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Leonard Cohen talks women, age and Hallelujah By Jian Ghomeshi for National Post
March 20, 2009
Leonard Cohen is an eternal paradox, which is to say that he is paradoxically eternal. Questions abound: Is the spry septuagenarian finally now old? Was the sage poet ever really young? How has he remained ceaselessly hip? Was there a time when his famous baritone exhibited impermanence? Does it matter? The mystery comes with the man. There is little new in suggesting Cohen is ageless, but it’s nevertheless quite something to be confronted with this actuality in person. To spend time with him is to realize that he is reassuringly human. To spend time with him asking questions is also to be reminded that he is enigmatic. He has made a career of contradiction. So at this stage, it follows that his prospective swan song also feels like a new beginning.
I’m standing outside of Cohen’s house in downtown Montreal on a sunny and crisp morning. There is little to indicate this is the long-time home of a national hero. It’s a startling insight into the proletarian nature of Canadian celebrity: No gate or security checkpoint. There’s barely a path separating the sidewalk from the front door. It is a modest old building that is comfortably integrated, like Cohen himself, into this east-end neighbourhood where he spends part of the year. I check with my crew to make sure we have arrived at the right residence. I’ve seen this place in photographs, but it looks even smaller now. And yet, as with much of Cohen’s circumstance, it very much makes sense.
How I got here is something out of Frost/Nixon. Cohen has agreed to do only one broadcast interview in North America during his world tour that began last May (it continues into the late spring of this year). The CBC has secured the exclusive chat for radio and TV and I have been chosen to do the interview to be used for my program Q on Radio One, for a special on Radio One and for The National. There have been weeks of high-level negotiations about everything from who and how many will be in the room when the cameras are rolling to the exact number of minutes that I will have with him (20, sharp). We are originally slated for Los Angeles, then Austin and then confirmed with two day’s notice to record at his home of 35 years in Montreal. That’s what Leonard wants, we’re told. I am feeling a weight of responsibility. In the preceding days I have watched and read almost every available interview that Cohen has done since his emergence as a celebrated poet before he began singing in the 1960s. I know what I want to ask, but
I cannot control circumstances. What if we have no chemistry? Will the infamous Ladies’ Man be disappointed with a male interrogator? Will he be tired or unreceptive? Will he take umbrage at queries around mortality?
My mind summons up a vivid memory of watching Cohen on stage last June. It is a tour that some suggest may be his final bow. As every professional or anecdotal review from around world will tell you, it is one of the most impressive musical experiences in years. Cohen is using the occasion of his first dates in 15 years — instigated partly by financial necessities — to enrapture audiences with selections from four decades of creative wisdom. When he performs A Thousand Kisses Deep, there are tears in the eyes of punters seated near me. When he delivers Hallelujah there is collective catharsis and supplication in the hall. Suzanne brings squeals of delight at the sound of his earliest hit. Fans from various generations come to pay homage, but leave with more: the satisfaction of having experienced Cohen’s trademark sepulchral tones their finest form. This is more than nostalgia. He brought the same program to the Beacon Theatre in New York a fortnight ago. He performed for over three hours each night and his onstage mix of humility and dominion appears to come effortlessly. But is this magical persona simply the construct of a deft and experienced performer?
Back in front of the house in Montreal, we knock on the door at the agreed-upon moment (also negotiated). Then, the clouds immediately lift. There is no handler or publicist to greet us. Cohen answers himself. It is clear he wants it this way. Within 30 seconds I know that everything that has ever been said about the grace and generosity of Leonard Cohen is true. The aforementioned concerns disintegrate in the face of his largesse. The negotiated rules are immediately a memory. He gently welcomes us into his tiny home and we end up staying there for over two hours. The interview itself runs for almost 45 minutes.
The first impression is that The Man is more senior than his 74 years. He appears frail and gaunt. He moves slowly and deliberately, and he speaks with a quiet rasp. Leonard Cohen is old. The second impression (hard on the heels of the first) is that he is far more youthful than his age would suggest. Toujours jeune. His initial words to me after I introduce myself are warm and insider, “How you doin’, man? Good to see ya. C’mon, follow me, let’s get some strong coffee.” He’s all beatnik and bohemian and I suddenly feel like the square wearing a “visitor” badge at the commune. He leads me to his kitchen and then I realize that, for a moment, I’m cooler than I’ve ever been through proximity alone. Still, how is it that this spindly man in a cap, almost twice my age, is making me feel like a old stodge? Leonard Cohen is young.
If he is youthful now, Cohen was beyond his years as a songwriter in the early years. As part of his age-defying journey, it is becoming a cliché to suggest that Cohen has grown into his lyrics. The truth is that much of the material he was penning in his thirties or forties seems more appropriate for a man in his seventies to be singing. Even the nods to ageing that appear in Tower of Song (“My friends are gone, my hair is grey, I ache in places where I used to play”) are more germane to Cohen’s current place in the life trajectory than they would be when he wrote them a the age of 52.
As the crew sets up the lights and cameras, Cohen (“call me Leonard, please”) makes some fresh coffee and serves sweets neatly laid out on his square kitchen table. He is neither morose nor withdrawn in the least. The “Godfather of miserablism” (as The Independent recently deemed him) appears to be quite the opposite these days. But his affirmative spirit does mark a contrast to the desolation of much of his canon. He is forthcoming and engaged, if not a chatterbox. He is economical with his words and seems entirely preoccupied with making sure I am well fed and happy. He’s already my kindest uncle and my hippest friend. But we’ve only just met. It’s all a bit embarrassing.
When we begin the interview, Cohen is open but not transparent. He is artful at revealing enough without giving too much. Still, as we tread through territory ranging from creativity to liquidity to fidelity to mortality, his answers are refreshingly candid. He makes admissions he has not made before. It never feels like he is on message.
Early on I ask him about the tremendous success of his global tour at a time when some in the live music business are struggling; he seems genuinely grateful, but unable to accept victory as a given. “I’m just happy that it’s going well because, as you know, as a musician yourself, you never know what’s going to happen when you step on the stage. You never really know whether you’re going to be able to be the person you want to be or that the audience is going to be hospitable to the person that they perceive. So there’s so many unknowns and so many mysteries connected.”
His unwillingness to feel entitled to the success he is enjoying is a match for his characteristic modesty about his own abilities. He tells me that he used background voices on many of his recordings because he found his own voice “disagreeable” to the ear. And herein lies another Cohen contradiction. After all, this would be the same voice that is as rich and sexual as it has ever been. “Are you over the idea of your voice being disagreeable?” I ask. “No.” “Not yet?” “Not at all. Maybe sometime later in my career.” He grins. When we talk about his trepidation about getting on stage, he responds, “Well I’ve been generally fearful about everything, so this just fits in with the general sense of anxiety that I always experienced in my early life.”
A few minutes later, his modesty extends to the dramatic success of his classic composition Hallelujah, which seems to gain popularity with each passing year and took the unprecedented Nos. 1 and 2 spots on the U.K. charts simultaneously last year when it was covered by a Pop Idol winner. On Hallelujah, Cohen smiles and says, “I like the song. I think it’s a good song, but I mean, I think too many people sing it … I think people have to stop singing it for a little while.”
At one point we discuss Cohen’s long-established tendency to write poetry and songs inspired by his awe and reverence for the beauty of women. I ask whether he believes women have been a source of empowerment or weakness in his life. He answers both (of course): “We’re invited into this arena, which is a very dangerous arena, where the possibilities of humiliation and failure are ample. So there’s no fixed lesson that one can learn about the thing because the heart is always opening and closing, it’s always softening and hardening. We’re always experiencing joy or sadness.” When I follow with a query about whether, despite his famous relationships with various women, he regrets not having one single lifelong partner, he responds by singing to me, “Je ne regrette rien …”
We cover depression, posthumous advice for Kurt Cobain, his interest in rebuilding his financial affairs juxtaposed against his apparent spartan lifestyle and modest means. We talk about his favourite songs, and then, in the last third of the interview, we chat for some length about mortality. I ask him how much time he spends these days reflecting upon his mortality. He pauses. “You get a sense of it you know, the body sends a number of messages to you as you … as you get older. So I don’t know if it’s a matter of reflection, I don’t know that implies a kind of peaceful recognition of the situation. You know, occasionally there’s a stab of pain or an ache, you know, and you remember that this is not going to go on forever.”
I bring up a quotation from a previous Cohen interview, about seven years back. He had been reflecting upon seeing Alberta Hunter perform at age 82 and had said, “I love to hear an old singer lay it out and I’d love to be one of them.” I ask him if he still aspires to that. He chuckles and immediately says, “Yes! I would love to hear me at 82.”
The interview ends. We shake hands and take photos. Leonard Cohen leans over and asks if I would like to do more. “Did you get what you needed? Anything good there? I’m not sure if my mind is at its best.” I assure him we have what we need. One of our greatest wordsmiths is wondering whether he has been eloquent enough. The young man need not worry.
• Jian Ghomeshi’s feature interview with Leonard Cohen airs on CBC’s The National on April 14, Radio One’s Q on April 16 and on Radio Two April 23.