A Revelation in the Heart
All Photos by PAUL ZOLLO
I remember it like it was yesterday. I was ten and learning how to play guitar. In front of me were the lyrics and chords for his song “Suzanne.” I remember thinking, “How does someone write something this beautiful?” It seemed like a miracle to me.
So when I got the supreme privilege of sitting down with him myself to talk about songwriting, I told him exactly that. That since I was just a kid, I have been pondering the mystery of “Suzanne” and other miracle songs he wrote. He smiled that warm, gentle Leonard smile when I said this, and did not demur.
“It is a miracle,” he answered. “If I knew where the good songs came from, I would go there more often.”
And in that one answer is the crystallization of this man’s greatness. With just a few words, he gives us humility, humor, reverence, mystery and dedication. Dedication to the mystery itself, to the realm into which all songwriters reach to find their songs.
He spoke in parables. Unlike most humans who rarely finish entire sentences, he spoke in perfect paragraphs, with language at once beat and biblical, ancient and modern. Never was this more evident than when I asked him what he thought about the current quality of popular song, and the widespread conviction of many from previous generations that meaningful songs are no longer written.
“There are always meaningful songs for somebody,” he said. “People are doing their courting, people are finding their wives, people are making babies, people are washing their dishes, people are getting through the day, with songs that we may find insignificant. But their significance is affirmed by others. There’s always someone affirming the significance of a song by taking a woman into his arms or by getting through the night. That’s what dignifies the song. Songs don’t dignify human activity. Human activity dignifies the song.”
One time I interviewed Anjani, the singer-musician who loved and lived with him for years, and did a whole album of his words with her music. We met at a café in mid-L.A. and the great man himself, Leonard, accompanied her. Of course, being him he knew right away I would be unable to conduct a meaningful interview with him sitting there. So he immediately assured us that he would sit elsewhere while we spoke.
We did the interview, and afterwards I made an admission to Anjani. Which was that it was hard to fathom actually living a regular life with Leonard. I did know he was a man, after all, as I told her. But to songwriters, I said, he is a God.
She laughed heartily when I said that, and answered, “Oh trust me, he’s a man! He is definitely a man.”
Now with his mortal life complete, it seems she must have been right. But there are very few men I have ever known who did what he did. Even when the industry as he knew it essentially collapsed, never did he waver from the thing that mattered most: the work. If it took him seven years to perfect a song, even to the extent of writing forty or more verse, he would take seven years. There was no rush. Nothing mattered more. When he would be up at Mt. Baldy, serving time as a Buddhist monk, he would be working on songs in his head. During his last year, when he was in severe pain and immobilized, he worked on songs. The work never stopped. Songwriting was for him, as miracle songs like “Hallelujah” made so clear, more than a job. It was a calling. His highest calling. And he built a beautiful and indestructible tower of song, brick by brick, day by day, year by year. Like all of his songs, it has been built to last.
“It begins with an appetite,” he said, describing the way he started a song, “to discover my self-respect. To redeem the day. So the day does not go down in debt.“
Songwriting, he explained, did not come easy. It was work, and he felt artists were wrong to ever consider otherwise. “But why shouldn’t my work be hard?” he asked. “One is distracted by this notion that there is such a thing as inspiration, that it comes fast and easy. Some people are graced by that style. I’m not. So I have to work hard as any stiff, to come up with the payload.”
Asked to explain just what this work entails, he basically answered anything. Whatever is required. “Anything that I can bring to it, he said. “Thought, meditation, drinking, disillusion, insomnia, vacations. Because once the song enters the mill, it’s worked on by everything that I can summon. And I need everything. I try everything. I try to ignore it, try to repress it, try to get high, try to get intoxicated, try to get sober, all the versions of myself that I can summon are summoned to participate in this project, this work force. I try everything. I’ll do anything. By any means possible.”
So, I asked, do any of these things work better than others?
“No,” he said with a smile. “Nothing works. Nothing works.”
Nothing but pure dedication to this art and craft so impacted by his own work. “Dylan blew everyone’s mind when he started,” said the poet Allen Ginsberg. “Everyone except Leonard Cohen.” It’s true. Leonard was on his own path from the start. Never did he sway from the conviction that the only true mission was finding a way to get there, to reach that realm from which the great songs come. It’s where he is now.
“It’s much like the life of a Catholic nun,” he said. “You’re married to a mystery.”
“If I knew where the great songs came from,” Leonard Cohen famously said, “I would go there more often.” In fact, during his 82 years of life, he went there a whole lot more than most humans ever do, and with a devotion to songwriting almost religious in its fervor, resulting in a bounty of miracle songs.
That songwriting for him was more of a calling than a job was never more evident than in this final year of his life when, immobilized, in great pain, knowing the end was near, he devoted himself to one final task: writing and recording a new album of songs. It’s a mission accomplished, as he released the remarkable You Want It Darker earlier this year in the final month of his life. Produced with his beloved son, Adam Cohen, it’s his ultimate masterpiece, the final brick in his Tower of Song.
Weakened by illness, rather than do a series of interviews to promote the album, he decided to do one single press event to which journalists from around the world, including a few lucky Americans like this writer, were invited. Held at the beautiful Canadian Consulate in the stately Hancock Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, it was a remarkable night of reverence and love for Cohen, peopled only by those writers who have been devoted to him for decades, as well as a few famous friends and collaborators.
“There was something holy about it,” said the Anglo-Greek singer-songwriter Athena Andreadis, who sang the haunting background vocals on “Traveling Light,” a track from the new album. “I have never felt anything quite like it. It was his final gift to us, and such a beautiful one. Just to be in his presence was a great privilege, and to share this delivery of his final work. I will never forget it.”
The press event happened October 13, which was also the 75th birthday of Paul Simon, and the day the news broke that Dylan had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. But throughout the night, one comment kept popping up among the press: “If they gave that award to any songwriter, it should have been Leonard.”
The truth is, Dylan would probably agree. Throughout the decades he has consistently sung Cohen’s praises, saying at one point that Cohen wasn’t even writing songs anymore, he was writing prayers. Cohen, in return, has expressed great awe at Dylan’s work and his vast range. “That kind of genius,” he said, “can manifest all the forms and styles.”
More recently, Dylan pointed out that when people talk of Cohen, they speak only of the words, but that his music mattered just as much. It’s true, of course, and points to the fact that these are songs, not poems. Sure, Cohen would always joke about his own limitations as a musician (“Every guitarist has chops,” he said. “Me, I only have one chop. But it’s a good one.”), yet he composed music of great grace and power, as simple and elegant as his words. “Hallelujah” would never have become a standard if not for that ingenious ascending melody, which matches the words impeccably, and goes straight to the heart.
The truth remains that, unlike almost every songwriter who arrived in Dylan’s wake and was impacted forever by him, Cohen was on his own spiritual and poetic path from the start. As the poet Allen Ginsberg said, “When Dylan came out, he blew everyone’s mind. Everyone except Leonard Cohen, that is.”
On this night, after dinner and drinks amid candles under moonlight, with poster-sized passages of his lyrics from the new album illuminated throughout the garden, we were ushered into a small chapel-like space for a listening session. Handed lyric books, we all sat in silence, united by the presence of greatness, and in awe of the realms he could access even while fighting for his life. His voice, surrounded by his son’s production, resounded more deeply than ever, resonating like the voice of God himself.
When the album was over (and many were still drying their tears), the great man himself appeared at the back of the room, in a dark suit and fedora, walking with a cane. The whole room rose to its feet and cheered. He slowly walked down the aisle, as if at a wedding, smiling that beatific Cohen smile.
Before anyone could ask a question, he addressed the assembled crowd, and, as was his way, opened with a joke. “Some of you have come from a long, long way to be here and I appreciate it,” he said. “Some of you have driven across Los Angeles, which takes about the same time.”
The first question concerned his health, as he’d made recent statements about the end being near. Again his whimsical charm surfaced. “I said I was ready to die, recently. And I think I was exaggerating.” Huge laughter erupted, with some sense of relief that maybe he was out of the darkness. Then he added, “I’ve always been into self-dramatization. I intend to live forever.” We cheered. We believed him because we wanted to. Rarely have I felt that kind of unanimous love and awe for an artist, and it was clear that Cohen felt it, too.
One month to this day he was gone. Although he promised eternity, his recognition of death’s imminence was already spelled out in the songs we had just heard, as it was in the second answer he offered that night:
“If you’re lucky,” he said, “you can keep the vehicle healthy and responsive over the years. If you’re lucky. Your own intentions have very little to do with this. You can keep the body as well-oiled and receptive as possible. But whether you’re actually going to be able to go for the long haul is really not your own choice.”
He was a humble man, but never falsely so. He embraced the greatness of his work with a kind of parental pride more than any kind of ownership. When asked how he maintained such excellence throughout the decades, he said, “I don’t know, but I think that as any songwriter knows, and I think Bob Dylan knows this better than any of us, you don’t write the songs anyhow.”
Back in 1992 when I first interviewed him and admitted that “Suzanne” seemed like a songwriting miracle, he didn’t disagree: “It is a miracle,” he said, and then first delivered his great, “If I knew where the great songs came from” line. But this first time around, it came with an addendum: “It’s much like the life of a Catholic nun,” he said. “You’re married to a mystery.”
It’s a mystery he’s embraced over his career with unflagging fidelity. Even in his last years, when the pain made it impossible to play an instrument, he never stopped writing. Instead, he wrote mostly just words, and turned to Adam, and to songwriters Sharon Robinson and Patrick Leonard, to compose music for his lyrics.
“I felt like the luckiest guy in the world,” Patrick Leonard said. “Here Leonard Cohen is sending me lyrics. It was amazing to me. Still is.” Some of the songs, Patrick said, took a full seven years to complete. “But it was mostly him changing small words. He would work and rework a lyric a thousand times to get it perfect.”
Asked how Cohen responded to his music, he said, “When he liked something, he would email me right away. If he didn’t like it, I would hear nothing. And I would know it was time to start over.”
Cohen, however, was quick to establish on this night that there was nothing heroic about taking years to write a single song. “The fact that my songs take a long time to write,” he said, “is no guarantee of their excellence. It just takes a long time for me. I’m very slow. It comes by dribbles and drops. Some people are graced with a flow. Some people are graced with something less than a flow. I’m one of those.”
When repeatedly pressed to disclose his working methods, he said the process remains as mysterious as when he began, but that the work has grown even harder. The only personal detail divulged was that he long ago learned to keep his surroundings sparse and simple to counter the chaos in his mind.
“Everybody has a kind of magical system that they employ in the hopes that this will open up the channels,” he said. “My mind was always very cluttered so I took great pains to simplify my environment. Because if my environment were half as cluttered as my mind, I wouldn’t be able to make it from room to room. This system has worked for me, even though I have had to sweat over every word. That’s just me. For some people it comes faster, for some it comes slower.”
This echoed a statement he made in our first interview: “My immediate realm of thought is bureaucratic and like a traffic jam,” he said. “My ordinary state of mind is very much like the waiting room at the DMV… So to penetrate this chattering and this meaningless debate that is occupying most of my attention, I have to come up with something that really speaks to my deepest interest. Otherwise I just nod off in one way or another. So to find that song, that urgent song, takes a lot of versions and a lot of work and a lot of sweat.”
Leonard on Pico, 2007. Photo by PAUL ZOLLO
“That urgent song.” There, in that phrase, is the yearning, the boundless appetite, to realize that song completely. Yet despite this urgency and ambition, he was never one to subscribe to the school of instant songwriting, of writing and recording something immediately to capture its essence. Quite the opposite. He believed in the power of work, and questioned the very premise of inspiration.
“Why shouldn’t my work be hard? Almost everybody’s work is hard. One is distracted by this notion that there is such a thing as inspiration, that it comes fast and easy. And some people are graced by that style. I’m not. So I have to work as hard as any stiff, to come up with the payload.”
His obsession with Sisyphean labor surfaced many times, as he described himself as a prisoner of song, forced to work or perish. “Freedom and restriction,” he said, “are just luxurious terms to one who is locked in a dungeon in the tower of song. These are just … ideas. I don’t have the sense of restriction or freedom. I just have the sense of work. I have the sense of hard labor.”
Yet, despite that self-portrait, it was clear his greatest contentment was not just in the finished song, but in the process itself. “I think unemployment is the great affliction of man,” he said. “Even people with jobs are unemployed. In fact, most people with jobs are unemployed. I can say, happily and gratefully, that I am fully employed …. We have a sense here that it’s smart not to work. The hustle, the con, these have been elevated to a very high position in our morality. And probably if I could mount a con or a hustle in terms of my own work I would … But I am a working stiff. It takes me months and months of full employment to break the code of the song. To find out if there can be a song there.”
Asked how he broke that code, he offered his vision of what songwriting is.
“I try anything that I can bring to it,” he said. “Thought, meditation, drinking, disillusion, insomnia, vacations. Because once the song enters the mill, it’s worked on by everything that I can summon. And I need everything. I try everything. I try to ignore it, try to repress it, try to get high, try to get intoxicated, try to get sober, all the versions of myself that I can summon are summoned to participate in this project, this work force.”
“In your experience, do any of these things work better than others?” I asked.
“No, he said. “Nothing works. Nothing works. After a while, if you stick with a song long enough it will yield. But long enough is way beyond any reasonable estimation of what you think long enough may be. In fact, long enough is way beyond. It’s abandoning that idea of what you think long enough may be.”
The title song of You Want It Darker revolves around the image of a flame being extinguished, a poignant symbol of death. Ostensibly a song of darkness, it’s also one of acceptance, of readying one’s self for the end.
Magnified and sanctified
Be Thy Holy Name
Vilified and crucified
In the human frame
A million candles burning
For the help that never came
You want it darker
We kill the flame
I’m ready, my Lord.
Hineni, in the ancient Hebrew of his ancestors, means “I’m here,” followed in English, with “I’m ready, my Lord.”
When asked about this, he said, “I don’t really know the genesis, the origin, enabling that declaration of readiness, no matter what the outcome. That is a part of everyone’s soul. We all are motivated by deep impulses and deep appetites to serve, even though we may not be able to locate that which are willing to serve. So this is just a part of my nature. And I think it would also be my nature to offer one’s self when the emergency becomes articulate. It’s only when the emergency becomes articulate that we can locate that willingness to serve.”
A kind of stunned silence followed, as the crowd absorbed the fullness of what he said. Sensing this, he added, “That’s getting too heavy. I’m sorry. Strike that.” Much laughter. Even weakened, his voice softer than ever, the man knew how to work a crowd.
When asked his opinion of Dylan’s award, he said, “To me, giving that award to Dylan is like pinning a medal on Mt. Everest for being the highest mountain.”
When Adam took the stage to sit next to his father, Cohen smiled with an exultant openness rarely revealed in photos. “My son,” he said with glee, and the whole room laughed. Adam, he said, was both a gifted singer-songwriter and producer, and came in to rescue this album when it might have gone unfinished. “To have this kind of microscopic attention to my music,” the elder Cohen said, “was very great.”
Adam, who produced the album and co-wrote “Traveling Light” with his father and Patrick Leonard, spoke about his gratitude for his life with Cohen, and for the opportunity to work so closely together. “Just to be in my father’s company, for me,” he said, “was a great privilege.”
To which Cohen quipped, to much laughter: “Truth is, we’re not a very tight family.”
The first time Cohen completely surrendered to the idea of devoting his entire life to songwriting, he said in 1992, was when he spent months working on the song “Suzanne,” and came to recognize his destiny.
“At a certain point I realized I only had one ball in my hand, and that was the song,” he said. “Everything else had been wrecked or compromised and I couldn’t go back, and I was a one-ball juggler. I’d do incredible things with that ball to justify the absurdity of the presentation. Because what are you going to do with that ball? You don’t have three anymore. You’ve just got one. And maybe only one arm. What are you going to do? You can flip it off your wrist, or bounce it off your head. You have to come up with some pretty good moves. You have to learn them from scratch. And that’s what I learned, that you have to learn them from scratch.”
This dedication never waned. Often he’d labor for months working on one verse alone, only to discard it, as he did with many from the epic “Democracy” from 1992’s The Future. He shared some of these discards with me, all of which were faithfully archived in bound journals, and said, “I’m very happy to be able to speak this way to fellow craftsmen. Some people may find it encouraging to see how slow and painstaking is the process.”
Then he showed this:
From the church where the outcasts can hide
Or the mosque where the blood is dignified.
Like the fingers on your hand,
Like the hourglass of sand,
We can separate but not divide
From the eye above the pyramid
And the dollar’s cruel display
From the law behind the law,
Behind the law we still obey
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.
When asked why he would write something so compelling only to abandon it, his answer was as eloquent as the lyric itself. “Because I didn’t want to compromise the anthemic, hymn-like quality,” he said.” I didn’t want it to get too punchy. I didn’t want to start a fight in the song. I wanted a revelation in the heart rather than a confrontation or a call-to-arms or a defense.”
A revelation in the heart. A dynamic that sings throughout all his songs since the beginning, this luminous juncture of brilliance and heart. As he wrote in a verse he didn’t cut from “Democracy”: “And it’s here the family’s broken and it’s here the lonely say, the heart has got to open in a fundamental way.” His was an open heart.
Even his explanation of his need to fully develop a verse before rejecting it was beautiful: “Before I can discard a verse,” he said, “I have to write it. Even if it’s bad. And it’s just as hard to write a bad verse as a good verse. I can’t discard a verse before it is written because it is the writing of the verse that produces whatever delights or interests or facets that are going to catch the light. The cutting of the gem has to be finished before you can see whether it shines.”
That the work became his religion is evident to anyone who knows the songs, which resonate with holiness and deep, ancient wisdom. As Dylan explained, these songs all resound with timeless sanctity. At the final event, Cohen explained that although the Bible and religion have informed and shaped his songs over the years, it was always the work, more than anything, which was his religion.
“I’ve never thought of myself as a religious person,” he said. “I don’t have any spiritual strategy. I kind of limped along, as so many of us do in these realms. Occasionally I have felt the grace of another presence in my life. But I can’t build any kind of spiritual structure on that.”
But when it comes to the work, the songs themselves, it is there that the Bible matters most. “I feel that this is a vocabulary that I grew up with,” he said. “This Biblical landscape is very familiar to me, and it’s natural that I use those landmarks as references. Once they were universal references and everybody understood and knew them and repeated them. That’s no longer the case today. But it is still my landscape. I try to make those references. I try to make sure they’re not too obscure. But outside of that I dare not claim anything in the spiritual realm as my own.”
Regarding his perpetual aim for perfection, his answer echoed both Dylan and The Bible:
“At a certain point,” he said, “when the Jews were first commanded to raise an altar, the commandment was on unhewn stone. Apparently the god that wanted that particular altar didn’t want slick, didn’t want smooth. He wanted an unhewn stone placed on another unhewn stone … Now I think Dylan has lines, hundreds of great lines that have the feel of unhewn stone. But they really fit in there. But they’re not smoothed out. It’s inspired but not polished.”
Cohen, however, as we know, would polish his stones until they shone like diamonds. Rarely did they reveal any axe-marks, especially these final ones. To the very end his objective remained to work and rework the songs to a realm of almost impossible perfection, each one built tight as a brick, never a wasted word. On these last songs, each lyric is compressed into compact, essential lines, perfectly metered and rhymed. The brevity of the lines, as if delivered by someone short of breath, not long for this world, is hauntingly poignant.
But if the road
Leads back to you
Must I forget
The things I knew
When I was friends
With one or two
We used to do
I’m traveling light
At the conclusion of our last night with him, he left us all with hope that we would see and hear from him again. “Thanks for coming, friends,” he said warmly. “I really appreciate it. I really appreciated your standing up when I came into the room. Hoping to do this again. I intend to stick around until 120.”
He also admitted to a fondness for hummingbirds. “I have always loved those magical little creatures,” he said, and recited a recently composed song about them, only words so far, no music.
Listen to the hummingbird
Whose wings you cannot see
Listen to the hummingbird
Don’t listen to me
Listen to the butterfly
Whose days but number three
Listen to the butterfly
Don’t listen to me
Listen to the mind of God
Which doesn’t need to be
Listen to the mind of God
Don’t listen to me
After the applause faded, he added, “I would say the hummingbird deserves royalties on that one.” When asked if it would be on the next album, he said, softly, “God willing.”
That a songwriter and singer would end a long and remarkable career with the statement, “Don’t listen to me,” says everything about the soul of Leonard Cohen. At the end he pointed us all away from this light shining on him to the light inside all things, the source of all songs. The place where great songs come from.
It’s where he is now.