Hall of Fame Week: Leonard Cohen

Written by Music

“That’s Leonard’s Jeep,” Robert said as we walked his dog past the monastery. My wife and I had driven north about ten miles, most of it curving two-thirds of the way up Mt. Baldy, to watch my professor’s cabin while he was away on a business trip. The most important part of the job was to make sure his old dog, Toby, was looked after, and walked twice a day. As he showed us the normal route that Toby liked to go, he pointed over to the Buddhist monastery right across the street, halfway between his cabin and the public campgrounds. There were a few vehicles outside the building, all of them likely part-time visitors who would come up for a few days at a time to gain peace and wisdom at the feet of the monks. Among the vehicles there was a silver Jeep, which was likely bought by the unofficial Poet Laureate of Canada to make his nearly-weekly trips from Los Angeles to Baldy, trying to shake a depression, a “cloud” that had settled over him sometime in the early 1990s, and had literally kept him unable to create anything new, either on the page or in the studio, for nearly a decade.

“We’ve had breakfast a couple of times,” Robert added, as he let Toby off the leash and let him wander the ravine separating the monastery from the road. And that was that. No juicy gossip would be forthcoming. But, then again, I wouldn’t have expected any. Not about Leonard Cohen, who even before his period at Mt. Baldy seemed to already carry an almost Buddhist sense of mysticism, both in his work and his very presence. The man was a study in Taoist contradictions: a poet who became a songwriter, while most popular artists went about it the other way around. A man with a voice once called “the worst to ever be signed to a major label,” yet one that perfectly suited both the man and his songs: full of passion, mystery, and the texture of a well-aged port. An Anglo-Quebec native with much more in common, it seemed, with the artists of continental Europe than the Quebecois or English who surrounded him. A Jew whose most well known songs were populated with associations to Christian imagery. A man who looked and sounded like a philosophy professor, and yet always came off as the coolest motherfucker on earth.

It was in Los Angeles, both through Robert and his record collection, and via my own actions, that I became aware of Cohen’s musical body of work: the solo acoustic albums at the beginning of his career; the bizarre attempt at a larger sound with Phil Spector; and the retreat away from music for the first time as the 1980s began. Then, the second phase of his career, no longer as the folk singer, the troubadour, but almost as a progressive, po-mo musical artist, complete with synthesizers and choruses of women providing Gothic harmonies. He was now the North American Serge Gainsbourg, only with much, much better lyrics. 1985’s Various Positions, with his now most covered song, “Hallelujah,” begat his masterpiece, 1988’s I’m Your Man, with its minimal, keyboard-driven arrangements portraying a world haunted by neo-fascism, censorship and AIDS, where Federico García Lorca rubbed shoulders with Hank Williams in a new Tower of Babel, trying to defeat enemies through art. Then, ironically after a 1992 album titled The Future — silence.

In 2001, the cloud finally lifted, and Cohen left the monks for good and returned with Ten New Songs, continuing his use of electronic arrangements, but with lyrics of contemplation — of being resolved to the idea of mortality, temporariness, of the imperfections of love and the world around us. And then, as though his life needed to return to the desolation that had overshadowed both his soul and these new songs, over the next couple of years Cohen’s friend and business manager nearly bled him dry, going so far as to steal his personal papers for possible resale when the liquid capital started to run low. I heard a story that Cohen was only able to retrieve the personal items with help from the police, and that was all he was able to get back, since his (now obviously ex-) manager refused to respond to the monetary judgment of nine million dollars against her.

It was then, in 2006, that Cohen was able to strike a deal with the University of Toronto to sell his collected papers to the Fisher Rare Books Library. Coincidentally, I had returned to school at that time. In fact, it was the library school at the University of Toronto, and one of my professors, who was both a friend of Cohen’s and head of the Rare Books Library, had helped to broker this unusual deal. Unusual, I say, because most of the time it is the author who gives money, along with his collections, to pay for the upkeep of his materials. In this case, though, his financial situation called for more desperate measures: the University to which Cohen was an actual alum (McGill) would only accept the papers as a donation. My professor stepped in, and Toronto, in order to obtain such a far-reaching and important set of Canadiana, was willing to negotiate a decent recompense for Cohen.

Since then, things have finally started looking up for Leonard Cohen. At an age (73) when most Canadian Jews are moving to Florida, Cohen is going on tour for the first time in 14 years (though you may have to go up to Toronto if you want to catch it, since only Canadian and European dates have been confirmed so far); he’s finishing up his third studio album of new songs in the last seven years after not putting out one for the decade prior; and this week, he became the only person whose work is in the Norton Anthology of Poetry (or who’s won a Governor’s General Award-even though he didn’t accept it) to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And as usual (see the picture above), he’s able to be the coolest motherfucker on the planet while doing it.

Leonard Cohen – First We Take Manhattan, from I’m Your Man.

Leonard Cohen – In My Secret Life, from Ten New Songs.