Leonard Cohen: No Mercy

The singer-songwriter's tales from the dark side

Leonard COHEN; performing live onstage at Congresgebouw, Netherlands, 1993 Credit: Rob Verhorst/Redferns/Getty

"I always experience myself as falling apart, and I'm taking emergency measures," says Leonard Cohen, entirely deadpan. "It's coming apart at every moment. I try Prozac. I try love. I try drugs. I try Zen meditation. I try the monastery. I try forgetting about all those strategies and going straight. And the place where the evaluation happens is where I write the songs, when I get to that place where I can't be dishonest about what I've been doing."

That penchant for unadulterated honesty is precisely what liberates Cohen's music from the tastes of the moment and renders it timelessly alive. Through a body of work that ranges from the somber folk meditations of his debut, Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967), to the jagged art songs of his current album, The Future, Cohen's resonant croak of a voice delivers lines like "Give me crack and anal sex/Take the only tree that's left/And stuff it up the hole in your culture" with the deranged authority of an Old Testament prophet battling an addiction problem. Self-described as "the little jew who wrote the bible," he informs his songs with the force of moral significance – though, as he would be the absolute first to insist, neither his work nor his life should be taken as a moral example.

The figure Cohen cuts in person counters his self-portrait of psychic dissolution. Seated at a corner table in the lounge of a garish midtown Manhattan hotel, nursing a club soda, leaning forward to make an urgent point, then settling back in the oversized chair to listen carefully and think, he could easily be mistaken for an editor at a small publishing house, visiting New York to meet with writers and agents to discuss deals. He appears more serious, more intent than the attractive, evening-hour fun lovers clustered around the bar and crowding the tables, but not at all out of place.

At fifty-eight, his black hair combed straight back and turned partly to gray, Cohen is handsome and fit. His gray pin-stripe suit, gray shirt and dark, patterned tie are subdued but well up to the imposing local standard. He is gracious, even courtly, a gentleman, but his dark eyes fix you, looking directly into yours. He seems anything but out of control.

What finally distinguishes Cohen from everyone else in the room, of course, are his words. They come not in torrents – he does not speak especially quickly – but in a steady, relentless assault. He has a poet's instinctive sense of cadence. When a phrase or a rhythm catches his ear, he will seize it, turn it, reverse it, repeat it until its expressive potential is exhausted. His relationship with spoken language is at least as sensuous as it is intellectual – listening to his deep, grainy voice, you remember that speech is a physical act. The effect is hip and hypnotic.

Thankfully, the branches of a potted palm arching over his head add a suitably ironic note: Foretelling the apocalypse in the bar of a $300-a-night hotel, Leonard Cohen is a desperado under the leaves.

Characteristically, The Future, Cohen's first album since the stunning I'm Your Man, in 1988, is simultaneously grim, hopeful and stirring. "There is a crack in everything," he sings on "Anthem," a track produced by Cohen with his lover, the actress Rebecca De Mornay. "That's how the light gets in."

The record continues to chronicle the struggle between despair and human possibility that Cohen has made his subject, first in poetry and fiction (the best known of his literary works is the 1966 novel Beautiful Losers ) and then in a series of gripping albums, including such classics as Songs of Leonard Cohen, Songs From a Room (1969), Songs of Love and Hate (1971), New Skin for the Old Ceremony (1973) and Various Positions (1984).

Not counting the in-concert Live Songs (1972) and Best of Leonard Cohen (1975), Cohen has made just nine albums in twenty-five years. It's not because he's lazy, and it's not because he does other writing, though a new anthology of his poems, tentatively tided Stranger Music: Selected Poems and Songs, is set for publication in the fall of 1993. He bemoans his painstaking methods as a songwriter and in the studio, dismissing them as "stupid," but then adds: "It's a serious enterprise. Some people write great songs in taxicabs, and some people write great songs in offices in the Brill Building. I wish I could work that way. For me, I've got to surrender to it, struggle with it and get creamed by it in me process."

And it's also not as if Cohen is unaware of the disjuncture between the culture of violence he documents in "The Future" ("Give me back the Berlin Wall/Give me Stalin and St. Paul/Give me Christ/Or give me Hiroshima/Destroy another fetus now/We don't like children anyhow/I've seen the future, baby:/It is murder") and the comfortable, far safer world in which he typically moves.

"The sense I have as I sit here is very different from the sense of the man who was struggling with the material," Cohen says about the rigors of writing the songs for the album. "This is after the struggle. The man who sits here in the lounge of this hotel is somewhat more casual and less committed than the man who wrote the record. The record involved a four-year struggle; the songs, some of them, are eight, ten years in the works. The record is there for keeps. There's flesh and blood attached to it I did what was necessary, and I sit here kind of wrecked."

Cohen makes statements like that as if he were simply enumerating facts. A certain amount of self-dramatization is at play, obviously. But equally involved is Cohen's dead earnestness about his work, his conviction that writing songs is a lethal matter, a process of artistic self-searching that must not in any way be compromised. It's an old-fashioned view of the artist as a kind of humanist hero, an intrepid explorer of the soul and the times. It's not a conception often encountered in the pop world or, for the most part, anywhere else these days.

"The song will yield if you stick with it long enough," Cohen says. "But long enough is way beyond any reasonable idea you might have of what long enough is. It takes that long to peel the bullshit off. Every one of those songs began as a song that was easier to write. A lot of them were recorded with easier arrangements and easier lyrics. A song like 'Anthem,' for instance, I recorded that song for each of the last three albums – with strings, voices and overdubs. It didn't make those records, because the version was too easy. 'The Future' began as a song called 'If You Could See What's Coming Next.' That point of view was a deflected point of view. I didn't have the guts to say, 'I've seen the future, baby:/It is murder.' The song was more observational, on the edge of the action."

Driven by a surprisingly funky guitar-and-keyboard groove, "The Future" evokes a disturbing nostalgia for the iron hand, a collective state of profound emotional panic that yearns for ruthless order as a balm against the horrors of anarchy. It's a mind-set that Cohen feels has already taken shape, one that he understands and, to a degree, shares. It's a reality that has already arrived.

"It's true now," Cohen says plainly. "I drink the future is here. It's like when I was standing on my balcony in Los Angeles, where I live, and I could see six good fires. My music store was on fire. Through some incredible, invulnerable optimism I didn't feel the fire was going to come to my house, although the air was full of soot. It was settling on my grass."

"Where I had to go for the song," Cohen continues, "there is not that optimism. You have to go to the truth of feeling. When I inhabit that place, I discard all the alibis. I'm talking about a collapse of perspective. The catastrophe has already happened on the interior plane. The world has already been destroyed. The mental hospitals are full, and people are copping to each other that they can't take it. Well, what is it that they can't take? The traffic lights are still running. The subways are still running. People still have jobs. What is it that people can't take? They can't take the reality they're living in."

"People seem to know what 'The Future' is about. It's humorous, there's irony, there's all kinds of distances from the event that make the song possible. It's art. It's a good dance track, it's a hot number. It's captivating – it's even got hope. But the place where the song comes from is a life-threatening situation. You've got to go to some risky terrain. That's why the record takes so long to make, and that's why you're shattered at the end of it."

One of The Future's zanier aspects is a bonkers eight-minute R&B arrangement of the Irving Berlin standard "Always," complete with horns and background vocals. In one sense, the song is fatally (and intentionally) subverted body by its context – it's a heartfelt declaration of unconditional, everlasting love amid the modern ruins – and Cohen and the band's unhinged performance.

In another, possibly deeper sense, it's strangely affecting, no more anomalous (or less, to be honest) than the quotation from the Book of Genesis that dedicates The Future to De Mornay: "And before I had done speaking in mine heart, behold, Rebecca came forth with her pitcher on her shoulder; and she went down unto the well, and drew water; and I said unto her, Let me drink, I pray thee. And she made haste, and let down her pitcher from her shoulder, and said, Drink, and I will give thy camels drink also: so I drank, and she made the camels drink also."

"It's a song that was sung a lot in my house," Cohen says of "Always." "My mother loved the song. I guess it's one of the first songs I learned. I always thought the words were great: 'Not for just an hour, not for just a day, not for just a year' – that was my idea of poetry." The recording of "Always" on The Future was partly inspired, Cohen says, by "my drink, the Red Needle, which I invented in Needles, California: tequila and cranberry juice, a little Sprite and fresh fruit." "Juicing everybody up," he says, loosened the atmosphere in the studio considerably: "The reason we kept that particular version is that it's the shortest one we had! We have four that go the whole tape – twenty-five minutes or something. We couldn't stop playing."

If "Always" provides a kind of moving comic relief to the album's darker elements, "Democracy" – a skewed, knowing, good-hearted paean to the United States that features the march-time chorus "Democracy is coming to the U.S.A." – balances the dread of "The Future" with the potential of better days to come. "In Canada we're taught to observe America very closely," says Cohen, who grew up in Montreal and splits his time between that city and Los Angeles. "That's why I could write 'Democracy.' I've lived a lot of my life in Europe, and I always found myself defending America. I found that people didn't understand that this was the great experiment, as catastrophic as it's become. If there is any possibility, whatever dim possibilities are left – as I say in 'Democracy' – 'it's here they got the range/And the machinery for change/And it's here they got the spiritual thirst.' In the hearts of the world some kind of prayer is being said for American democracy everywhere. This is where the eyes of the world are turned. Is it going to work? It's here that the experiment unfolds."

The question haunting the song and left provocatively unanswered is, if democracy is at long last coming to the U.S.A., exactly what sort of system has the country been living under to this point?

In the course of a quarter century as one of the most highly regarded, if not commercially successful, singer-songwriters in popular music – he is the composer of "Suzanne," "Bird on the Wire," "Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye" and "Sisters of Mercy" – Cohen has, of course, had any number of encounters with the pop elite.

One of them, a brief affair with Janis Joplin that is preserved in "Chelsea Hotel," is a source of embarrassment to him. A memoir of uncommon frankness ("Giving me head on the unmade bed/While the limousines wait in the street") and unsentimentality ("I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel/That's all/I don't think of you that often"), the song now strikes Cohen as "an indiscretion." "I don't know how it got out, but it did," Cohen says of the song's subject. "I said it somewhere. I may have been juiced at a concert and spoken about it in a way that seemed appropriate at the moment – and I have regretted it. There's nothing I can do about it. If I could do it again, I would have kept my mouth shut."

Death of a Ladies' Man, the 1977 album produced and co-written by Phil Spector, represents the oddest collaboration in Cohen's career. "It has its admirers," Cohen says, while calling it "a grotesque, eccentric little moment." Spector, Cohen says, "was in his Wagnerian phase, when I had hoped to find him in his Debussy phase." "I was holding on for dear life," he continues. "My family was breaking up at the time – just to show up was rough. Then I'd have to go through this ninth-rate military film noir atmosphere. I've never forgotten Phil coming towards me with a bottle of Manischewitz in one hand, a 45 in the other and putting his arm around my shoulder, shoving the gun into my neck, cocking it and saying, 'Leonard, I love you.' It wasn't that much fun."

Cohen's willingness to go to the edge – and even, on occasion, to tumble headlong over it – is part of what has made him one of the rare Sixties icons whose appeal extends well into the twentysomething crowd. In 1986, Jennifer Warnes released Famous Blue Raincoat, a splendid album of Cohen songs, and in 1991 a tribute album, waggishly titled I'm Your Fan, came out, featuring covers of Cohen's work by the likes of R.E.M., Lloyd Cole, John Cale, the House of Love and Fatima Mansions. He couldn't have been more delighted.

"I was very pleased to hear my eighteen-year-old daughter say, several years ago, 'You know, Dad, a lot of young bands are playing your material,' " Cohen recalls. "Then I'm Your Fan came out. My critical faculties were suspended immediately. People say, 'Do you like so-and-so's version?' Yeah, I do – whatever it was. I got a kick out of it."

Meanwhile, Cohen is under no illusions about his status as a pop star or as a folk god. "People are always inviting me to return to a former purity I was never able to claim," he says. Instead he questions himself about his future, about his proper role in the ever-changing, ever-new world order. "What do you do when you get older?" he asks. "What is your work as you get older? Is it appropriate to be out carrying a guitar from coffee shop to coffee shop at sixty? What is a dignified position?"

"I have a real appetite to hear work from people my age," Cohen continues. "I mean, it's wonderful to hear from a guy talking about his first love – especially if it's Rimbaud. If it isn't Rimbaud, it's not so interesting as you get older."

"Those questions are hammered out in the workshop," Cohen concludes. "They have urgency, because you really do see the years, you really see the end. I think as long as you can crawl into the workshop, you should do the work. I always saw those old guys coming down to work, whatever job I happened to be in. Something about that always got to me. I'd like to be one of those old guys going to work."