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At times, as I listened, spellbound against my will by this man with beautiful manners and a poet’s rare diction, moving back and forth between hippie existentialist and Old World scholar, now referring to "bread" and "tokes" and "beating the rap," now talking in a high-pitched tone of "ancient" and "dismal" and "predicament," I could see the coyote trickster who’s been working the press for three decades or more. I felt disconcerted, almost, by his very niceness, his openness, his courtesy, as he continually kept thanking me for "being kind enough to come here," and tended to my every need as if I were the celebrity and he the poor journalist and referred to "what you’re nice enough to call my career." I felt there was something excessive to his modesty, his unusually articulate and quick-witted sentences bemoaning his lack of articulateness and sharpness ("I’m sorry. You get this kind of spaciness at moments in retreats. They say zazen brings short-term memory loss."), his claiming not to know, after twenty years in L.A., how long it takes to drive to Santa Barbara.
I saw the seasoned seducer whom his friend Anjelica Huston recently called "part wolf, part angel," and discovered how he could put "confidence" and "artist" together as easily as "pilgrim" and "mage." Certainly a man so meticulous in clothes and manner was not going to be careless in his verbal presentation of self.
Yet the trouble was, Cohen seemed more wise to this than anyone. "Secretly," he told me cheerily, "the sin of pride as it’s manifested here is that we feel we’re like the marines of the spiritual world: tougher, more reckless, more daring, more brave." Asked about his early years, he confesses, "I think I was more interested in the poetic life and everything around it than the thing itself." Nominating himself as "one of the great whiners," he says that the roshi looks at him sometimes and says, "Attention to the world: need more Buddhism!"
And so, as time passes, I really do begin to feel I am watching a complex man trying to come clear, a still jangled, sometimes angry soul making a heroic attempt to reduce itself to calm. As day passes into night and day again, he comes into focus, and out again, like the sun behind clouds, now blazing with a lucent high intensity, now more like the difficult brooder you might imagine from the records. "He’s a tiger," I remember a woman in New York telling me, "a very complicated man. Complicated in a very grown-up way. I mean, he makes Dylan seem childish." The first time she met him, he congratulated her on a book she’d written. As their meal went on, he added, "Your writing is a lot more interesting than you are."
Cruelty has always been as disconcerting a part of his package as perversity. Yet when I talked to the people who tour with him, I felt I was speaking to the Apostles. "I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone as gracious, as graceful, as generous as Leonard," says Perla Batalla, who has been singing with him for ten years. "Once I’d been out on the road with Leonard, I couldn’t go out with anyone else." His other backup singer, Julie Christensen, left a newborn baby at home to go out on tour with him—having seen her friends who’d been in his band come back "changed, philosophically changed, really on this kind of heightened awareness level." His longtime vocalist, Jennifer Warnes, recorded a whole album of Cohen songs she wanted to bring again before the public.
All of them talk of how Cohen the singer seems of a piece with Cohen the Zen practitioner—how he made them sing and sing and sing the same song until sometimes they’d break into tears, and wore them out with his indefatigable three-hour, twelve-encore concerts. But all speak of his tours as if they were a kind of spiritual training. "He’ll give the same attention to the president of the country, or to someone who’s just walked up to him on the street," says Batalla, recalling how he rode on the bus like just another technician. Others mention his racing off to buy aspirin for them when they’re sick, or inviting them to his hotel room at night to drink hot chocolate made from the sink.
"In the ancient concert halls of Europe," says Christensen, "you got this feeling that you’d really have to run if you weren’t telling the truth. It was a mystery bigger than me, and if I’d figured it out, I would be bigger than it." Then, almost sheepishly, she adds, "I thought that kind of thing was corny before I toured with Leonard." Batalla sometimes visits his home just to sit in absolute silence with her boss.
And so the days on the mountain go on, and every day at dawn young monks with beautiful faces appear at my door with trays of food, and every day, when I visit Cohen in his cabin, he gives me green tea in a wineglass, or shows me paintings—flowing nudes and haggard self-portraits—he’s done on his computer, or reads me poems about the dissolution of self from a book he is collecting, which, like all his best work, sound like love songs and prayers and both, addressed to a goddess or to God.
One morning, in his bathroom, I come upon The Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen.
"I like the fact they distinguish between Buddhism and Zen," he says when I come out.
"What is the difference?"
He disappears—good Zen solution—into the bathroom to clean cups. Another day, as the retreat is drawing to a close, the sky above my window gray and shriven and severe, he shows up with his hands dirty from fixing his toilet, and I try to get him to talk about his writing. "For me," he says, his voice soft and beautiful, with a trace of Canada still hiding inside it, "the process is really more like a bear stumbling into a beehive or a honey-cache: I’m stumbling right into it and getting stuck, and it’s delicious and it’s horrible and I’m in it. And it’s not very graceful and it’s very awkward and it’s very painful"—you can hear the cadences of his songs here—"and yet there’s something inevitable about it." But most of the writers he admires, pre-empting one’s criticism again, "are just incredible messes, as human beings. Wonderful and invigorating company, but I pity their wives and their husbands and their children."
A crooked smile.
As for the songs, "I’ve always held the song in high regard," he says, "because songs have got me through so many sinks of dishes and so many humiliating courting events." Sometimes, he goes on, holding me with his commanding eloquence, his ill-shaven baritone compounded of Gauloises, Courvoisier and a lifetime of late nights, he’ll catch a snatch of one of his songs on the radio, "and I’ll think: these songs are really good. And it’s really wonderful that they have been written, and more wonderful that they should have found a place in the heart. And sometimes I’ll hear my voice, and I think: this guy has got to be the great comedian of his generation. These are hilarious: hilariously inept, hilariously solemn and out of keeping with the times; hilariously inappropriate."