Rea­sons to be cheer­ful

It looks like the dark­ness has fi­nally lifted for mis­er­able ge­nius Leonard Co­hen. His new art show in Manch­ester has a lighter side shin­ing through, writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature - Christo­pher Good­win

SOME­TIMES you just don’t know what to ex­pect. The first sur­prise about Leonard Co­hen is that he wants to meet in his lawyer’s of­fice, on the sec­ond floor of an anony­mous mod­ern build­ing on the south­ern edge of Bev­erly Hills. Co­hen, now 72, has been spend­ing a lot of time in the past cou­ple of years deal­ing with what he eu­phemisti­cally calls his pesky le­gal prob­lems: the al­leged theft of al­most his en­tire for­tune, more than $ US5 mil­lion, by his busi­ness man­ager while the artist was in a Zen Bud­dhist re­treat for five years. Even more sur­pris­ing is that, af­ter greet­ing me in the lobby, Co­hen — a slight man, at­ten­tive and amused, in a dark suit, tie and black linen shoes — leads me down the cor­ri­dor to a small room where, it seems, he works.

In this nar­row space, he has a long wooden ta­ble with big draw­ers: it’s one of four cus­tom­made ta­bles that are ex­actly the same. He keeps them in var­i­ous places: here; in his home in Los An­ge­les, where he spends half the year; and in his home in Mon­treal, where he spends the other half. I for­got to ask where the fourth is. ‘‘ It’s re­ally th­ese ta­bles that I love,’’ he says. ‘‘ I spend so much of my life at a ta­ble, so I al­ways have a good one, and th­ese were made by a friend of mine. Beau­ti­fully done. Its hard to find a big ta­ble. Do you have one?’’

Two more sur­prises, then: the ex­pres­sion of sim­ple plea­sure in the ob­jects that sur­round him, and his ques­tion to me, re­flect­ing a straight­for­ward cu­rios­ity in oth­ers that many fa­mous peo­ple lose. And Co­hen has been fa­mous for 40 years. His songs and lyrics have per­me­ated the cul­tural fab­ric of two gen­er­a­tions, speak­ing of love, de­sire, suf­fer­ing and the dan­gers of a world gone mad with a shock­ing hon­esty and a crafts­man’s skill that have been matched in our time, in dif­fer­ent ways, only by Bob Dylan and John Len­non.

There were the star­tling and im­me­di­ately clas­sic first al­bums: Songs of Leonard Co­hen ( 1967), con­tain­ing the tracks Suzanne , Sis­ters of Mercy and So Long, Mar­i­anne ; and Songs from a Room ( 1969), fea­tur­ing Bird on a Wire . Th­ese two al­bums cat­a­pulted Co­hen, an ob­scure Cana­dian poet, to in­ter­na­tional at­ten­tion. At vary­ing in­ter­vals since then, he has amazed his older devo­tees and won many younger fans with al­bums such as Death of a Ladies’ Man ( 1977); Var­i­ous Po­si­tions ( 1984), fea­tur­ing the now an­themic Hal­lelu­jah ; I’m Your Man ( 1988), which in­cluded First We Take Man­hat­tan and Ev­ery­body Knows ; The Fu­ture ( 1992); and Ten New Songs ( 2001). Dozens of his songs have been cov­ered by other artists, and sev­eral have ap­peared on movie sound­tracks, no­tably Robert Alt­man’s McCabe & Mrs Miller . Co­hen is widely revered. Singer Ru­fus Wain­wright has been quoted as say­ing: ‘‘ I re­ally be­lieve he’s the great­est liv­ing poet on earth.’’

And, some­how, Co­hen has man­aged to main­tain his un­canny and cel­e­brated erotic charge: women less than half his age swooned when I de­scribed my meet­ing with him. His girl­friend is the tal­ented and beau­ti­ful singer An­jani, 46, with whom he col­lab­o­rated on her re­cent CD, Blue Alert .

Co­hen’s room con­tains a newish iMac com­puter with a large screen, a scan­ner and a colour printer. There are var­i­ous books and pa­pers, and prints of many of his paint­ings, in large draw­ers be­side the ta­ble. But there is noth­ing on the white walls. Co­hen says he doesn’t have any­thing on his walls at home, ei­ther. He bends down and be­gins to pull out prints that have been made by Gra­ham Nash’s art- print­ing com­pany for a show. He says he never in­tended to ex­hibit his paint­ings, even though Richard Goodall, who owns the gallery where they are to go on dis­play in Manch­ester, has been press­ing him for years.

‘‘ I could never take it very se­ri­ously,’’ says Co­hen, who tends to speak rather slowly and de­lib­er­ately. ‘‘ For me, the whole en­ter­prise was a very, very private ac­tiv­ity, part of the con­tin­ual strug­gle against bore­dom and in­signif­i­cance. It was such a private plea­sure that I wanted to keep it that way . . . and any­way, I was sell­ing ev­ery­thing else.’’

Which is the next sur­prise. Co­hen’s haunt­ing and of­ten gloomy lyrics, de­liv­ered in a voice so deep it could have been ex­tracted from a Siberian coalmine, could lead a rea­son­able per­son to as­sume he might be as de­press­ing and aus­tere as a 19th- cen­tury Pres­by­te­rian preacher. In fact, al­though not friv­o­lous, he is a very, very funny man, and we spent much of our time to­gether in stitches. As can be seen in some of the cap­tions he at­taches to his paint­ings, par­tic­u­larly the self­por­traits, much of his hu­mour is know­ingly self- dep­re­cat­ing or em­anates from a keen sense of hu­man­ity’s deeply un­for­tu­nate plight.

Most of the paint­ings in the show, pro­duced over 40 years, were first seen as il­lus­tra­tions in his most re­cent book of po­ems, Book of Long­ing , writ­ten over two decades and pub­lished last year. As such, and be­cause he is em­bar­rassed to claim recog­ni­tion as a painter, he prefers to call his work ‘‘ dec­o­ra­tions’’.

‘‘ I dec­o­rated the pages of th­ese po­ems with lit­tle de­signs, and when I pub­lished the book I kept them there,’’ he says. ‘‘ I al­ways do this, be­cause it adds a cer­tain kind of in­ti­macy to a jour­nal.’’ Com­poser Philip Glass saw ‘‘ an em­bry­onic ver­sion of the book’’ and set 22 of the po­ems to mu­sic, us­ing the draw­ings as back­drops.

What will also sur­prise many is the light touch Co­hen brings to his il­lus­trated world. The paint­ings and draw­ings seem to show him at play, de­riv­ing plea­sure and amuse­ment from the world around him. He says he has al­ways painted, usu­ally start­ing his day by light­ing a stick of in­cense (‘‘ Which is as close as I can get to smok­ing’’) and draw­ing. For a cou­ple of years not long ago he painted a self- por­trait ev­ery day. He now has hun­dreds of self- por­traits, many of them with hi­lar­i­ous an­no­ta­tions cel­e­brat­ing or be­moan­ing the in­dig­ni­ties and sense of loss that come with age­ing.

‘‘ Taxes, chil­dren, lost pussy, war, con­sti­pa­tion. The liv­ing poet in his har­ness of beauty of­fers the day back to g- d,’’ reads one. ‘‘ Just one lit­tle guy, with an old tweed cap, against the whole stink­ing uni­verse,’’ says an­other.

Per­haps be­cause paint­ing has al­ways been a private ac­tiv­ity for him, Co­hen doesn’t seem to need to in­form it with the kind of grander, darker meta­phys­i­cal con­cerns that per­me­ate many of his lyrics and po­ems.

When I sug­gest that his paint­ings show a lighter side of him than many peo­ple prob­a­bly thought ex­isted, he says with a wry grin: ‘‘ Well, peo­ple al­ways over­es­ti­mated my de­spair. I never thought my work was darker than any­body else’s. I al­ways thought there was a joke here and there that peo­ple usu­ally didn’t get.’’

There are paint­ings of ev­ery­day ob­jects — a gui­tar, a door­way — but many more ( this is Co­hen, af­ter all) of women. ‘‘ The most beau­ti­ful thing that I ever saw was a wo­man,’’ he says. ‘‘ There are things that are sec­ond and third — the moon and sun­sets, great moun­tains and lakes — but first, a wo­man. I never thought much about it, but I knew that could make me breath­less and fright­ened and ner­vous. I know beauty comes with that kind of power and it comes with de­sire, and we spend much of our lives try­ing to deal with that.’’

When I ask Co­hen ques­tions that touch on the sources of his in­spi­ra­tion, he again sur­prises me.

‘‘ I am not at all in­tro­spec­tive,’’ he in­sists. ‘‘ I don’t have those con­cerns, some­how.

‘‘ I am not in­ter­ested in dreams. I don’t re­mem­ber them. I am not ter­ri­bly in­ter­ested in my opin­ions. I can trot them out, for cour­tesy’s sake, in a con­ver­sa­tion, but I am not ter­ri­bly in­ter­ested in them.

‘‘ Gen­er­ally, very, very close at­ten­tion to the in­ner life paral­y­ses ac­tiv­ity. I think you have to have a pass­ing in­ter­est in it, but the place that work comes from some­how has to by­pass the con­cep­tual in­tro­spec­tive fac­ulty, be­cause it can get lost if you are re­ally ask­ing the ques­tion: ‘ Why am I do­ing this?’

‘‘ The con­cep­tual sys­tem is gen­er­ally im­posed by fash­ion­able ther­a­peu­tic es­tab­lish­ments: ‘ You should ex­am­ine your re­la­tion­ship with your par­ents.’ Why? They did their best. I mean, why should that be the stan­dard? I have never been in­ter­ested in those tech­niques, those tools, for anal­y­sis, for self- anal­y­sis.’’

Al­though Co­hen has never had ther­apy, he ac­knowl­edges that, for most of his life, his dis­tress and de­spair ‘‘ filled up a lot of the screen’’, but that, for rea­sons he can­not pin down, it has ‘‘ just dis­solved’’ in re­cent years, since he emerged from a monastery and stud­ied for a year with a teacher in In­dia. The monastery, which was in­cred­i­bly ar­du­ous and some­times in­volved 16 or 17 hours of med­i­ta­tion a day, was ‘‘ where I learned, or was in­vited, to aban­don ship, so to speak. I don’t re­ally know what it was, but I was in the com­pany of very kind men, very, very kind peo­ple who were ex­am­ples of hu­man be­ings who were not op­er­at­ing in the fore­ground of a back­ground of suf­fer­ing. It has been a long time since I took my frame of mind se­ri­ously, or thought it had any sig­nif­i­cance be­yond the pass­ing moods we are all sus­cep­ti­ble to.’’

Not that, thank­fully, Co­hen’s op­er­at­ing pes­simism about the state of hu­mankind has al­to­gether abated. As we be­gin to talk about the dire state of the world, Co­hen re­minds me that he was ‘‘ the only one who wasn’t re­joic­ing’’ at the end of the Cold War. ‘‘ I said, ‘ You’re go­ing to say, ‘‘ Give me back the Ber­lin Wall/ Give me Stalin and St Paul.’’ ’ I thought that when the Soviet em­pire dis­solved all hell was go­ing to break loose, for a lot of rea­sons, and I wrote, ‘ I have seen the fu­ture, brother, and it is mur­der.’

‘‘ It’s clear we hu­mans are not in charge of our des­tiny,’’ he adds, ‘‘ any more than we are in charge of our own lives.

‘‘ No­body would be liv­ing the kind of life they are liv­ing if they had any choice.’’

Yet, as Co­hen moves into his 70s with his creative juices and crit­i­cal fac­ul­ties in­tact — he plans to record a new album later this year — he’s find­ing that, as his lovely paint­ings show, he can find joy in un­ex­pected places. With his five­month- old grand­son, say, or ‘‘ just look­ing out of my win­dow in Mon­treal at the lit­tle park in front of the house: sim­ple plea­sures and the plea­sures of peace’’.

I think Co­hen has strug­gled long enough with his demons, and with ours, for us to fi­nally al­low him that.

The Sun­day Times

Pen­sive poet: Peo­ple al­ways over­es­ti­mated my de­spair,’ says Leonard Co­hen

Came so far for beauty: A Leonard Co­hen nude

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