Leonard Cohen – A Yiddle in monk’s clothing
Leonard Cohen Interview

Leonard Cohen – A Yiddle in monk’s clothing

The singer and producer Anjani Thomas has just incinerated a locally bought bagel in the kitchen of the Richard Goodall Gallery in Manchester. A slight, quiet man appears in the kitchen. “Leonard,” cries Thomas, his romantic partner, “you must have a bagel, these are really good.” Leonard Cohen gravely accepts a bagel smothered in smoked salmon and cream cheese. “Yes,” he agrees, “these are almost as good as Montreal bagels.” High praise.

For 40 years, the Canadian-born singer-songwriter, poet, novelist and artist Leonard Cohen has been in the media spotlight, and there is a furtive pleasure in discovering how down to earth he is. In the unlikely surroundings of this Manchester art gallery, Cohen, who formed the vocal backdrop to a million student bed-sits with his haunting, erotic melodies, hinting at a wild life of over-indulgence, is talking cheerfully of his projected new album, his new grandchild, and some unlikely friends and relations.

He also talks lovingly about his Judaism, which he has retained and maintained, nursed and protected throughout the years. From his grandfathers, one of whom, Rabbi Solomon Klinitsky-Klein, was known as “Sar HaDikdook”, or the Prince of Grammarians; or from his mother, the strong-willed “incredibly generous” Masha, widowed when Cohen was nine; and, more mysteriously, from “the uncles” who looked after the small boy’s Jewish education; and many more, Cohen is notably, wonderfully proud of who he is and where he comes from.

“Yes,” he agrees, in his trademark gravelly rumble, “I am a Buddhist monk. But I’ve always made a point of saying that I was never looking for a new religion. I’ve always found my own religion completely satisfactory. I studied with other teachers, and I was ordained by my [Buddhist] teacher, but it was a formality, because I wanted to study with him and I wanted to enter into the structure that he had established for his own educational system. To participate fully and respectfully in that tradition, I had to become part of that tradition, and I willingly did so.”

Cohen famously left the material world for five years to ascend Mount Baldy, in southern California. In 1996 he was ordained at the Zen Buddhist retreat, being given the name of “Jikan”, or “the silent one”, an odd choice for a man whose life has overflowed with words, written, spoken and sung.

On Mount Baldy, he says, “I was an officer in the meditation hall. It’s a very rigorous undertaking, meditation; very disciplined, very crowded, and policed — an officer will walk up and down the rows of the meditators and will strike with a paddle anyone who has abdicated from their proper posture, or fallen asleep. So that’s the kind of atmosphere there.”

There is also a ceremony of walking meditation. Cohen sets the scene: “It was full winter — Mount Baldy is on a 7,500ft altitude and the snow line is 4,000ft, so there is full winter there, even though it’s southern California.” He was leading the monks and students in a circuit outside the meditation hall, when suddenly, he recounts, he heard faintly the sound of men’s voices.

“And they were saying, “Yor es der Yiddle?” And this is a remote place, you know, it’s hard to get to. Then I saw them emerging out of the night, three Chasidic figures, bearded. And this is a silent retreat, and they’re talking very, very loudly, in Yiddish!” Cohen is now guffawing with laughter.

“So I leave the line and I walk over to them and I say: ‘Sheket, bevakasha (Hebrew for “Be quiet, please”), this is a retreat.’ They say: ‘You’re the Yiddle here?’ I say: ‘Yeah.’ They say: ‘We heard there was a Yiddle up here.'”

Cohen assured them that he was indeed the Yiddle in question. “They gestured at my robes and my shaven head, and then kind of said,’Yeah, but what is this?’ So I gestured at them and said, ‘You guys don’t look much better, to tell you the truth. Check your own costumes…”

In any case, he told the visitors, they couldn’t continue talking outside, as they were disturbing the monks and students in the meditation hall. “So I said: ‘Come to my cabin’. And here’s the most wonderful thing. It was Chanucah and the menorah in my cabin was just finishing its last flickering light. And they came into the cabin and saw this menorah. Everybody’s heart just melted. I was so happy that they could see this, and they were so happy that they could find that.”

The Chasidim, who were from Chabad, had made the dangerous trek up the mountain at night because they had heard that a Jewish soul may have needed saving. In the end, it is difficult to know who saved whom. The Chasidim had with them a bottle of Canadian rye. Cohen provided an unopened pack of plastic glasses, “so that they could be sure that kashrut had not been violated”, and a pack of Turkish cigarettes. “We broke out the rye and the cigarettes and we sang and danced all night.”

Cohen is in Manchester to open an exhibition of his artworks under the title “A Private Gaze”. Some are sketches, some watercolours, some oils. Still others are done on his computer — quirky little vignettes of life outside his window in Montreal, or a whole wall of self-portraits, done, as he cheerfully reveals, every morning with a mirror propped up on his desk, so that he can get the inspirational juices flowing. “I’ve always drawn,” he says.

Some of the art is from Cohen’s time on the Greek island of Hydra in the early 1960s, when he lived with (and some say married) the artist Suzanne Elrod, the mother of his two children, Adam and Lorca. (Cohenophiles usually point out here that Cohen’s first really famous hit song, Suzanne, with its lines about feeding her “tea and oranges, that come all the way from China”, was not written for Suzanne Elrod but for a Montreal friend, Suzanne Verdal.)

For Cohen, Hydra — where he bought property after the success of his first books of poetry, Let Us Compare Mythologies and The Spice-Box of Earth — conjures up images of “sitting at the kitchen table with my kids, colouring in, drawing…”

Half of Cohen’s considerable charm lies in his easy balance between the sacred and profane; his impressive reputation as a babe magnet (“I never discuss my mistresses or my tailors”) merging with the many, exquisitely haunting melodies and lyrics which he readily concedes could be construed “as prayers”.

Leonard Cohen was born into a middle-class Polish Jewish family in Montreal in l934. His father, Nathan, trained as an engineer, then ran a clothing store in the city; his paternal grandfather, Lyon Cohen, was closely associated with many of “the institutions that defined Jewish life in Canada”, from the Zionist organisation to the newspaper, the Anglo-Jewish Times, and the synagogue, Sha’ar Shamayim.

Cohen has fond memories of both of his paternal grandparents: grandmother Rachel was “a powerful presence in the family”. Lyon was extremely significant in Montreal: “He was vice-president of the Zionist organisation, president of B’nai B’rith, founder of the Talmud Torah. He and his father came to Canada in l86O when Lyon was three, from a place on the Polish-Lithuanian border. We have letters from Lazarus Cohen, Lyon’s father, written in Yiddish — they are absolutely fascinating. They all begin very formally: ‘Greetings to my son Lyon, thank you for the 100 kopeks, I rode two hours to the post office…'” Lyon wrote Purim plays for the synagogue and was, says his grandson, “a renowned orator” in Montreal.

Cohen was only nine when his father died, leaving him and his older sister Esther. “But the uncles were very attentive and made sure I had a good Jewish education. You know, when I hear of the nightmare stories of some other people’s childhoods, I realise mine was very decent and warm and loving.”

His mother, Masha (“a very good singer”), was the daughter of that Prince of Grammarians, Rabbi Solomon Klinitsky-Klein, a distinguished Talmudic scholar,and the head of a yeshivah in Kovno. “He was a great figure in Lithuanian Jewry. He stayed at my mother’s house in the last years of his life. He had, I suppose, what we would now call Alzheimer’s, but there were flashes of a wonderful presence.”

By tradition, the family were Cohanim, and many of Cohen’s later lyrics play with the idea of him as High Priest.

He is entertainingly self-deprecating — “I wrote some good songs, but I never thought of myself as a musician. I mean, my voice isn’t, really…”

Critics of Cohen frequently claim that his voice is a droning monotone. In fact, his speaking voice is like melted chocolate, and his singing voice is, well, cushioned by some inspired backing vocals and arrangements.

“I remember telling my lawyer, before I appeared at the Newport Folk Festival, how nervous I was. I said, ‘God, Marty, I can’t really sing.’ He said, ‘None of you guys can sing… If I want music, I go to the Metropolitan Opera.'” Cohen laughs. “A lot of people can’t sing, but they call it style.” That’s what he has, he suggests.

Cohen’s cousins were involved in the family business and there was, he says, no pressure for him to join it when he left college, although he did spend about a year working there. “I felt very free to follow whatever direction I wanted and my mother, who was very generous and open, just said, ‘follow your own little heart.'”

Having learned the guitar at 13 — to impress girls — Cohen formed a group, the Buckskin Boys, before going to McGill University, aged only 17, to read English. By 1966, 10 years after leaving McGill, he had published two books of poetry and two well-received novels, Beautiful Losers and The Favourite Game. But he knew, he says, that he could not make a living from being a poet.

Going into music, says Cohen, “had a lot to do with economics. I’d always played guitar, and I’d always loved music —actually I was passionate about different folk musics from different traditions. At a certain point, after I’d finished writing Beautiful Losers, I realised it was going to be a problem making a living. I had acquired responsibilities and it became clear to me that I was going to have to figure out how to survive. I didn’t want to go back to university and teach, which was the route for other poets and writers.”

Instead, because he played good guitar, and loved country music, Cohen decided, improbably, to become a studio musician and made his way to Nashville.

On the way, however, he stopped off in New York, and ran into the “vibrant scene” of modern folk music in Greenwich Village. This crowd was headed by Bob Dylan and included Joan Baez, fellow Canadian Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins and Phil Ochs. Cohen, a good decade older than this group, was smitten. “I said to myself, ‘I can do this.'”

There is a wonderful story of Dylan and Cohen once, over coffee in Paris, discussing the process of songwriting. Cohen admitted that he had taken a mindboggling 15 years to hone a particular song to his liking—and, indeed, he felt it still wasn’t right. “How about you?” he asked Dylan. “How long did it take you to write this song?” “About 15 minutes,” Dylan replied.

It was Judy Collins, who had already recorded a version of Suzanne, who pushed Cohen into making his debut on stage at the Newport Folk Festival. It is an occasion that Cohen recalls with a shudder: “I suffered, and still suffer, from acute stage fright, which is why I started drinking. But then I found that wine goes well with song — I was pretty much drinking away all my profits, because I drank decent wine, and shared it with everyone.

“But, for my first appearance, I didn’t realise I had stage fright until I walked out on the stage. I was in the wings, my guitar was in tune, I seemed to be ready for the enterprise. I walked out and I was seized by a fright that was totally unfamiliar. I wasn’t accustomed to the experience… I had difficulty standing, I thought my knees were going to give way. My fingers were like rubber bands, I couldn’t direct them on the strings. I couldn’t locate my voice… I excused myself, and left the stage.” Only the fact that Judy Collins firmly fetched him back persuaded Cohen that things might be OK (“Tonight will be fine — for a time”, as one of his lyrics runs).

Despite this bad start, Cohen came to enjoy working with good musicians and the thrill of playing to a live audience. He forged a singular career in which he wrote such iconic songs as Bird on a Wire, Hallelujah, Famous Blue Raincoat and Joan of Arc, and became one of the most covered artists of all time—there are said to be more than 1,200 released versions of his songs — as well as being a popular choice with many film directors for their soundtracks.

Along the way, Cohen has garnered many devoted fans, from Dylan to Bono, and, perhaps incongruously, none other than Ariel Sharon, for whom he performed in 1973 when he flew to Israel during the Yom Kippur War. Of this, Cohen has vivid memories. He drove through the Egyptian desert in a Jeep and “sang for Sharon after he had been through a bloody battle. We drove into his encampment… I can see him now, with a cigar and a snifter of cognac.” Cohen, who has been back to Israel many times since, describes the situation there as “heartbreaking”, but refuses to be drawn further on his views on the Middle East.

Cohen left Mount Baldy in 1999, re-energised and with a sheaf of new compositions. But in 2005 he sued his long-time business manager, Kelley Lynch, accusing her of defrauding him by embezzling his retirement funds. He won a $9 million court settlement against her in 2006 but appears unlikely to get much, if any, of the money. As a result, he has had to come out of semi-seclusion to go on the road, making a new record later this year and planning a series of concerts — this time without the twin crutches of cigarettes and alcohol.

He splits his time between Los Angeles (“I have legal problems”) and Montreal. Friday nights, for which Cohen sometimes prepares a mean roast chicken, are traditional affairs, often spent with his musician son, Adam, his wife and five-month-old baby (his daughter, Lorca, is a chef who now runs an antique shop). Shabbat mornings he goes to shul: in LA, he studies with a rabbi he much admires, Mordechai Finley (number 50 in a recent list of the top 50 rabbis in the US). In Montreal, he is a member of his family’s old synagogue. In all, much to his own surprise, Leonard Cohen is a veritable picture of a contented man, free of the depression which has haunted him for most of his life, free from drugs and other addictions, and happy with Anjani and his immediate family.

Fire and smoke, beauty and truth, angels and demons have swirled around Leonard Cohen. His willingness to go close to the edge has produced some of the most perfect lyrics and music of our time.

A Private Gaze, an exhibition of Leonard Cohen’s art,for sale in limited editions, is at the Richard Goodall Gallery, High Street, Manchester, until August 18 (tel: 01618323435)

  • 20 July, 2007