Look Who’s Back at 67: Gentle Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen’s smoky baritone was almost a whisper. “It’s really difficult to talk about these things on the phone,” he said on Oct. 5. “Too bad we can’t meet for a drink. It would take several drinks to loosen both our tongues to try to get to the deep truth of the matter.”

Some truths were evident. On Aug. 16, I had interviewed the poet, singer-songwriter and Zen monk at his suite in the Mayflower Hotel on Central Park West. It was a disarmingly beautiful day, and Mr. Cohen, who turned 67 on Sept. 21, had greeted me at the door with a little bow. Frailness had crept into his frame, but he was the picture of austere elegance in his 20-year-old charcoal-gray Paul Stuart suit, close-cropped gray hair and tinted drugstore bifocals. He had served me water and prepared coffee for himself, and after lighting up the first of a long chain of Turkish Tekel cigarettes, we had discussed how, after five years of practicing at a Zen monastery on Mount Baldy, Calif., he had returned to civilization and produced Ten New Songs (Columbia), one of the best albums of his long career.

Less than a month later, that conversation and the city in which it had taken place felt like a distant, inaccessible memory. Four days before the album’s Oct. 9 release date, I had called Mr. Cohen in an attempt to connect the past with the present, and to see if the man who had pursued a spiritual path would be able to make any sense of what had happened on Sept. 11.

But what could he say? “There are people in mourning; there’s shock and grief. I really feel that an analysis of the situation from any point of view is premature,” Mr. Cohen said. “Regardless of what position we come from, we are all involved in some kind of way. And, as I say, in the Jewish tradition, one is cautioned against trying to comfort the comfortless in the midst of their bereavement.

“The most I can hope for is that the songs in some small way have some utility in providing solace,” Mr. Cohen said. “Because they are gentle and on the side of healing in some sort of way.”

Ten New Songs was finished weeks before the events of Sept. 11, yet it sounds eerily relevant-as if it had been recorded in the aftermath. It’s an R&B-inflected Zen pop album that, on the surface, is as soothing, sensuous and accessible as a Sade record. But, like any Leonard Cohen album, the lyrics offer a more complex, enriching experience. Though they are tinged with the kind of melancholy that one might expect from a world-class ladies’ man facing the loneliest stretch of life, they are ultimately comforting.

In August, those lyrics sounded more personal, the document of an artist confronting his twilight. “The ponies run, the girls are young / The odds are there to beat / You win a while, and then it’s done / Your little winning streak,” Mr. Cohen sings on “A Thousand Kisses Deep,” the album’s second track. In “Here It Is”: “And here is the night / The night has begun / And here is your death / In the heart of your son.”

“I’m not necessarily the person in all my songs,” Mr. Cohen had pointed out at the Mayflower. But he acknowledged that death shadowed a lot of the album’s songs.

“That’s the ocean you swim in as you get older,” he said. “I think any man of 67 has a pretty clear idea that, you know, that the sense of limitation is acute.”

Today, in a city haunted by death, Mr. Cohen’s album feels more universal. It’s difficult to listen to the track “By the Rivers Dark,” for instance, and not think of the events of Sept. 11. The tune is set in Babylon, the city of materialism and sensual pleasure. Over an anguished synthesizer, Mr. Cohen-his voice a dusty croak-sings: “By the rivers dark / Where I could not see / Who was waiting there / Who was hunting me / And he cut my lip / And he cut my heart / So I could not drink / From the river dark.”

And then there’s “The Land of Plenty”: “Don’t really know who sent me / To raise my voice and say / May the lights in the Land of Plenty / Shine on the truth some day.” On Oct. 5, Mr. Cohen admitted that it’s “a really difficult song now.”

A “sense of a global convulsion has always been present in my work,” said Mr. Cohen, whose music has seemed clairvoyant before. On the title track to 1992’s The Future, for instance, he sang: “Give me back the Berlin Wall / Give me Stalin and St. Paul / I’ve seen the future, brother / It is murder.”

“People just credited it to my general morbid take on things, that I wouldn’t join the celebration about the destruction of the Berlin Wall,” Mr. Cohen said at the Mayflower. “It’s not that I wasn’t happy for people who no longer live under tyrannies, but I also sensed that with the disintegration of the Soviet empire there’d be great disorder, and that that was all that was keeping the various tribes from cutting each other’s throats.”

On Oct. 5, though, Mr. Cohen said: “There’s nothing to gloat about.”

Much of Ten New Songs seems to be about finding peace through the acceptance that one does not control one’s destiny. “I tried to love you my way / But I couldn’t make it hold / So I closed the Book of Longing / And I do what I am told,” Mr. Cohen sings in “That Don’t Make It Junk.” He could be singing about spiritual love or the more earthly kind.

“The evidence accumulates as you get older that things are not going to turn out exactly as you wish them to turn out, and that life has a dreamy quality that suggests that you have no control over the consequences,” Mr. Cohen said at the Mayflower as he stubbed his cigarette into an ashtray. Beneath his gray suit, he was wearing a textured charcoal-gray shirt that he said was also 20 years old, and a charcoal-gray tie with thin diagonal alabaster stripes. “You may believe you have some control over the decisions, but certainly not the consequences. But you live your life as if it’s real … as if you’re directing it, but with the intuitive understanding that it’s unfolding as it should and you are not running the show.”

Mr. Cohen deals with this concept on “A Thousand Kisses Deep,” one of two songs that refers to Boogie Street. The phrase has roots in Bugis (pronounced “Boogie”) Street, a once-notorious red light district in Singapore. For Mr. Cohen though, Boogie Street is a metaphor for the everyday struggles and desires of life.

“It’s always Boogie Street: Boogie Street in the monastery, Boogie Street on Times Square. You don’t get away from it,” Mr. Cohen said. “No one masters the heart. The heart continues to cook like [a] shish kebab in everybody’s breast, bubbling and dripping, and no one-no one-can escape.”

Call Mr. Cohen a spiritual man and he will disagree with you, but he did just spend five years at a Zen monastery, studying with and caring for Sasaki Roshi, his 94-year-old friend and teacher. Mr. Cohen came down from the mountain with some 250 poems and songs, returning to civilization, cigarettes and the duplex he keeps in an unfashionable section of Los Angeles. His daughter Lorca, an antiques dealer, lives downstairs from him. His son Adam, who has his own singing career, lives 10 minutes away. Mr. Cohen said that he’s currently unattached. “There are women in my life, but nothing permanent. Maybe something will come along, but I don’t know,” he said. He added in a quiet voice: “It’s pretty spacious without that particular component.”

Mr. Cohen has a recording studio in his garage, where Ten New Songs was made. The work was not all that different, he said, from life at the monastery. “My studio is not soundproof, so I have to get up before the birds and my daughter’s dogs and the traffic on Olympic to do the vocals,” he explained. Then Mr. Cohen often cooked breakfast for his daughter. At noon, he was joined by two more women in his life: Sharon Robinson, his longtime backup singer, collaborator and friend (Mr. Cohen is the godfather to her 12-year-old son, Michael Gold), and his sound engineer, Leanne Ungar.

Ms. Robinson wrote “Waiting for the Miracle” and “Everybody Knows” with Mr. Cohen, but her involvement on Ten New Songs is significant. She is credited as Mr. Cohen’s co-writer, as the album’s producer, and with arranging, programming and performing the lion’s share of the synthesizer- and keyboard-dominated music. “This record wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for Sharon,” said Mr. Cohen, who included Ms. Robinson on the album’s cover.

Mr. Cohen has never been much for collaboration or sharing the spotlight. But, he said, “Sharon so deeply understands the tone of my own work that she was able to, I think, miraculously produce tracks that fit very harmoniously with the rest of my work.”

And Ms. Robinson’s gorgeous alto adds a cool, creamy counterpoint to the charcoal smudge that Mr. Cohen’s voice has become, especially on the album’s narcotic first track, “In My Secret Life.” Ms. Robinson stays in the background on “Love Itself,” a beautiful but sad song in which the narrator seems to be returning to the dust from which he came. Over a simple slow-dance rhythm, Mr. Cohen sings: “Then I came back from where I’d been / My room, it looked the same / But there was nothing left between / The Nameless and the Name.”

Those lyrics suggest a kind of communion with God, and I asked Mr. Cohen if he’s imagining dying in the song.

“You can look at it that way,” he said, sounding frustrated. “I’m very reluctant to make commentary on my own work.”

Mr. Cohen has always resisted too much analysis of his oeuvre, preferring to torpedo the proceedings with humor.

When I asked him at the Mayflower if he’d ever tried psychotherapy, he replied: “No. But I try everything else.”

When pushed on this, Mr. Cohen said: “This is just an opinion-and I have very little respect for my own opinions. They’re so predictable. And my own beliefs, also, I put in the same category. But when they dissolve, there’s a great sense of liberation.”

Mr. Cohen realized that he’d gotten off the topic. “Therapy,” he said. “So, it was an opinion of mine, based on no research or evidence-well, evidence, yes, because I saw my friends in therapy did not look improved.” Behind the smoke, he smiled. “I preferred to use drugs. I preferred the conventional distractions of wine, women and song. And religion. But it’s all the same.”

“When you say ‘drugs,’ do you mean something like Prozac, or the recreational kind?” I asked him.

Mr. Cohen smirked. “Well, the recreational, the obsessional and the pharmaceutical. I’ve tried them all. I would be enthusiastically promoting any one of them if any one of those worked.”

“Well, what about the wine and women?” I replied. (Mr. Cohen has often waxed eloquent about Château Latour.)

“They’re the worst of all,” he said.

On Sept. 11, Mr. Cohen was in India visiting another teacher, Ramesh Balsekar. He returned to the States as soon as he could. The level of suffering that he believes is always present in the world had been raised to unfathomable heights. And Mr. Cohen knew better than to try to comfort the comfortless.

“You know, there’s an ancient Hebrew blessing that is said upon hearing bad news,” Mr. Cohen said. And then he recited it: “Blessed art thou, king of the universe, the true judge,” he said, adding, “It’s impossible for us to discern the pattern of events and the unfolding of a world which is not entirely our making. So I can only say that.”

It brought to mind something Mr. Cohen had said about benedictions during our first meeting: “I like to hear old guys singing. I don’t know if you heard George Jones’ last record, Cold Hard Truth. It’s worth looking into,” he continued. “When Alberta Hunter was singing in this town many years ago-she was 82-I came to New York just to listen to her. When she said ‘God bless you’ at the end of the set, you really felt that you had been blessed.

“It’s wonderful to hear a 20-year-old speaking about love or the loss of it or the finding of it. As the Talmud says, there’s good wine in every generation. But I love to hear an old singer lay it out. And I’d like to be one of them.”