Leonard Cohen describes Ten New Songs, his first studio album in nine years, as “entirely reconciled” – immediately adding, “With what, I don’t know.” The serene and optimistic vibe of Songs might have something to do with the fact that Cohen spent much of the Nineties at a Zen retreat atop Mount Baldy in Southern California, meditating, writing and performing chores for his teacher, Sasaki Joshu Roshi.
Born in Montreal in 1934, Cohen was a published poet before he hitched his wagon to the Sixties singer-songwriter boom. He remained a cult figure for much of his career, though his last album, The Future, resonated with alt-rock artists like Trent Reznor. The younger generation has embraced his meticulously crafted lyrics and his dark vision of the world –— “Give me crack and anal sex/Take the only tree that’s left/And stuff it up the hole in your culture” — –all delivered in a baritone so ravaged it makes Tom Waits sound like he’s auditioning for AJ’s slot in Backstreet Boys. Chainsmoking and wearing a three-piece suit, the ever-courtly Cohen sat down for an interview at the Mayflower Hotel in Manhattan.
When you went to the retreat on Mount Baldy, did you know you’d be staying for five years?
I had an idea it’d be for quite a while, but I’ve been associated with that community for over thirty years, so it was not a dramatic move, either going up or coming down. I was approaching the age of sixty at the end of my last tour, and Roshi was approaching the age of ninety, so I thought it was the appropriate time to hang with him. He’s now ninety-four, by the way, and in excellent health.
What were your days like? Was there a lot of studying?
Not so much studying in any formal sense. You know, there’s a Zen saying: “Like the pebbles in a bag, the monks polish one another.” Most people think of a retreat as a place of tranquillity and spaciousness, but it’s a very busy place. You get up early, 2:30 or 3. I was a cook for the old teacher.
Did you cook much before?
As a father, I’d done cooking, but his diet was very simple. Lots of soups. He liked my teriyaki salmon.
And so you’re now a Zen monk?
Technically, yes. I was never looking for a new religion. I was perfectly happy with the religion I was born into. It was never a matter of spiritual aspiration. I wanted to be close to Roshi, and it seemed to be appropriate to enter the formality of the situation.
But it wasn’t spiritual for you?
Not really, no. For me, it was one of the many attempts I’ve made in the past thirty or forty years to address a condition known as acute clinical depression. I tried all the conventional remedies – wine, women and song. Nothing worked, including religion. But fortunately, this condition dissolved.
With being on the mountain?
I don’t know. I don’t know how it began or how it ended, but, thankfully, it did end. Nothing worked for me. Not the recreational drugs, nor the obsessional drugs, nor the pharmaceutical medications. The only effect Prozac had on me, I confused with a spiritual achievement – I thought I’d transcended my interest in women. I later learned the destruction of the libido is one of the side effects. But it’s a mysterious conclusion, because I really don’t know what happened. I read somewhere that as you get older, the brain cells associated with anxiety begin to die. [Pauses] A lot of other brain cells die, too, so you’ve got to watch out.
Tell me about your first hand in Montreal.
I was part of a square-dance band called the Buckskin Boys. We were playing traditional square-dance music, like “Turkey in the Straw.” One of the members played a bucket bass and called. Another played harmonica. I played rhythm guitar.
No, but we all had buckskin jackets, hence the name. I listened to country as a kid. I could get WWVA from West Virginia, late at night. Have you heard George Jones’ last record, Cold Hard Truth? I love to hear an old guy laying out his situation. He has the best voice in America.
Any younger artists you’re listening to now?
I didn’t get a chance to listen to much up on the mountain. Rufus Wainwright is a good friend of my daughter’s, so I know his work. I listen to whatever’s put in front of me: Eminem, Spice Girls, everybody.
What do you think of Eminem? In hip-hop, so much attention is paid to the lyrics.
What is hip-hop, actually?
Yes! On the left wing politically and socially, there’s rap. On the right wing, there’s country music. The lyrics are good in both camps.
On The Future, songs like the title track and “Democracy” were very apocalyptic. Are you more hopeful about the state of democracy these days?
I don’t care terribly much about my own opinions. I find my own opinions very tiresome and predictable. I’ve always tried to keep opinions out of my work. That’s why I take so long to write the stuff – so that it goes beneath the opinion, the slogan, the stance. You know, in a conversation in a bar over a drink, I can dredge up an opinion. I can even dredge up a belief. But I don’t have much conviction in these matters.
In the course of your career, did your lyrics change as your singing voice became rougher?
Maybe, but one of the decisive moments in my writing and singing came during a recording session which Roshi happened to attend in New York. I think it was in the early Eighties, when I was recording Various Positions. At that time, my career was pretty much eclipsed. Columbia didn’t even put out that record in America. And, they neglected to tell me. Anyway, Roshi and I were drinking a very good, very powerful Chinese liquor. Roshi was dozing off, and I didn’t think he was terribly interested in the recording process. But the next morning over breakfast, I asked morning over breakfast, I asked him what he thought. He said, “Leonard, you should sing more sad.” He meant for me to surrender to the emotions. To accept it.
Do you think there’s a lot of humor in your lyrics, too?
I think there’s a laugh a minute.