by Judith Fitzgerald

The Globe and Mail, September 25, 2000

Leonard is working on a new album. When it will
be released, however, is one of those Zen questions

-- On the line from his Los Angeles recording studio, Leonard Cohen's manager Kelley Lynch reports that Canada's Numero Uno agent of anguish -- who turned 66 last Thursday -- has never felt better in his life.

"He's mostly been in the studio working; and, although the new project's still on the front burner, he decided a while back he wanted to do a concert CD from the 1979 European tour," says Lynch, the artist's career overseer and long-time friend. "He really enjoyed himself on that tour; the band [including horn king Paul Ostermeyer, drummer Steve Meador and virtuoso violinist Raffi Hokopian] as well as the backup [Sharon Robinson, Jennifer Warnes] were phenomenal; and, his mojo was working.

"So, guess what? It's in the can."

The resulting CD, Field Commander Cohen: Tour of 1979,featuring tracks recorded in Brighton and London during that tour, will be released the third week of November.

"But, right now, he's hard at work on the new one," Lynch adds. "To tell you the truth, I can't even be sure it will be a 2001 release. You really can't tell with Leonard. He doesn't like deadlines. We're keeping it loose. A number of songs are in various stages of completion; several others -- My Secret Life, Here It Is, A Thousand Kisses Deep -- are finished."

Before Cohen returned to the studio to complete his pair of recording projects while further polishing his so far untitled new collection of verse, he'd elected to hit the road for no real reason except, as Lynch explained, "Our little road man felt like going for a good long drive."

Our little road man had been on the loose for less than a month at the time; it was right around then that the ordained Zen-Buddhist monk given the Dharma name of Jikan (Silent One) had opted to come back to the world after five years of solitude and meditation serving his roshi (teacher) high above L.A. at California's Mount Baldy Zen Center.

"I'd done enough dishes," Cohen says, joking affably during a telephone talk. "And, after I left, I lost 10 pounds because I wasn't cooking for someone else."

He also confesses he quit smoking for three years; but then he attended a lecture "where one of the members of the audience stood up to tell the author how their book had inspired them to clean up their act -- and, yes, how they'd even quit smoking -- the author replied, 'Well, what's the point of living, then?' "

He says: "Naturally, I went out and bought a pack of smokes right away. And, you know, my voice didn't change one bit when I quit. It was still the same old voice." That same old voice will again be read and heard by legions of fans when the troubadour of travail uncorks his brand-new collection of poetry sometime during the next year or so. Previously titled both Blue Coffee and The Book of Longing, he says the current no-namer "contains over 100 pieces. . . . Some share a kinship with Book of Mercy (1984), others relate to song and still others are simply lyric poems. For some reason, I'm writing a lot, right now, too -- something I've learned not to question when it's happening."

Cohen, who turned down the Governor-General's Award for Selected Poems: 1956-1968 at the age of 34, comes by his learning honestly. "You know," he declares in a tone rumbling between deference and defiance, "Piaf! Je ne regrette rien! At the time, it [the refusal of the award] was considered an unpatriotic act, something that it was never meant to be. It was simply a spontaneous gesture of that time in that place and, it felt right. I don't regret it, but, I'm sorry it was misinterpreted as an unpatriotic act, because it wasn't. But, I don't feel badly about it. Not at all."

Nor does he feel badly about ranking third after Glenn Gould and Marshall McLuhan in The Globe and Mail's "Most Influential Canadians in the Arts" millennium poll conducted last year. "It's nice," he says, "these kinds of polls are always nice. It's nice to be recognized and acknowledged as having made a contribution and I deeply appreciate the gesture. It's very touching and rather humbling."

His forthcoming studio album will be the first containing new material since The Future in 1992: a set that contained a withering indictment of contemporary existence in this chilling set of lines:

There'll be the breaking of the ancient western code/Your private life will suddenly explode/There'll be phantoms/There'll be fires on the road and the white man dancing/You'll see a woman hanging upside down/Her features covered by her fallen gown/And all the lousy little poets coming round/Tryin' to sound like Charlie Manson and the white man dancin'

"It was definitely on my mind, definitely a part of The Future'scompass, I would say, definitely a question of how one narrates this future and how to organize the work accordingly to set the record straight," Cohen says of that record. "I suppose I might be considered obsessive about form or order or structure or whatever, but I don't think so. It's part of its attractiveness, for one thing.

"For another? I think if I weren't, I wouldn't truly be doing, being, really true to whatever it is I am doing when I'm blackening pages. There are these experiments in different things, the Spenserian stanzas, the interweaving, these kinds of things. It's interesting and always very much on my mind when I'm writing. When I hear it or find it -- I can tell that it clicks.

"That definitely came to the foreground for me, most acutely, when I was making Various Positions (1984). It was the first time I could really see and intuitively feel what it was I was doing, making or creating in that enterprise. After a long period of barrenness [which beset Cohen following the 1979 tour], it all just seemed to click. Suddenly, I knew these weren't discrete songs I was writing.

"I could see -- I could sense a unity. Various Positions had its own life, its own narrative. It was all laid out and all of a sudden it all made sense. It was almost painfully joyful, if that makes some sense. The pulling and the putting of the pieces together coherently, the being inside of that process and knowing, once I'd done that, it would be finished and I would have to leave it and go back to the world.

"But," adds Cohen, "I don't want to get all metaphysical about it. Some days I feel better about my work than other days. If there's one thing that I do know, it is that I am definitely not in control. You know, that's the way it goes."

How, then, does it come? What brings the grim grocer of grief -- the guy often accused of writing songs many consider soundtracks to eat a gun by -- joy?

"What brings me joy?" he muses, "and, that's right, too -- joy can only be brought to one. I'd guess I'd have to say various things, probably none of them very interesting to anyone but me."

"Various things? Various positions?"

"Yeah. Definitely. The more the merrier."

Judith Fitzgerald's most recent works include a collection of poetry, Twenty-Six Ways Out of This World, and the book Sarah McLachlan: Building a Mystery.

Copyright © 2000-2001 The Globe and Mail and Judith Fitzgerald