He Has Tried in His Way to Be Free

Photo: Graeme Mitchell

You do have to wonder: Why would you go and become a musician if your father is Leonard Cohen? Adam Cohen describes being infected with a “virus.” “That’s how I feel about it. It’s not always a good thing, but it’s impossible to shake,” he explains over a bacon burger, no bun, at Corner Bistro in the West Village. He’s natty in a haute Brooklyn way, dressed in a blazer, plaid shirt, man bracelets, boots. “I always knew exactly what I was going to do with my life. I was so powerfully seduced.”

After years of unremarkable pop efforts—including a stint fronting a radio-friendly rock band called the Low Millions, so named for its sales ambitions—Cohen is the most reflexively apologetic scion you’re likely to meet. “It was rather myopic,” he says. “I had a natural aptitude to create music in a rather effortless way.” His parents were both supportive; his father even hooked him up with an old producer of his. “I was endlessly encouraged by my destiny to make this music, and fueled by a kind of arrogance that at one point art would naturally catch up with me. But while I was young and people were offering me big record deals and it was so easy, why not have a couple hits on radio, wear tight jeans, seek adulation?” And because “I had an appetite for success and participation in the music business—capital B,” playing folk wasn’t an option. It’s useful to remember that his father—who didn’t became a professional singer until well into his thirties, after being a poet, experimental novelist, and Canada’s dapper international post-Beat celebrity failed to pay the bills—was never exactly a chart-topper in the U.S.

Cohen, who will be 40 this year but hardly seems it, lives in Los Angeles. He was in town for two shows last week in support of Like a Man, his first record since 2004. It’s an album of longing, sung beautifully in his father’s quiet, folky, thoughtfully achy style, which he’d categorically avoided until now. Most of the songs are ones he’d refused to record before because they sounded too Leonard-like. His father suggested the album’s title after hearing it, and the cover has his dad’s signature fedora floating over Adam’s head.

Like his father, Adam was born in Montreal. After his parents split, when he was 5, his mother, Suzanne Elrod (not the Suzanne from the song), moved Adam and his sister often, including to the south of France, Paris, and a Village apartment not far from here. “Although my father wasn’t in the household with us, his presence was the very oxygen we were breathing,” he says.

He’s familiar enough with the often very public dilemmas of the “sons of …” club, as he puts it; he was even in a band with Stephen Stills’s kid for a while. But Cohen refuses to complain. “It delights me to correct the record,” he says. “I know that the sense is that my life is merciless, dark, and Bastille-like because of the ominous shadow cast by my tyrannical father. It’s quite the opposite.” In some ways—and maybe this is just because she raised him—he sounds more traumatized by his mother. He describes her as his father’s “crazy concubine,” who is “every bit as much or more eccentric than my father.” Elrod met Leonard in an elevator at the Plaza Hotel when she was 19 (Leonard, briefly a Scientologist, had been meeting with L. Ron Hubbard).

Cohen describes his childhood as “a circus with two tents.” But the son understands the situation a bit better now that he too has a child, Cassius, whose mother he’s no longer with. “My father made a gargantuan effort, one that I am particularly impressed by now in my own version of some kind of domestic negotiation.”

Cassius was born in 2007, when Cohen had all but given up making music. “I was miserable,” he says. “I really felt like I had squandered time and resources and exercised poor taste and wasted my prime.” So he turned to the heritage he’d been running from. “I had his inner compass even though I wasn’t paying attention to it. I knew it existed and knew it was something that, should I be truly lost, I could refer to. And guess what? It’s precisely what I did.” Cohen took to singing his father’s songs in public. Coincidentally, in 2008, his 74-year-old father was on tour for the first time in fifteen years, out of necessity, after suing a former business manager for allegedly stealing all of his savings. This also inspired the son.

His folksinging is not a business-with-a-capital-B decision. “The commercial mobility of my record is zilch,” he says. The hope is to “keep alive this delicate notion of my place in music, which is tied to a tradition that I come from.” It’s also for Cassius. “If my kid had only my first three records, to see what his dad was up to and what his dad did, I would be embarrassed.”

And so, at last, “I’m in the family business for real,” he says. “I’m not the rightful successor in the conventional understanding, because my father is an island. But I’m the closest little town on the mainland.” At Rockwood Music Hall on the Lower East Side last week, again precisely fashionable in tight jeans, scarf, and shawl-neck cardigan, he plays through much of Like a Man with a beatific smirk. He jokes that “for those of you who don’t know, I’m the son of a rather famous Canadian singer I’m rather proud of—Celine Dion.” He dedicates a song about the end of the world to his son—“a kind of message in a bottle in case the shit hits the fan.” He sings, with delicate dolorousness: “If the countdown to the end has just begun … thank you for being so beautiful.”

And then he does what he probably always avoided on purpose: “For those of you who came with a certain morbid curiosity …” he jokes, as he begins to strum the familiar opening notes of the famous Leonard Cohen song “So Long, Marianne.” There is something transporting about hearing him sing it: He sounds like his father used to, but—and Leonard has an album out this year, too, called Old Ideas—doesn’t any longer. Adam Cohen even stops playing his guitar to let the audience chant, unaccompanied: “Now so long, Marianne, it’s time that we began / To laugh and cry and cry and laugh about it all again.”

And he’s reminded—again—that he’ll never not be his father’s son.

Like a Man
Adam Cohen. Decca Records.

He Has Tried in His Way to Be Free