Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
It's how the light gets in
-- Anthem, Leonard Cohen
While generally these Clouds posts focus on my idiosyncratic brushes with celebrity, in this case the brush is extremely minor -- telling of it is just a pretext, really, to sing praise to one of our age's ageless wonders who's recently come back into the limelight.
Even as a young man, Leonard Cohen was old. Listen to his voice on the very first album, which opens with the instantly unforgettable strains of Suzanne, and you hear a world-weariness, the eternal sigh of elder sages, that would seem unbecoming in a young singer-songwriter poet 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 the man's persona: the sober, rabbinical pose at the altar of keyboard or guitar, the spare and simple folk-timeless chord patterns with his hoarse, incantatory phrasing cushioned by the sweet young voices of female background singers. You felt, listening to Cohen even in his early 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, deeper truths that transcended the more superficial ditherings of whatever was preoccupying contemporary pop culture.
Now 71 years old, Cohen has indeed been up the mountain and down again, having retreated to Mount Baldy Zen Center near Los Angeles for 5 years of seclusion and been ordained as a Rinzai Zen Buddhist monk. Now he's back among us with a low-key but pervasive flurry of publicity surrounding the release of his latest poetry collection, The Book of Longing, a CD he's produced for (and co-written with) his recent partner Anjani (Blue Alert), and a documentary on the current State of Cohen, containing live performances and interviews with luminary fans like Bono and Nick Cave, called I'm Your Man.
The film is in L.A. as part of the L.A. Film Festival (next Saturday night the 24th) and looks to be entertaining and illuminating; the Anjani CD I cannot, in good faith, recommend (to add to Cohen's couplet: Love may be blind, but desire is not / as a singer-composer, she's more warm than hot). The Book of Longing, at any rate, is a treasure trove for Cohenists and newcomers alike.
To properly appreciate it, let's pause to acknowledge the Cohen canon. Besides Suzanne, Bird on a Wire alone would assure him a seat in the Songwriting Hall of Fame (he was recently inducted into the Canadian Music [and Songwriters] Hall of Fame and it's about time, thanks). But his two late period albums I'm Your Man and The Future are, track by track, full of more indelible songwriting masterpieces (the prescient First We Take Manhattan, classicTower of Song, mordant Closing Time, Democracy etc.) than many of his contemporaries have penned in a career.
Then there's the poetry. While Longing doesn't pack the major wallop of Stranger Music (selected poems and songs from 1956-1993), it's full of great lines, and with its doodles and drawings by the poet, gives one a sense of being privy to his private notebooks (a recent interview with Cohen discussing the genesis of the book can be heard here). This "odd collection of jazz riffs, pop-art jokes, religious kitsch and muffled prayer" as Cohen terms it, has many images that strike one right between the eyes with the force of a Zen master's stick.
It's also a good handbook of Cohen's familiar themes. Central to his work has always been a visceral melding of the sacred and profane. There's a poignant, painful honesty to his eternal pursuit of beauty, and his unapologetic surrender to the power of the feminine and its ability to undo or enlighten men (sometimes simultaneously). Often in Longing, it's difficult to tell whether the "you" addressed in a given verse is deity or lover. To Cohen, G-d is woman, and Woman is G-d (and who are we to argue?).
Longing is a book to savor, to read and dip into at leisure. But that doesn't mean you should wait for the paperback. There's a subtext to its release that caused me to purchase the hardcover immediately upon its release: Leonard is broke, or to put it more properly, he's been robbed. You may have followed this in the press, but the drift is, the songwriter was bilked out of millions due him by his former manager, Kelley Lynch. A true femme fatale, even though Cohen successfully sued Lynch (for $9 mil), she has ignored the suit. Death of a Ladies' Man (title of his ill-fated collaboration with Phil Spector), indeed.
So I bought the book to put some change in the man's pocket. Hopefully many will do the same; it would be nice if some of his more truly well-to-do fans would offer some support -- no less a personage than Prince Charles has declared himself a Cohen-lover (the gag here being that, according to friends of that royal life-of-the-party wild man, of course Leonard Cohen music is his idea of a good time).
And while we're at it, how about new editions of the fiction? While The Favorite Game is largely ignored, it's good to hear, at this late date, that Cohen's early novel Beautiful Losers is getting its due (recently canonized by the Canadian literati as one of the past century's best reads). This book was a real influence on me as an adolescent; I was properly awed by its weird, surreal eroticism and to this day can vividly remember the unique set-piece wherein a benignly monstrous vibrator has its way with the lover-protagonists, and then 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.
You can perhaps imagine the effect of such literature on the fertile imagination of a 16 year-old who had yet to see a vibrator, let alone been ravaged by one.
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 (one of the best live shows I've ever seen); nothing memorable to note there, just a polite head nod -- otherwise I stood around eavesdropping as he talked to my more famous companions (see Periphery Man photo captioned: Leonard Cohen, Laurie Anderson, Unidentified Man, etc.). Then there's my more recent encounter, underwhelming in its story values, but gratifying in its karma.
[Another installment in the ongoing true life adventures of Periphery Man, who has had myriad peculiar encounters with celebrities, while not being a celebrity himself.]
A few years ago, I went for lunch at the French cafe below Venice Boulevard on Abbot Kinney with friend Peter, and shortly after we got settled into our table, I noticed an elderly man come in, accompanied by a very attractive younger Asian woman. As they sat down at a table across the little patio, I gave the man a curious glance, because there was something very familiar about his face.
A bit further into our lunch, I put it together: the older man with the haunting, luminous eyes, the younger beauty so attentive to him. "I think that may be 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 thinking about it now, Cohen's behavior strikes me as extremely Zen. If idolized, idolize the idolator. He was in a sense 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 by any chance Leonard Cohen?" I asked.
He smiled. "Yes, I am," he admitted, looking very happy about it.
In the better, fictionalized version of this story he would have then said, And are you by any chance Billy Mernit? and things would have taken a very Twilight Zone turn from there. But what happened in reality was far less spectacular.
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 Leonard Cohen had been genuinely pleased to be given 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, Neil Young and Tom Waits 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 The 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?