Spend any time n the company of Leonard Cohen and you feel as though you are in the presence of a secular saint. As we talk about Yeats, Ireland and how he was brought up by an Irish Catholic nanny in Montreal, the conversation keeps getting interrupted as people approach, almost tremulously, for a “rub of the relic”. Hands reach out to touch him, books and albums appear to be signed and tales are told of loss of virginity and life-changing experiences to the accompaniment of his music. “Bilbao 1968,” says a elderly women who then beats her retreat – happy, no doubt, to have said just that to him.
To each and every interloper he is graciousness personified. He listens intently to each and every reminiscence and encomium and then smiles softly, doffs his fedora hat and says “thanks, I’m glad I played a part, however small”. Smartly dressed in a grey suit, he’s in droll good form tonight. Surveying the throngs around him he quips: “It’s good to be back on Boogie Street again.”
We are in London’s Mayfair Hotel. His record company has arranged a playback of his new album, Old Ideas, in front of a media gathering.
Newsnight'sKirsty Wark looks very excited indeed as Jarvis Cocker (who will do a public interview with him later) plays the record for us.
Oddly, Cohen sits in the room with the media for the playback and when asked about this later he shrugs, “Yes, but I wasn’t listening to it.” He defuses the somewhat reverential feel in the room early on when he’s asked about how old the ideas on the album are. “They’re 2,614 years old,” he says.
Old Ideas is just his 12th studio album in a 40-odd year recording career. It’s a consequence of the momentum he built up over a series of world tours over the past few years, undertaken to help replenish his bank account after it was all but cleared out by an ex-manager in 2005.
He lyrically deals with this incident on the album's standout song, Show Me The Place, when he sings: "The troubles came, I saved what I could save; a shred of light, a particle away, but there were chains so I hastened to the hay." As with the other nine tracks on this most intimate and hushed of works, it features an even more sonorous baritone delivery than usual. Themes of spirituality and lashings of religious allegory along with the constants of the sacred and the profane are delivered in a manner that make Tom Waits sound like a choir boy. He sounds positively sepulchral on this.
“I sound like that because I gave up cigarettes,” he explains. “Contrary to public opinion I thought [giving up] would destroy my whole position and my voice would rise to a soprano. I plan on resuming smoking when I’m 80 so I can smoke when I go out on the road again.”
On his relatively paltry recorded output and how he sets about the creative process, he is blithely dismissive of his talents. “Writing an album, it always feels like I am scraping the bottom of the barrel trying to get the songs together,” he says. “I’ve never had the sense that I’ve had a multitude of choices. There is no sense of abundance – I’m just picking at what I have. It’s like what Yeats said about working in ‘the foul rag and bone shop of the heart’. I do get discouraged by the work.
“It is a mysterious process, it involves perseverance and perspiration and sometimes, by some grace, something stands out and invites you to elaborate or animate it. These are sacred mechanics and you have to be careful analysing them as you would never write a line again. If you looked too deeply into the process you’d end up in a state of paralysis.
“People ask about the imagery all the time but sometimes it’s enough to say that the imagery has its own validity.”
He does confess to a troubling kind of perfectionism. "I wrote 80 verses or something for Hallelujah. That song was written over the space of four years and that's my trouble – I can't discard a verse. I have to work on it and polish it. I can work on a verse for a very long time before realising it's not any good and then, and only then, can I discard it."
What becomes apparent is that, as patient and solicitous as he is in answering questions about the songwriting process, he sparks into life and becomes more animated when the conversation doesn’t have him as the cynosure.
HE’S BEEN THROUGH very rough waters financially and was well into his 70s when he had to haul himself around concert venues around the world to rectify this distressing situation. It can’t have been easy for someone who was happiest when he was ordained as a Rinzai Zen Buddhist monk in 1994 and went to live in a Zen Buddhist centre near Los Angeles for a number of years. While there, he worked as a personal assistant for a “Master” and the Dharma name he took on his ordination translates as “silence”.
He doesn’t talk directly about the court cases he got caught up in a few years ago to deal with his financial affairs and anything that hints at his personal life – a question about Rufus Wainwright (he is the grandfather to Rufus’s child) is safely batted away: “Rufus can hold a tune and that puts me at a disadvantage,” he says.
Get him on to poetry though (still his first real love) and he sparkles.
"I was 15 when I first became deeply touched by the rhythm and structure of words. I would haunt all the secondhand book shops in Montreal with this huge appetite for poetry. My two great heroes are WB Yeats and Fernando Garcia Lorca." He quotes from Lorca's Song Of The Morning Market: "Under the Elvira arch let me see you pass/that I may lap your eyes and cry."
"At the time I read that, I had absolutely no idea what those words meant but I just knew that's what I wanted to do with my life," he says. He then quotes from Yeats' When You Are Old and Greyand says "As a young man, Yeats spoke to me in a way I could understand. Shakespeare I couldn't understand, but Yeats I could. It was his subject matter and also I really admired the way he put his personal life on the line.
“I remember this great thing when I went to do a show in Lissadell in Sligo [in 2010] and being able to go all around Sligo afterwards and to see all the places associated with Yeats. That was a huge thing for me,” he says. At the Lissadell show he was able to quote freely from Yeats’ work, saying he still remembered the lines from learning them as a young man in Montreal 50 years previously. He also changed the lines to Hallelujah at the show, singing: “You don’t think I’d come to the Yeats’ county just to fool ya.”
“I had an Irish Catholic nanny growing up,” he says. “I was actually brought up part Catholic because of that. I loved her – she taught me so much about everything. And I got to know her family as well. I really can’t remember if she first introduced me to Irish poetry but there was a lot she educated me in.”
TWO NIGHTS PREVIOUSLY at a press conference in Paris, he had talked about his now fabled Royal Hospital Kilmainham shows in 2008. “We were playing in Ireland and the reception was so warm that tears came to my eyes and I thought ‘I can’t be seen weeping at this point’ – then I turned around and saw the guitar player weeping.”
If the poetry takes precedence, it’s because he only turned to music (he didn’t release his first album until he was 33) after his literary ambitions were thwarted. One publisher turned down an early Cohen novel on the grounds that the writer was “preoccupied with sex”. Being told that “guitars impress girls”, he had his first hit when Judy Collins covered his song, Suzanne. Looking back now, he says the guitar did as promised: “It was agreeable to have some kind of a reputation or some kind of list of credentials so you didn’t have to start from scratch with every woman you walked into. Now it doesn’t really matter one way or the other.”
Over the years he was erroneously viewed as dealing in despondency and doom – he was “the poet laureate of pessimism”. His work, though, is shot through with a pervasive mordant wit but he says he has long since given up fighting the image of “the womanising poet who sings songs of melancholy and despair”.
Yeats once said of a fellow countryman: “Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy which sustained him through temporary periods of joy” and there was a reflection of this when Cohen said from the stage a few years ago – in explaining his long absence away from the spotlight – “I turned to a rigorous and profound study of the religions and philosophies, but cheerfulness kept breaking through.” He also provided one of his great lines at that same concert. Surveying his surrounds, he noted: “It’s been a long time since I played this venue, it must have been 15 years ago. I was 60 years old at the time, just a kid with a crazy dream.”
Still something of a cult figure in the music world, he never was a massive commercial success – but he is one of the very few artists out there (perhaps Dylan being the only other) who is capable of such an intimate and enduring connection with his listeners. And it says a lot about the state of popular culture when you realise that it was the X Factorthat was responsible for bringing his work to a mainstream audience – thanks to so many egregious cover versions of his work.
If anything, his reputation was perversely burnished by his recent financial problems. He had signed over power of attorney to his manager (and former lover) and it is alleged that she emptied his $5 million bank account. “It was a long, ongoing problem of a disastrous and relentless indifference to my financial situation. I didn’t even know where the bank was,” he told the New York Times three years ago.
If he had to go back on the road purely for financial reasons, he now says that he will happily continue touring and recording, despite not necessarily having to do so. “I was invigorated and illuminated by playing again,” he says. “I hadn’t done anything for 15 years but even during the time I still had the feeling somewhere that I had been a singer. In fact, when the last tour ended I didn’t feel like stopping so I wrote this record. Everyone has reacted so well to me – I have been touched by the kindness. Even the press have been kind – they used to say of me that I only knew three chords. When I fact I know five.”
"There's a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in," he famously sang on 1992's Anthem."It's just the song that allows the light to come in" he explains. "It's the position of the man standing up in the face of something that is irrevocable and unyielding and singing about it. It's the sort of position Zorba the Greek took – that when things get really bad you just raise your glass and stamp your feet and do a little jig. And that's about all you can do."
It’s time for him to go now. He grabs my hand, doffs his cap and says, “it’s been a real pleasure talking to you” but there’s one last aperçu.
“The best piece of advice I ever received in my life was from a great Canadian poet called Irving Layton. I would always go to him and tell him about my plans and what I was going to do next and he would just look at me and say ‘Leonard – are you sure you’re doing the wrong thing?’”
BOOK OF LONGING: The life
BORN IN 1934 in Montreal, Canada, into a middle-class Jewish family, Cohen’s first musical foray was as a teenager in a country-folk outfit, The Buckskin Boys Goes to McGill.
He went to university in Montreal in 1951 and emerged with a BA degree. In 1956, he published his first poetry book, Let Us Compare Mythologies.
In the early 1960s, Cohen went to live on the Greek island of Hydra, still determined to become a writer.
He released his first album, The Songs Of Leonard Cohen, in 1967.
In 1994 he moved into the Mount Baldy Zen Buddhist Center near Los Angeles and took the name “Jikan”. Five years later he left the centre to begin recording again. In 2005 it emerged that a former manager emptied his bank account while he was at Mount Baldy.
In 2006, Cohen made his first public appearance in 13 years in a Toronto book shop signing copies of Book Of Longing, a collection of poetry and drawings.
In 2008 he embarked on a two-year world tour and was received near rapturously wherever he went. He releases his new studio album Old Ideasthis month.
In the 1970s Cohen had two children with the artist Suzanne Elrod – a son Adam and daughter Lorca (named after the poet). This is not the same Suzanne he sings about in the song of the same name – that is Suzanne Verdal, the wife of a friend. It was a platonic relationship – hence he only "touched her perfect body with his mind". Cohen did have an affair with Janis Joplin, of which he recounted intimate details in Chelsea Hotel #2– "giving me head on an unmade bed". He mentioned the subject of the song was Joplin in an interview once and now says it is one of the biggest regrets of his professional life: "It was an indiscretion for which I'm very sorry." For the past 10 years he has been in a relationship with the US singer/songwriter Anjani Thomas.
HALLELUJAH: The song
He recorded the song Hallelujah for his 1984 album Various Positionsbut it went relatively unnoticed. With lyrics that evoke several Old Testamentthemes and featuring a poor vocal (by his standards) it only began to take on its new life when in 1991 John Cale (a founding member of Velvet Underground) recorded it for a tribute album called I'm Your Fan.
Cale asked Cohen to fax him through the lyrics and he received 15 pages worth of material – about 80 verses in all. Cale edited the song down and such was the impact his version had that it was included in the film Shrek. Cale's version is the best version of the song although people who have never heard it tend to go for Jeff Buckley's rather breathy version instead. Significantly, Buckley covers Cale's version of the song, not Cohen's.
The main reason not everyone knows Cale's version is because when it came to releasing the multimillion selling soundtrack to Shrek, his version was replaced by Rufus Wainwright's version. The film was distributed by the DreamWorks company which was also Wainwright's record label at the time. It was a case of cross-marketing.
Twenty-four years after its initial release the song returned to the top of the Irish and UK singles chart when the 2008 X Factorwinner, Alexandra Burke, released it.
The song has been covered hundreds of times (mostly badly) but one of the very best versions out there is by Cohen's Canadian compatriot KD Lang.
As a tribute to the John Cale version of his song, Cohen now covers Cale's reworking of Hallelujah when he plays it live.
Speaking of the song, Cohen says it can be best viewed as a source of inspiration and illumination: "Regardless of what the impossibility of the situation is, there is a moment when you open your arms and you embrace the thing and you just say 'Hallelujah! Blessed is thy name'. And you can't reconcile it any other way except in that position of total surrender, total affirmation."