Some thoughts on Leonard's tour and a 2001 interview

Ask and answer questions about Leonard Cohen, his work, this forum and the websites!
Posts: 162
Joined: Sat Feb 09, 2008 4:46 pm

Some thoughts on Leonard's tour and a 2001 interview

Postby honeyrose » Fri Jul 17, 2009 3:24 pm

At the Weybridge concert, I noticed a tall grey haired man in jeans and a sports jacket, pacing around the front stage beforehand checking things out. I may be wrong but I think it was promoter Rob Hallett of AEG, the man who coaxed Leonard back onto the road. Yesterday I was re-reading the interview with Rob (from Rocks Back pages which I posted inthe forum a few months ago). In it Rob said as a long time fan he was most upset when he heard Leonard had lost all his money. As a senior employee of AEG he was in a position to do something about it. He flew to LA to persuade him to tour. Leonard was reluctant, one reason being he felt no one would remember him. But Rob persisted and told Leonard they would cover the cost of rehearsals and if they decided to go ahead, structure the deal to make sure he benefitted well financially out of it. Rob recalled the first dates were in small theatres in Canada, at Leonard's request as he worked himself back into the routine. But he said it was clear at once they had a "monster" on their hands. According to US figures, the 2008 tour grossed $36m USD and was in the top 20 grossing tours of the year. I hope Leonard did well out of it.

But having seen him four times now since he first played in the UK in Manchester last year (what a memorable night that was), it is clear that it is not money which is motivating him, it is the spiritual connection between the man, his fans and the music.

I was at Wetbridge and sitting on the end of a row. When he started his encores, in the driving rain, I had to make way for several clearly middle aged people who rose from their seats and headed towards the aisles. At first I thought were leaving to get to their cars but then I saw the gleam in their eyes and realised they were in fact off to rush the stage.

The interview below originally appeared in the Times Magazine in October 2001. I think it interesting in the light of the success of the current tour. Leonard was interviewed by journalist Alan Franks when he was in London to promote Ten New Songs. Note the remarks where he says he thinks he would be unlikely to find a large audience if he toured again, and how the author thinks Leonard has defined himself as a very minor artist. Now of course he is back with as a major star and a living legend. It is now clear how many lives his words have touched and how important his work has been to generations of fans from such a wide range of backgrounds and nationalities.

Rob Hallett said Leonard could tour Europe for as long as he wanted. I don't want him to wear himself out, it must be very gruelling, but he looks to be enjoying himself. And as long he is playing live, my husband and I will be there to hear him. Thank you Leonard for 40 years of inspiration and consolation.


Leonard Cohen: Love's Hard Man by Alan Franks

The high priest of passion and pain has spent much of the last decade living the life of a Zen monk. So was it passion or pain that brought him back down the mountain?

Alan Franks finds out.

A funny thing happened on my way to meet Leonard Cohen. I bumped into a friend near the station, told her who I was going to see and waited for the reaction. I wasn't hoping for an awed whisper - everybody is too old for that now - but perhaps a slight widening of the eyes. Instead she said, "Oh, that old charlatan," and started laughing. I asked if she knew him, since charlatan means someone who talks of things he doesn't know about. Was she saying that Cohen, the consummate songwriter praised by everyone from Kurt Cobain to Prince Charles, knows nothing of love and hate, faith and despair, men and women? And if she was, how did she know? She smiled as if to say "I just do", and wished me a fascinating time. It was a definite put-down. Call me conservative, but I wasn't expecting this from a woman. Even me who reckon themselves pretty literate in bedroom politics have been know to tire beneath his onslaught of images and metaphors - verse upon verse of them marching forward with lugubrious ardour and massing for the wake of yet another relationship. Women were always more tolerant of his approach and welcomed his thoughtful presence on the edge of the pop world of the Sixties. It was as if a rather dishy priest was hovering at a bottle party, and this spectacle undoubtedly had its funny side. God knows how many twenty- and thirty-somethings to the sound of his articulate agony.

I go looking for him at a weird place called Home House in poshest Portman Square. This is a hotel that gives the impression of being a continuous and loosely constructed party. The guests do not seem to have booked, so much as got themselves invited. They are playing cards in high shamlbing rooms or sitting alone and texting associates. Cohen is by himself drinking tea and is possibly the most smartly dressed man in the building. In fact, he is so dapper that he looks out of place among all this casual wealth. He could even be wearing an interview suit. He is 67 now and has gone silver. There are bunches of loose skin at his collar and his voice has sunk still further down the register. More than 30 years have passed since his first great hits such as 'Suzanne' and 'That's No Way to Say Goodbye'. Nearly 25 years have elapsed since his unlikely collaboration with wall-of-sound producer Phil Spector on 'Death of a Ladies' Man'; and 15 since hhis waning reputation was restored through the 'Famous Blue Raincoat' album of his songs recorded by the former backing singer Jennifer Warnes.
He reckons to be pretty safe from detection in London these days, and likes it that way. Who now would associate him with the requited lust of his early ballads, or with the famous sung disclosures about Janis Joplin "giving me head on the unmade bed"?

For much of the past decade Cohen, a well-to-do Jewish intellectual from Montreal, has lived as a Zen monk in the remote monastery of Mount Baldy in the Californian hills. From a distance, it was easy to be sceptical and think of it as another slightly suspect rock sojourn, like Sting hanging out with the Yanomani Indians. But Cohen put in six solid years in the community run by his friend, the Zen master Joshu Sasaki Roshi, who is now well into his nineties.

As a monk, Cohen's name was Jikan, meaning The Silent One. The days there were evidently long and arduous, like some of his songs. "Well, actually, each day was more like two days," he says. "If you are a senior monk with specialised duties, you get up at 2.30am. The general wake-up is 3am. I would get up a little earlier so that I could brew some coffee and smoke a couple of cigarettes before getting into the day. Then the bell would ring and one would get into robes and go into the meditation hall. Then there would be chanting for an hour, then two hours of sitting meditation, then breakfast in formal silence with a ritualised use of bowls and napkins, then a 15-minute break before the work bell, when you would turn up for the duties of the day. These really involved the maintenance of the facility - plumbing, shovelling snow, painting walls, making candles, cleaning and cooking.

"That went on till lunch, then there was another small break and an afternoon of work, then dinner and another evening meditation for two or three hours. The days would follow, one upon the other. After a stint as the meditation hall leader, I ended up as Roshi's cook, or attendant. His diet was very specialised, but I'd known it for years. There was no private space and virtually no private time, we were all working shoulder to shoulder. It was a very simple day. There is a Zen saying: "Like pebbles in a bag, the monks polish one another."
If you told any other icon or rock star that he must cook every day for an old man and rise at an hour when most good parties are just getting going, he would probably think he had died and was being punished for a life of excess. Presumably Cohen was on the run from just such a life, the complexities of which he has often mapped in his lyrics. He replies that this was not the case, that life in the monastery was essentially the same as everyone else's life - "same emotions like love, hate and jealousy that you get in close contact with anyone" - but lived under a microscope and with no escape.

And no women. This must have been difficult for him.

"There were nuns."

Precisely. I nearly ask him if it was the celibacy and other privations that have eventually driven him back down from the mountains and into his Los Angeles duplex, but this line of enquiry would be glib and dated. He insists he is not the ladies' man that he used to be, and that anyway he was always rather surprised by his reputation as Lothario. Coming down from Mount Baldy was not a particularly dramatic decision, he explains. He had never felt a great degree of urgency about any projects; it had always taken him years to get round to the next record or book, and something similar happened quitting the monastery.

Before leaving the subject, he explains carefully that he has known his old teacher and community for over 30 years. "At the end of my last concert tour I was approaching 60 and he was approaching 90. I thought it was appropriate to spend time with him. But I was never looking for a new religious philosophy or set of dogmas. I've never been good at following philosophical models. Even at university I could never get my mind around those big Western thought systems. It was clear when I first met him that he was in touch with certain resources I knew nothing about. If he had been, I don't know, a professor of physics at Heidelberg University, I would have learnt German and gone off to Heidelberg."

While at the monastery he still found time to fill notebooks full of words - scanning, rhyming lines, which will be assiduously pared down to a fraction of the original quantity. He is in London to launch his latest CD, 'Ten New Songs', which does exactly what it says on the label. But this launch turns out to be all talking and no playing. He has not performed live since the early Nineties, and says he doubts he could fill the big halls of the major cities for more than a couple of nights now. Unless he is a very smooth pedlar of false modesty, he thinks of himself as an irredeemably minor figure. He cites the sales of his 1968 album, 'Songs of Leonard Cohen', regarded as a classic of singer-songwriting, which has only recently gone gold by selling 1.5 million copies.

These new songs are reassuringly like the old ones, full of emotional impasses conveyed in a weary and proverbial way. Here and there are lines that sound ominously New Age but which turn out to be Old Age. "I don't trust my inner feelings / Inner feelings come and go." He is particularly pleased with this, explaining that the workds are an accurate reflection of his thoughts on the whole business of inner feelings. For his most loyal, or patient listeners, this small statement has the feeling of a grail, since the whole idea of listening to Cohen was to try and establish where he was at. Most of the time the clues he offered were far more confusing and arcane than Bob Dylan's. His was a very superior crossword. Now, here he is taking the lid off the whole enterprise; he doesn't trust his inner feelings because inner feelings come and go.

"The psychotherapeutic establishment," he continues, "is always encouraging us to get in touch with our inner feelings." He must have been seeing a shrink. After everything else - the girls, the drinking, the writing, the religion - that would figure. "No," he replies. "I've never had faith in the model, so it didn't really attract me. I believe in what I would call dynamic uncertainty. An invitation to get in touch with your inner feelings presupposes a fixed inner self. My impression is that there is no inner self and so attempts to get in touch with it are doomed."

With him in London are two of his long-standing female backing vocalists. They speak of him rather as he speaks of his mentor at Mount Baldy, saying that he has changed their lives and that they would follow him anywhere. He also owes them a huge debt, which he is the first to acknowledge, in the same way that certain old walls are indebted to younger buttresses. For these days his voice has a mere handful of notes, and they all come out like the furry growls of an organ's bass pipe. I ask him how he got to sound like this and he points to the Marlboro Lights on the table. So, it's the women tending the melody and him coming in with the serious words like a visiting speaker. This strange teamwork is touching and effective, but also quite funny and reminds you of that old incongruity - the literary figure jamming with rockers. Naturally, he used to be called the Byron of Rock, although that was as much to do with pussy (still one of his favourite words) as poetry. Still, it was apt enough. There was due period in Greece in the Sixties, when he lived on the island of Hydra in a house that he bought for about £500, and which he still visits. He was a graduate of McGill University, a central figure in the emerging school of Montreal Poets, and had several novels and books of verse published. When he was still only 34 he was offered, and declined, the Governor General of Canada's Literary Award. Undaunted, his native land later made him an Officer of the Order of Canada, and an entry in The United States of Poetry had him down as "perhaps the continent's most successful poet."

When he is asked about the early days, and why he turned towards that rock'n'roll world, he replies that he couldn't make a living as a writer. The poems were well received but the income was too modest to meet his obligations; he was living with a woman who had a young child. On his way to Nashville, in search of work as a studio musician, he stopped off in New York and ran smack into the folk revival. There was Joni Mitchell, Dylan, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, who had a hit with Suzanne, and the veteran Pete Seeger.

"I wasn't deeply aware of an impending explosion," he says. "But there was a sense of freedom and opportunity in the air. I was heard by a very great A&R man called John Hammond, who signed everybody from Billie Holliday to Bruce Springsteen. He was a very kind man, he had heard Judy's version of Suzanne and he invited me out to lunch near the Chelsea Hotel. Afterwards he asked me if I would mind playing some tunes. So I did, very nervously, and he said just three words to me: 'You got it.' About the best words I ever heard."

His mother remained unconvinced. Long after he was established, he took her out to a Montreal and when the bill came she slipped him 20 dollars under the table. He assured her he could afford it, but she didn't believe him. It was a solid and conventional Jewish family, with forbears in the clothing business and the dredging of the canals around Montreal. His sister was a librarian and worked for Colliers Encyclopaedia. His mother's father was a Hebrew grammarian who wrote a thesauraus of Talmudic interpretation. His father's father founded the first Anglo-Jewish newspaper in North America.

If you look for these influences in the songs, they are there all right. Sometimes, in numbers such as 'The Stranger Song' or 'Bird on the Wire', you can find the angst and the confessional side-byside with the acceptance and the letting-go. Because he has absorbed so many different song-writing traditions, he has the capacity to surprise with a clash of styles or a pairing of the plain and the elusive. When I ask him which songs he is most please with, he doesn't name any of his own but quotes the Fats Waller standard: 'The Moon stood still on Blueberry Hill.'

"If I thought I could write lines like that, I'd be more than happy."

And on 1992's album 'The Future', one of the best three or four he has made, the one track not of his composition was 'Always' by an earlier Americophile songwriter, Irving Berlin. "I'll be loving you always / with a love that's always."

For most of the Sixties, Cohen was commuting between Hydra, where he lived with his Norwegian girlfriend, and the Chelsea Hotel, where he entertained such famous friends as Dylan and Jimi Hendrix. Before that there had been a spell in London, just as there had for the young Dylan and Paul Simon. Cohen was here as a novelist, staying in the Hampstead maisonette of a friend, Stella Pullman, with whom he is still in touch. "She allowed me to stay there so long as I wrote my daily quota of three pages. I had certain duties, like getting the coal in and lighting the fire. Eventually she and her husband got a place in Hydra after I told them what a beautiful place it was."

Somewhere along the way he got a reputation for being as irresistable to women as Warren Beatty, and for taking full advantage of this good fortune. "I think these impressions are always fals," he says with a surprisingly bashful smile. "Given the hormonal rage of the young, these satisfactions are hard to achieve."

But he did always love getting to know women, surely. And taking as many of them to bed as he could. It's all there in the songs. "Well," he says, "I would not be unique in this respect. But I was always amused by that reputation, for someone who has spent so many nights alone. These things sort of get into the database, I suppose."

Yet, when I ask him if he can say what fuelled his writing, he says he wrote poems for women whose affection he was seeking. To the question of whether they worked, he replies: "Not very often." Something worked with the American actress Rebecca de Mornay, whom he dated for a while a few years ago. Today, he says, there are no romances, but many women friends, including his two adult children's mother. "I've never been married, but I've lived a married life. It hardly matters. I remember Roshi saying to the monks, 'You lead hard lives, you rise early, you spend hours on stone floors, but if you want to try something really hard, try marriage. That is the true monastery. Try the monastery of marriage."

I know what that woman meant about being a charlatan, but I still don't think it's quite fair. It's true, you can drop your eye at random on any of his lyric sheets and be more richly bamboozled than by any other songwriter: "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. And the whole damn place goes crazy twice, and it's once for the devil and once for Christ, but the Boss doesn't like these dizzy heights, we're busted in the blinding lights of closing time." There's an awful lot more where that came from. But this is not a man pretending to knowledge he doesn't have. It's just someone who finds it all rather complicated. Thrilling too, with a large number of what he terms ecstatic accidents. But above all complicated, which is why he still seeks answers everywhere, from the top of a mountain to the bottom of a glass. In reporting on the complications, he is probably just being as honest as he can.

This article originally appeared in The Times Magazine supplement (London) on 13 October 2001 entitled "The Prince of Darkness Lightens Up"
Evie B
Posts: 572
Joined: Sun Nov 23, 2008 8:07 pm
Location: Cambridge, England

Re: Some thoughts on Leonard's tour and a 2001 interview

Postby Evie B » Fri Jul 17, 2009 6:01 pm

Thank you Honeyrose for posting your thoughts and this acticle. I very much enjoyed reading them. We owe a lot to Bob, don't we?
...he shows you where to look amid the garbage and the flowers
Posts: 154
Joined: Tue Jan 22, 2008 1:30 am

Re: Some thoughts on Leonard's tour and a 2001 interview

Postby Undertow » Sun Jul 19, 2009 2:39 am

Thank you for that article. It seems like Ive done nothing but listen to Cohen and read about him since that Weybridge gig.
Mr Man
Posts: 15
Joined: Sat Dec 06, 2008 2:50 pm

Re: Some thoughts on Leonard's tour and a 2001 interview

Postby Mr Man » Sun Jul 19, 2009 9:58 pm

I agree. Interesting article. Thanks for posting it.

Return to “Comments & Questions”

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 3 guests