by Alex Beam

The Boston Globe, August 23, 2000

One of the un-pressing questions of our time is: How can celebrities survive their own fame and preserve a modicum of dignity? There are tremendous pressures on Tom Clancy to keep writing the same books (he has) or on Neil Young to play the same songs year in and year out (he hasn't). Our greatest talents seem to linger too long or flame out too early.

One artist who has survived his own fame in a unique way is Leonard Cohen, the frog-voiced Canadian singer-songwriter best known as the writer of the Judy Collins hits ''Suzanne'' and ''Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye.'' After several comeback tours in the 1980s and 1990s, Cohen took the veil, secluding himself in a Buddhist monastery nestled in the San Gabriel Mountains above Los Angeles. To all appearances, Cohen had left the world for a life of meditation and writing in a small cell. When he was ordained in 1996, Cohen adopted the dharma name Jikan, or Silent One.

But Cohen has not been silent. Instead, with the help of a Finnish computer buff, Cohen ''lives'' for his fans on the Internet, at a site called leonardcohenfiles.com. ''The site assures his virtual existence, balancing his disappearance into the spiritual world with an ongoing, online narrative of his comings and goings,'' Cohen's biographer Ira Nadel recently wrote. ''The technology suits his needs, being both personal and distant, and solves his desire for privacy while giving his fan a controlled gateway to his life and work.''

Yes, I have a thing for Cohen. He's as dark and funny as the late, great Serge Gainsbourg, who once sang his reggae version of ''La Marseillaise'' to a stadium full of French paratroopers and barely escaped with his life. Cohen once opened a concert in Hamburg with the Nazi salute; similarly, a gesture lost on this particular audience. His downbeat style (I find him quite cheery, but never mind that) has made him a cult hero in Scandinavia, land of glowering darkness and the monthlong drunk.

Cohen has done it all - Prozac, psychedelics, graduate school, Scientology, the Talmud, ''You Are My Sunshine'' - and he's still here to tell us about it. He's been Phil Spector'd - the two men cut an album in 1977 - and many times resurrected. Indeed, he once claimed to see biblical visions during a concert in Jerusalem. Despite some pro-Arab sympathies, Cohen decided to join the Israeli Army during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Instead of wielding a gun, he was allowed to perform for the front-line troops. ''Deep in the Sinai desert, he was introduced to and sipped cognac with the Israeli general [Ariel] Sharon, himself a Cohen fan,'' according to David Sheppard, yet another Cohen biographer.

If Boston University professor Christopher Ricks is willing to stake his considerable academic reputation promoting Bob Dylan, I'll gladly put my modest credibility on the line hawking the beauty and elegance of vintage Cohen. I think his rendition of Joan of Arc's Gethsemane moment (''I'm tired of the war/I want the kind of work I had before'') should be included in Religious Studies curricula the world over. And has there ever been a better marriage of art direction, cinematography, and music than the final minutes of the Robert Altman/Vilmos Zsigmond sepia-toned classic, ''McCabe and Mrs. Miller,'' which ends with Cohen's plaintive ballad ''Winter Lady''? I don't think so.

I even admire, well, envy, his vices. Sheppard calls Cohen ''a Lothario of insatiable stamina,'' who has been linked over the years to just about everybody. And they're all grist for the mill. ''Suzanne'' was one of two Suzannes, and ''Joan of Arc'' is supposedly Nico, the chanteuse for Andy Warhol's Velvet Underground. His early hit, ''So Long, Marianne,'' is breezy, soulful, and a pleasure to hear. Unless you are the unlucky Marianne, of course.

So what's on the Web site? All kinds of things: the original manuscripts for ''Suzanne'' and ''Joan of Arc;'' an account of May's Leonard Cohen Event, held in Montreal with the bard in absentia. We learn that Cohen left the monastery a year ago, on his 65th birthday, and has been roaming around India, Greece, and LA. He is working on a new album, and a new poetry collection. Just last week he posted a two-line poem from ... somewhere. Here it is: ''You go your way/I'll go your way too.''

Ah, Leonard.

Copyright © 2000 by The Boston Globe and Alex Beam

Thanks to Ron Mura for his help