By Glen Colbourn (Canadian Press)

The Vancouver Sun, Thursday, August 10, 1995

Black Jacket. Black shirt. Black tie. Black pants. Black loafers. And just a touch of grey - in the pattern of the tie, in the knit of the jacket, all through his brush cut hair.

Leonard Cohen, who turns 61 next month, has changed little over the years, grey hair notwithstanding. He's still a black-clad presence, a ladies' man of legendary renown, a passionate romantic, a poet-singer who uses words as precisely as Robin Hood aims arrows.

Cohen has just become perhaps the first songwriter to be honoured with three tribute albums. The newest, Tower of Song, boasts some of the biggest names in pop and country: Elton John, Billy Joel, Sting, Peter Gabriel and Trisha Yearwood.

It's a surprising endeavor, coming just four years after I'm Your Fan, a strong collection featuring alternative bands. Before that was Famous Blue Raincoat, an album of Cohen tunes from U.S. singer Jennifer Warnes.

"I think the intention of this one (Tower of Song) was to put it more squarely in the mainstream," says Cohen, an unpretentious, gravel-voiced singer never accused of splahing in the mainstream.

"I think this was a very graceful way of doing this. These were gestures of generosity from the people involved."

Cohen, who had little to do with the tribute, is writing songs for a follow-up to The Future, his best selling 1992 album. He's also working on a new book, tentatively titled The Book of Longing. It would be his first volume of new poetry in more than a decade.

"I'm always scratching away, blackening pages," says Cohen, incessantly twirling a string of Greek worry beads. "But it takes a long time for something to emerge that allows you to keep your self-respect about the matter."

Cohen grew up in Montreal, in a well-off family of clothiers. His first book of poetry, 1956's Let Us Compare Mythologies, brought him immediate acclaim. His first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967), won him an even wider audience.

Both his songs and poems wander powerfully through the minefiled of love, combining dark visions with a spiritual yearning and a sense of romantic grandeur.

His spiritual side has prompted him to take up full-time residence at Mt. Baldy, a Zen centre south-east of Los Angeles. He meditates early every morning and does a regimen of chores: cooking, cleaning and repairs.

"There's a saying: like pebbles in a bag, the monks polish one another. When you're living close to people like that it tends to wear off the edges. And you have a chance to look at those edges being worn away.

"Retreat is a word that doesn't really describe it because you're really on the front lines of your own life."

But he's not completely separated from Canadian concerns. He has a vigorous, albeit comic, opinion about the coming Quebec referendum.

"I'm not interested in political separation, I'm interested in geographic separation. I think everybody should lean the same way at the same time and actually break off from Canada and move down to the coast of Florida. It would improve the climate."

Cohen welcomes questions about his relationship with actress Rebecca de Mornay, which Hollywood rumours suggest is over.

"I watched her on television last night as I talked to my sister. Rebecca's mini-series, An Inconvenient Woman, was on. We were remarking how lovely she was, how very beautiful she looked," he says, as it becomes obvious he is dancing around the query with the grace of Nureyev. "What else would you like to know? She's in Paris right now. She had an ear infection last week." There's a pause, long enough and still enough for the silence to grow awkward. "And I miss her," Cohen blurts, his smile wan, his romantic heart on his black sleeve.