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He Has Tried in His Way to Be Free

And to a remarkable extent, Leonard Cohen is succeeding. In 2007, SARAH HAMPSON had a rare opportunity to spend an afternoon with the famed singer and poet. He had the wisdom of age but was still the essence of cool—the perfect reflection of his years of Zen.

The park is like a poem: self-contained and spare. Smokers sit on benches in the morning drizzle. Pigeons swoop over a small gazebo, under the limbs of stately trees. There is a solemn-looking house, three storeys high with a gray stone facade. It’s the only one that faces this park in the east end of Montreal, and it’s his. There are two big front doors, side by side. No numbers. No bell. No indication which one is right. You just pick, and knock.

There is more than one way into the world of Leonard Cohen, and on this day, they are all open.

Cohen, now seventy-two, novelist, poet, singer/songwriter and Buddhist monk, is highly regarded all over the world, not just in his native Canada. But he dances in our heads mostly unseen, like a beautiful idea. It is rare that he makes himself available for scrutiny.

Here he is, though, a gentleman of hip in black jeans and an unironed dress shirt beneath a pinstriped, gray-flannel jacket. Atop his thick white hair, combed back off his deeply lined face, a grey cap sits at a jaunty angle, and in the breast pocket of his jacket, instead of a handkerchief he keeps a pair of tinted granny glasses. Standing in the cramped foyer to which both front doors open, sporting a wry, knowing smile, he politely ushers you into the house (once partitioned into two dwellings) that he has owned for more thirty years.

Almost eight years ago, Cohen came down from Mount Baldy, outside of Los Angeles, California, where he had secluded himself at a Buddhist monastery under the tutelage of Zen master Kyozan Joshu Sasaki Roshi since 1993. He is back in the spotlight with new work. In 2004, he released his seventeenth album, Dear Heather. Earlier this year, expanded editions of his first three albums hit the market, as did the critically acclaimed CD, Blue Alert, that he worked on with his lover, Hawaii-born songstress Anjani Thomas. An exhibition of artwork appeared in June. He acknowledges that his increased creative activity is partly to compensate for the millions he lost in royalties at the hands of his former manager, but there’s something different about Cohen.

He seems at ease. He exudes a calmness, as if his age—and more than forty years of study with Sasaki Roshi—have brought him clarity and peace. There is nothing off limits in a discussion with him. Over a bottle of Château Maucaillou, Greek bread, a selection of Quebec cheeses, and a fresh cherry pie, bought for the occasion from the local St. Laurent Boulevard merchants, you learn that he prefers to sleep alone; that he is no longer looking for another woman; the real reason he secluded himself in a Buddhist monastery for almost five years; and that a small, faded portrait of Saint Catherine Tekakwitha, the seventeenth-century native woman and heroine of his novel Beautiful Losers, hangs on the wall in his kitchen, above a table holding a fifties radio and a telephone with on oversize dial pad. He lives in the world but his space is spare.

He will entrance you in the stillness of a moment that stretches to five hours, and in the end, because you happened to ask, playfully, he will say sure, come back any time for a soak in the claw-footed tub, one of several in his house, that sits in a closet of a bathroom under the slope of the stairs.

His artwork is a form of meditation, a daily practice that helps ground him and prepare him for his day. “I think of it all as notes,” Cohen says in his rich, deep voice. Seated at a long pine table in the dining room, which overlooks the park, he is talking about his drawings in a casual, almost shy way.

“There were years when I would do a self-portrait every morning. I have hundreds of them. It was just a way to start the day with a kind of device to wake up.”

“Like a cigarette?”

“Instead of a cigarette.”

He quit four years ago, on a doctor’s advice.

“I do miss it,” Cohen says. “Much longing,” he adds, almost in a moan. (He once wrote a poem about the “the promise, the beauty, and the salvation of cigarettes.”) “I said I’d start smoking again at 85.” He allows a pause. “If I make it.”

He continues to flip through a copy of his new poetry collection, Book of Longing, which contains many of the drawings. “Here’s a good one,” he points out, reading the words beside a self-portrait of glum bewilderment, dated November 18, 2003. “Back in Montreal. As for the past, children, Roshi, songs, Greece, Los Angeles. What was that all about?”

His self-portraits never depict him as happy.

“Well, who is? Is this unique to me?” he asks with a soft chuckle. His friend and fellow poet, the late Irving Layton, once described Cohen as “a narcissist who hates himself.”

“I was able to speak to myself in a very frank sort of way,” Cohen continues. “I would do it while I brewed my coffee. I would set up this little wood Wacom tablet, and a mirror, a little mirror, and I’d just do a very quick sketch and then, what that sketch suggested, I would write something.”

The drawings are “transcendent decoration,” he says, touching one of the pages with the tip of a forefinger. “If it has any value at all, it’s because it’s harmless and doesn’t invite any deep intellection.” He points to various sketches, one of a Hires root-beer can, another of a candlestick, his granny glasses, a Rolex watch he saw in a magazine. “I have always loved things, just things in the world. I love trying to find the shape of things.”

And the nude women? “I would just see a beautiful woman photographed in a pornographic magazine. I would see a figure in Playboy or something like that, and I’d just take the form.” He draws a breath like an inhalation of cigarette smoke, holding it for a moment, exhaling in a sigh. “I rescue her. I put her back in the twelfth century, where she belongs,” he says, half-joking. “You know, I couldn’t get anyone to undress.”

Cohen closes the book, places it on the table, and lifts his eyes in an expression of calm anticipation. Every question he greets like an invitation to make himself understood. Leonard Cohen, the icon, is a concept he likes to toy with, as if it is both him and not.

“I got this rap as a kind of ladies’ man,” he says lazily and without irony, at one point. “And as I say in one of the poems, it has caused me to laugh, when I think of all the lonely nights” at the monastery. He describes the life on Mount Baldy as rigorous. “One of the first things you learn is to stop complaining. It’s a good lesson. It’s a kind of boot camp. You just get toughened up.

“As if I’m the only guy who ever felt this way about women,” he continues, with a smirk. “As if I’m the only person who ever had some sort of deep connection with the opposite sex.”

“Have you learned a lot from women?”

“Oh, yeah. You learn everything from women.”


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