[Originally published in Park Cities People]
“Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man”: What Really Makes a Legend
Leonard Cohen isn’t just a man. He’s that rarest of creatures. He’s a gentleman. I knew
little of him before seeing the film about his life, “Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man.” I found
the generosity with which he was greeted by the likes of Bono and Rufus Wainwright engaging;
however, when Bono described Cohen by invoking the poets Keats and Shelley, I was taken
aback. Bono talking about Keats? And Cohen being ushered into the pantheon of the hallowed
and holiest? I was dubious. Then, gradually, the magic of Cohen began to work its charm. He’s
no Keats — I’m forced to part company with Bono on that score. But Cohen is his own man —
and quite a fabulous one at that.
A native of Montreal and the son of a successful clothing manufacturer, Mr. Cohen enjoyed
a life of privilege. And it shows. He’s urbane; he’s intelligent, articulate, and well-bred.
Add to that a natural sartorial grace and luminous eyes that suggest a life deeply lived and
you have the makings of someone people listen to. Literally.
Wainwright describes visiting Cohen for the first time. The composer was wearing only his
underwear and feeding masticated bits of meat to a baby bird that had fallen from its nest.
Cohen would chew the stuff, then offer it to the creature on a toothpick. Wainwright
squirms as he relates the story. He said, “Then he [Cohen] disappeared and re-emerged
dressed in Armani. So there was Leonard Cohen. He looked like he had just walked off one
of his album covers.” Exactly.
Clothing doesn’t really make the man — but sometimes it underscores precisely who he is.
And Cohen is made for Armani. And not just because his father was a clothier. Anything
else seems inappropriate. He’s impeccable, polite, a marvelous storyteller and his manners
are as eloquent as his music. The only disturbing thing is: this is such an anomaly.
He’s so rare as to be something of an endangered species.
Cohen spent years of his life training with a Zen master on Mount Baldy. His practice
entailed wearing sandals in winter snow and the arduous routine of monastic life that
begins with a 3:00 “wake up” followed by “tea” at 3:10 and a subsequent regimen so
harsh as to be almost surreal. He said, “I’ve always been attracted to ritual, to order…to
monasteries.” Well, that shows, too. How can an intersection with monastic life, with the
sacred, make a visible imprint? If asked to describe it in precise terms, I’d balk. In fact, I
don’t exactly know. But it does. It’s an outward manifestation of one’s inner being.
Cohen’s work is interlaced with the language of the sacred and the profane. In “Ain’t No
Cure for Love” he mixes everyday images of ornamentation with the place of liturgy and
worship. “I see your hand, I see your head, your bracelets and your brush and I call to
you. But I don’t call soft enough. There ain’t no cure for love. I walked into this empty
church. I had no place else to go. Then the softest voice I ever heard whispered to my
soul, ‘It’s written in the scriptures, it’s written there in love.’ I even heard the angels
declaring from above, ‘There ain’t no cure for love…’” Then he adds a bit of humor, ”The
doctors are workin’ day and night but they’ll never find that cure for love.”
This is masterful. It’s not Keats. It doesn’t have the complexity of Keats. But it does
smack, say, of Arthurian legend. Cohen is certainly a knight of sorts. In fact, he’s thoughtful
about his dalliances with women. It’s moving to hear him speak in apologetic fashion
about commemorating an interlude with Janis Joplin in song. That’s right. The older
Cohen apologizes for something musicians typically shout about in coarse snippets that are
now commonplace. We’ve become so inundated with non-lyrical lyrics that we can scarcely
hear their import any longer. They’ve lost not only shock value — they’ve lost any semblance
of excitement and allure. They’ve accomplished the nearly impossible; they’ve made sex
seem less exotic than ordering from a breakfast menu at IHOP.
No wonder Cohen wields such power. No wonder rock stars offer him accolades. He’s
seemingly had the world on a string. Although he makes light of it, he’s been dubbed “a
ladies’ man.” He sips tea from a tiny, gold-rimmed Japanese cup. He’s graceful when he
reminisces and ruminates. But he also seems to be gazing at the entire arrangement from a
high point, a promontory based on a rich interiority and a life of reflection. Perhaps, just
perhaps, Cohen’s view is from the heights of Mount Baldy. When it comes to elegance, the
only garment capable of rivaling Armani might be monks’ robes. One thing is certain:
Cohen is marvelously attractive in both.