By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 14, 2006; WE05
Leonard Cohen's not touring right now -- the 71-year-old pop icon and bard of the boudoir hasn't toured in a dozen years -- but he's otherwise close to omnipresent, notably as star and inspiration of "Leonard Cohen I'm Your Man," the Lian Lunson concert film/documentary opening Friday nationwide (and here at the Regal Gallery Place Stadium 14). (See review on Page 31.)
In it, Cohen sings only one of his classics -- "Tower of Song," backed by an adoring U2 -- leaving the catalogue excavation to the likes of Nick Cave, Beth Orton, Teddy Thompson and a gaggle of Wainwrights and McGarrigles. But he appears in generous interview footage that inspires reconsideration of someone who has acquired sobering sobriquets over the decades: poet laureate of pessimism, godfather of gloom, agent of anguish, sentry of solitude, master of miserabilism, harbinger of the heart, so on and so forth. All deserved, of course.
By contrast, "I'm Your Man" exposes a worldly figure with a twist of self-deprecating humor and mischievousness, as well as the serenity and wisdom expected of an internationally revered poet and songwriter. A fuller portrait, the notoriously private Cohen agrees, "would be good."
Cohen was in Washington recently for BookExpo America to publicize "Book of Longing," his first collection of new poetry in 22 years. In his book-signing line, one of the event's longest, Cohen carefully tapped each book with a red stamp bestowing on its owner instant membership in the "Order of the United Heart."
Over tea and chips (no oranges), Cohen concedes: "I haven't been out hustling like this in years. The way I get through it is I think of it as a social occasion, because I rarely leave my neighborhood." (Cohen has apartments in Los Angeles and his native Montreal.)
There's also the just published 50th anniversary edition of "Let Us Compare Mythologies," the volume of poetry that launched Cohen's career as a 22-year-old undergrad at McGill University in Montreal. "Sometimes I come across some of those poems that I wrote at 15 and think it's been downhill ever since," Cohen sighs sweetly.
There's even a new Cohen album of sorts: "Blue Alert" by Anjani Thomas, Cohen's longtime friend, former backup singer and current paramour. Cohen wrote the lyrics and produced the album; Anjani, 46, wrote the music and plays most of the instruments. Anjani has been Cohen's companion for six years but has recorded and toured with him since 1984 (that's her singing backup on one of his signature songs, "Hallelujah.") "Blue Alert" began when she set a scrap of Cohen's poetry to music and blossomed from there through a mutual excavation of his notebooks and journals. And though Cohen doesn't sing a note on the album, Anjani's soprano seems to have dropped enough naturally that it almost sounds as if Cohen has been reincarnated as a woman.
"It's a happy coincidence that Anjani's record and the book and the film are coming out at the same time and that it benefits me in many ways," the silver-haired, impeccably groomed Cohen says, adding, "I haven't really gone beyond the superficial sense of gratitude that there is some activity."
Activity is good, particularly on the financial front. In the past few years, Cohen experienced crippling money woes after he accused his longtime manager (and former lover), Kelley Lynch, of stealing more than $5 million in retirement savings, reportedly leaving him with only $150,000. He sued Lynch for fraud, negligence and breach of contract; earlier this year, a Canadian court awarded him $9.5 million, but collecting it is another matter. He also sued his former investment and tax advisers. (Those suits are pending.)
Now, partly out of necessity, activity abounds: Besides promoting the book, Cohen is recording his own album (he's four tracks into it) and entertaining the notion of a concert tour. "The devil laughs when you make plans, but I would like to go out again," he says.
The writer also thanks the reporter for actually buying "Book of Longing."
"It helps," Cohen says ruefully, insisting the situation hasn't affected his work. "It hasn't hit me yet, and I hope it never will. But talk about getting back into the world with a vengeance. It certainly is a component."
In the film, and in conversation, Cohen chooses his words with as much deliberation, care and craft as he does in his poems and in such songs as "Hallelujah," "Suzanne," "Bird on a Wire," "Sisters of Mercy," "Chelsea Hotel No. 2" and "I'm Your Man." All are heard in Lunson's film, shot at a 70th birthday tribute at the Sydney Opera House in January 2005; it was part of "Came So Far for Beauty," an ongoing Cohen tribute produced by Hal Willner, the master of eclectic musical homage. "Such an unusual spirit, so deeply and unaffectedly original," Cohen says of Willner. "I very much like what he did with my stuff."
Yet Cohen didn't attend the Sydney concert, and it was only after it was over that Australian filmmaker Lunson asked Cohen whether he would do interviews. "I was very reluctant," says the reclusive Cohen, whose cabaret performance with U2 was specially shot for the film at New York's Slipper Room.
Though Cohen still hasn't seen "I'm Your Man" in its entirety, the film comes at a very good time, much in the manner of Jennifer Warnes's 1987 album, "Famous Blue Raincoat," consisting entirely of Cohen songs. That one arrived 20 years after "The Songs of Leonard Cohen," a remarkable debut featuring "Suzanne," "Sisters of Mercy," "Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye" and "So Long, Marianne." Although an iconic and influential work, "Songs" went gold only in 2001, 34 years after its release, setting up a career-long dichotomy between critical acclaim and commercial success.
According to Cohen, at the time of Warnes's album, he had "almost been removed from the list of viable singers or writers, so it was a very opportune moment." Since then, Cohen covers and tribute albums have become a cottage industry, and, he concedes, his "critical faculties suspend abruptly when somebody does one of my songs. I tend to like everything."
The songs that everybody loves didn't arrive until Cohen was in his early thirties. At McGill, he had played guitar in a country-western trio called the Buckskin Boys and gravitated to Montreal's bohemian literary scene. Music first underscored poetry when Cohen gave readings backed by a jazz band, but it was books of poetry ("The Spice Box of Earth" and "Flowers for Hitler") and a pair of acclaimed, and controversial, novels ("The Favorite Game" and "Beautiful Losers") that established his reputation.
Still, Cohen admits, his move to music, "far more than this current flurry of activity, was economically motivated. I'd written a couple of novels and they'd been very well received, but I couldn't make a living and I didn't know what to do."
So in 1966, Cohen decided to pursue a career as a songwriter in Nashville, only to be redirected to New York and its post-Beat/folk community after the first of his female champions, Judy Collins, recorded "Suzanne."
There was also the matter of Cohen's voice, a deadpan, steadily deepening baritone with the rumble of a gravel pit and the gravitas of a graveyard. British modster Paul Weller famously dismissed Cohen's work as "music to slit your wrists by," and its author almost gently admits: "I got a lot of that over the years. Google despair and melancholy, and my name comes up!"
The ensuing decades, with periods of creative and commercial feast and famine, turned Cohen into more of a cult icon than a pop star, always bigger in Canada and overseas than in the United States. Then, in 1993, he suddenly pulled a disappearing act, moving to the isolated Zen Center atop Mount Baldy in California's San Gabriel Mountains. Known as Jikan (the Silent One), the shaved-head Cohen lived in a sparsely furnished two-room cabin on the grounds and acted as cook, driver and secretary to his friend and spiritual mentor of 30 years, the Japanese monk Joshu Sasaki, known as Roshi (teacher).
Cohen ended up staying at the monastery for five years; everyone assumed he had made his last record.
"When I went up to Mount Baldy, I thought I'd continue to write but wasn't sure I'd actually go through that process of actually getting it into the marketplace," says Cohen, who brought a small keyboard synthesizer, a transistor radio and lots of the small blank notebooks he has been filling for almost 60 years. When he came down, it was with 250 poems and songs, and without the chronic depression he had dealt with much of his adult life.
"I was always scratching away and always blackening pages," Cohen says, pulling out a notebook that looks like it was bought in the '50s. "I have hundreds of these. I kept that going, but when I came down the mountain and this background of distress began to dissolve, what took its place was this capacity to entertain the idea to get back into it."
Which he did with 2001's "Ten New Songs," Cohen's first album in almost a decade, followed by 2004's "Dear Heather" and now "Book of Longing." (Cohen says it took so long to complete that friends called it "Book of Prolonging.") It's made up of poems, lyrics, musings, jottings and epigrams (many in Cohen's own handwriting), as well as line drawings from his notebooks, including self-portraits of a stern, brooding, wrinkled old man juxtaposed against young, nubile female nudes.
"Book of Longing," "Blue Alert" and "I'm Your Man" all glean from familiar fields, offering Cohen's reflections on the agonies and ecstasies of love, spiritual and sensual longing, familial memory, the realities of age and the growing distance from lifelong desires. Cohen points out that in "Tower of Song," he sings, "My friends are gone, my hair is gray / I ache in the places where I used to play." "That's pretty much it," he says. "I was 60 when I wrote it; I knew I'd turned a corner. And 70 is a different thing, has a different resonance altogether.
"The general feeling I have about the book, even in its form, putting all those little doodles and designs in, is it's a kind of lighthearted book. In Canada, it's been well reviewed and well received [reaching No. 1 on the bestseller list -- a first in Canada for a book of poetry]. I hear from the critics what it's about -- a shaped biography, a profoundly dignified approach to old age and the desires of old age. I'll buy any of those."
Leonard Cohen Larger than life on-screen in "Leonard Cohen I'm Your Man" at Regal Gallery Place Stadium 14 Sounds like: A whole lot of Leonard lovin' going on as his progeny and acolytes explore the darkness, and the light, in the Cohen catalogue.