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Singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen's religious roots
Tuesday 14 October 2014 by Geoff Wood
How much do we really know about Leonard Cohen, the Canadian poet, novelist, singer and ordained Zen Buddhist monk who left Montreal in the 1960s and became one of the world’s greatest songwriters? Geoff Wood spoke to Cohen’s biographer, Sylvie Simmons.
It’s not often an 80-year-old man gets to release an album of music that people actually want to hear. It’s even rarer when that music turns out be some of the best of his career, but Leonard Cohen is not your average octogenarian.
A lot of his religious pursuits outside of his Judaism were more of a kind of discipline rather than a practice of religion.
- Sylvie Simmons, biographer
Born in Montreal in 1934, ‘with the gift of a golden voice’ as he once mockingly sang in ‘Tower of Song’, Cohen at one point reduced himself to the status of ‘a lazy bastard living in a suit’. Now, with the release of his 13th studio album Popular Problems, Cohen’s latest self-appraisal sums up his life’s journey in a few brief lines: ‘I was not caught /Though many tried/ I live among you/ Well disguised.’
More like a challenge than a question, the lyric seems to be asking how much we really know about the complex Canadian with a gravedigger’s voice.
The poet and novelist who left Montreal in the 1960s to end up one of the world’s greatest songwriters; the musician whose work has explored sex and death, longing and doubt over 13 studio albums; the unlikely rock star whose songs ‘Suzanne’, ‘So Long, Marianne’, and ‘Tower of Song’ have become classics, with one song, ‘Hallelujah’, being lauded as a modern secular hymn; a man who once said that religion was his favourite hobby—Cohen has worn many masks.
One woman who probably knows Cohen better than Cohen himself is Sylvie Simmons. A celebrated music journalist and writer since the 1970s, over the years Simmons has come to know Cohen so well that he agreed to her writing his 2012 biography, I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen. According to Simmons, at the centre of Cohen’s art is a longing for ritual.
‘When he was nine years old and his father died, his first piece of real writing as he’s described it—and he claims not to remember what was on it—he actually wrote folded into a tiny piece of paper, folded into tiny pieces, and buried by stuffing inside his father’s bowtie and buried it in the garden at the same time as his own father was being buried. So he loves a good rite.’
We could turn this insight around and say that Cohen is driven equally by the ritual of longing—as he himself puts it in ‘Born in Chains’: ‘I’ve heard the soul unfolds/In the chambers of its longing.’
‘Throughout his life he’s had this obsession with being empty,’ says Simmons. ‘He needed to be empty because then he could be filled, and this thing that he could be filled with would be love or some kind of union with the universe or union with God. You could never tell what it was.’
The grandson of a rabbi, Cohen grew up immersed in Jewish culture.
‘Basically he was born to be a rabbi, it was stamped right through him,’ says Simmons. ‘Instead he moved into the world of poetry and song. But he never turned his back on that.’
‘Bob Dylan is Jewish but reinvented himself as this little country boy who did folk music. Leonard Cohen very much kept that whole strain of Jewish music and also of following the various practices of Judaism even while he moved into various other religions.’
One of those religions was Buddhism. In 1969 Cohen met elderly Japanese Zen monk Roshi Joshu Sasaki, a man who would have a profound influence on his life. For many years head of the Mt Baldy Zen Centre just outside Los Angeles, Sasaki Roshi, who died in July 2014 aged 107, became Cohen’s spiritual director.
‘Leonard would study with him at these very intense sesshins as they’re called up at one of the monasteries or earlier at Roshi’s home, and this went on his whole life,’ says Simmons.
‘He decided to commit to the monastery after his album The Future in 1993 and moved up for five years, where he was ordained a Buddhist monk with the name Jikan, meaning ‘ordinary silence’ or ‘the space between two silences’—kind of an ironic name for a singer and man of words.’
Related: Leonard Cohen, rock star monk
The Zen Rinzai monks have been called the spiritual marines of the religious world. Their combination of spirituality and rigorous self-discipline was just what Cohen was looking for, however.
‘A lot of his religious pursuits outside of his Judaism were more of a kind of discipline rather than a practice of religion,’ explains Simmons. ‘He said to me, “Roshi never tried to get me to take on a new religion. And I didn’t want one. I already had one. I’m a Jew.” But this was a spiritual practice and a discipline both the things he was very engaged in. They helped with this torturous depression.’
Revered as a singer-songwriter’s singer-songwriter, Cohen has had an understated rivalry with that other Jewish troubadour, Dylan.
‘There’s a famous story where Bob Dylan was having coffee with Leonard,’ says Simmons. ‘They were both in Paris, Dylan to play a concert and Leonard to see his French photographer girlfriend.’
‘Dylan was saying, “You know, your songs are becoming a lot like hymns these days, Leonard. For example that song of yours, “Hallelujah”, I like that song. How long did it take you to write it?”
‘Leonard said [to me], “I was kind of a bit embarrassed it took me six or seven years, so I told him it took two years.”’
‘He asked how long it took Dylan to write a new song and Dylan said, “15 minutes in the back of a cab.”’
It seems a lifetime since Cohen’s recording career began in 1967, at the tail-end of the folk-revival with the album Songs of Leonard Cohen. In fact, it was. Yet despite turning 80, he has a new album, Popular Problems. How long can he keep this game going?
‘It’s only been in recent years that he’s felt really confident as a musician,’ says Simmons.
‘In the past, even on tours, even though they were remarkable shows, he was very nervous, nervous for his songs. He hated the idea that what came to him in some pure moment, and sometimes a quite tortured moment ... would just be paraded before paying customers. So the man had a lot of conflicts. These days they seem to have gone.’