Page 2 of 6
Cohen has, in fact, been a friend of Joshu Sasaki ever since 1973, though he has not made a fuss about it, and votaries will get clues to this part of his existence only from a couple of tiny elliptical vignettes in his 1978 book, Death of a Lady’s Man, and occasional songs—like "If It Be Your Will"—that, like his 1984 collection of psalms, Book of Mercy, express absolute submission. Apart from his 26-year-old son, Adam, and his 23-year-old daughter, Lorca, the Japanese roshi seems to be the one still point in Cohen’s endlessly turning life, and now he accompanies the man he calls his friend to Zen centers from Vienna to Puerto Rico, and goes through punishing retreats each month in which he does nothing but sit zazen, twenty-four hours a day for seven days on end.
The rest of the time he works around the Zen center, shoveling snow, scrubbing floors, and—most enthusiastically—working around the kitchen (he tells me, with mischievous pride, that he has a certificate from the county of San Bernardino that qualifies him to work as waiter, busboy or cook). For the monk here known as Jikan (or "Silent One"), the things he’s famous for—a command of words, beautiful suits, a hunger for ideas, and a hypnotist’s ease at charming the world—are thrown aside.
"In the zendo," he tells me, not unhappily, "all of this disappears." ("This" referring, I think, to his name, his past, the life he carries around within him.) "You don’t notice if this woman’s beautiful or ugly. If that man smells or doesn’t smell. Whoever you’re sitting next to, you just see their pain. And when you’re sitting, you feel nothing but the pain. And sometimes it goes, and then it’s back again. And you can’t think of anything else. Just the pain." He pauses (and the chanteur/enchanteur slips out again). "And, of course, it’s the same with other kinds of pain, like broken hearts."
The icon who’s been entertained and idolized by everyone from Prince Charles and Georges Pompidou to Joni Mitchell and Michelle Phillips, the regular visitor to the top of the European charts who’s inspired not one tribute album (like most legends), but a dozen worldwide, the Officer of the Order of Canada recently described, in The United States of Poetry, as "perhaps the continent’s most successful poet," seems to thrive on this. He’s too happy to write anymore, he tells me soon after I arrive (though, one day later, he’s showing me things he’s writing, toward a new Book of Longing). And, though the face is still strikingly reminiscent of Dustin Hoffman’s—especially if he were playing Harold Bloom—he’s well hidden in the bobble cap that his roshi "commanded" him to wear. "This whole practice is mostly about terrifying you," he says happily. "But there’s a lot to be gained in those terrors. It gets you so efficiently into a certain place."
And the place is one that Cohen has been journeying toward all his life, in a sense. "There’s a bias against religious virtue here," he assures me, grinning one morning, as bells toll outside and I smell sweet incense in the air and hear clappers knocking in the distance, "and it’s very appealing. So you never have the feeling that it’s Sunday school. And you never have the feeling that you’re abandoning some cavalier life, or getting into some goody-goody enterprise. Not at all. Not at all." When a Buddhist magazine recently asked Cohen to conduct an interview with Sasaki, he gladly agreed, provided they could talk about "wine, women, and money." And to be sure, we’ve hardly been introduced before the disarming sinner-songwriter is using "pussy" and "shunyata" in the same sentence.
It’s not so much that Cohen has given up the world—he still has a duplex that he bought with two friends in Los Angeles, and when I visit him at two o’clock one morning, I hear the crackle of a transistor radio in his bedroom. The man with a gift for being in tune with the times is still providing the songs that are heard on the sound track of Oliver Stone’s state-of-the-art "Natural Born Killers," appearing at Rebecca De Mornay’s side at Hollywood functions not so long ago, and inspiring a new generation of grunge poets—to the point where Kurt Cobain famously sang, "Give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld so I can sigh eternally." But he’s nonetheless managed to come to L.A., archetypal center of surface and self-absorption, and turn it into a high, cold mountain training more rigorous than the army.
In some ways, he’s been there since the beginning. His songs, after all, have always been about obedience and war, pain and attention and surrender, and he’s always seemed a curiously old-fashioned, even forbidding figure who abhors clutter and goes it alone and yearns to be on his knees as well as on his toes—focused and penetrating and wild. The dark skies and spare spaces and mythic shapes around Mount Baldy feel uncannily like the landscape of a Leonard Cohen song.
Besides, the self-styled "voice of suffering" has never chosen to diversify his themes; he just goes deeper and deeper into them. The refrain that lights up his recent song "Democracy" actually appears in his novel Beautiful Losers from thirty years ago; the poem he recited as a prologue to volume one of "Rare on Air," the KCRW compilation-album series, was one he wrote for his first book, composed in part when he was in high school. Even thirty years ago, when he was known as a woman-hungry, acid-dropping, enfant-terrible provocateur, he was writing, "Prayer is translation. A man translates himself into a child asking for all there is in a language he has barely mastered."
And for nearly half a century he’s been slipping in and out of view, playing games with the entity known as "Leonard Cohen." There’s the short, upper-middle-class Jewish kid taking lessons in hypnotism, forming a country-and-western band called the Buckskin Boys and, while studying English at McGill, reciting verse over jazz at midnight like some wintry Kerouac. There’s the slightly older figure, scrupulously dissolute, and already the author of six books when he sang his poem "Suzanne" over the phone to Judy Collins and she eventually persuaded him to sing it himself, this uncertain-seeming theologian, appearing at the Monterey Jazz Festival, the Isle of Wight Festival, and on the client list of John Hammond (the man who discovered both Dylan and Springsteen). There’s the leading young poet in Canada not only delivering "Loneliness and History" lectures and composing a whole opera in the sixteenth-century verse-form of The Faerie Queene, but also losing his rights to "Suzanne," with the result that his first and most famous song to this day brings him no money at all.
He lived on the Greek island with his Norwegian love in the sixties. He acquired a "small, cupboard-sized room" in the Chelsea Hotel, where Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and Jimi Hendrix came through now and then. He took over a 1,200-acre homestead in Franklin, Tennessee (rented from the writer of "Bye, Bye Love" for $75 a month)—and posed for photos in a Stetson. He got dissected by the novelist Michael Ondaatje in a book-length work of literary criticism; sold excerpts from his work to Cavalier, the skin magazine; appeared at one concert riding a white horse, and greeted an audience in Hamburg with the cry, "Sieg Heil!"