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
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