Listening to Leonard Cohen

A writer visits the world-weary, enigmatic rock 'n' roll idol at a Buddhist monastery

Leonard Cohen

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

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In the falling mountain darkness, I pull my car off the high, winding road into a rough parking lot, and Leonard Cohen comes out to greet me: stooped a little and shaven-headed, in a tattered black gown and woolen cap and glasses. He extends a hand, gives me a bow, and, picking up my case, leads me off to a cabin. He worries about my "long drive," asks if I'll be OK here, heats up a pot of tea, and slices some fresh bread for me. As night falls, he tells me to feel at home and mentions a young woman he thinks I should be married to.

Then he leads me out into the mountain dark and into the zendo. Thirty or so figures, all in black, are sitting stock-still in the night. They are coming to the end of a winter retreat, rohatsu, in which they sit like this, all but uninterruptedly, for seven days. Monks patrol the aisles with sticks, ready to hit anyone who threatens to drop off. Every 45 minutes or so, the practitioners are allowed to break from their zazen positions to relieve themselves in buckets in the woods, or in primitive outhouses known and feared throughout the Zen community. Most of them, however, use the breaks to continue their meditation unbroken, marching silently in single file, round and round a central pine tree. My host, who is 63, is probably 30 years older than most of the fresh-faced young men and women here, yet as they walk around the tree, at top speed, he seems at least 30 years stronger too.

Cohen has always been a man of surprises, so much so that many take him to be a man of artful disguises (as he sometimes does himself). His life has always been dangerously mythic: from the house he bought on the Greek island of Hydra in 1960 with a $1,500 inheritance, to the dramatic rejection of Canada's Governor General's Award for English-language poetry when he was only 34, to the wild, strung-out days at the Chelsea Hotel and other shrines of dissipation (where Janis Joplin was "giving me head on the unmade bed," as his song says).

Even those who were not surprised when this archetypal figure from the seeking '60s suddenly came back with a growl in the late '80s and started winning all the prizes yet again may be taken aback to know that the definitive ladies' man and husky poet of the morning after is now living year-round in the Mount Baldy Zen Center, 6,250 feet above sea level, in the dark San Gabriel Mountains behind Los Angeles, serving, he says, as "cook, chauffeur, and sometimes drinking buddy" to a 92-year-old Japanese man with whom he shares few words.

Cohen has, in fact, been a friend of Joshu Sasaki since 1973, though he has not made a fuss about it, and fans will get clues to this part of his existence only from a couple of tiny elliptical vignettes in his 1978 book, Death of a Lady's Man, and occasional songs—like "If It Be Your Will"—that, like his 1984 collection of psalms, Book of Mercy, express absolute submission. Apart from Cohen's 26-year-old son, Adam, and his 23-year-old daughter, Lorca, the Japanese roshi, or spiritual teacher, seems to be the one still point in his endlessly turning life, and now he accompanies Sasaki to Zen centers from Vienna to Puerto Rico and endures punishing retreats each month in which he does virtually nothing but sit zazen 24 hours a day for seven days on end.

The rest of the time Cohen works around the Zen center, shoveling snow, scrubbing floors, and—most enthusiastically—working in the kitchen (he tells me, with mischievous pride, that he has a certificate from the county of San Bernardino that qualifies him to work as waiter, busboy, or cook). The monk known here as Jikan (Silent One) has thrown aside the things he's famous for: a command of words, beautiful suits, a hunger for ideas, and a hypnotist's ease at charming the world. The icon who has been entertained and idolized by everyone from Prince Charles and Georges Pompidou to Joni Mitchell and Michelle Phillips, the regular visitor to the top of the European charts who has inspired not one tribute album (like most legends) but a dozen worldwide, the Officer of the Order of Canada once described as "perhaps the continent's most successful poet" seems to thrive on austerity. He's too happy to write anymore, he tells me soon after I arrive (though, one day later, he's showing me things he's writing, toward a Book of Longing). "This whole practice is mostly about terrifying you," he says happily. "But there's a lot to be gained in those terrors. It gets you so efficiently into a certain place."

And Cohen has been journeying toward that place all his life, in a sense. "There's a bias against religious virtue here, and it's very appealing," he assures me, grinning, one morning as bells toll outside and I smell sweet incense in the air and hear clappers knocking in the distance. "You never have the feeling that it's Sunday school. And you never have the feeling that you're abandoning some cavalier life, or getting into some goody-goody enterprise. Not at all. Not at all." When a Buddhist magazine recently asked Cohen to conduct an interview with Sasaki, he gladly agreed, provided they could talk about "wine, women, and money."

It's not that Cohen has given up the world—he still has a duplex that he bought with two friends in Los Angeles, and when I visit him at two o'clock one morning, I hear the crackle of a transistor radio in his bedroom. The man with a gift for being in tune with the times was not so long ago providing the sound-track songs for Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers, appearing at actress Rebecca De Mornay's side at Hollywood functions, and inspiring a new generation of grunge poets, including Kurt Cobain, who sang, "Give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld so I can sigh eternally." But Cohen nonetheless has managed to come to L.A., archetypal center of surface and self-absorption, and turn it into a center for high, cold mountain training more rigorous than the army's.

In some ways, he has always been there. His songs, after all, have always been about obedience and war, pain and attention and surrender, and he has always seemed a curiously old-fashioned, even forbidding figure who abhors clutter and yearns to be on his knees as well as on his toes—focused and penetrating and wild. The dark skies and spare spaces around Mount Baldy feel uncannily like the landscape of a Leonard Cohen song.

For nearly half a century this simple monk has been slipping in and out of view, playing games with the entity known as "Leonard Cohen." There's the short, upper-middle-class Jewish kid from Montreal taking lessons in hypnotism, forming a country-western band called the Buckskin Boys, studying English at McGill and reciting verse over jazz at midnight. There's Canada's leading young poet delivering lectures on "Loneliness and History" and composing an opera in the 16th-century verse form of The Faerie Queene.There's the scrupulously dissolute author of six books singing his poem "Suzanne" over the phone to Judy Collins.

Cohen lived on the Greek island with his Norwegian lover, Marianne Ihlen, in the '60s. He acquired a "small, cupboard-sized room" in New York City's Chelsea Hotel, where Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and Jimi Hendrix came through now and then. He took over a 1,200-acre homestead in Franklin, Tennessee, and posed for photos in a Stetson. He got dissected by the novelist Michael Ondaatje in a book-length work of literary criticism; sold excerpts from his work to the skin magazine Cavalier; appeared at a concert riding a white horse; greeted an audience in Hamburg with the cry "Sieg Heil!" Indeed, Cohen always seemed to have a gift for the last word. By the 1990s, magazines that had once found him an irresistible target for put-downs had done a complete 180-degree turnaround. One of the most skeptical, Entertainment Weekly, even ran an article entitled "Seven Reasons Leonard Cohen Is the Next Best Thing to God."

 

Now, as we sit in his cabin one cold December morning, a string of Christmas lights twinkling sadly from the roadside shack across the street, Cohen is telling me that he makes no claims to piety or knowledge; his training here, he says, is just a useful response to the "predicament" of his life. At times, as I listen, I can see the coyote trickster who has been working the press for decades. I feel disconcerted, almost, by his very niceness, his openness, his courtesy, as he keeps thanking me for "being kind enough to come here" and tends to my every need as if I were the celebrity and he the journalist and refers to his profession as "what you're nice enough to call my career." I see the seasoned seducer whom his friend Anjelica Huston recently called "part wolf, part angel." Certainly so meticulous a man would not be careless in his verbal presentation of self.

Yet the trouble is, Cohen seems more wise to this than anyone. "Secretly," he tells me cheerily, "the sin of pride as it's manifested here is that we feel we're like the Marines of the spiritual world: tougher, more reckless, more daring, more brave." About his early years, he confesses, "I think I was more interested in the poetic life and everything around it than the thing itself." Nominating himself as "one of the great whiners," he says that the roshi looks at him sometimes and says, "Attention to the world: Need more Buddhism!"

And so, as time passes, I really do begin to feel I am watching a complex man trying to come clear, a still jangled, sometimes angry soul making a heroic attempt to reduce itself to calm. "He's a tiger," I remember a woman in New York telling me, "a very complicated man. Complicated in a very grown-up way." The first time she met him, he congratulated her on a book she'd written. As their meal went on, he added, "Your writing is a lot more interesting than you are."

Cruelty has always been as disconcerting a part of his package as perversity. Yet when I talked to the people who tour with him, I felt I was speaking to the Apostles. "I don't think I've ever met anyone as gracious, as graceful, as generous as Leonard," says Perla Batalla, who has been singing with him for 10 years. "Once I'd been out on the road with him, I couldn't go out with anyone else." His other backup singer, Julie Christensen, left a newborn baby at home to tour with him—having seen friends who'd been in his band come back "philosophically changed" by the experience.

Everyone in his backup group talks of how Cohen the singer seems of a piece with Cohen the Zen practitioner—how he made them sing and sing and sing the same song until sometimes they'd break into tears, and wore them out with his indefatigable three-hour, 12-encore concerts. But they all speak of his tours as if they were a kind of spiritual training. "He'll give the same attention to the president of the country and to someone who has just walked up to him on the street," says Batalla, recalling how Cohen rode on the bus like just another technician. Others mention his racing off to buy aspirin for them when they're sick or inviting them to his hotel room at night to drink hot chocolate made from tap water.

One day, as the retreat is drawing to a close, the sky above my window gray and severe, Cohen shows up with his hands dirty from fixing his toilet, and I try to get him to talk about his writing. "For me," he says, his voice soft and beautiful, a trace of Canada still in it, "the process is really more like a bear stumbling into a beehive or a honey cache: I'm stumbling right into it and getting stuck, and it's delicious and it's horrible and I'm in it and it's not very graceful and it's very awkward and it's very painful"—you can hear the cadences of his songs here—"and yet there's something inevitable about it." But most of the writers he admires, he says, preempting criticism, "are just incredible messes as human beings. Wonderful and invigorating company, but I pity their wives and their husbands and their children."

A crooked smile.

As for the songs, "I've always held the song in high regard," he says, "because songs have got me through so many sinks of dishes and so many humiliating courting events." Sometimes, he goes on, he'll catch a snatch of one of his songs on the radio, "and I'll think: These songs are really good. And it's really wonderful that they have been written, and more wonderful that they should have found a place in the heart. And sometimes I'll hear my voice, and I think: This guy has got to be the great comedian of his generation. These [songs] are hilarious: hilariously inept, hilariously solemn and out of keeping with the times; hilariously inappropriate."

 

At last, as the 168 hours come to an end, I walk up the mountain to join the students in what will be their final session of zazen, the stars above the pines thicker than I have seen in 30 years of living in Southern California. By now, nearly all of them are exhausted to the point of breakdown—or breakthrough—some of them with open wounds on their feet, others nodding off at every turn, still others as lit up and charged as electrical wires.

And then, at two in the morning, on the longest night of the year, suddenly the silence breaks, and people talk and laugh and return to being math professors and doctors and writers as they drink tea and collect the letters that have been accumulating for them. "Better than drugs!" one woman exclaims, partly in exultation, partly in relief.

In his sepulchral cabin, Cohen breaks out the cognac and serves an old friend and me gefilte fish, Hebrew National salami, and egg-and-onion matzos from a box. The two of them look like battle-hardened veterans—"noncommissioned officers," as the friend says—and it's not hard to see why Cohen, a celebrated lady-killer, called an early backup band the army and one of his sweetest records "an anti-pacifist recording." In trying to marry Babylon with Bethlehem, in reading women's bodies with the obsessiveness of a biblical scholar, he has been trying, over and over, to find ceremony without sanctimony and discipline without dogma. Where else should he be, where else could he be, than performing a military-style ritualized training that allows him to put Old Testament words to a country-western beat and write songs that sound like first-person laments written by God?

"I feel," says Cohen a little later, when we're alone, "that we're in a very shabby moment, and neither the literary nor the musical experience really has its finger on the pulse of our crisis. From my point of view, we're in the midst of a Flood of biblical proportions. It's both exterior and interior. At this point it's more devastating on the interior level, but it's leaking into the real world. I see everybody holding on in their individual way to an orange crate, to a piece of wood, and we're passing each other in this swollen river that has pretty well taken down all the landmarks, and pretty well overturned everything we've got. And people insist, under the circumstances, on describing themselves as 'liberal' or 'conservative.' It seems to me completely mad."

Of course, he says impatiently, he can't explain what he's doing here: "I don't think anybody really knows why they're doing anything. If you stop someone off the subway and say, 'Where are you going—in the deepest sense of the word?' you can't really expect an answer. I really don't know why I'm here. It's a matter of 'What else would I be doing?' Do I want to have great retrospectives of my work? I'm not really interested in being the oldest folk singer around.

"I think religion is the real deep entertainment," he concludes. "Real profound and voluptuous and delicious entertainment. The real feast that is available to us is within this activity. Nothing touches it." He smiles his godfatherly smile. "Except if you're courtin'. If you're young, the hormonal thrust has its own excitement."

The next day, the roshi invites me, with Cohen, to his cabin for lunch. It's a typically eclectic meal, noodles and curry, taken quietly and simply in a small, sunlit dining area. As ever when the roshi is around, Cohen sits absolutely humble and silent in a corner, all the tension emptied out of his face; everything about him is light, like a clear glass once the liquid has been drained.

Then he cleans up around the kitchen and asks his old friend, very gently, if he's tired.

"A practice like this—and I think everyone here would say the same thing—you could only do for love," says Cohen.

"So if it weren't for the roshi, you wouldn't be here?" I ask.

"If it weren't for the roshi, I wouldn't be."

By all accounts, Sasaki will take everything Cohen brings him—his selfishness, his anger, his ambition, his sins—and, as he holds them up to him, accept him. The man who has never in his six decades found a woman he can marry or a home he won't desert, the connoisseur of betrayal and self-tormenting soul who sang 25 years ago that he had "torn everyone who reached out for me," has finally found something he hasn't abandoned and a love that won't let him down.

"Roshi said something to me the other day that I like," Cohen tells me just before I leave. "The older you get, the lonelier you become, and the deeper the love that you need." For the old and the deep and the lonely, change, it seems, may not be the only aphrodisiac.

Pico Iyer is the author of, most recently, Tropical Classical: Essays From Several Directions (Knopf, 1997). From Shambhala Sun (Sept. 1998). Subscriptions: $24/yr. (6 issues) 1345 Spruce St., Boulder, CO 80302-4886.