Alan Franks interviewed Leonard Cohen in 2001 for The Times Magazine. Here he recalls his meeting with this remarkable poet and musician.
Given that so much of his work seemed like the chronicle of a death foretold, his passing shouldn’t have come as such a shock. Yet it did, as passings will. In this respect, as in few others, he was like everyone else, going the way of mortality, just as he warned us he would.
But what a passage his life was; a studious Canadian from an intellectual Montreal family, caught up in the early Sixties infiltration of popular music by the literary lyric and feted, as a creator little lower, if at all, than the younger and in every sense louder Bob Dylan. If Cohen rather than Dylan had just been given the Nobel Prize for Literature, the outcry would have almost certainly been a more muted one, even to the point of silence.
Despite the knowingly dark, even lugubrious lyrics, there was a rich savouring of irony in his songs. In his life as well, as I discovered when I met him in London fifteen years ago, at the time he was releasing his album Ten New Songs. This was after one of his many periods of silence and before he was propelled into more recording and performing through the pilfering of his pension fund to the tune of five million dollars by his long-standing manager; also before the fresh recognition brought to him by the release of his much-covered song Hallelujah.
He was staying in Home House, an extravagantly discreet club in Portman Square . In its perfect Georgian rooms sat dozens of corporate Americans in open-necked shirts and pastel jumpers. Some tried to look as if they were not working, but no-one was being fooled. Mobile phones were being stabbed with a clumsiness that would stick out embarrassingly today.
Cohen, who was then 67, was the only gentleman in a suit and tie, tiny, soft-spoken, impeccably polite and downright dapper. This was particularly funny – and he knew it – in the light of where he had just come from; the monastic seclusion of Mount Baldy in the Californian Hills. If you didn’t know better, you might have taken this to be one of those slightly iffy rock-star initiatives to save the planet from humanity.
Not a bit of it. Cohen had spent six years in the monastery, which was run by his close friend the Zen master Joshu Sasaki Roshi. He was already 94, and would live for another thirteen years. Cohen, whose name as a monk was Jikan, meaning The Silent One, said that each day there was more like two days on account of the timetable; up at 3.00 a.m., although Cohen would rise half an hour earlier so that he could get in a coffee and a couple of cigarettes; robe up for the meditation hall, chanting, breakfast and the daily duties – cooking, cleaning, candle-making, painting walls. He had been meaning to lead this monastic existence for some time but, as with much else in his life, he said it had taken him a long time to get round to.
After a stint as the meditation hall leader, he became Roshi’s attendant and cook. There was, he said, virtually no private time and no private space, with everyone working shoulder to shoulder and embodying the Zen saying about monks being like pebbles in a bag, polishing one another. And no ladies. “There were nuns,” he replied. Yes, quite.
But then, he said, he had never been quite the ladies’ man he had been portrayed as, and was always a little surprised by his Lothario reputation. He was very clear that his time at Mount Baldy had not been a running-away from anything, but rather a close approaching of spiritual resources. What he called the “psychotherapeutic establishment” had a lot to answer for, forever encouraging us to get in touch with our inner feelings. This was a model that had never attracted him as much as what he termed dynamic uncertainty. His view was that there is no such thing as an inner self, and therefore one’s attempts to get in touch with it were doomed.
In the context of his greatest songs, in which devotion and doubt circle each other in a wary tango, this made sense. So did his surprising revelation about his professional beginnings. In his twenties, living with a woman who had a young child, his poems and novels weren’t making him an adequate income, so he set off to Nashville to become a studio musician. Surprising because, though he is a good accompanist of his own material, he would never lay claim to the levels of skill needed to make it in that city’s most overcrowded trade.
No, what happened was that he met and was taken up by the record producer John Hammond, who responded warmly to the classy marriage of passion and poetic technique in the early material such as Suzanne. Hammond was the very opposite of a chancer , having worked with and guided the careers of some of greatest American popular musicians since the pre-war years: Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Teddy Wilson, Bennie Goodman, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin and more.
As has been said many times, most recently with Dylan getting the Nobel, the Sixties was a time when poetry and “pop” joined forces. The reasons were many and they included the influence of the Beat Poets, the gradual liberalisation of college courses, reaction against a surfeit of moon-june bubblegum and the emerging economic power of a young market. Cohen, like his famous contemporaries Dylan, Paul Simon, Randy Newman and Neil Young, were embellishing, and richly complicating, a tradition taken on from Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger.
With him in London that day were two of the female backing vocalists with whom he had been recording. By this time his voice had long since lost its upper register and he was, by his own admission, down to the last few notes at the bottom of the barrel. The singers were supporting him rather as newer buttresses support a venerable building. They spoke of him in terms similar to the ones he had used when speaking of Roshi, crediting him with changing their lives. They would, they said, follow him anywhere. He looked faintly bashful at this, as if there had been some mistake. When I asked him how his voice had gone ever further down into the basement, he smiled and pointed to his pack of Marlboro Lights.
Not that he was done with making music. Not by a long way, as his output since then demonstrates. This final, valedictory album, You Want It Darker, coinciding Bowie-like with his life’s closure, has been hailed as something of a classic, with the trademark mix of wry and rueful.
During my conversation with him I found myself committing the error of asking him what one of his songs was about. The number in question was a particularly beautiful, rather cryptic one called Alexandra Leaving. Whatever else it was, it was classic Cohen, full of languid passion. As usual, the words sounded as though they had been rigorously thought through and dealt out into metrical lines; there was stuff with faintly proverbial echoes, but it was standing a little apart, hard-to-get. “And you who were bewildered by a meaning / Whose code was broken, crucifix uncrossed / Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving / Then say goodbye to Alexandra lost.”
I learned, but only much later, that the lyric was based on The God Forsakes Antony, written in 1911 by the Greek poet Constantine P. Cavafy. “A song,” said Cohen, “is a report. I cannot report on a report.” In cold print this might look like a bit of a put-down. In person felt like nothing of the sort; more a helpful response to a perfectly reasonable inquiry. You never met a humbler superstar. Just as he embraced the notion of dynamic uncertainty, so he placed his life, and therefore his work also, in the path of what he termed ecstatic accidents. Not a standard career move, but deeply ambitious and highly effective.