He Has Tried in His Way to Be Free

Leonard Cohen is succeeding. In 2007, Sarah Hampson had a rare opportunity to spend an afternoon with the famed singer and poet.

Sarah Hampson
1 November 2007
Leonard Cohen.
Leonard Cohen in the back of a cab in New York City, 1972. Photo courtesy of Mike Jahn.

The park is like a poem: self-contained and spare. Smokers sit on benches in the morning drizzle. Pigeons swoop over a small gazebo, under the limbs of stately trees. There is a solemn-looking house, three storeys high with a gray stone facade. It’s the only one that faces this park in the east end of Montreal, and it’s his. There are two big front doors, side by side. No numbers. No bell. No indication which one is right. You just pick, and knock.

There is more than one way into the world of Leonard Cohen, and on this day, they are all open.

Cohen, now seventy-two, novelist, poet, singer/songwriter and Buddhist monk, is highly regarded all over the world, not just in his native Canada. But he dances in our heads mostly unseen, like a beautiful idea. It is rare that he makes himself available for scrutiny.

Here he is, though, a gentleman of hip in black jeans and an unironed dress shirt beneath a pinstriped, gray-flannel jacket. Atop his thick white hair, combed back off his deeply lined face, a grey cap sits at a jaunty angle, and in the breast pocket of his jacket, instead of a handkerchief he keeps a pair of tinted granny glasses. Standing in the cramped foyer to which both front doors open, sporting a wry, knowing smile, he politely ushers you into the house (once partitioned into two dwellings) that he has owned for more thirty years.

Almost eight years ago, Cohen came down from Mount Baldy, outside of Los Angeles, California, where he had secluded himself at a Buddhist monastery under the tutelage of Zen master Kyozan Joshu Sasaki Roshi since 1993. He is back in the spotlight with new work. In 2004, he released his seventeenth album, Dear Heather. Earlier this year, expanded editions of his first three albums hit the market, as did the critically acclaimed CD, Blue Alert, that he worked on with his lover, Hawaii-born songstress Anjani Thomas. An exhibition of artwork appeared in June. He acknowledges that his increased creative activity is partly to compensate for the millions he lost in royalties at the hands of his former manager, but there’s something different about Cohen.

He seems at ease. He exudes a calmness, as if his age—and more than forty years of study with Sasaki Roshi—have brought him clarity and peace. There is nothing off limits in a discussion with him. Over a bottle of Château Maucaillou, Greek bread, a selection of Quebec cheeses, and a fresh cherry pie, bought for the occasion from the local St. Laurent Boulevard merchants, you learn that he prefers to sleep alone; that he is no longer looking for another woman; the real reason he secluded himself in a Buddhist monastery for almost five years; and that a small, faded portrait of Saint Catherine Tekakwitha, the seventeenth-century native woman and heroine of his novel Beautiful Losers, hangs on the wall in his kitchen, above a table holding a fifties radio and a telephone with on oversize dial pad. He lives in the world but his space is spare.

He will entrance you in the stillness of a moment that stretches to five hours, and in the end, because you happened to ask, playfully, he will say sure, come back any time for a soak in the claw-footed tub, one of several in his house, that sits in a closet of a bathroom under the slope of the stairs.

His artwork is a form of meditation, a daily practice that helps ground him and prepare him for his day. “I think of it all as notes,” Cohen says in his rich, deep voice. Seated at a long pine table in the dining room, which overlooks the park, he is talking about his drawings in a casual, almost shy way.

“There were years when I would do a self-portrait every morning. I have hundreds of them. It was just a way to start the day with a kind of device to wake up.”

“Like a cigarette?”

“Instead of a cigarette.”

He quit four years ago, on a doctor’s advice.

“I do miss it,” Cohen says. “Much longing,” he adds, almost in a moan. (He once wrote a poem about the “the promise, the beauty, and the salvation of cigarettes.”) “I said I’d start smoking again at 85.” He allows a pause. “If I make it.”

He continues to flip through a copy of his new poetry collection, Book of Longing, which contains many of the drawings. “Here’s a good one,” he points out, reading the words beside a self-portrait of glum bewilderment, dated November 18, 2003. “Back in Montreal. As for the past, children, Roshi, songs, Greece, Los Angeles. What was that all about?”

His self-portraits never depict him as happy.

“Well, who is? Is this unique to me?” he asks with a soft chuckle. His friend and fellow poet, the late Irving Layton, once described Cohen as “a narcissist who hates himself.”

“I was able to speak to myself in a very frank sort of way,” Cohen continues. “I would do it while I brewed my coffee. I would set up this little wood Wacom tablet, and a mirror, a little mirror, and I’d just do a very quick sketch and then, what that sketch suggested, I would write something.”

The drawings are “transcendent decoration,” he says, touching one of the pages with the tip of a forefinger. “If it has any value at all, it’s because it’s harmless and doesn’t invite any deep intellection.” He points to various sketches, one of a Hires root-beer can, another of a candlestick, his granny glasses, a Rolex watch he saw in a magazine. “I have always loved things, just things in the world. I love trying to find the shape of things.”

And the nude women? “I would just see a beautiful woman photographed in a pornographic magazine. I would see a figure in Playboy or something like that, and I’d just take the form.” He draws a breath like an inhalation of cigarette smoke, holding it for a moment, exhaling in a sigh. “I rescue her. I put her back in the twelfth century, where she belongs,” he says, half-joking. “You know, I couldn’t get anyone to undress.”

Cohen closes the book, places it on the table, and lifts his eyes in an expression of calm anticipation. Every question he greets like an invitation to make himself understood. Leonard Cohen, the icon, is a concept he likes to toy with, as if it is both him and not.

“I got this rap as a kind of ladies’ man,” he says lazily and without irony, at one point. “And as I say in one of the poems, it has caused me to laugh, when I think of all the lonely nights” at the monastery. He describes the life on Mount Baldy as rigorous. “One of the first things you learn is to stop complaining. It’s a good lesson. It’s a kind of boot camp. You just get toughened up.

“As if I’m the only guy who ever felt this way about women,” he continues, with a smirk. “As if I’m the only person who ever had some sort of deep connection with the opposite sex.”

“Have you learned a lot from women?”

“Oh, yeah. You learn everything from women.”


He leans in. “It is where you move into uncharted territory.” He shrugs slightly, his small, neat hands held in front of him.

“The rest is just reinforcing wisdom or folly that you have inherited. But nobody can prepare anybody for an encounter with the opposite sex. Much has been written about it. You can read self-help books, but the actual confrontation as a young person with desire, this appetite for completion, well, that is the education.”

“And what a ruse that desire for completion is,” you suggest, “because ultimately, you’re still left with yourself.” “What’s left of it,” he puts in, laughing.

Cohen sits back in his chair, his ideas as well-worn and familiar as old sweaters. “Of course, women are the content of men, and men are the content of women, and most people are dealing with this—whatever version of that longing there is. You know, of completion. It can be spiritual, romantic, erotic. Everybody is involved in that activity.”

Cohen exudes an air of permission. Nothing unsettles him. He will explain all: the eclectic collection of objects in his house, like the black-and-white picture of the dog on the pine sideboard (it’s of Tinky, the Scotch terrier he grew up with) that sits beside a modernist sculpture in silver by his childhood friend, Mort Rosengarten, that stands next to an antique pot, inscribed with Arabic symbols, that his father liked and that came from his mother’s house when she died.

Ask him about the graphic signatures, or chops, as he refers to them, that he designed and stamps onto several of the drawings. Perhaps they are too private to explain. They look like a secret code. “Not at all. Not at all,” he murmurs. “This one is the old Chinese writing of my monk’s name, Jikhan,” he says, pointing to one. “It got into the press as ‘the silent one,’ but it just means ordinary silence.” The poet as an absence of communication. Roshi, who assigns the names, likes irony, presumably.

“Yes, could be,” Cohen says. A beat of silence. “Since Roshi doesn’t speak English, it’s almost impossible to discern what he means.”

“These two interlocking hearts 1 designed for the cover of Book of Mercy his 1984 poetry collection, he says, moving along as he describes another chop. “I established this Order of the Unified Heart, that is a kind of dream of an order. There is no organization. There’s no hierarchy. There’s just a pin for people of a very broadly designated similar intent.”

“And yours is?”

He thinks for a minute. “To just make things better on a very personal level,” he says. “You’re just not scattered all over the place. There is a tiny moment when you might gather around some decent intention.”

“And what has been your most decent intention?”

He places his hands on the edge of the table. “I can’t think of any right now. There must be one or two.”

“Beauty, maybe.”

“Beauty, certainly,” he responds.

It is often said that Cohen is hard to define. There’s Cohen, the son of a prominent Montreal clothier and the grandson of a Jewish scholar. Cohen, the law-school dropout. Cohen, the novelist, the poet, the songwriter. Cohen, the sexual bad boy who becomes a monk.

But he disagrees. “I always felt it was of one piece. 1 never felt I was going off on a tangent. Mainly because I think we develop images of ourselves quite early on, and certainly one of the images I had of myself came from reading Chinese poetry at a very young age. There was a kind of solitary figure in some of those poems by Li Po and Tu Fu. A monk sitting by a stream. There was a notion of solitude, a notion of deep appreciation for personal relationships, friendships, not just love, not just sensual or erotic or the love of a man or a woman, but a deep longing to experience and to describe friendship and loss and the consequences of distance. So those images in those poems had their effect, and thirty years later, I found myself in robes and a shaved head sitting in a meditation hall. It just seemed completely natural,” he says in a quiet manner.

Cohen is at turns wistful, serious, and humorous. He appears to be completely in the moment, allowing himself the freedom of the response as it arises to each question or in reaction to the conversation, as it moves here and there.

At one point, in an exchange about his artistic life, he admits that he “drifted into things. I suppose there has been an undercurrent of deliberation, but I don’t really navigate it.” According to legend, it wasn’t until he encountered folk singer Judy Collins, in 1966, that he decided to perform publicly songs he had played for friends. The following year, she introduced some Cohen songs on her album, including his big hit “Suzanne.” In 1968 he released his first album.

Cohen didn’t seek out a musical career as much as it seems to have found him. Which is what is happening now with his drawings. He appears to have fallen into a whole new career.

He takes in this observation, looks out the window for a moment, and then brings his attention back into the room.

“That’s why I say free will is overrated,” he drawls in his smoky voice.

“It was terrific. The best kind,” he says. “We had these appetites that we understood, and it was wonderful that they were taken care of. It was a moment when everybody was giving to the other person what they wanted. The women knew that’s what the men wanted.”

Don’t ask how the subject of casual sex in the sixties came up. It was part of the unfolding of the Saturday afternoon, the laziness of it, like an endless meal of many courses, which you keep expecting to end but never does. You cover one subject, and thank him for his time, thinking he may be tired of talking now, but he doesn’t take the opportunity to say goodbye. “Here, relax, eat,” he will say. “Have more wine. Would you like a piece of cherry pie?” And then the conversation continues.
“If you could have it so much,” I ask, “didn’t that devalue it?”

Cohen offers a frank expression. He could be talking about apples. “Well, nobody gets enough of anything,” he explains matter-of-factly. “You either get too much or not enough. Nobody gets the right amount, in terms of what they think their appetite deserves.

“But it lasted just a few moments,” he says of that time. “And then it was back to the old horror story, whatever it is, that still exists. You know, I’ll give you this if you give me that. You know, sealing the deal: What do I get, what do you get. It’s a contract.”

Cohen’s sexiness, powerful still, is in his accessibility. His open-door atmosphere of hospitality—an invitation to authenticity, to say and ask what you want—makes him an age-appropriate ladies’ man. He is interested in people, in what they think, and he will ask about their lives. But his manner is not invasive or louche. He borders on paternal, or would, that is, if your dad liked to write about cunnilingus and fellatio as if they were fancy Italian appetizers.

“Believe me, what you want is someone to have dinner with,” he advises on having a relationship later in life. “Sleep with from time to time, telephone every day or write. It’s what you set up that is defeating. Make it very modest. And give yourself permission to make a few mistakes. You know, blow it a bit. Have a few drinks and fall into bed with somebody. It doesn’t have to be the final thing.”

Anjani Thomas appears several times as we speak. “See you later, sweetheart,” Cohen calls softly to her when she leaves with a friend to go shopping. Rosengarten, whom he has known since their childhood growing up together on Belmont Street in affluent Westmount, and who now lives nearby, drops in for a chat and some food.

A little later, a light knock. “Ah, a tap-tap-tapping at my chamber door,” Cohen says as he gets up. A graduate student, a young man in his twenties who has written a dissertation on Cohen in his native Italian, has sought him out. Speaking to Cohen in French, he explains his work; gives him a copy; asks if he can speak to him some time at length for future papers he wants to write. Cohen assures him he can. Asked to sign an autograph, he bends down nimbly on one knee in the foyer to do so.

It is not the Cohen of his lyrics or of his sullen self-portraits who moves about this house of austere aesthetic. He is a gentleman to his partner, the friend in the neighborhood, a gracious host. It is in his humanity, his feet of clay, that he is most comfortable.

He talks easily about his earlier years, unburdened by nostalgia. “My constitution is what saved me,” he says of the time he used a lot of drugs, especially during the writing of Beautiful Losers in 1966. “I’m not a really good drinker or a really good junkie. My stomach just doesn’t permit it. I was very lucky in that respect, because a lot of people I know, especially in those turbulent times, just didn’t survive it.”

Similarly, he displays no longing or fondness for his time on Mount Baldy. He left the monastery in 1999. Not because he couldn’t find what he was looking for. Rather, he says, “I had completed that phase of my training.”

He had gone there to cure himself of his excesses. He worked in the kitchen and as a secretary to Roshi. But it was not all about serenity. “They’re not saints, and you aren’t either,” he says of his fellow monks. “A monastery is rehab for people who have been traumatized, hurt, destroyed, maimed by daily life that they simply couldn’t master. I had been studying with Roshi for thirty or forty years, but when I actually decided to live with him and really commit myself to the daily life—I always did that for several monthsof every year—but when I decided to do it full-time, I had just come off a tour in 1993, and yes, I felt dislocated. 1 had been drinking tremendous amounts on the road and my health was shot.”

He discovered what he was looking for. “What happens in meditations that last ten, fifteen hours is that you run through your top ten erotic fantasies, ambition fantasies, revenge fantasies, global ratification fantasies. You run through them all until you bore yourself to death, basically, and the faculty that produces opinions and snap judgments and unrealistic scenarios for your own prominence, after you run through them for a number of years, they cease to have charge. They bore themselves into non-existence. You see them as diversions from another kind of intimacy that you become more interested in—and that is what Socrates said: Know Thyself.” Cohen, who has two grown children from his long-term relationship with Suzanne Elrod—not the Suzanne of his famous song—is a grandfather now. Cassius Lyon Cohen was born a few months ago. Still, there’s something more at play beneath his palpable equanimity. And it might be as simple as this: The man is happy.

“I always had a background of distress, ever since I was young,” he admits. “What part that played in becoming a writer or a singer or whatever it was that one became,

I don’t know. I didn’t have a sense of an operational ease,” he continues. About life? “Just about one’s work or one’s capacity to earn a living; a capacity to find a mate or find a moment of relief in someone’s arms,” he says, trailing off.

He looks up. “I don’t know what happened,” he says sweetly. “Something very agreeable happened to me. I don’t know what the reason is. That background of distress dissolved.” He leaves a small silence, then offers a mischievous smile. “I’m worried now that my songs are too cheerful because I’m feeling well. I think I may be irrelevant pretty soon.”

Has Thomas, who is forty-eight, played a part in that happiness? “That might very well be,” he allows. He met her in 1984, when she was singing backup for him. They didn’t become lovers until 1999. “When the background of distress dissolves, you’re able to see people more clearly.”

“People who love you, you mean?”

“Yeah, or don’t,” he says. “You’re able to appreciate the authentic situation. You can just see things more dearly. It’s a veil that drops. You’re not looking at everything from the point of view of your own suffering.”

Relationships are often difficult, he says. “I find that people want to name it. The woman is saying, ‘What is our relationship? Are we engaged? Are we boyfriend and girlfriend? Are we lovers?’ And my disposition is, ‘Do we really have to have this discussion, because it’s not as good as our relationship?’

“But as you get older, you want to accommodate, and say, ‘Yeah, we’re living together. This is for real. I’m not looking for anyone else. You’re the woman in my life.’ Whatever terms that takes: a ring, an arrangement, a commitment, or from one’s behavior, by the way you act. You make it clear by minute adjustments. A woman goes by. You can look, but you can adjust so that it’s not an insult, an affront, or a danger. You’re with somebody, and you want to make it work. I’m not interested in taking off my clothes with a woman right now.”

He and Thomas live together, but they have separate bedrooms on different floors of the house. “I like to wake up alone,” Cohen explains. “And she likes to be alone. We are both impossibly solitudinous people.”

If advancing age and his love of Thomas have promoted happiness, so too has Buddhism. What Cohen has developed is a practice of detachment. “You have to take responsibility because the world holds you accountable for what you do,” he explains at one point. “But if you understand that there are other forces determining what you do, then there’s no pride when the world affirms you, and no shame when the world scorns you. Also, when someone does something to you that you really don’t like or that hurts you, well, a feeling of injury may arise, but what doesn’t is hatred or enmity, because those people aren’t doing it, either. They’re just doing what had to be done.”

Just like this interview. It has been arranged, and so he will do it, graciously, without hesitation, annoyance, or impatience. Finally, when you insist you must leave, he worries if you are dressed warmly enough for the cold weather. He gives you one of his scarves, and goes upstairs to retrieve an old Gap sweater he wants you to wear. He calls you darling. He finds a pin for the Order of the Unified Heart and gives you one, and a ring, too, with the same design.

Earlier, he had explained that even if despair has lessened, challenges remain. “This isn’t very different from the monastery,” he says, referring to his current situation. “It’s the same kind of life, which is sometimes difficult, like everybody else’s. It’s a struggle for significance and self- respect, and you know, for righteous employment, to be doing the right thing.” Part of that, clearly, is inviting people, strangers even, into his house of unadorned walls, simple white curtains, and old wood floors, nourishing them with food and ideas and hours of delightful conversation, and then sending them back out into the world, the one with the smokers and the drizzle and the pain. ♦