I got that song on my little laptop," Leonard Cohen says, sitting diminutively on a couch in his suite at the Warwick Hotel in Manhattan, both hands clutching an unsipped mug of coffee. He is discussing a new, unreleased track he's recorded, an accomplishment worthy of celebration for the notoriously slow-working Canadian singer, songwriter and recluse. "I should go get it. Want me to go get it?" He scampers out of the room and returns moments later with a black MacBook, opens iTunes and plays a slow dirge. Seemingly oblivious to the anticipation with which fans await a glimpse of new material, he doesn't even request that the rolling tape recorder be stopped.
"Through a net of lies, I'll come to you," his raspy voice intones through a plug-in speaker. "When the dead arise, I will wait there too/If your heart is torn, who can wonder why?/If the night is long, here's my lullabye." As the song ends, he sits enveloped in a stillness that he carries with him like a prayer stick, wearing the same outfit — a black suit, bolo tie and black fedora — he wore onstage the previous night. "I thought that 'Lullabye' was just what everyone needs to get to sleep in these troubled times," he finally says, choosing each word slowly and carefully.
At age 74, Cohen has entered one of the most public and prolific periods of a stubbornly nonconformist life that has swung between high-profile romantic liaisons and off-the-grid spiritual seclusion. But not necessarily by choice. In 2004, his recently fired manager absconded with crates of his memorabilia and most of his retirement fund. The legal battles that ensued decimated what was left of his savings. And although he was awarded $9.5 million, he has yet to collect it from the former manager. All he'll discuss about the status of the legal wrangling is that it's "mostly" over and "it has a very, very interesting and O. Henry-esque ending." Since the lawsuits, he has released a collection of his writing (Book of Longing) and a concert CD and DVD (Live in London, due March 31st on Columbia), and has embarked on his first tour in 15 years, the U.S. leg of which begins in Austin on April 2nd.
Although Cohen has been forced to emerge from his austere Los Angeles apartment, he's taken his solitude with him on the grueling 128-date tour. "The touring and traveling have been monastic," he admits, scrolling through iTunes for another new song. "It's been so great, because I don't see anyone. I go directly from the stage into a car and back to my hotel room."
The night before, Cohen performed in his first concert in America since 1993, receiving six standing ovations during a three-hour show composed mostly of greatest hits. Compared to his last concert in the city, during which he seemed like a grizzled old rabbi who'd accidentally wandered onstage, Cohen was a polished, dapper showman — perhaps because since then he has quit drinking before shows and smoking altogether. Rather than reciting the words of past hits, he seemed to have entered the material again: vaguely pantomiming each song, changing inflections to more directly depict the romantic defeatism of his lyrics, singing in a smoother, less raspy bass than he has in years, and actually skipping on the stage. "I like to skip," he says. "I don't get much exercise."
Cohen explains he chose part of his set list — songs like "The Gypsy's Wife," "The Future" and "Democracy" — because their apocalyptic vision seems truer now than when they were recorded. "People really thought I needed help back then," he says, laughing. Asked for his thoughts on the economic crisis, he searches for another new song he's written, saying that he communicates more "authentically" when writing than speaking.
"So much of the work that I hear, there's nothing wrong with it, but much of it has the feel of a slogan or an agenda that has already been written," he says. "But if you're interested in forming yourself through your work, then you have to keep uncovering and discarding those slogans until you get to something." His computer cursor lands on the version of the song he's looking for. "Check this out," he says.
"Tell me again when I'm clean and I'm sober," his voice rings grimly over a bright but mournful klezmer backing. "Tell me again when I've seen through the horror/Tell me again/Tell me over and over/Tell me that you love me then/Amen."
Cohen sits quietly as the song plays on his laptop, more comfortable when the attention is focused on the screen than on him. "I recorded three or four songs and wrote about seven," he says as the music fades. Then, although he's said he "dare not complain" about his unanticipated marathon tour, he smiles and admits, "There's a record there, if I ever get off the road."