Leonard Cohen Burns, and We Burn with Him

“God is a fire,” said Nikos Kazantzakis. “He burns and we burn with Him.” Art, passion, and Zen are fires too—burning the self, leaving behind only ashes and essence.

Pico Iyer
14 November 2016

In his great book of changes and homemade koans, Silence, John Cage defines the purpose of music. “Music is edifying,” the devoted student of D.T. Suzuki wrote, “for from time to time it sets the soul in operation. The soul is the gatherer-together of the disparate elements (Meister Eckhart), and its work fills one with peace and love.” We have, of course, soul music, and who can resist the transports of the Reverend Al Green or Aretha Franklin? But we also have a more reserved and serene music that is of, for, and from the soul. As Cage notes a little earlier in his book, a musician once wanted to give up his art and become a full-time disciple of Swami Ramakrishna. “Remain a musician,” his teacher said. “Music is a means of rapid transportation.”

The music of Leonard Cohen is not notably rapid. A friend recently told me that he mistakenly played a Billy Joel record too slow, at sixteen rpm, and the result sounded uncannily like Cohen. And Cohen’s music is not obviously transporting, in the way that U2 can be, with their building chords of imminence, or the otherworldly post-verbal soundscapes of the Icelandic band Sigur Ros. Leonard Cohen takes you in, not up. Some might even say his songs are not always music; my Japanese wife runs out of the room whenever I put on late Cohen because to her it sounds too much like the Buddhist chanting she grew up hearing through the hills of Kyoto at dusk.

But Cohen’s gatherings-together are unambiguously about the soul—its terrors, its betrayals, its hesitations, its longing to give itself over. A casual listener notices how often the singer uses the word “naked.” A fledgling Cohenite hears him saying, “I need to see you naked in your body and your thought.” But the person who lives with the songs realizes that what makes the writer special is that he’s not rendering others naked, but himself.

After he met the Zen master Joshu Sasaki Roshi—in 1969, just as he began his recording career—and started sitting with him, Cohen’s commitment to silence and obedience grew so strong that, by 1984, he was giving us his plangent, classic psalm, “If It Be Your Will,” in which (like Ramakrishna’s disciple) he seemed ready to give up even the speech and song by which he offered himself to the world if his master so wished it.

“Soul” is not a word to use in Buddhist discourse, of course, but there’s no doubting that Cohen would echo many of the sentiments of that other unsparing Zen student, Cage: “People say sometimes, timidly: I know nothing about music but I know what I like. But the important questions are answered by not liking only but disliking and accepting equally what one likes and dislikes. Otherwise there is no access to the dark night of the soul.

Or, as Cage also put it: “I have nothing to say and I am saying it.”

The more he sang, unflaggingly, about sickness, old age, and death, the more listeners started taking him as a guide to life, the rare spiritual being who didn’t seem to be peddling any creed or presenting himself as anything other than mortal.

It’s one of the unexpected beauties of the age that Leonard Cohen, rather suddenly, has begun to enjoy his fourth—or fifth—Indian summer, to the point where everyone I run into, from Singapore to Melbourne and Kyoto to New York, seems to be talking about him or attending to his messages in the dark. For those who have begun to despair of our celebrity culture, this is a typically Cohenesque instruction in the dismantling of celebrity and the deeper meaning of culture. After he found out, in 2005, that his longtime much-trusted manager seemed to have made off with nearly all his savings, rendering him a poor man, he went on the road again, at the age of seventy-three, and performed 250 three-hour concerts from Istanbul to Hanging Rock, deep into his seventy-seventh year. The more he deferred to his accompanying musicians onstage, the more audiences were moved and impressed with him (a rock star who was offering humility and attentiveness?); the more he sang, unflaggingly, about sickness, old age, and death, the more listeners started taking him as a guide to life, the rare spiritual being who didn’t seem to be peddling any creed or presenting himself as anything other than mortal.

In his mid-seventies, Cohen’s old song “Hallelujah” took over the number one and number two spots in the British charts, and a host of American Idol-style cover versions made it the fastest- selling Internet download in European history. The record he made last year, with the deliberately ungrabby title of Old Ideas, was number one in seventeen countries and reached the top five in nine others. The result has been incongruities as rich in irony and surprise as any of Cohen’s songs about the future: amid the glittery singles bars and temples to conspicuous consumption of the Los Angeles Live entertainment center, I walked not long ago into a Starbucks and was greeted by the album being featured that week: the work of an ordained Zen monk mumbling about how “None of us is deserving the cruelty or the grace.”

When people learn that I’ve been lucky enough to spend a little time with the man, they often want to hear more. All I can say is: “Leonard Cohen is like one of those old Eastern poets of whom he’s been writing for half a century or more—alone in his simple hut on the top of a mountain, with a pen and paper and a bottle of wine nearby. Perhaps also, in the case of this unorthodox hermit, a beautiful woman.”

If he’s always evinced a keen, tough-minded, unyielding interest in control, it’s because he knows how much cannot be controlled, in love or faith or solitude.

Part of what fascinates so many about Cohen is the mixture of intimacy and elusiveness: few writers render themselves so seemingly open and unadorned on the page, and yet few offer so rich a sense of having no interest in explaining anything away. It’s as if—like many of our deepest artists, from Emily Dickinson to Melville—the more he sits still in a room, plumbing the secrets of the interior, the more he sees how much externals are beyond his grasp. If he’s always evinced a keen, tough-minded, unyielding interest in control, it’s because he knows how much cannot be controlled, in love or faith or solitude.

One of the beauties of Sylvie Simmons’ new Cohen biography, I’m Your Man, which instantly becomes the definitive sourcebook for all material on the man, is that she brings to Cohen much of the discretion, perceptiveness, tight focus, and wit that he brings to the world. The deeper strength is that she doesn’t just dig up Cohen’s water-safety certificate in summer camp, or point out that he recorded parts of his first album in the same converted Greek– Armenian Orthodox Church where Miles Davis recorded Kind of Blue. She traveled everywhere to speak to more than a hundred of the singer’s oldest associates. Nearly every one, whether child- hood playmate or former lover, cousin, or record producer, independently presents us with a portrait of an uncommonly courtly, gracious, and impeccable soul who’s never liked to be at the center of attention and who, having grown up with great wealth and expectation, has always hungered for less.

“He’s humble, but also fierce,” says Rebecca de Mornay, his onetime love. “He has this subtext of ‘Let’s get down to the truth here. Let’s not kid ourselves.’” Marianne Ihlen, the Norwegian beauty who shared a simple room on the Greek island of Hydra with him, says, “He was a gentleman, and he had that stoic thing about him and that smile he will try to hide behind: ‘Am I serious now or is all this a joke?’” If a man is known by the company he keeps, Cohen seems to have found—or helped encourage—people who reflect back his elevation and determination to see things on a larger canvas. And he has remained as unswervingly loyal to them as they, in pretty much every case, have been to him.

Cohen was raised, as Simmons aptly points out,“in a house of suits.” His father was the very proper owner of a high-end clothing business who became one of the first Jewish commissioned officers in the Canadian Army, his mother a Russian rabbi’s daughter who was warm, volatile, and occasionally subject to depression. That mix of formality and emotionalism is what gave his work its edge, its polish from the beginning; here was a passionate man in a fancy suit. And his deep sense of connection to his priestly forebears—his grandfather was president of a synagogue—seems to have left Cohen with an innate respect for discipline and ceremony, steadfast Judaic roots that have allowed him to bring Jesus and the Buddha and St. Paul into his songs of longing.

It’s hard not to feel, in fact, that he was made for the Zen life from the outset, with his devotion to ritual and order, his love of simple spaces, his concentration upon essentials. Part of what makes him so hard to catch is that he’s always one step ahead of you in his thinking (dismissing “charismatic holy men” just as you’re about to accuse him of following—or even being—one), but what keeps him so close to us, what allows us to feel he’s speaking to us, is the directness with which he takes that very tendency to task.

The other force that formed him, surely, is Canada, which grounded him in an ideal mix of Old World and New or, in Simmons’ nice phrase, “archaic language…with contemporary irony.” He’s always seemed to live at a distance from himself and been ready to play with masks in a way that’s less familiar—more threatening, perhaps—to many below the forty-ninth parallel.

Those who have thrilled to his recent tours may be surprised to learn that both stage fright and a genuine lack of confidence in his singing have often made live performances an ordeal for him. Before his first tour, he had his oldest friend, a sculptor, make a mask for him—a “live death mask,” in Simmons’ phrase—though in the end he never wore it, perhaps because he’d perfected a persona that was distraction enough.

After his father died, when Cohen was nine, he was left in a house of women—his sometimes mercurial and, as he put it, “Chekhovian” mother and his elder sister. In his yearbook at Westmount High School (where he was a cheerleader), he wrote: “Ambition: World Famous Orator…Prototype: the little man who is always there.” Not long thereafter, falling in with a group of raffish Montreal writers, he established himself within a few years as the country’s leading young poet and a wild Joycean novelist. He’s only been comfortable, it’s tempting to think, when stuck in no set position, far from any fixed self. When recording in Nashville, Cohen used a Jew’s harp on more than half the cuts he made; touring with his backup group across Europe in 1979 and 1980, he would lead the others in a monastic chant in Latin—Pauper Sum Ego (“I Am a Poor Man”)—while Joshu Sasaki sat quietly reading in the back of the tour bus. The first time he met Sasaki Roshi, the small Zen master, now 105 years old, who set up the first Rinzai center in the U.S., Cohen was most impressed that the teacher spoke at a friend’s wedding about the ten vows of Buddhism, one of which forbids drugs and alcohol, and then devoted himself to drinking down one cup of sake after another.

Recently, however, that same tendency has brought Sasaki more and more controversy and criticism as female students have came forward with stories of longstanding sexual misconduct. Yet underneath all the surfaces and gambits Cohen is someone rock solid at the core: after his then 18-year-old son, Adam, was involved in a serious car crash in 1990, Cohen spent the better part of four months at his boy’s bedside in a Montreal hospital, often reading aloud from the Bible. He’s “developed the tenacity and character to sit still within the suffering,” de Mornay says, and even though he’s never been shy of sex and drugs—extending acid to one woman on the tip of his white handkerchief— he’s never seemed to kid himself that running from the truth will solve anything. His songs rarely give himself the benefit of the doubt, but also don’t spend too much time wondering where the arrow in his side came from. Simmons has worked heroically, for more than ten years, to unearth every detail and to evoke every Cohen setting from the Chelsea Hotel to his monastic cabin. But perhaps her greatest strength, as she clears the ground around Cohen, is to leave a space in the middle as rich and enigmatic as an empty chair. More than presuming to tell us who Cohen is, she often—and usefully—tells us who he isn’t, how far he lives from our projections and myths.

He ignores revolutionaries as much as he ignores the status quo they’re reacting against.

He was never, for one thing, a rebel, even though he’s always gone his own way; he ignores revolutionaries as much as he ignores the status quo they’re reacting against. He never felt at home amid the looseness of the Beats nor what he saw as the naïveté of the hippies (he was more in his element, she suggests, amid the urban experiments of Warhol’s Factory). He has never been a pacifist or vegan or New Ager. Touring Europe in 1970, he named his supporting band the Army, and three years later, he went to Israel the day after the Yom Kippur War broke out. Hoping to enlist, he ended up performing up to eight concerts a day for Israeli soldiers around the desert; he once—perhaps in part to provoke and evade those who would pin an idea on him—confessed to a “deep interest in violence.”

At the same time, he’s never been the dour or humorless soul some imagine from the songs; everyone who knows him testifies to his being, as one backup singer says, “one of the funniest people I’ve ever met.” And a large part of his magnetism comes from his ability to efface himself. “He moves into leadership naturally,” a friend since boyhood, Nancy Bacal, points out, “except that he remains invisible at the same time. His intensity and power operate from below the surface.” When asked to draw a portrait of his vital organs in a book in which many others had done the same, he simply wrote, “Let me be the shy one in your book.” Yet his songs strip him bare in public with a lack of shyness few other artists would dare.

The confiding air, on record, in person, draws you in, but that closeness is best enjoyed so long as you remember the distances that remain. Women have always been the ones to respond most intensely to Cohen’s seeming openness and vulnerability, and not be distracted by his strategies and fine words. It was women who first gave his songs prominence—Judy Collins, Nico, Buffy Sainte-Marie—and it’s Sharon Robinson and Anjani Thomas who have cowritten many of his songs in recent years. His sound engineer for almost four decades, unusually for the profession, is a woman, Leanne Ungar. His gruff croak has always been decorated— made musical—by the high sweet chime of female voices in the background.

More deeply, it is women who have always been wisest to the competing demands of the singer and the man, as he hungers for company and adventure even while needing to be alone, longs for surrender even as (in Simmons’ fine formulation) he always needs “freedom, control, and an escape hatch.” The biographer excavates some of his searching letters (often to say good-bye) to Marianne, and tracks down the Suzanne of his famous song (now living in a wooden caravan in Santa Monica and writing her autobiography by hand). She extracts beautiful sentences from Suzanne Elrod, the mother of Cohen’s son and daughter, and talks to his recent partner, Anjani Thomas, in part about the difficulties of such a solitary perfectionist being involved in such a collaborative exercise as music. From all of them she seems to have picked up a spirit of wry devotion, of being alert to his maneuvers and his needs and yet ready to forgive much, precisely because he remains such an honorable and often selfless character.

As Joni Mitchell put it, indelibly, in “A Case of You”:

I met a woman
She had a mouth like yours
She knew your life
She knew your devils and your deeds
And she said “Go to him, stay with him if you can
But be prepared to bleed”

What distinguishes Leonard Cohen from most is that he has made a special art out of both his fallenness and his grasp of a higher perspective. He’s given sorrowful and lasting voice to what happens when the self dissolves, even as he’s never denied that his own self may still be fractious and disobedient and ready to turn on its better side. When being in the monastery got too much for him, he’d get into his car and slip off to a McDonald’s down the mountain for a Filet-O-Fish before heading home to watch TV (often The Jerry Springer Show), until the antsiness had been worked out of his system. At the same time, one of the most charismatic and sought-after singers in the world has spent decades driving his aged Zen teacher to doctors’ appointments and fetching him chicken soup.

He voices the truths of meditation while always acknowledging that he’s not in full possession of them.

The remarkable thing about Cohen’s recent work is that he can hold a hundred thousand people captive at a concert in Glastonbury, England, by singing of emptiness and the self as nothing but smoke. More than many a Zen writer, from Gary Snyder to, in fact, John Cage, he harks back to the classic Eastern tradition of devoting most of his late work to death. Cage, for example, wrote beautifully about the clarity that arises out of meditation and how “the acceptance of death is the source of all life”; Cohen pushes even further, toward not just an accepting, but a shrugging embrace of extinction. He employs the self to cut through the self—writing so personally, he touches some impersonal core in us—and he voices the truths of meditation while always acknowledging that he’s not in full possession of them (he begins his most recent album by mocking any claims to being a “sage” or “man of vision,” and admitting rather to being a “lazy bastard living in a suit”). When people acclaim him as a wise man today, it’s partly because he seems so alert to his follies; when they reach toward him for his radiance and strength, it’s not least because he is so acutely aware of how soon radiance and strength will give out.

Whenever I spend time with Leonard Cohen, I’m spellbound by the droll gravitas, the warmth, the constant solicitude, and the extraordinary gift with words. But when I come away from the small house in a very rough part of Los Angeles that he shares with his daughter and grandson, I realize I’ve been most moved by what you don’t hear so much on the records: his deep commitment to his kids, the seriousness and voraciousness of his reading, especially on matters of the spirit, the depth of his silences. Many a visitor finds herself just sitting with him in his small garden, saying nothing, enjoying a communion deeper than personality or intention.

The man who has everything has always longed, it seems, to be—to have—nothing.

I look at him from one angle and see the flawlessly cool and stylish heartthrob who made my wife weak at the knees just by offering her a cigarette. I look at him from another angle and see a very shy, bookish boy with a mischievous, rather sheepish grin. The man who has everything has always longed, it seems, to be—to have—nothing.

In the end , of course, what matters—as Cohen himself would most eloquently stress—is the work, not the man. And from the beginning, Cohen’s two themes have been suffering and seeing things as they are, the latter a particularly urgent concern for one who feels so strongly a hunger for romance. Some writers—Gary Snyder, say, or Jim Harrison—have drawn upon their Zen practice to express a wide-awake, embracing transcription of all that the natural world might offer us, in its mixed beauty and capriciousness; others—such as Peter Matthiessen or Cage— have gravitated more toward the austere elevation and cutting away of illusions that Zen study fosters, as if to pare away at every excess until what remains is what is, nothing more, nothing less.

Cohen, by nature and background, clearly belongs with the latter group, and has never been interested in “first thought, best thought.” He labors over songs for more than a decade and will keep making changes and adding twenty-second thoughts till the very last minute. More than eighty notebooks went into “Hallelujah.” What he’s brought to the expression of the Zen tradition is an undistracted and sophisticated psychological acuity. Insofar as Zen can try to break down our attachments to theories and notions of the self, through hard labor and relent- less discipline, Cohen has been as unwavering a student as any, finding in the monastery a perfect way to be alone in company and to unearth a silence that’s “communicative.” Yet he habitually refers to Zen as a “hospital for the broken-hearted,” and the words he uses again and again in his songs are “panic” and “bewilderment.”

He gives us a sense of what Zen training leads toward, in other words, but he never glosses over the anger and confusion that brought him to it and remain. That’s why, even after thirty years of hanging out with Sasaki, he still felt the need to come down from the mountain and amplify the teaching elsewhere. By early 1999, Cohen had been a monk for five and a half years, and all he felt was a depression and emptiness as deep as any, befitting one who’d “come to the end of the road.” His rigor and his restlessness refuse to settle for easy answers and I was impressed, talking to him in his monastery, when he told me that he had no real interest in making music again, and that he’d given up smoking and would never go to India because of its indiscipline and disorder. When I saw him four months later, he had a synthesizer in his cabin and a cigarette in his hand and, not many seasons on, he was spending five months at a stretch in India.

Some of the most moving passages in Simmons’ book describe Cohen’s trips to Mumbai to sit every morning at the feet of Romesh Balsekar, the late former bank president who used to give informal talks on nondualism every morning in his apartment. The wandering rock star stayed in an anonymous two-star hotel and occasionally took friends to an unassuming tea stall; he declined every invitation from the rich and famous, but at one point went to a taxi driver’s home in the slums. He never went in for psychology, Simmons (herself British) points out, because “his dignity and an almost British stiff upper lip” forbade it, but he put himself through even more intense challenges in trying to break through divisions in the self and in the world.

He’s always tended to others with a gentleness and thoroughness he hasn’t often extended to himself.

The other thing that comes across, again and again, is his kindness. We read of his driving across L.A. to help a receptionist he didn’t know well find her long-haired cat (and then ministering to the cat close-up, chanting into its forehead, even as his allergy to cats reduced him to sniffling and tears). He’s always tended to others with a gentleness and thoroughness he hasn’t often extended to himself. At the National Film Board of Canada, I once heard about a street person who’d been suddenly admitted to hospital. When the doctors asked him how he’d pay for his treatment, he kept on saying, blithely, “My friend Leonard will take care of it.” The physicians took this as further proof of derangement—until the checks started regularly arriving, signed, “Leonard Cohen.”

In the realm of song, it’s his unflinchingness, mingled with his polished depth and craft, that will make him endure. Bob Dylan gives us riddles, often to throw us off his trail. Leonard Cohen gives us riddles that take us deeper and deeper into the heart of things, and the paradoxes he chooses to embody on our behalf: the fact that we cannot always resolve our longing for love and the sensual world with the need to find our own truth; the fact that we know the truth of impermanence but hide from it at every other moment; the way we break every rule we’ve made for ourselves and then pretend it’s somebody else’s fault. “Let me cry Help beside you, Teacher,” he was writing way back in 1961.

What he’s done, as man and artist, is to express his most anguished feelings in a formal frame that gives them both precision and suggestiveness. And seem to take everything seriously except himself (which means he can’t take seriously his taking of everything seriously, either—another reason, perhaps, why he’s always been highly popular in Europe, and fairly popular in Canada, but often failed to find an audience in the U.S.).

If you really want to know who the man is, though, and who he isn’t, the only place to turn is the songs.

The deeper you go into the self—and its erasure—the more, I suspect, you will get from Cohen. The name Sasaki gave him, “Jikan,” often mistranslated (not least by me), is rendered by Simmons as “the silence between two thoughts.” When the singer Ronee Blakley referred to the little black-robed Japanese man who sat in on some Cohen recording sessions in 1977, she called him “the kind of man you wanted to be around, funny, kind, and disciplined.” That sounds like an unusually good description of Cohen, too.

If you really want to know who the man is, though, and who he isn’t, the only place to turn is the songs. Everything is provisional, they tell us, and in our suffering lies our truth. “Earth has no escape from Heaven,” as Eckhart put it, and we can’t expect to find holiness anywhere or expect not to find it either. Death is round the corner, the jig is up, and that’s what enables us to see, to briefly cherish the light. “You have to sit in the very bonfire of [your] distress,” Cohen told a visitor to Mount Baldy, “and you sit there till you’re burned away and it’s ashes and it’s gone.” Few artists have given us the burning and the ashes and the going with such clarity. In his burning, Cohen lights the darkness up.

Pico Iyer

Pico Iyer

Pico Iyer is the author of fifteen books, most recently Autumn Light and A Beginner’s Guide to Japan, twinned works on living with uncer­tainty and impermanence.