Leonard Cohen: No Mercy

The Singer-Songwriter's tales from the dark side

Below is an excerpt of an article that originally appeared in RS 648 from January 21, 1993 . This issue and the rest of the Rolling Stone archives are available via Rolling Stone Plus, Rolling Stone's premium subscription plan. If you are already a subscriber, you can click here to see the full story . Not a member? Click here to learn more about Rolling Stone Plus .

"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."

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