time. I intend to live for ever.” And they say Dylan is gnomic.

In part, you sense this is a natural response to the sifting his work has been subjected to. As in, I’ve done the heavy lifting by writing this stuff; you can’t expect me to talk about it too.

The contrastingly affable and loquacious producer and songwriter Patrick Leonard, who co-wrote many of Madonna’s biggest hits during her 1980s/1990s pomp and has returned to work with Cohen for the third time on You Want It Darker, thinks that’s understandable. “Look, people wanted to intellectualise Madonna records, too. I mean, hello? If they even knew. But people will always try. You know, ‘This is about this.’ Hmm... Kind of. Look, it’s song by song, until you can go, ‘Thank God we got a body of work together.’ If artists can’t figure it out, why do we think we can? You give up everything you have to be good at it. It’s a daily grind in search of the lost chord. Forever. There’s no end, and you never win. And you make the choice knowing those are the rules.”

Adam Cohen on his father, Leonard Cohen

Cohen’s son, Adam, a songwriter in his own right, produced the new album, which was recorded in his father’s nearby home. Cohen Sr says it would never have been made without his son’s constant cajoling. Adam, a spit for his father, with a speaking voice to match, seems similarly amused, to the point of mild contempt, by the ceaseless analysis of his father’s methods and motives.

“To you, there’s the man and there’s the writer. But I only knew one thing. There weren’t two doors — through door A is my father, through door B Leonard Cohen the writer. There was only one door. A package deal. I’ve only known the guy who was always writing, who was always up before us. I’d come and find him in his underwear, strumming a guitar. I heard Hallelujah before it was a song. I heard many of them, in various permutations. He’s sweating over every syllable. These songs are the end result of a lifetime pursuit of the exactitude of language. And they communicate frightening and personal truths.” Again, you sense the unsaid payoff: isn’t that enough?

Cohen’s notoriously pared-back domestic arrangements — his apartment is bare of anything but the essentials, and he adopts a similar approach to his clothes — long preceded his decision to move, in 1994, to a Zen monastery in California, where he was ordained as a monk. It is a regimen that dates back to his adolescence and was carried over to the Greek island of Hydra, where he lived in the 1960s and fell in love with Marianne Ihlen, who would inspire three of his greatest songs: Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye; Bird on the Wire; and, of course, So Long, Marianne. Their relationship lasted the best part of a decade.

This summer, it had a moving coda. When Cohen learnt that Ihlen was dying from cancer, he contacted her at once. “Well, Marianne,” he wrote, “it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.” Two days after Cohen sent those words, Ihlen died, having been read his letter.

Last rites, final acts. Cohen’s career has involved its own codas. When, in 2004, his longtime manager was found to have embezzled his savings, the resulting mess led, four years later, to his returning to the live stage. If that move was dictated initially by financial concerns, it took on a wonderful artistic integrity, as the singer toured the world for almost three years, shrinking packed arenas with marathon performances that had the atmosphere of a club gig.

At the same time, his recording career hit an unlikely new purple patch: two new albums, Old Ideas and Popular Problems, mined familiar Cohen themes of mortality, lust, spirituality and loss, but did so with an air of stocktaking that suggested Cohen was approaching his ninth decade with acceptance and humility (and, noticeably, a strong dose of droll self-mockery). That process continues on You Want It Darker, which ranks up there with his greatest albums, an extraordinary achievement. In a weary, husky, up-close voice, sometimes no louder than a whisper, Cohen confronts those frightening and personal truths to bluesy backing that is appropriately hushed and sepulchral. It is as if the myth of Leonard Cohen is being slowly dismantled, much as his possessions become fewer and fewer.

“I never got wise to that fictional character,” the man himself says. “And nothing in this racket makes any sense to me, to tell you the truth. Everybody has a kind of magical system they employ in the hope that this will open up the channels. My mind was always very cluttered, so I took great pains to simplify my environment, because if my environment were half as cluttered as my mind, I wouldn’t be able to make it from room to room.”

Cohen’s humour is as sharp as ever. “Laughing Len”, the “merchant of gloom” and those other slightly snarky epithets clearly don’t bother him, but that doesn’t stop him quipping: “All those bastards are going to pay for it.” I ask him if he still paints self-portraits, which he was known to have done on a daily basis. “I might get back to it when my hands stop shaking.” Inevitably, Dylan’s Nobel prize comes up. Cohen’s response to it is a classic of its kind. For him, “it is like pinning a medal on Mount Everest for being the highest mountain”. Read that again. And again. I know, right?

You keep coming back to those eyes. When he is introduced to the current cantor of the Montreal synagogue he attended as a child, Cohen takes in the man’s shiny, slightly bouncy countenance and jarringly unlikely co-respondent shoes, and you can almost hear his brain filing the details away. The cantor and his choir perform on the new album (though this is the first time he and Cohen have met), including the title track, on which Cohen sings “Hineni, Hineni”, Hebrew for “Here I am” — “I’m ready, my Lord.”

This linking of a thread back to the faith and music of his childhood, combined with the lyrics’ implication of imminent death, put further wind in the sails of Cohen’s “I am ready to die” quote. On the significance of the cantor’s involvement, he comments: “I’ve never thought of myself as a religious person. I don’t have any spiritual strategy, I kind of limp along, like so many of us do in these realms.” And, discussing the lyrics, he says: “This is a vocabulary that I grew up with, and it’s natural that I use those landmarks as references. Once, they were universal references and everybody understood them. That’s no longer the case today, but it’s still my landscape.”

The new album closes with a reprise of the song Treaty, arranged for a chamber orchestra by Cohen. Talking about this, deliberately or accidentally, he reveals that his recording career may not be over after all. “I hope we can come up with something orchestral, with some spoken material. And I also, God willing, hope that perhaps another record of songs might emerge, but one never knows.”

Adam recalls a conversation he had with his father during the sessions. “You listen to the songs, and this guy is whispering in your ear. These feelings that are hard-wired into his heart and mind, he’s communicating them with masterful ease. I asked him, ‘What is creating this?’ And he said, ‘It’s so simple. I’m trapped, I’m in captivity, with such diminished distractions. I have nothing in this project other than you getting me out of bed in the morning.’”

With an impish smile, and one last look at the cantor’s shoes, Cohen makes his farewell. “I hope we can do this again,” he says. Then: “I intend to stick around until I’m 120.” Someone give the man a medal.

Dan Cairns / The Times / The Interview People


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