Leonard has a taste for irony and for the beyond.
From "It Seemed the Better Way" (2016):
I wonder what it was
I wonder what it meant
First he touched on love
Then he touched on death
Sounded like the truth
Seemed the better way
Sounded like the truth
But it's not the truth today
I better hold my tongue.
I better take my place.
Lift this glass of blood.
Try to say the grace.
The rare wit was ever-present with Leonard: Take for example when Fredrik Skavlan asks Leonard this question on the Norwegian-Swedish talk show (2007): "Do you think that dramatic changes in your life... do you think human beings do that out of free will or must it be forced upon us?"
Leonard responded: "Well, I think free will is exaggerated." The audience laughs.
He continues: "I think most of the time we are compelled to do the things we do, and I think that um - What was the question?"
"If a change has to be forced upon us," the interviewer says.
"I think it has to. It's clear that it is only catastrophe that encourages people to make a change."
"I became ordained as a monk." Asked why, Leonard responds: "I'd always studied with my old teacher who is going to be 100 in a couple of days. After I finished a particular tour, I felt very dislocated and had an appetite for some kind of structure, so I formalized my relationship with this teacher. If he'd have been a Professor of Physics at Heidelberg I would have learned German and studied Physics. He happened to be a zen monk, so in order to participate in his world I had to shave my head and put on robes - and I was very happy to do because it was clear to me from the beginning that he knew a lot more than I did. It's for that reason that I wanted to spend time with him."
"What kind of life did you live in there?" Skavlan asks.
The interviewer grapples with the fact that Leonard spent five years in a Zen monastery: "But could you go outside, could you see people, could you have a glass of red wine??"
Leonard responded, "I tried to introduce him to red wine, but he was devoted to sake - which is not quite the same kind of thing. He believed that raw fish and sake doth a dinner make."
But he adds: "He did eventually develop a taste for chicken soup that my mother taught me how to make, and some other Jewish dishes."
My photos (at the top) of Leonard in concert are my own, but they do not convey the feeling one has at the great occasion of the great poet there before you, kneeling on the stage, moving his mouth to form the words you have memorized and hear a voice held in a vault in your chest since you were an adolescent.
The concert photos are from his show at Madison Square Garden in 2012. Seeing him at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas in 2009 is the more delightful memory. I remember tears dropping from my eyes, falling directly onto my cheeks, signifying for me the immediacy of his wonderful presence as he took his place on the stage - and he did so very humbly. On each side of my face, the tears skipped the normal "preambule" of rolling down. These tears were waiting for years for this moment. They were heavy and they surprised me as they fell with the weight of a crocodile. The tears fell simultaneously with his voice in a chamber of golds and reds at Caesar's Palace. I had no time to expect them or to conceive of their imminence. They bore witness to this deeply inspiring soul and voice.Speaking on the power of language and rituals, Leonard reflects on the synagogue's influence over him: "I think I was touched as a child by the music and the kind of charged speech I heard in the synagogue, where everything is important. I always feel that the world was created through words – through speech in our tradition – and I've always seen the enormous light in charged speech and that's what I've tried to get to." He didn't set out to be a singer; he wanted to be a writer like those he admired: Fernando Garcia Lorca, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and W.B. Yeats.
Almost thirty years ago, I fell in love with him first via "Everybody Knows" - so arousing in terms of looking blank-faced at reality. I appreciated how Leonard's lyrics are the truest and most honest - and perhaps this is why his music is accused of being "depressing." However, as Douglas Hesselgrave points out in his Leonard Cohen: You Want It Darker Review, some of Leonard's audiences may not have understood that "that if you write about a razor blade, it doesn't necessarily mean that you want to harm yourself." From my own perspective, even as an adolescent, I knew that this man's poetry was urging everyone to think differently, find meaning, laugh at the irony - as we defog our lenses.
In another interview (Los Angeles, 1990s), the topic was to be about his 5 years in Zen monastery, yet the interviewer steered the questions towards depression, and perhaps feeling put on the spot, Leonard graciously answers: "Yes, I feel like I'm coming out of the closet, but depression has certainly been an element that I've had to work with all through my life." As he is poked and prodded about "depression" and asked if he dealt with it with travel, drugs, and scotch, he delves deeper and speaks from his level: "What happened was that I understood that I had to deal with this question at the fundamental level of consciousness."
|Leonard was given the name "Ordinary Silence" at the|
Mount Baldy Zen Center
The interviewer attempts to connect Leonard's artistic success to depression and, perhaps because he picks up on her inability to relate, he elucidates the very real experience of depression, saying: "I think that's a popular notion - that it is exclusively suffering that produces good work or insightful work." He asserts: "I think good work is produced in spite of suffering, and as a victory over suffering."
The interviewer looks a bit perplexed and says, "That is an interesting concept: victory over suffering?" And Leonard very pensively says: "If the level of the degree of the intensity of anybody's distress or disorder is sufficiently high - I mean - you can't move. And for people who have experienced acute clinical depression - I mean - the problem is getting to the next moment. You know, the room tilts, you lose your balance, and you're incapable of coherent thought."
She asks, "Have you been that bad?"
"Yes, yea, I - I've been there," he says.
The irony is that his way of seeing has inspired thousands of souls, in countless ways, to hear the poetic side of life. Regarding singing, Leonard would say that that is another irony perhaps. He says that his son, Adam, is the real thing - he has a beautiful voice and perfect pitch - but of himself he says, "I kind of croaked my way through the enterprise."
Listen to a song he produced with his son, Adam Cohen, from just before he passed away last year:
"It seemed the Better Way"
And a longtime favorite:
"Take this Waltz"