With his deadpan delivery and dark lyrics, Leonard Cohen could be called the creator of his own musical genre: song noir. Even his friend Leon Wieseltier once memorably dubbed him “the Prince of Bummers.” So it’s somewhat surprising to meet a man whose outlook seems so, well, positive. At 71, the pin-striped poet is as dapper as ever, but he also projects a rather disarming air of equilibrium. “It’s a very gracious time for me,” Cohen says, practically beaming.
Gracious when it comes to his work at least. Cohen seems to be having a mini-Renaissance. His new collection of writing, Book of Longing, his first since 1993, was just published. In June, Lions Gate is releasing a concert film, I’m Your Man, which includes interviews with Nick Cave and Bono. Cohen and his girlfriend, Anjani, have collaborated on the album Blue Alert, and Cohen is working on his own new CD—which he may even take on tour.
But this being Leonard Cohen, all is not sweetness and light. There’s still that nasty lawsuit he was saddled with last summer. “There is a crack, a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in,” he sang in his 1992 song “Anthem.” He once called that line his credo, and it still seems apt. It was only a year and a half ago that Cohen, who’d spent nearly five years at California’s Mount Baldy monastery, shaving his head, wearing monk’s robes, and acting as cook and driver for his friend and spiritual mentor Roshi, claimed to have discovered that his bank account had been looted—allegedly by his longtime personal manager, Kelley Lynch—to the tune of $5 million. The convoluted case also involved Cohen’s tax lawyer. Then there was Cohen’s investment adviser, who sued him for extortion (Cohen countersued; litigation is pending). Cohen received a $7.5 million final default judgment in the Lynch case. Still, he says that Lynch continues to leave him threatening phone messages.
All that Zen training has clearly paid off—amazingly, Cohen professes to have no anger. “I would have walked away from the whole enterprise, but then I would have owed taxes on the money” that he says was stolen from him. “I didn’t really experience it as a betrayal. I don’t know why. I don’t know whether it’s because I had good teachers or good parents or good genes. Maybe it will hit me one of these days.”
What has hit him instead is relatively newfound peacefulness—or at least sustained relief from the “certain abiding sense of distress” that first led him to seek out the teachings of Roshi, with whom he has worked on and off for 30 years. In 1999, when the rigors of the monastic lifestyle became too difficult, Cohen left Mount Baldy and sought out Ramesh Balsekar, a Bombay-based teacher. Three or four months later, he says, his psychological suffering mysteriously began to lift. What happened? Cohen can’t say, but as he’s quick to point out, this wasn’t exactly an instant fix. He’d had the benefit of several decades of spiritual homework.
These days, “my life is very dull, and I like it that way,” he adds. “I have a little duplex in Los Angeles. My son [Adam] lives fifteen minutes away. My daughter [Lorca] lives downstairs. I’m happy if my kids come over for Sabbath dinner, and Anjani lives around the corner. Every once in a while, the sense of being a vehicle arises and one or two ideas actually seize me and I find myself writing or tinkering around with a chord change.”
Cohen can tinker for years. Book of Longing took so long to complete, his friends started calling it “the Book of Prolonging.” It “treats various forms of longing—religious, sexual, just expressions of loneliness,” Cohen says. “I hoped it would be entertaining. It’s a sweet little book.”
So are we really talking about a happy Leonard Cohen? “An enlightened cannibal is still a cannibal,” he says.