THROUGH INTERVIEWING him over the years, I’ve developed a bit of a relationship with Leonard Cohen. We stay in touch by email, and if I’m in Los Angeles or Montreal, the two cities he calls home, I might look him up. A few weeks ago, I joined him for dinner at his house in L.A. with his 30-year-old daughter, Lorca, and a friend. Leonard served matzo ball soup and beef brisket, a dinner prepared by a friend’s mother and dropped off at his door. It was a Friday night, Seder, and before the meal they sang in Hebrew. (Though a Buddhist,
Leonard maintains some Jewish traditions.) That night he
told me what he’d hinted at months earlier in an email—that he’d been stripped of most of his assets, and was mired in a legal battle with his money managers, who would accuse him of extortion. He said it would get nasty and personal, and that his name would be dragged through the mud.
Now, after reading the pre-emptive lawsuit filed against him, a 34-page screed that reads like a salacious tabloid, I know what he meant. It’s bizarre, and sad. But I had to laugh. In trying to portray this Zen poet as a criminal mastermind, his accusers kept referring to his “extravagant ‘celebrity’ lifestyle.” I’ve
had a glimpse or two of that “lifestyle,” and by celebrity standards, at least, it seems decidedly spartan.
His home in Montreal, which he bought in 1972, is a sparsely furnished, unrenovated row house without air conditioning. There are a few Persian rugs scattered about. The most luxurious item, which he seems quite thrilled with, is a recently purchased TempurPedic bed, with a fair-sized television at the foot of it. His house in L.A., on a leafy middle-class street not far from downtown, is a modest duplex with no pool. His daughter lives downstairs. There’s a small recording studio in the backyard. In the living room/dining room, a portable CD player serves as the sound system.
Leonard enjoys red wine. I like to bring a good bottle when I come for dinner, but he’s usually got something less expensive open. One night in L.A., after proudly serving a dinner of lentil soup that he’d made himself, he set about trying to fix an old toaster. The kitchen has no dishwasher. The only signs of extravagance I could detect were three kinds of premium tequila nestled in the freezer, which was stacked with TV dinners. Leonard doesn’t go out much. He and his partner, Anjani Thomas—who lives down the street—do catch the occasional movie. Leonard saw War of the Worlds, which he said was “dumb—and that’s a word I never use.” But it was at the mall, not at a Hollywood premiere.
In a triumph of redundancy, the lawsuit against Cohen describes him as a “famous celebrity”—not to be confused, one supposes, with all those unknown celebrities. Leonard is, indeed, famous in Canada as well as in some other countries, such as Norway. If he decides to tour again, he’ll have no trouble selling out concert halls around the world. And in Montreal, where he’s a patron saint, he does get recognized on the street.
But in Los Angeles, a town saturated with stardom, he’s virtually anonymous. More legend than star, Leonard has achieved an ideal level of celebrity. He knows how to play the game and how to woo the media. In 1994, he vanished for five years to serve
as a monk at a monastery on Mount Baldy in southern California, without fear of losing his place. He knew that when he came down from the mountain and re-entered the fray, several generations of loyal fans would be there waiting for him—as he sang in Boogie Street: I’m wanted at the traffic-jam / They’re saving me a seat.
For those fans, Leonard’s financial woes may come as a blessing. Now that he’s broke, he’s had to fan the fire under a career that has been quietly smouldering. He’s putting the finishing touches on a long-awaited collection of new poetry, the Book of Longing, which McClelland & Stewart plans to publish in March. He’s eager to record a new album in the fall and hopes to tour—for the first time in 12 years. And when I visited him last month, he played me an unmastered recording of a stunning album of new songs he’s produced for his partner and collaborator, Anjani Thomas.
Titled Blue Alert, it’s a collection of jazzblues ballads, with Anjani singing Leonard’s words and accompanying herself on piano. The project, which Sony will release early next year, originated when she picked up a notebook of his lyrics lying open on the coffee table. Anjani, who began singing backup for Cohen in the ’80s, has an exquisite voice. But here she drops her soprano down a notch and sounds like Cohen reincarnated as woman. With her hypnotic vocals harnessed to his lyrics, Blue Alert’s torch songs put her in a league with Diana Krall and Norah Jones. And though Cohen doesn’t sing a note on the album, his voice permeates it like smoke.
Leonard now admits to being strangely happy, although he conceded that being wiped out financially and having your name blackened “is enough to put a dent in your mood.” But his chronic depression, which lifted more than a decade ago on Mount Baldy, has not returned. With monastic discipline he gets up at 4 a.m. to write, and clings to the peace of the morning before the lawyers’ phone calls and emails break the spell. The last time I saw him, he read me an ancient Eastern scripture that says that, internally, you must be “free of hope and desire,” while outwardly you should “do what is to be done.” Those years of extravagant meditation on Mount Baldy have not been in vain. When you’re broke on Boogie Street, a little Buddhist detachment may prove invaluable. [*]
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