Even as a young man, Leonard Cohen was old. Listen to him on his first album singing the instantly memorable first line of Suzanne, and you hear a world-weariness, the sigh of an elder sage, that would seem unbecoming in a young singer-songwriter were it not for the level of insight evidenced in his lyrics.
It's not just the deep bass register he adopted as time went by, but the entirety of his persona: the sober, rabbinical pose at the altar of keyboard or guitar, the spare and simple folk-timeless chord patterns, his incantatory phrasing cushioned by the sweet young voices of female background singers. You felt, listening to Cohen even in his middle age, that you were hearing the testimony of a man who had been to the mountain and back, an aged soul whose eyes were focused on the higher truths that transcended the superficial ditherings of what preoccupied contemporary culture.
You know his music, you may know his poetry. But it was his lesser known novel Beautiful Losers that changed my adolescent mind. At age 16 I was just starting to think I might be a writer, and I was awed by its weird, surreal eroticism. To this day I can't forget the moment when, after a benignly monstrous vibrator has had its way with the lover-protagonists, it makes an exit worthy of a creature from some '50s sci-fi horror pic:
The Danish Vibrator slipped off her face, uncovering a bruised soft smile. "Stay," she whispered. It climbed onto the window sill, purring deeply, revved up to a sharp moan, and launched itself through the glass, which broke and fell over its exit like a fancy stage curtain... When it reached the ground it crossed the parking lot and soon achieved the beach... How soft the night seemed, like the last verse of a lullaby... We watched the descent of the apparatus into the huge rolling sea, which closed over its luminous cups like the end of a civilization.
Years later I was introduced to Mr. Cohen briefly backstage on the night I attended one of his by now-legendary I'm Your Man tour concerts. Nothing memorable to note there, just a polite head nod - otherwise I stood around eavesdropping as he talked to my more celebrated companions (see Periphery Man photo captioned: Leonard Cohen, Laurie Anderson, Unidentified Man, etc.). And then...
About a decade ago I went for lunch at the French cafe on Abbot Kinney with my friend Peter Trias, and shortly after we got settled into our table, I noticed an elderly man come in, accompanied by a beautiful young Asian woman. As they sat down at a table across the little patio, I gave the man a curious glance, because there was something familiar about his face.
A bit further into our lunch, I put it together: the older man with the haunting, luminous eyes, the younger woman so attentive to him. "I think that's Leonard Cohen," I told my friend. I chanced another look at their table.
And here's the odd thing: when I did so, the man was already looking at me. There was an air of expectancy in his gaze, as if he'd known before I did that there was reason for me to look, as if, in fact, he had recognized me. He returned my feigned casual glance with a gaze of open curiosity.
My second look had confirmed, at any rate, my suspicion that there was indeed an icon of my generation having tea in the French cafe. But the weirdness persisted; a few times during the course of our meal, I had the distinct feeling of being watched, and when I snuck another look Cohen-ward, once again I found his waiting eyes anticipating mine.
It could have been any number of things, but Cohen's behavior strikes me as extremely Zen. If idolized, idolize the idolator. He was acting as a psychic mirror - either that, or mistaking me for the guy who did his dry cleaning. There's also the possibility that he unabashedly enjoyed being recognized, and/or was having the kind of day where his ego welcomed the attention... which come to think of it, is antithetical to being a Zen monk. There you go - his familiar dichotomy theme: the struggle between the spiritual and the material.
By the time Cohen and his companion were paying their check, I couldn't contain myself. "I'm sorry if this embarrasses you," I told Peter, "but I've got to talk to the guy." There was something I felt compelled to impart to Mr. Cohen, coincidentally having listened to I'm Your Man in the course of a writing session only a few nights previous, and so when he and the young woman came down our aisle, I stood up and briefly blocked his exit. Again, he seemed to anticipate and expect this, as if it were an inevitable ritual.
"Excuse me, but are you Leonard Cohen?" I asked.
He smiled. "Yes, I am," he admitted, looking happy about it.
I introduced myself and shook his hand. "I was listening to your Tower of Song the other night," I said, "and it occurred to me that I first read Beautiful Losers as a teenager. I'm a writer, and I just want you to know that you've been in my life, giving me great pleasure and inspiration for quite a long span of time, so thank you for that."
"You're very kind," he said, and we nodded at each other, I stepped aside, and he and the Asian woman (who seemed relieved that I'd been wielding neither an autograph hound's pen or a .45 magnum) went on their way. But I don't think I was wrong in feeling that Mr. Cohen had been genuinely pleased by my little tribute, and I guess this is the point of my anecdote.
Too often the greats don't get their props until they pass away. There are but a handful of songwriter-artists who have continued to produce a sustained body of meaningful work over a damned impressive number of years - Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon come to mind. Let us celebrate them now, I say, while they're still among us.
For it's one thing to make a big splash and then fall by the wayside while times and taste shift, and another thing entirely to transcend the vagaries of fashion and be, in a very real sense, eternally young, eternally old... ever alive to what's eternal. It's a formidable challenge, one addressed in these lines from Leonard's Book of Longing's poem, The Faith:
The sea so deep and blind
The sun, the wild regret
The club, the wheel, the mind
O love, aren't you tired yet?