Leonard Cohen on Sunshine, His Love Life and Kurt Cobain's Suicide

Canadian singer-songwriter became a Buddhist monk, but his influence on popular music has never wavered

Canadian poet, singer-songwriter and novelist Leonard Cohen poses for a portrait in a diner in New York, New York circa 1968 Credit: Roz Kelly/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

Thirty years ago, Canadian poet Leonard Cohen established himself as a virtuoso songwriter with his sorrowful love plaint "Suzanne" and Songs of Leonard Cohen, an album rich with melancholy explorations of love and loneliness. Cohen became a star in Europe and a revered cult figure in the U.S., and he has inspired tributes from artists as diverse as R.E.M., Elton John, Tori Amos and Nick Cave. But music is no longer Cohen's primary focus: Four years ago he became a Buddhist monk and settled at the Mount Baldy Zen Center, 50 miles south of Los Angeles, where he studies Zen and writes poetry. Though he has neither released a studio album nor toured since 1993, his influence on popular music endures and is commemorated in a new compilation, More Best of, which also includes his first two new songs in four years. Having descended Mount Baldy to hold court in an L.A. hotel, Cohen, 63, looks casually suave in an ivory suit, thoughtfully sharing a glass of scotch and a small stash of cigarettes.

How does it feel to have weathered 30 years in the business?
It's a long time, my child. I've had a blessed kind of renown, though it waxes and wanes. I've been able to satisfy a principle I established for myself early in the game, which was that I wanted to get paid for my work, but I didn't want to work for pay.

Do you listen to the young artists who cite you as an influence?
Lately I don't listen to much music. I don't have a record player up there. But I'm always knocked out when I hear my songs covered or used in some situation. I've never gotten over the fact that people out there like my music. I go into a state of critical suspension. I'm grateful and honored that my work has some utilitarian value.

Your songs seem to evoke emotions both deeply personal and universal. How did you feel about Kurt Cobain's lyric, "Give me a Leonard Cohen after-world/So I can sigh eternally"?
Several members of Nirvana came to my concert in Seattle in '93. And when Kurt Cobain killed himself... I always wished he had come to the concert, wished I'd been able to talk to him. We get young people like him up at the monastery who've come to the end of the rope, and there are ways you can address them that are rather original –— not psychological. I probably wouldn't have been able to affect anything. It's just one of those big "what ifs."

So you don't follow Bob Dylan's credo, "Just because you like my music doesn't mean I owe you anything"?
I feel the exact opposite. These people created my life. It's a modest one, but I've been able to live and send my kids to school and lead this charmed and lucky existence. At least, that's the cover story —– I'm not talking about my own inner turmoil. I was never a punk, you know? It isn't my style to be ungrateful to people who buy my records and come to my concerts.

Never wanted to shave your hair into a mohawk and stage-dive?
No, although I met that beautiful, thin guy who does it, Iggy Pop. We had a great time. Don Was was producing one of his albums, so they came over to my house, and a very curious thing happened. Somebody sent me a clipping from the personals column of a San Francisco newspaper. It said, "Wanted: a man with the moral authority of Leonard Cohen and the sheer guts of Iggy Pop." Don took a picture of us so she'd know it was authentic, and we replied to the ad. She wrote a very charming letter back.

You've spent years in Greece and California. Do you crave sunshine?
I grew up in Montreal, which was covered by snow seven months of the year, so I love the sunshine. You cannot otherwise but believe in some benign aspect of the cosmos if you go out and it's bright and warm. And with a tan, you may even look better.

A tan isn't good for you.
I know. But at a certain age you just sorta shrug your shoulders and go for it. It's like four or five years ago when I was trying Prozac, I heard on the radio that some pharma-psychologists were prescribing amphetamines for depression. So I said to my doctor, "How about a little speed?" And he said, "Well, it's addictive." I said, "So? It's addictive. Whaddya think I'm gonna do, knock off a gas station?"

Did you like Prozac?
Prozac seemed to put a floor on how low I could go, but it also put a ceiling on how high I could go. It kept me in a very narrow range. I tried Paxil, and it put me into a terrible funk. Finally I just cheered up on my own. From time to time, I'll take a little speed, and it makes me feel great. But I think Zen meditation, that kind of intimacy you develop with yourself, has been most effective. I took to it naturally.

So how's your love life?
Well, um, it's really not an appropriate place up there to manifest a very vigorous love life. But there are very fetching young women up there —– nuns and female students. If you really do fall in love with someone, you're invited to leave and go off with them. So while I've been up there, I haven't been terribly active in that realm.

Your songs are known for exploring the dynamics between men and women. Do you have any observations on women's growing presence in rock music?
Back in 1967, I couldn't wait for the women to take over. I felt there was this tremendous power and energy and intention just under the surface. Since then, I've seen a lot of women I know come into their own through a tremendous amount of effort. I have a lot of admiration for anyone who just stands up and does it. The content of the material doesn't concern me; it's the fact of the performance –— it's the courage and the balls.

Or the ovaries. Are you writing music?
I've been working on one lyric for years now. It's called "A Thousand Kisses Deep." I have 30 to 40 verses, but I haven't really nailed it. Part of it goes: "I'm turning tricks, I'm getting fixed/I'm back on Boogie Street/I'd like to quit the business/But I'm lazy and I'm weak/The thought of you is fragrant and the loss of you complete/There's nothing but a scratch or two/A thousand kisses deep."

You know, you could make a living at this.
I'd like to try, but I'm getting on.