Philosophical Songwriter on a Wire

By Jon Pareles

From The New York Times, October 11, 1995

Leonard Cohen is reciting a new poem that may become a song someday *)

"I've been working on this lyric for about a year now," he says. "I wanted it to have the feel of an old folk song." In the measured, sonorous bass that has drawn loyal listeners since the 1960's, he intones:

No matter if the road is long
No matter if it's steep
No matter if the moon is gone
and the darkness is complete
No matter if we lose our way,
it's written that we'll meet,
At least that's what I heard you say
a thousand kisses deep.

He's having a light lunch - spring rolls, salad, tea - in the elegant downstairs tearoom of Takashimaya, on Fifth Avenue. With his black suit, close-cropped iron-gray hair and large features, the Montreal-born Mr. Cohen, 61, could be a calm hit man or a dapper monk. Tables are close together, and the woman at the next one leans closer to hear Mr. Cohen's verses. When he notices, he turns to her, stares deep into her eyes, and continues:

I'll find you though you climb
the very heights of failure peak,
I'll lift you from the midst
of your invincible defeat,
But hold me when the darkness sings
and when our faith is weak
We'll bathe together in those springs
a thousand kisses deep.

He has charmed the woman. "Are you the author?" she asks. "Has that been published?"

"It doesn't exist yet on paper," Mr. Cohen says. "I'm just in the midst of it, but you're very kind to be so receptive to it. The poem will appear somewhere, God willing."

"Do you have a publisher?" the woman persists.

"I'm a songwriter," Mr. Cohen says, "and there's an album coming out of different artists who are doing my songs. It's called 'Tower of Song'." (The album was released in late September by A & M Records.)

"What kind of music is it?"

"Mr. Cohen considers the question. "It's, um, ballads," he says gravely.

"Your voice is music enough," the woman says. "You know, you seem to be very romantic, but with your head not screwed on tight. Does it get you into trouble?"

"Continually," Mr. Cohen replies, with the smile of someone who enjoys his troubles.

He was already an award-winning poet and a respected novelist in 1966, when Judy Collins recorded his song "Suzanne", which prompted innumerable undergraduate reveries. Two years later, "Songs of Leonard Cohen" introduced his own voice: low and undemonstrative, with an implacable serenity. Mr. Cohen started out as a thoughtful hard with an acoustic guitar. When he performs now, his band plays gentle folk-rock, sustained hymns, slow-motion Gypsy tunes and subdued disco, with cooing female backup vocalists, he is the erudite's answer to both Barry White and Julio Iglesias.

"I was born with the gift of a golden voice," Mr. Cohen sings in a song called "Tower of Song," from which the tribute album derives its name. It is a line that always draws a fond laugh from his fans. In Europe, he is revered as a successor to the cabaret eminence Jacques Brel, and his albums are million-sellers worldwide. "My record company is very pleased when I bring a new album," he says. "They can sell it with very little effort. I have been able to satisfy a certain principle, which was that I didn't want to work for pay, but I wanted to be paid for my work."

Mr. Cohen's songs invoke countless romantic liaisons, countless nuances of yearning and loss. To listeners who remain unmoved, particularly in the United States, Mr. Cohen's voice is a croaking monotone. Sweeter, stronger singers have regularly heard his songs as opportunities. In 1991, alternative rock bands including R.E.M. recorded a tribute album, "I'm Your Fan," and the new "Tower of Song" is a tribute from performers whose sales dwarf Mr. Cohen's own, among them Billy Joel, Sting, Willie Nelson, Elton John, and Bono of U2.

"It's always deeply touching for me to hear anybody do one of my songs," Mr. Cohen says.His fans and fellow musicians are drawn to somber melodies and to lyrics full of paradox and epiphany. In songs like "Bird on a Wire" and "Hallelujah," romance is a state of melancholy transcendence and a mystical conundrum.

In others, like "Everybody Knows," which turned up on the soundtrack of the 1990 film "Pump Up the Volume," Mr. Cohen has also revealed a bleaker, sardonic sense of humor. "It's lonely here," he sang in 1992 in "The Future." "There's no one left to torture." In his songs, carnality and theology are never far apart.

"I've always found theology a certain kind of delightful titillation," Mr. Cohen says, reflecting. "Theology or religious speculation bears the same relationship to real experience as pornography does to lovemaking. They're not entirely unconnected. I mean, you can get turned on. One of the reasons that they're both powerful is that they ignore a lot of other material and they focus in on something very specific. In these days of overload, it's very restful to know, at last, what you're talking about."

His conversation almost always turns philosophical. After three decades of songwriting, he views his vocation humbly. "Songs have a very specific purpose," he says. "They must be measured by their utility. Any jaunty little tune that can get you from one point to another as you drive, or get you through the dishes, or that can illuminate or dignify your courting I always appreciate. And to console yourself when you're lonely, and to rejoice with another when you're happy. That's all we really do in human life.

"Music is like bread. It is one of the fundamental nourishments that we have available, and there are many different varieties and degrees and grades. A song that is useful, that touches somebody, must be measured by that utility alone. 'Cheap music' is an uncharitable description. If it touches you, it's not cheap. From a certain point of view, all our emotions are cheap, but those are the only ones we've got. It's loneliness and longing and desire and celebration."

"How do we produce work that touches the heart?" he asks. "We don't want to live a frivolous life, we don't want to live a superficial life. We want to be serious with each other, with our friends, with our work. That doesn't necessarily mean gloomy or grim, but seriousness has a kind of voluptuous aspect to it. It is something that we are deeply hungry for, to take ourselves seriously and to be able to enjoy the nourishment of seriousness, that gravity, that weight."

Maturity, he says, has not dimmed his passions but has given him some perspective. Mr. Cohen has never been married, but he has a 22-year-old son and a 20-year-old daughter; she currently shares his apartment in Los Angeles.

"It's like sleeping on the wind," he says. "You have these feelings but you don't reject them. You just lean on them, you just burn in them, to sit comfortably in the bonfire of desire. You do not try to prevent yourself from being burned to a crisp. That's how you can sit comfortably in the fire. If you put up the slightest resistance, if you try to put any burn ointment on, you'll suffer horribly. I like to give myself to it."

Mr. Cohen has lived in Montreal and Nashville and New York City; he spent much of the 1960's and 1970's on the Greek island of Hydra. He now lives in Los Angeles, and since 1970, he has been studying with a Japanese teacher of Rinzai Buddhism. He regularly retreats in a Buddhist monastery 6,200 feet up on Mount Baldy, northeast of Los Angeles. But Mr. Cohen is no ascetic.

"My teacher never invited me to become a Buddhist," he said. "He taught me how to distinguish between Rémy Martin and Courvoisier - that was one of the first things - and he taught me how to drink very well. He also embodied a certain ideal of friendliness which I found very seductive. I didn't feel that I was one in a million: felt that I was with a friend, and still do."

As he takes final sips of green tea, Mr. Cohen remembers that he is close to St. Patrick's Cathedral. "On the front doors, on the great bronze doors," he says, "there's an Indian woman by the name of Catherine Tekakwitha who occupies one of the lower quadrants of the door. I wrote about her.

"She lived not far from me in Montreal in the 17th century. She's not a saint yet, she's a venerable, but there's a cult working for her beatification. She was the first Iroquois to take an oath of virginity. The Iroquois are and were a lusty, energetic people, and the fact that she took an oath of virginity was considered very significant. There are also miracles attached to her existence, and the dust of her grave, when used as amulets and in various situations, has produced miraculous healings. When I was younger and the book had been published and I was around New York, I used to put some flowers in her braid."

On the way out of the restaurant, Mr. Cohen stops at Takashimaya's flower shop to buy some white lilies, and he strolls the three blocks to the cathedral. He walks up the steps, tucks the flowers into the bas-relief and stands in contemplation. Passers-by pretend the scene is unremarkable: it's just a gentleman in a black suit making a silent homage.

*) PS. A Thousand Kisses Deep was released six years later on Ten New Songs