The womanizing, the four bottles of wine a day and the five-year retreat in a Buddhist monastery are all behind him. Leonard Cohen embarks on his current first US tour And the former poet laureate of despair even keeps a smile on his face.
Cohen spent most of the 1990s in retreat at a Zen Buddhist centre in California. Then in 2005, following a return to recording, he discovered that his manager had run off with almost all of his fortune. No wonder that, at the opening concert of his world tour in 2008 he was given a three-minute standing ovation before he had even sung a single note.
Cohen had been a regular visitor at the monastery for more than a decade, sometimes spending three months at a time there. But this time it looked as though the world had lost him for good. He shaved his head, donned black robes and devoted himself to the study of Zen Buddhism. He was renamed Jiken, which means “Silence.”
For someone as wedded to words as Cohen, and so fond of talking, it seemed an ironic choice.
He never intended to be a singer and performer. He wanted to be a proper writer. Having learned to play the guitar as a teenager, Cohen formed a band called the Buckskin Boys at Montreal’s McGill University. But he freely admits that he became a singer because he couldn’t make a living as a poet. At his first major performance, with folk-singer Judy Collins at an anti-Vietnam concert at New York’s Town Hall in 1967, his guitar was out of tune, his voice was a hoarse whisper and he suffered a paralyzing attack of stage fright. But by the end of the evening he had conquered the crowd. A record contract with Columbia followed and Cohen soon found himself at the epicenter of 1960s New York. He lived at the Chelsea Hotel, hung out with Warhol and his Superstar, Nico, Baez, Dylan and Janis Joplin (who famously gave him head on an unmade bed).
“I had a great appetite for the company of women,” he has said of that time. “And for the sexual expression of friendship, of communication. And I was very fortunate because it was the 1960s and it was very possible.”
Cohen says that his experience on Mount Baldy strengthened his Jewish faith, which he has described as a “4,000-year-old conversation with God and his sages”. Yet, no sooner was he back in the world than he had to deal with the devil. A year after leaving the monastery Cohen was accusing his long-time manager, Kelley Lynch, of defrauding him of more than $5m. After 30 years’ recording and performing, he was had been left with just $150,000. In 2006, he was awarded $9m in a civil lawsuit but so far Lynch has ignored the verdict and Cohen may never see the money.
And something else happened on Mount Baldy. The black dog of depression, “a kind of mist, a kind of distress over everything”, which had dogged Cohen throughout his life, finally released its hold. Senescence appears to have brought serenity and a new contentment with the simple things of everyday life.
Now in his ninth decade, the singer of what he recently referred to ironically as “a lot of Jew-sounding songs in different keys” is back at the top of his game. He has just finished a new album, which he says will be his last. Cohen is also finally getting recognition for the paintings and drawings he has been producing since childhood.