Leonard Cohen: Remembering the Life and Legacy of the Poet of Brokenness
For nearly half a century, the novelist, ladies’ man and Buddhist monk built a tower of song – even though darkness was never far off.
- Mikal Gilmore
Leonard Cohen was the poet of brokenness. The knowledge haunted the first song that drew attention to him, “Suzanne”: “Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water/And he spent a long time watching from his lonely wooden tower . . . /But he himself was broken, long before the sky would open/Forsaken, almost human, he sank beneath your wisdom like a stone.”
That brokenness was always there. It proved central to his music and to his body of poetry and literature (nobody else ever mastered all three disciplines as well as Cohen), and it marked “Hallelujah,” his most famous vision of transcendence: “It’s not a cry that you hear at night/It’s not somebody who’s seen the light/It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.” It followed Cohen into a Zen monastery, where years of contemplation and prayer were sometimes as agonizing as the horror that had driven him there. It even appeared among the final lines of the final song on his final record, released weeks before he died: “It’s over now, the water and the wine/We were broken then, but now we’re borderline.”
But Cohen – who died on November 7th, 2016 at age 82 – never submitted to the darkness. In a 1992 song, “Anthem,” he sang, “There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.” “Depression has often been the general background of my daily life,” Cohen told me. “My feeling is that whatever I did was in spite of that, not because of it. It wasn’t the depression that was the engine of my work. . . . That was just the sea I swam in.”
The work wasn’t always dour. Cohen had a wry humor that made its way into conversation and into the way he sometimes juxtaposed his tombstone voice with arch music. In “Tower of Song,” he sang, “I was born like this, I had no choice/I was born with the gift of a golden voice.”
But the combination of his voice and his songs’ dark themes kept some at a distance. Label head Walter Yetnikoff, explaining why he wouldn’t release 1984’s Various Positions (the album with “Hallelujah”) in America, reportedly said, “Leonard, we know you’re great, but we don’t know if you’re any good.” Others did, though. For nearly 50 years, artists who followed Cohen – Patti Smith and Kurt Cobain among them – found a brave nerve and sympathetic mind. (In “Pennyroyal Tea,” Cobain sang, “Give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld/So I can sigh eternally.”) “There are very, very few people who occupy the ground that Leonard Cohen walks on,” Bono said. “This is our Shelley, this is our Byron.”
Many more sang his music – particularly “Hallelujah,” the song Columbia once wouldn’t release. It took Cohen five years to write, and he pared down dozens of verses to four. The song might have languished in obscurity, had not John Cale recorded it for a 1991 Cohen tribute album. That recording found its way to Jeff Buckley, who reworked the song into the incandescent version that would be used, over and over, in movies, TV shows, 9/11 tributes. There are more than 300 versions, including a famous one by Rufus Wainwright (who fathered one of Cohen’s grandchildren) – so many that even Cohen complained about its ubiquity. “I think it’s a good song,” he said in 2009. “But I think too many people sing it.”
“Hallelujah” was a liturgy of rejoicing that was also honest about God’s deceits, and it had emerged at the most broken point in Leonard Cohen’s career. “I wanted to stand with those who clearly see G-d’s holy broken world for what it is, and still find the courage or the heart to praise it,” he once wrote. “You don’t always get what you want. You’re not always up for the challenge. But in this case – it was given to me.”
The challenge, though, got much worse before the light got in.
Leonard Cohen was years older than the folk and rock & roll artists whose ranks he eventually joined, even if they got there first. He was born September 21st, 1934, in Westmount, Quebec, an English-speaking city on the island of Montreal, into a middle-class Jewish family. His mother, Masha, was the daughter of an author and Talmudic scholar. It was the family of his father, Nathan, though, who had been intrinsic in Montreal’s Jewish history. Leonard’s grandfather had established organizations that aided Russian Jews. Nathan himself wasn’t a religious figure in the city’s Jewish community. He’d served in the Canadian army during World War I, but afterward his health declined, and he ran a high-end clothing business (Leonard, as biographer Sylvie Simmons wrote in I’m Your Man, “was raised in a house of suits”).
Both Masha’s temperament and Nathan’s death – when Leonard was nine – had a great effect on Cohen. “My mother was a refugee and witnessed the destruction of her own milieu in Russia,” he told me in 2001. “I think she was justifiably melancholy about something, in the sense of a Chekhovian character. It was both comic and self-aware. But I would not describe her as morbidly melancholy, as I was. . . . The death of my father was significant, and the death of my dog were the two, I would say, major events of my childhood and my adolescence.”
Montreal’s Catholic sensibility would inform Cohen’s works as affectingly as his Jewish background. “The figure of Jesus always touched me, and still does,” he told me in 2001. “Love your enemy. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the Earth. These views were not foreign to the Jewish education I’d had, but I felt they were a radical refinement of certain principles.”
Long before mystery junctions between spirit and flesh made their way into Cohen’s songs, he had already established himself as an unorthodox and powerful poet and author. His mother had encouraged him in those ways. His early influences included metaphysical poets – Andrew Marvell, John Donne, W.B. Yeats – and W.H. Auden, who mixed cultural and religious themes. Nobody affected him so much as surrealist Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, who collected Spain’s folk songs, turning them into poetry, before he was executed by Spanish nationalist forces in 1936. Cohen also heard socialist folk songs from a director at summer camp. “The lyrics of these songs,” he said, “touched me: ‘To you, beloved comrade, we make this solemn vow/The fight will go on. . . /We pledge our bodies down/The fight will go on.’ A very passionate and heroic position.” Around the same time, Cohen started a country band called the Buckskin Boys.
When he was 17, Cohen entered McGill University as an English major. Aspirations to mythology and possibility – along with an appetite for women – came early and forcibly. Looking back on his early writing, Cohen believed that Montreal’s lack of any recognized centrality to the world of art, literature and ideas may have turned out to be a boon for him and his Canadian compatriots. “It was completely open-ended,” he said. “The atmosphere of our meetings and gatherings in Montreal cafes and private houses was that this was the most important thing that was going on in Canada – that we were the legislators of mankind, that we had a redemptive function in some way. . . . But you couldn’t even stand up on the campus and say you were a poet and expect to get a date. There was no prestige attached to the thing.”
That began to change for Cohen in 1956, when he published his first book, Let Us Compare Mythologies. “Those were the poems I wrote between the ages of 15 and 20,” Cohen told me in 1988. “They were as good as anything I ever did.” Cohen’s next book, The Spice-Box of Earth, increased his audience beyond Montreal, and won him critical acclaim as an important new poet; his debut novel, The Favourite Game, followed in 1963. Cohen had moved to London in 1959, then to the Greek island of Hydra the next year, where he paid $1,500 for a three-story house.
On Hydra, he lived with the first of his legendary romances, Marianne Ihlen, from Oslo. Years later, Ihlen told an interviewer that Cohen showed “enormous compassion for me and my child. I felt it throughout my body.” The relationship with Ihlen began an archetype of sorts for Cohen: He would be drawn by an ideal of romantic meaning and passion, but in close quarters it could prove difficult – even in a setting as outlying as Hydra. Things turned tempestuous. David Remnick of The New Yorker noted that Ihlen could become enraged when she drank, and that neither she nor Cohen proved faithful. “All the girls were panting for him,” Ihlen later said. “I would dare go as far as to say that I was on the verge of killing myself due to it.”
Cohen worked on a second novel, Beautiful Losers, while living on Hydra. It just about cost him his mind. In 2001, he told me, “I think I was slightly demented and frenzied during the whole creation of the thing. I knew that it was a living work. I wrote it outside in the Greek sun, on a little folding table in the back of my house. I knew that something was unfolding, and there was a joyous activity behind it – but, as I say, slightly crazed, which freed the writing tremendously. I was smoking grass and taking acid from time to time.
“At a certain point, I went into the room and I got up on a chair and started writing around the wall in gold paint: ‘I change I am the same, I change I am the same, I change I am the same, I change I am the same. . . .’ That’s the only thing I ever wrote on acid, and it appears in the book.” Eventually, he collapsed from exhaustion and had to be hospitalized. Marianne tended to him. “I would like to say that it made me saintly,” he said.
Beautiful Losers was published in 1966. It is a genuinely daring, groundbreaking and startlingly sexual work about a man’s search for identity, memory, purpose and transcendence amid a dizzying weave of romantic, religious and historical betrayals – and the book’s unexpected and bewildering end can genuinely lift the top of your head off. Just as Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” opened up new territories in American literature in 1956, Beautiful Losers opened up new perspectives about form and time in modern fiction. Cohen had the imagination and facility to achieve the sort of literary repute bestowed on authors like Thomas Pynchon and Henry Miller. But he had something entirely different in mind.
Cohen returned to Montreal from Hydra in 1966 to find Beautiful Losers reaping attention. Some reviews compared him to James Joyce, for the book’s stream-of-consciousness style, though Cohen took it far beyond, into phantasmagoria. One newspaper deemed it “verbal masturbation.” The Toronto Daily Star called it “the most revolting book ever written in Canada” but also the “Canadian book of the year.” Yet it was plain that the story he had almost demolished himself for might push his fate but not his fortunes. Despite his success, he couldn’t pay his rent. “I’d published two novels and two or three books of poems,” he told me in 2001. “I didn’t expect to make a living out of the poetry, but I thought that I could make one writing novels. But there were only maybe 3,000 copies of Beautiful Losers worldwide.”
Cohen, though, began to sense a new possibility for himself. “Living in Greece most of the time, I had been completely unaware of the whole renaissance in music that was taking place in the early and middle 1960s. Still, I was playing a lot of guitar and I thought, ‘It’s all right being a writer – I always want to be a writer – but I think I’d like to go to Nashville and make some country-western records. . . . I decided, ‘That’s going to build me up.’ I had some songs sketched out.”
On his way, Cohen stopped off in New York and found his work had preceded him. He met songwriters like Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs, and at Max’s Kansas City he ran into Lou Reed, who would later induct him into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “All these guys knew what I had written,” he told me. “Romantic figures, these troubadours. They were me; that’s what I was, drifting around the world, speaking from the heart and occupying a certain mythological life. I felt very close to them.”
In 1966, Judy Collins recorded “Suzanne,” and the tune enjoyed widespread fame. Collins also recorded “Dress Rehearsal Rag,” an early example of what some saw as Cohen’s morbid streak. “Talk about dark,” Collins later told Sylvie Simmons. “A song about suicide. I attempted suicide myself at 14, before I found folk music, so of course I loved it.” Collins prevailed on Cohen to begin performing live in 1967; he was scared and reluctant, but the crowd took to him, and he played a number of successful festival dates that year.
Around that same time, Columbia Records producer and A&R person John Hammond (who had signed and/or produced artists such as Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan and Aretha Franklin, among others) visited Cohen’s single-room residence at the Chelsea Hotel to hear the writer’s material. He signed Cohen to Columbia, which released his debut, Songs of Leonard Cohen, in 1968. The record clearly established a reputation for Cohen as somebody who spoke for those who feel lost and are in search of any saving grace, whether it be religion or sex. A fellow tenant of Cohen’s at the Chelsea Hotel – legendary archivist Harry Everett Smith, who compiled the hugely influential Anthology of American Folk Music – ran into Cohen one day at the hotel and said, “Leonard, I know a lot of people are congratulating you on the lyrics, but I want you to know, the tunes are really good.” Talking to me in 2001, Cohen smiled at the memory. “It’s true,” he says, “nobody was mentioning the tunes; it was all about the lyrics and my ‘seriousness.’”
That seriousness was no act. Cohen found himself increasingly forlorn in New York. Marianne and her son had followed him to the city, but the relationship between her and Cohen was coming toward its end. “People talk about loneliness,” Cohen told me, “but I really passed days without speaking to anybody. Sometimes weeks where the only contact I would have was with the woman I bought cigarettes from, and a day could be redeemed by her smile. . . . It was a difficult period, and it didn’t stop being difficult for a long time. . . . I understood that a lot of other people must be in this predicament, because I have these biblical metaphors circling around in my mind. I began to develop this idea that some catastrophe was taking place. I couldn’t see why I couldn’t make contact.”
Cohen and Marianne Ihlen separated during this time. In 1969, he met 19-year-old Suzanne Elrod, kicking off a rocky relationship that lasted nearly a decade. Elrod would become Cohen’s common-law wife and the mother to his son, Adam, and his daughter, Lorca. But Cohen sometimes resented how Elrod forced bonds on him (“She outwitted me at every turn,” he once said).
Cohen recorded his next few albums in Nashville with producer Bob Johnston, who also worked with Johnny Cash, Marty Robbins, the Byrds, Simon and Garfunkel, and Dylan. Cohen’s tunes and vocals often had a narrow range during these years that fit his dour image. But with 1974’s New Skin for the Old Ceremony, produced by John Lissauer, Cohen’s darkness took on greater vibrancy and mellifluence; it was his best album to that date, and his saddest, and included the portrait of an encounter with Janis Joplin: “I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel/You were talking so brave and so sweet/Giving me head on the unmade bed/While the limousines wait in the street. . . /I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel/You were famous, your heart was a legend.”
In 1977, Cohen collaborated with producer Phil Spector on Death of a Ladies’ Man. It is the only wreck in Cohen’s body of work, though the disaster owed more to Spector, whose megalomania had already turned paranoid. “He would enter into a kind of Wagnerian mood when he was in the studio,” Cohen told me, “and was quite mad at the time. But I also had some kind of trust in his method – I respected his work so much. I hoped that somehow at some stage in the production it would’ve coalesced into something that I found more appealing. It didn’t.” Spector was fond of guns and sometimes locked people into the studio. At one point, he absconded with the masters of Cohen’s album. “I was kind of stuck with what we got,” Cohen said in 2001. “I suppose I could have vetoed the whole project. I’m not even sure about that. But that would’ve been the only weapon I’d had in the situation.”
I met Leonard Cohen for the first time in 1979, at a Mexican restaurant in Hollywood called El Compadre. Rolling Stone‘s Paul Nelson had called and asked me to write a preview of Cohen’s new album. I hesitated. This was out of the blue, no chance to prepare, and I found Cohen’s work daunting. “Go,” Nelson said. “You’ll love him. He’s a complete gentleman.” When I arrived at El Compadre, a Mexicali band was serenading. Cohen sat in a red leather booth; elegant, dark-haired women on either side of him, fixed by his charm. It was like the cover of Death of a Ladies’ Man.
We talked for a couple of hours, and as Nelson had prepared me, Cohen was the best-mannered person – interview subject or not – I’d ever encountered. We talked a little about the debacle with Spector. He admitted he didn’t expect his new record, Recent Songs, to provide any long-overdue breakthrough (his first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, was his bestseller until 1988). He didn’t have an American label at the moment. “My music is considered kind of eccentric in America,” he said. “Record companies don’t promote me with the same fervor they would someone with Top 20 potential.”
The conversation went well, and we talked some more, including one or two trans-Atlantic telephone interviews, while Cohen was in Europe. During one post-midnight discussion, I asked him about “The Guests,” which opens Recent Songs. It reminded me of a Chekhovian tale, or James Joyce’s “The Dead,” which implied a sense of warmth or community, but the more the guests gathered, the more isolated they seemed from one another, and it eventually turns into a meditation on death that embraces humanity beyond the gathering.
Cohen – who drank a fine bottle of something as we talked – enlightened me: “Its sensibility is sponsored by the poems of Rumi and Attar, who are Persian poets of the 12th and 13th centuries. I guess it’s a religious song, just about our strangerhood on the Earth and how it’s resolved. ‘One by one, the guests arrive/Guests are coming through/The openhearted many/The brokenhearted few.’” From there, Cohen launched into a line-by-line exegesis of the song. The guests, he suggested, ask, “Where is God? Where is truth? Where is life?”
Many songwriters would never bare such background thought: It’s too much commitment to their own meanings, or an admission that they might be uncertain of those meanings. Cohen knew every inch of what any of his songs signified – he explained others that night, meticulously – and if some of his phrases or images seemed ambiguous, he was not. As we kept talking, I heard the clink of a bottleneck on a glass. Cohen chuckled. “Drunk,” he said. “Drunk again.”
Columbia Records released Recent Songs a short time later, and maybe regretted it. The album’s solemn themes didn’t connect with a wide audience. The same went for Various Positions, in 1984. This time, Columbia didn’t bother with a release in the U.S. Years later, receiving a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement, Cohen said of the music industry, “In fact, I was always touched by the modesty of their interest as to my work.” In our 1979 conversation, he’d said, “When I look back and examine my work, it’s no mystery to me that it hasn’t made a big splash yet. But I never thought, ‘I will create this kind of art song.’ Everything I wrote, I wrote for everybody.”
For Cohen’s next album, I’m Your Man (1988), he turned to electronic instrumentation – sometimes menacing, sometimes glimmering – on tracks like the haunting “Tower of Song,” and most memorably on the opening track, “First We Take Manhattan.” It was danceable, but it was also menacing, a sinister and tense depiction of social collapse and a terrorist’s revenge.
At his Carnegie Hall appearance in July 1988, it was as if the song were a call to battle. I met with Cohen at his hotel, just off Central Park. It was a sweltering afternoon, but Cohen was in a chalk-striped double-breasted suit. We talked for hours. He addressed the foreboding in his new music – scarier, more outward-directed than anything he’d done before, but also full of dark humor. He talked of an apocalyptic scenario that had befallen humanity – a plague, a bomb, the decline of our political systems – even if humanity had not yet realized it. At one point he stood up, slipped off his pants and folded them neatly over the back of another chair. It was a sensible thing to do. It was such a hot day; why wrinkle the slacks to a nice suit? Cohen kept on his jacket and tie, his socks, shoes and blue-and-white-lined boxer shorts as he sat back down.
There was a knock. “Excuse me,” said Cohen. He rose and pulled his slacks back on, opened the door and signed for a cold soda he’d ordered for me. He handed me the drink, took his slacks off and folded them again. He flashed a warm smile. I realized I had just been given an example of how one behaves with poise, even while contemplating the end of days.
Though much of what Cohen had to say that day was portentous, I failed to understand that he wasn’t speaking simply from an interesting philosophical or political perspective. On his next collection, 1992’s The Future (actress Rebecca De Mornay, who was his girlfriend then, has a co-producer credit), it seemed that sense of sociopolitical foreboding and apprehension might be prophetic, that his new songs were also revealing – maybe more clearly than ever before – a distress that lay deep inside his own mind, heart and history.
I’m Your Man and The Future were another pair of masterpieces – this time, though, they got attention. The songs were played at clubs and used in movies, and their combination of tones and images fit the times. They were the biggest hits of the artist’s career. At age 58, Leonard Cohen seemed – improbably – on top of the world. Then he walked away from everything in his life.
As it turned out, Cohen had in 1994 taken up residence at a Zen monastery on Mount Baldy, an hour northeast of Los Angeles. The site was previously a Boy Scout camp, 6,500 feet up the mountain, run by Cohen’s longtime Zen master, Kyozan Joshu Sasaki Roshi. Cohen studied periodically with him for 40 years, and saw him as a friend, sage and kind of father. During the recording of Various Positions, Cohen took the Zen master to a session in New York. “This was a time when all the news about me was bad and depressing,” he said, “razor blades and all that stuff. The next morning, I said to him, ‘What did you think, Roshi?’ He said, ‘Leonard, you should sing more sad.’ Everybody was telling me quite the contrary. But he saw that I hadn’t gone where I could go, with my voice, with my trip. It was like the deepest, and at the same time the most pragmatic, advice. He saw that my voice could go low, that I could get deep into the material consciously – that I could explore things.”
Then, just as unassumingly as he took leave of his life, Cohen also took leave of the monastery, and returned to his family and friends. In the fall of 2001, he released an album, Ten New Songs. In contrast to the often-acerbic themes that dominated I’m Your Man and The Future, Cohen’s new LP was about the sad-eyed acceptance and full-hearted love that come after the fires of suffering and the advent of age. It was not about a fearsome future but rather about a tolerant present. Deep in the folds of the album there were hints about the mysteries that had surrounded Cohen in the 1990s: Why did he leave the world behind when the world finally seemed ready for him?
“There was no sense of dissatisfaction with my career,” he told me one afternoon in 2001. We were sitting in his recording studio, built above the garage behind his modest house in Los Angeles’ Mid-Wilshire district. “On the contrary,” he continued, “if anything, it was, well, this is what it’s like to succeed. But the predicament, the daily predicament, was such that there wasn’t much nourishment from that kind of retrospection.
“By the time I finished my tour in 1993, I was in some condition of anguish that deepened and deepened. Prozac didn’t work. Paxil didn’t work. Zoloft didn’t work. Wellbutrin didn’t work. In fact, the only comic element in the whole thing was when I was taking Prozac, I came to believe that I had overcome my [sexual] desires. I didn’t know that it has that side effect. I thought it was a spiritual achievement.”
The daily regimen of life at the Zen center was sometimes preoccupation enough. “Think of a Boy Scout camp,” Cohen said. “There are a lot of small cabins, a mess hall and some kind of recreation hall that had been converted into a Zen meditation hall. Just maintenance took the whole day just to keep the thing going. Pipes would burst in the winter. You get up at 2:30 or 3 in the morning, depending on your duties. I ended up as one of Roshi’s personal assistants, and I was cooking for him.” After a year, Cohen was ordained as a Buddhist monk. “None of this represented the solution to a crisis of faith,” Cohen told me. “I looked at it as a demonstration of solidarity with the community. I was never looking for a new religion. I was perfectly satisfied with my old religion.”
Other times, the Zen life wasn’t enough. “I was sitting in the meditation hall one afternoon,” said Cohen, “and I thought, ‘This sucks. This whole scene sucks.’ And I moved from that into cataloging the various negative feelings I had for the mother of my children. I found myself descending into a bonfire of hatred, you know – that bitch, what she’d done to me, what she left me with, how she wrecked the whole fucking scene. I was in there, I was in my robes, and the furthest thing from my mind was spiritual advancement. The furthest. I mean, I was consumed with rage.”
That day, Cohen’s rage gave way to a moment of unexpected grace, a kind of temporary epiphany. “There was sunlight on the floor of the cabin, where we were waiting to go see Roshi,” he said. “There were leaves outside and the shadow of these leaves was on the floor. The wind moved, something moved, and I disappeared into this movement. . . . The whole scene blew up. A dog started barking, and I was barking. And everything that arose was the content of my being. Everything that moved was me. . . . In certain blessed moments, we experience ourselves as the reality that is manifesting as everything. There’s no ‘I am one with the universe,’ which is the cheapest mystical slogan.” Cohen paused. “There is that moment,” he continued, “and it decides that life is worth living. I was barking with the dog, but there really was no dog.”
But dread still arose, and it could obliterate the self. After several years at the camp, Cohen had decided it was time to leave. He was driving to the airport, and, he said, “the bottom dropped out. This floor that was supposed to be there wasn’t there. It was dreadful. I pulled my car over to the side of the road. I reached back and I got my shaving kit, and I took out all the medication and threw it out the window and I said, ‘Fuck this. If I’m going to go down, I want to go down clear-eyed.’ So, I went back to the camp and I did those next few weeks, which were pure hell, and during that time, I picked up a book by an Indian writer by the name of Balsekar.”
Ramesh Balsekar was a Hindu mentor who lived in Mumbai and wrote about a concept called “non-dualism,” developed in Hindu and Buddhist traditions. In 1999, Cohen departed Mount Baldy and headed to Mumbai. He spent a year studying with Balsekar. “The model I finally understood,” he recalled, “suggested that there really is no fixed self. The conventional therapeutic wisdom today encourages the sufferer to get in touch with his inner feelings – as if there were an inner self, a true self, the real self that we have glimmerings of in dreams and insights. . . . There is no real inner self to command your loyalty and the tyranny of your investigation. What happened to me was not that I got any answers, but that the questions dissolved. As one of Balsekar’s students said, ‘I believe in cause and effect, but I don’t know which is which.’”
Slowly, the depression eased. “By imperceptible degrees, something happened, and it lifted,” Cohen continued. “It lifted, and it hasn’t come back for two and a half years. That’s my real story. I don’t feel like saying, ‘I’ve been saved,’ throwing my crutches up in the air. But I have been. Since that depression has lifted – and I don’t know whether it’s permanent or temporary – I still have the same appetite to write.” Ten New Songs was perhaps the loveliest and most gracious album Cohen had made. “The Future came out of suffering,” he said. “This came out of celebration.”
The evening had come. It was time to wind up. Cohen told me, “I like what Tennessee Williams said. He said, ‘Life is a fairly well-written play except for the third act. It’s a badly written third act.’ I feel I’m at the beginning of the third act. By the end of the third act, which nobody can predict, it can be pretty hairy. I just know that life is worth living.”
Cohen’s third act proved more eventful than he – or anyone – could have anticipated. It maybe even included a fourth act. Cohen followed Ten New Songs with Dear Heather (2004), and in 2006 he co-wrote and produced Blue Alert, by Anjani Thomas, a backup singer and touring keyboardist in Cohen’s band. The two were also romantic partners during this period, though Cohen spoke of the relationship with a characteristic uncertainty, describing them as “impossibly solitudinous people . . . I like to wake up alone, and she likes to be alone.” In 2006, Cohen also put out Book of Longing – a collection of 167 previously unpublished poems and drawings, mostly written at the Zen monastery.
In 2004, a new devastation hit. His daughter, Lorca, was tipped off that his longtime manager Kelley Lynch (“not simply his manager but a close friend, almost part of the family,” Sylvie Simmons wrote) had been stealing from the singer. Lynch had misappropriated more than $5 million from Cohen’s bank accounts, retirement funds and charitable trust funds. It had begun as early as 1996. Cohen had granted Lynch power of attorney over his finances, and she had persuaded him to sell many of his publishing rights.
Cohen fired Lynch and tried to come to terms with her. Lynch’s lawyers insisted, wrote Simmons, that she “had been given the authority to do what she did.” Cohen had to sue Lynch, or else he would’ve been accountable for the debts she’d incurred for him. She ignored the suit, including orders of discovery. She attacked Cohen online and wrote long, disparaging e-mails to him, his family, the IRS and even the Buddhist community. (They settled that suit, and Lynch was ordered to pay Cohen more than $5 million.)
With local sheriffs’ help, Cohen reclaimed notebooks and correspondence with Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Allen Ginsberg. In March 2012, Lynch was arrested for violating a permanent protective order that forbade her from contacting Cohen. “It makes me feel very conscious about my surroundings,” he told the court. “Every time I see a car slow down, I get worried.” Lynch was found guilty on all charges and sentenced to 18 months in prison. Cohen never recovered most of the money that Lynch had embezzled. Essentially, he found himself back in the position he had known in 1966, when he accepted that Beautiful Losers wouldn’t sustain him financially.
And so, in the summer of 2008, at age 73, Leonard Cohen launched an astounding concert tour that would last, off and on, for five years. He played songs from all phases of his career backed by a meticulously rehearsed band; he played for three hours, and sometimes longer, most nights; he skipped on- and offstage. Reviewers routinely said the shows were among the best they’d ever seen.
“I never thought I’d tour again,” he told Rolling Stone in 2012, “although I did have dreams. Sometimes my dreams would entail me being up onstage and not remembering the words or the chords. It had a nightmarish quality, which did not invite me to pursue the enterprise.” And yet his bandmates noted how much he came alive, night after night. “There’s a certain fatigue I guess you could locate,” Cohen said about the hundreds of shows, “but when the response is warm and tangible, one is invigorated rather than depleted.”
Touring, it turned out, was just the start of Cohen’s remarkable comeback. He recorded a new album in 2012, Old Songs. He followed it with Popular Problems in 2014, and then, just weeks before his death, You Want It Darker. These records took the ambience of Ten New Songs and Dear Heather and deepened it into R&B-derived electronic furrows of beat and beauty.
During the final year or so of his life, Cohen moved into the second floor of Lorca’s home in suburban Los Angeles. He had been battling cancer for some time. Other health problems, including multiple fractures of the spine, kept him from traveling. Still, he saw his kids and grandkids often. Adam served as producer on You Want It Darker, turning Leonard’s home into a makeshift studio. Seated in a medical chair and using medical marijuana to numb his pain, his father merely had to sing. “Now, at the end of his career,” Adam told Rolling Stone weeks before his father’s death, “perhaps at the end of his life, he’s at the summit of his powers.”
In July, Cohen learned that Marianne Ihlen was dying of cancer in Norway. They had remained friendly – which Cohen had managed with most of his former lovers. It’s hard to say whether romantic love ever truly fulfilled him. It often seemed inseparable from his quest for God or relief. “I had a strong sexual drive that overpowered every other consideration,” he said in 2001. “My appetite for intimacy, and not just physical intimacy, was so intense that I was just interested in the essence of things. . . . It was unavoidably intense, the hunt, the gratification. It wasn’t particularly enjoyable. It was just an appetite. . . . And consequently, misunderstandings and suffering from both parties arose. When that aspect dissolved, the friendship became clearer. I tend not to lose people in my life.”
Cohen wrote to his lover: “Well Marianne, it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine. And you know that I’ve always loved you for your beauty and your wisdom, but I don’t need to say anything more about that because you know all about that. But now, I just want to wish you a very good journey. Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road.” Remnick reports that Cohen soon heard back from a friend of Marianne’s in Norway: “She lifted her hand, when you said you were right behind, close enough to reach her. It gave her deep peace of mind that you knew her condition.”
Cohen was right: He wasn’t far behind. According to The New York Times, he was working on a new book of poetry and two more musical projects: string arrangements of his songs and a set of R&B-inspired tunes. Then: “Leonard Cohen died during his sleep following a fall in the middle of the night on Nov. 7,” the singer’s manager, Robert B. Kory, said in a statement. “The death was sudden, unexpected and peaceful.”
Cohen simply got better at the end, creating a trilogy of albums about mortality, apprehension and poise. They were full of entreaty and peril, and were driven by a sepulchral voice (owned by “just me and Johnny Cash,” he’d said with a laugh) that sounded like truth beyond question. He always aspired to better angels, but he also admitted to – in fact, took a certain relief and pride in – an honest assessment of his less merciful side. On the late albums, he wasn’t simply proclaiming prayers but also saw a duty for penance, in himself and all around him, in the broken hearts and spirits of a broken world.
“This sounds like the most hackneyed 19th-century platitude,” Cohen once told me, “but in the midst of my own tiny personal troubles, I turned to the thing I knew how to do and I made songs out of it, and in the making of those songs, much of the pain was dissolved. That is one of the things that art does, is that it heals. A man who makes those choices in his own life is often more beautiful than his works. Any artist who remains true to himself becomes a work of art himself, because that is one of the most difficult things to do. If someone does have that vocation, and diligently applies himself to the exigencies that arise, he will lose a great deal but he will have created his own character.”
Leonard Cohen, the hugely influential singer and songwriter whose work spanned five decades, died at the age of 82.