From The National Post – ‘They’re not gonna get us! They ‘re not gonna get us!” growled Leonard Cohen when I bumped into him on his beloved St. Laurent Boulevard, arm in arm with his musical muse and mate Anjani Thomas, two years ago.
His smile was as charmingly crooked as ever, but there was a wildness in his eyes I hadn’t previously recognized. The source of his urgent tone was money: His manager in Los Angeles had ripped him off to the tune of $5-million, largely while he was holed up in a Zen retreat in Mount Baldy, Calif., leaving him with $150,000.
He had returned to Montreal, if not to renew what early in his career he called “neurotic affiliations,” then at least to regroup and start all over again.
These days, good things are happening for the poet-singer whose early meditations (Suzanne, Bird on a Wire) have touched generations and whose later songs (First We Take Manhattan, The Future) have been prescient in so-called postmodern times.
Tonight at a ceremony in New York’s Waldorf-Astoria hotel, Cohen will be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the first Montrealer so honoured.
And in May, at 72, he embarks on his first tour in 15 years. This time it’s at least partially about making a few shekels towards the proverbial nest-egg. A cruel twist of fate has forced him to work for his supper when by all rights he should be enjoying the rewards of a richly creative life.
Complaints rarely have been part of Cohen’s nature, but word has it he’s anxious about a tour that has a lot more riding on it than his reputation for writing mystic songs laden with spirituality and sensuality.
That the old man engaging in the young man’s tour game is as much about practicality as anything else echoes something he said 24 years ago: “I don’t think there is any other consideration but practical. I’ve never been able to disassociate the spiritual from the practical. I think that what we call the spirit or spirituality is the most intense form of the practical.”
The ransacking of his financial assets has made his recent successes even sweeter.
There was the long-awaited publication of Book of Longing–a work so long in coming that friends called it Book of Prolonging, which nevertheless became the first volume of poetry to top the Canadian best-seller list, in 2006. There was Blue Alert, an album of his songs sung by Anjani, and the adoring tribute-documentary I’m Your Man, in which he performed a song backed by U2.
There’s even his recitation of Joni Mitchell’s song The Jungle Line that ends Herbie Hancock’s Grammywinning album of the year. And there is a new album on the way; not for nothing did he walk away with some 200 works-in-progress from Mount Baldy.
His attitude towards money, from a man whose early literary career was helped by a trust fund from his father, always has been as ironic as his line “I was born with the gift of a golden voice” in the Tower of Song. (His seemingly limited voice always has been the bane of his existence.)
Cohen was unhesitatingly up-front when asked in a CBC-TV interview in 1966 — the year he started getting serious about singing– what writing a pop song gave him that writing a poem or a novel didn’t: “Well, the money’s better.”
In the mid-1990s, Cohen told The New York Times: “I have been able to satisfy a certain principle, which was that I didn’t want to work for pay, but I wanted to be paid for my work.”
And when he became a Rinzai Zen Buddhist monk — taking the Dharma name Jikhan (meaning silent one) at the retreat he inhabited on Mt. Baldy, it was because his guru Joshu Roshi, whom he served as a personal assistant and drinking partner, “wanted me to do it for tax purposes.”
As for appearing like someone who is in control, he smiled in 1966: “I thank you for buying my cover story of someone who has their act together.”
Indeed, no sooner had he brought out his first album in 1967 than he signed away rights for early classics like Suzanne, only recovering them a few years ago.
Then again, the songs he called “the European blues” have had limited currency on the pop charts in the U.S. “I’ve been lucky. Nobody’s twisted my arm,” he told Craw-daddy magazine founder Paul Williams in 1975. “Perhaps because nobody ever saw any great profits to be made from my work.”
In fact, in 1984 Columbia Records refused to release his album Various Positions in the U.S.
When he made his comeback with I’m Your Man in 1988, he cracked: “I have always been touched by the modesty of their interest in my work.” While I’m Your Man spent 17 weeks atop Norway’s charts, it took 34 years for Songs of Leonard Cohen to go gold in the U.S.
At a certain stage in your life, Cohen told London’s Observer in 2001, “it becomes very clear that your time is not unlimited. Tennessee Williams said: ‘Life is a fairly well-written play, except for the third act.’ I’m maybe at the third act, where you have the benefit of the experience of the first two acts. But how it ends is nobody’s business and is generally accompanied by some disagreeable circumstances.”
He uttered those words while manager Kelley Lynch was skimming his retirement funds and telling the world she worked on Cohen time: “You really can’t tell with Leonard. He doesn’t like deadlines. We’re keeping it loose.”
But after leaving Mt. Baldy in 1999, he decided to travel: “Our little road man felt like going for a good long drive,” said Lynch, who has disappeared from view since Cohen won a civil suit against her.
The poet claimed not to be angry over the embezzlement, telling CTV in February, 2006: “There’s something amusing about it, too. I think because the wipeout was so astonishingly thorough, you know.”
The artist who claimed he never looked at a financial statement put things in perspective: “I don’t feel deprived in any sense. I like a room with just a table and a chair and a bed … that’s my idea of beauty. I think simplicity is really voluptuous.” A few months later he told The Washington Post: “It hasn’t hit me yet, and I hope it never will. But talk about getting back into the world with a vengeance.”
He once said he wasn’t interested in posterity, telling the CBC’s Adrienne Clarkson in 1966, “I’m not interested in an insurance plan for my work,” and soon followed up by refusing the Governor-General’s Award, not through any anti-Canadianism, but because it seemed like an interesting thing to do at the time. By 1993 he had learned to laugh at his voice and his country, accepting a Juno Award: “Only in a country like Canada could I get the best male vocalist of the year.” In 2003 he was made a Companion to the Order of Canada by then-Governor-General Clarkson.
He was plugging Book of Longing when he told the PBS News Hour in 2006: “You know, you scribble away for one reason or another. You’re touched by something that you read. You want to number yourself among these illustrious spirits for one advantage or another, some social, some spiritual. It’s just ambition that tricks you into the enterprise, and then you discover whether you have any actual aptitude for it or not. So I’ve always thought that I, you know, do my job OK.”