Page 3 of 6
Cohen showed, in fact, an almost disquieting readiness to live out every romantic myth, from staying in a garret to moving to Greece (for its "philosophic climate"), to telling all his women that being true to them meant being untrue to his Muse. What this provoked, understandably, was a sense in many quarters that he was brashly courting success by pretending to ignore it. "If you listen carefully," The New York Times said in 1973, "you are sometimes rewarded with a poet’s profound thoughts, sometimes with a pop star’s put-on."
Undeterred, Cohen continued to subvert his success with puckish gestures, following a book of poems called The Spice-Box of Earth with another called Flowers for Hitler, scribbling up aphorisms on walls—"Change is the only aphrodisiac"—and then ascribing them to the Kama Sutra. Even his career seemed a game he was playing, as he teamed up with, of all people, Phil Spector, for a 1977 album, "Death of a Ladies’ Man," in which dark and serious inquiries into the nature of the soul got buried under a foot-thumping Wall of Sound (Cohen himself called it "a grotesque masterpiece"). The final irony of all was that this overblown Vegas casino of a production actually may have paved the way for the fuller, richer sounds of later albums that brought Cohen surging back onto the charts in his mid-fifties.
Indeed, Cohen always seemed to have a gift for the last word. By the 1990s, such skeptical magazines as Entertainment Weekly, which had always found him an irresistible target for put-downs, were entitling articles "Seven Reasons Leonard Cohen Is the Next Best Thing to God." The head of one of New York’s most prestigious publishing houses was telling me that Cohen has "the best design sense of anyone I’ve ever met," and the man who hadn’t performed live in New York for ten years was No. 1 in Norway for seventeen weeks. Even The New York Times, his unwearying opponent for twenty-five years, was concluding, in 1995, "He is pretty extraordinary, when all is said and done."
Now, as we sit in his cabin one cold December morning, a string of Christmas lights twinkling sadly from the roadside shack across the street, "Mike loves [heart symbol] Suzie" scrawled into the pavement, he’s telling me that he makes no claims to piety or knowledge: his training here is just a useful response to the "predicament of his life." This "connection—the unavoidable presence of the Other—has driven us to religion," he says, explaining why he thinks "the great religion is the great work of art." We "form ourselves around these problems," he goes on. "These problems exist prior to us, and we gather ourselves, almost molecularly, we gather ourselves around these perplexities. And that’s what a human is: a gathering around a perplexity."
He sips some coffee from a cup with the logo of "The Future" on it, beside him the thick notebooks where poems hundreds of verses long will get condensed, often, into a single six-verse song. Around us, as we sit, almost nothing else except a bottle of Sparkletts water, a few candles, a toothbrush and, tucked into a light switch, a picture of the Winged Victory. Cohen has not slept, most likely, for six days. "It’s driven us to art," he says, returning to his theme of the Other. "I mean, it’s so perplexing—the humiliations, the glories that are so abundant—and it’s such a dangerous undertaking. I was just looking through my notebooks, and I saw something nice. It was: ‘I set out for love, but I did not know I’d be caught in the grip of an undertow. To be swept to a shore, where the sea needs to go, with a child in my arms, and a chill in my soul, and my heart the size of a begging-bowl.’ "
And even on this lofty perch, with nothing visible but rock and tree and the occasional sign prohibiting the throwing of snowballs, he doesn’t deny the "fixed self" that awaits him whenever he comes down from the mountain, and in fact goes out of his way to downplay his presence on the mountaintop. "Everyone here is fucked up and desperate," he says brightly. "That’s why they’re here. You don’t come to a place like this unless you’re desperate." Yet over and over, amid the calculated irreverence, the gamesmanship, and the crazy-wisdom subversiveness—one of the reasons he became a monk two years ago, he says, was "Roshi wanted me to do so for tax purposes"—I see something touching and genuine truly coming through. Leonard Cohen, I realize, is really, really trying, with all his body and his soul, to simplify himself as strictly as he does his word-drunk verses.
One morning at dawn, as we talk about Van Morrison and Norman Mailer and how "living in England is like living in a cabbage," Cohen gets to talking of Cuba, and the time, just after the revolution, when he was walking along the beach in his Canadian Army khaki shorts with his camping knife, imagining himself the only North American on the island, and got arrested as the first member of an invading force.
"So anyway, there I was, on the beach in Varadero, speculating on my destiny, when suddenly I found myself surrounded by sixteen soldiers with guns. They arrested me, and the only words I knew at the time were ‘Amistad de pueblo.’ So I kept saying, ‘Amigo! Amistad de pueblo!’ and finally they started greeting me. And they gave me a necklace of shells and a necklace of bullets and everything was great."
Then, suddenly, he stops. "What time is it?" I tell him and he says, "I shouldn’t be talking about my adventures when we’re about to listen to a wonderful teisho." And Leonard Cohen disappears into the black-robed disciple again, and into a reverent silence.
Another day, another tale as short and abstract and mythic, almost, as any of his ballads about worshipping at the altar of beauty, as he suddenly volunteers to tell me about his last girlfriend. "When I met Rebecca [De Mornay]," he says, "all kinds of thoughts came into my mind, as how could they not when faced with a woman of such beauty? And they got crisscrossed in my mind. But she didn’t let it go further than that: my mind. Except it did. And finally she saw I was a guy who just couldn’t come across."
"In the sense of being a husband and having more children and the rest." He stops. "And she was right, of course. But she was kind enough to forgive me. I had breakfast with her the other day, and I told her, ‘I know why you forgave me. Because I really, really tried.’ And she said, ‘Yes.’ "
End of story, end of song.