A Master of Living in the Moment
As the honours and accolades continue to flow for Leonard Cohen, BA’55, DLitt’92, his latest album offers further proof that the world’s smoothest septuagenarian will never go out of style
by Bernard Perusse, BCL’76, LLB’77
Over the years, I wondered whether I was on some kind of blacklist.
In my job covering music for the Montreal Gazette, I had tried everything to interview Leonard Cohen. At different times, I had faced weary publicists with requests, pleas and demands for just a bit of time with the beloved poet and singer-songwriter. During the past five years or so, I had written about every significant player who has worked alongside him or shared his life as he returned to the public stage from a low-profile period.
Interviews with Cohen popped up here and there in other publications, but I got no further ahead.
When I attended a private listening session for his 12th studio album, Old Ideas, last December at the Canadian Consulate in Los Angeles, I watched, admittedly with the awe of a fan, as the 77-year-old legend arrived, thanked the 100 invitees – mostly music business people and friends, with only a few journalists – and took his seat.
Cohen took only four questions from the guests after highly enthusiastic applause for the new album had died down. To my delight, I got one in. As people filed out for a drink at the bar, I stood in line for a brief audience and watched as a dapper and amiable Cohen posed for pictures with well-wishers and chatted leisurely with guests. Colleague Alain de Repentigny of La Presse and I finally got our turn and I introduced myself.
“Thanks for coming, man,” Cohen said. I expressed a wish that we might sit down at some point in the future for a proper conversation. His disarming answer: “Sure, why not?” His broad smile was warm and encouraging – as if nothing could be simpler.
But, of course, it’s not simple at all. Or it is. If you pick your moment right. Things with Cohen, I have been told more than once, generally happen spontaneously, not through some prearranged timetable. Somehow, I haven’t yet managed to be in the right place at the right time. When I gave it the old college try for this piece, for example, his manager, Robert Kory, replied that Cohen was helping tend to his ailing zen master, Kyozan Joshu Sasaki Roshi. The interview wouldn’t work out this time.
Cohen, by more than one account, lives perpetually in the moment.
A gift for intimacy
Hattie Webb has been a backup vocalist in Cohen’s touring band since he went back on the road in 2008. Cohen generally introduces her and her sister Charley onstage as “the sublime Webb Sisters.” One of Webb’s most enduring memories of the tour confirms his life in the ever-present.
“There’s a sort of gravitas being on stage with Leonard, being in the moment and enjoying the dynamic between him and his fans,” she says. “That was really special, to witness that. I almost felt like there wasn’t necessarily a separation between anyone. There was a dynamic of everyone thrown into an intimacy – which, I think, is one of Leonard’s gifts: to create intimacy.”
During the Old Ideas listening session, Cohen, commenting on his 2009 appearance at the Coachella Festival in the California desert, alluded to the immediacy factor. “When I’m in the midst of it – the musicians, myself, the crew – we’re all just right at the front line of our lives, so there’s no moment for reflection. There’s no perspective on the actual note-by-note, song-by-song delivery,” he said, adding that he only grasped that 40,000 people had been singing “Hallelujah” with him when he was told about it later.
Montreal singer-songwriter NEeMA (Nadine Neemeh, BCom’96) knows all about the Cohen spontaneity. She introduced herself to him on the Main, in the neighbourhood where they both have homes. Casual conversations during chance encounters and random emails about her songwriting evolved into a friendship and a professional relationship. She was helped by Cohen when she was writing songs for and recording her 2010 album Watching You Think. He also contributed the disc’s cover art. Typically, nothing was ever planned or mapped out.
NEeMA also said she was struck by her mentor’s focus. “It’s beautiful to see and to learn from,” she says. “If he’s doing the dishes, he’s really doing the dishes. If the light bulb needs to be changed, he’ll say `OK, that needs to be attended to.’ Everything is in its place, and attention is brought to so much of what he does and how he lives.”
Apart from living in the moment, a recurring theme in conversations about Cohen is his generosity of spirit. One recent example revolves around the Glenn Gould Award, a $50,000 prize that recognizes its recipients for having “enriched the human condition through the arts” (past winners include Yo-Yo Ma and Oscar Peterson). Upon receiving the award in May, Cohen promptly donated the prize money to the Canada Council for the Arts.
Acclaimed singer-songwriter and Juno Award winner Ron Sexsmith spoke of attending a launch in Toronto for Cohen’s 2006 poetry collection Book of Longing. Sexsmith was invited to perform at the event, but says he felt too shy to barge in on a jam session with Cohen that was already in progress when he arrived.
“He saw me, came over, put his arm in mine and walked me over,” Sexsmith remembers. “Someone passed me the guitar and I played a bunch of Leonard songs.”
Donald Johnston, BCL’58, BA’60, LLD’03, a former cabinet minister in Pierre Trudeau’s government, co-founder of the law firm Heenan Blaikie and grants committee director of the Geneva-based McCall MacBain Foundation, was Cohen’s roommate at a Stanley St. apartment in 1957 and 1958. They first met in the McGill law faculty, where Cohen had spent a semester after receiving his BA in 1955. His memories of the young poet paint a similar picture.
“My habit was to study at night. He’d go out and come back at God knows what hour,” Johnston says. “I liked Leonard very much. I found him extremely gracious – a perfect apartment mate, in a way. And I learned things from him. He was older than I was. He had many friends. He was certainly a ladies man, no doubt about that.”
Mentored at McGill
English professor Brian Trehearne, BA’79, MA’81, PhD’86, who has taught a full senior course on Cohen at McGill (the course will be offered again next year) speculates that McGill was fertile ground for Cohen to develop his art. “It was in the heart of a vibrant metropolis, with a lot of great coffee houses,” Trehearne says. “And through Louis Dudek, he could quickly get into a vibrant literary community. Louis was launching revolutionary courses – courses the English department didn’t even want him to be teaching, on the great works of European literature and how we move from the 18th century to modernism. These must have been incredibly stimulating for Cohen.” Dudek would oversee the publication of Cohen’s first collection of poems, Let Us Compare Mythologies, in 1956.
Trehearne said he rates Cohen as one of the major poets of the second half of the 20th century, up there with two of his most highly-regarded, P.K. Page and A.M. Klein, BA’30.
But music writers wouldn’t be chasing Cohen if his work had been limited to poetry. Cohen’s influence expanded dramatically with the release of his first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, in 1967.
“Song, songwriting and performance seemed to release him from something poetry couldn’t release him from,” Trehearne says. “He found his place there in a way that allowed him to express himself most fully. It wasn’t the kind of difficult poetry a lot of people were writing in the sixties, that maybe a couple of hundred people across the country could appreciate. It was songwriting, based on a desire for a broad audience.”
The master craftsman
Sexsmith certainly heard it loud and clear before he started devoting life to music, when he bought a Cohen anthology on cassette.
“It just completely changed everything,” Sexsmith says. “It informed what kind of songwriter I was going to try to be. And it made me focus on words for the first time, because I was always a melody guy. When I got into Leonard, it made me wonder whether it was still OK for me to like Harry Nilsson and Ray Davies. This seemed like really serious music. But after a while, I realized they’re all great. I didn’t have to pick and choose.”
NEeMA benefited from a more direct and personal influence. Cohen, she says, taught her to search inside for her true feelings and to let what is already there be uncovered – “allowing the story that wants to be told to come to the surface,” as she puts it. “It’s extremely challenging when you want to control the situation or just get the song done or think you know exactly what you’re writing about. It doesn’t mean to just sit around and do nothing until a song emerges. On the contrary, I learned to work harder at my writing than I ever had before.”
She also gained a new appreciation of the singer’s oeuvre through working with him, she says. “I started to study his work again in a way I hadn’t before. He’s able to capture all these paradoxes and contradictions we live with all the time, in our emotions, in our daily lives and in the way we experience the world.”
On the road with Cohen, Webb also found new levels of understanding in songs she sang night after night, she said. “Famous Blue Raincoat” was a personal highlight. “I began to relate more and more to the dynamic between people that are connected in the heart, but not necessarily in the circumstance,” she says.
“First We Take Manhattan” and “Dance Me to the End of Love” were also favourites for Webb. “There’s a real depth within that darkness, which I’m really attracted to,” she says.
But in spite of his undeserved reputation as the guru of gloom, darkness is far from the defining element in Cohen’s work. As he so memorably wrote in the song “Anthem” (1992), “There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.”
To fully understand the arc of Cohen’s career, Trehearne says, one should also look at the spirituality that becomes more explicit in works like the 1984 poetry collection Book of Mercy and other pieces written when the singer entered his fifties.
At that point, Trehearne says, the singer “stops and addresses himself to something that looks an awful lot like God.
“In the course of Cohen’s lifetime, religion has lost its place at the centre of North American life, Trehearne notes. “Cohen is able to express and fulfill a kind of spiritual longing we’ve all been left with when we decided to jettison religion as an explanation for our feelings.”
It’s not a stretch to suggest the spirituality might even be connected with the stamina Cohen has shown in performing three-hour-plus shows during a physically demanding tour that is still going on after four years. Artists 50 years his junior would probably balk at the schedule. Asked about it during the Los Angeles listening session, Cohen said he had been well-trained by Kyozan Joshu Sasaki, his 104-year-old Zen teacher.
Webb said she saw it from the moment rehearsals for the tour started. “He was very diligent and hard-working, but nothing was ever rushed,” she says. “Everything was done at a very balanced pace. I think that’s part of how he does it.”
Johnston, who still divides his time between Montreal and Geneva, cites Cohen’s level of activity to explain why he’s nowhere near ready to slow things down himself. “I’m only 75, for goodness sake. Look at Leonard! He inspires me.”
Cohen clearly didn’t get there by buying into the Peter Pan syndrome some of his fellow members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame have fallen into.
Cohen’s take on life has “always been from a kind of grown-up, old-world perspective that’s always been at odds with a world that is youth-oriented,” Sexsmith observes. “Even when his first album came out, he was 33. Kind of like me: I was 31 when my first record came out.”
But as Trehearne points out, Cohen appears to have no interest in passing on the wisdom of age to the younger generation. “The temptation of every 70-year-old or, dare I say, 40-year-old to start telling young people how to live their lives is not Leonard Cohen’s temptation,” Trehearne says, citing Cohen’s line from “Closing Time”: “I lift my glass to the Awful Truth/which you can’t reveal to the Ears of Youth/except to say it isn’t worth a dime.”
As the L.A. session drew to its own close, I stood there beside my colleague, with Cohen grasping both of us by the hand, still smiling widely and serenely. “Thank you for coming, friends,” he said.
And I did feel like a friend. I got a tiny glimpse of the intimacy Webb had referred to. I was, for a few seconds, in precisely the right moment.
Old Ideas Strikes Fresh Chord
You’d be hard pressed to find many artists in the rock ’n’ roll era recording their highest-charting album at the age of 77, yet Leonard Cohen accomplished that feat with the January release of Old Ideas.
The disc hit No. 3 on the all-important Billboard 200 chart and debuted in the Top Five in 26 countries, 17 of which ranked it as a No. 1 album. In Canada, Old Ideas hit the top position and was certified platinum.
Reviews for Old Ideas were mostly raves, pretty much settling in the four and five-star range across the board.
The album, Cohen’s most consistent and satisfying since Various Positions in 1984, found him confronting mortality with good-natured resignation. The music on the album broke slightly from the obsession with synthesizers and Casio keyboard sounds on his last few albums. While the machines were not entirely absent, there were plenty of real instruments, with one song, “Crazy to Love You,” featuring only Cohen and an acoustic guitar. A few years on the road, it seems, had brought back a warm, human touch.
Among Cohen’s peers, only Bob Dylan has had such artistic and commercial success late in his career. Dylan will be 77 in six years, and it would be foolish to bet against him working at the same level. Like Cohen, he shows no signs of slowing down.
In six years, Cohen will be 84. And the smart money says he still won’t be done, either.
Bernard Perusse is the Montreal Gazette’s music columnist. He remains a believer in the magic of rock ’n’ roll.
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