Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Leonard Cohen Makes It Darker

When Leonard Cohen was twenty-five, he was living in London, sitting in cold rooms writing sad poems. He got by on a three-thousand-dollar grant from the Canada Council for the Arts. This was 1960, long before he played the festival at the Isle of Wight in front of six hundred thousand people. In those days, he was a Jamesian Jew, the provincial abroad, a refugee from the Montreal literary scene. Cohen, whose family was both prominent and cultivated, had an ironical view of himself. He was a bohemian with a cushion whose first purchases in London were an Olivetti typewriter and a blue raincoat at Burberry. Even before he had much of an audience, he had a distinct idea of the audience he wanted. In a letter to his publisher, he said that he was out to reach “inner-directed adolescents, lovers in all degrees of anguish, disappointed Platonists, pornography-peepers, hair-handed monks and Popists.”

Cohen was growing weary of London’s rising damp and its gray skies. An English dentist had just yanked one of his wisdom teeth. After weeks of cold and rain, he wandered into a bank and asked the teller about his deep suntan. The teller said that he had just returned from a trip to Greece. Cohen bought an airline ticket.

Not long afterward, he alighted in Athens, visited the Acropolis, made his way to the port of Piraeus, boarded a ferry, and disembarked at the island of Hydra. With the chill barely out of his bones, Cohen took in the horseshoe-shaped harbor and the people drinking cold glasses of retsina and eating grilled fish in the cafés by the water; he looked up at the pines and the cypress trees and the whitewashed houses that crept up the hillsides. There was something mythical and primitive about Hydra. Cars were forbidden. Mules humped water up the long stairways to the houses. There was only intermittent electricity. Cohen rented a place for fourteen dollars a month. Eventually, he bought a whitewashed house of his own, for fifteen hundred dollars, thanks to an inheritance from his grandmother.

Hydra promised the life Cohen had craved: spare rooms, the empty page, eros after dark. He collected a few paraffin lamps and some used furniture: a Russian wrought-iron bed, a writing table, chairs like “the chairs that van Gogh painted.” During the day, he worked on a sexy, phantasmagoric novel called “The Favorite Game” and the poems in a collection titled “Flowers for Hitler.” He alternated between extreme discipline and the varieties of abandon. There were days of fasting to concentrate the mind. There were drugs to expand it: pot, speed, acid. “I took trip after trip, sitting on my terrace in Greece, waiting to see God,” he said years later. “Generally, I ended up with a bad hangover.”

Here and there, Cohen caught glimpses of a beautiful Norwegian woman. Her name was Marianne Ihlen, and she had grown up in the countryside near Oslo. Her grandmother used to tell her, “You are going to meet a man who speaks with a tongue of gold.” She thought she already had: Axel Jensen, a novelist from home, who wrote in the tradition of Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs. She had married Jensen, and they had a son, little Axel. Jensen was not a constant husband, however, and, by the time their child was four months old, Jensen was, as Marianne put it, “over the hills again” with another woman.

One spring day, Ihlen was with her infant son in a grocery store and café. “I was standing in the shop with my basket waiting to pick up bottled water and milk,” she recalled decades later, on a Norwegian radio program. “He is standing in the doorway with the sun behind him.” Cohen asked her to join him and his friends outside. He was wearing khaki pants, sneakers, a shirt with rolled sleeves, and a cap. The way Marianne remembered it, he seemed to radiate “enormous compassion for me and my child.” She was taken with him. “I felt it throughout my body,” she said. “A lightness had come over me.”

Cohen had known some success with women. He would know a great deal more. For a troubadour of sadness—“the godfather of gloom,” he was later called—Cohen found frequent respite in the arms of others. As a young man, he had a kind of Michael Corleone Before the Fall look, sloe-eyed, dark, a little hunched, but high courtesy and verbal fluency were his charm. When he was thirteen, he read a book on hypnotism. He tried out his new discipline on the family housekeeper, and she took off her clothes. Not everyone over the years was quite as bewitched. Nico spurned him, and Joni Mitchell, who had once been his lover, remained a friend but dismissed him as a “boudoir poet.” But these were the exceptions.

Leonard began spending more and more time with Marianne. They went to the beach, made love, kept house. Once, when they were apart—Marianne and Axel in Norway, Cohen in Montreal scraping up some money—he sent her a telegram: “Have house all I need is my woman and her son. Love, Leonard.”

There were times of separation, times of argument and jealousy. When Marianne drank, she could go into a dark rage. And there were infidelities on both sides. (“Good gracious. All the girls were panting for him,” Marianne recalled. “I would dare go as far as to say that I was on the verge of killing myself due to it.”)

In the mid-sixties, as Cohen started to record his songs and win worldly success, Marianne became known to his fans as that antique figure—the muse. A memorable photograph of her, dressed only in a towel, and sitting at the desk in the house on Hydra, appeared on the back of Cohen’s second album, “Songs from a Room.” But, after they’d been together for eight years, the relationship came apart, little by little—“like falling ashes,” as Cohen put it.

Cohen was spending more time away from Hydra pursuing his career. Marianne and Axel stayed on awhile on Hydra, then left for Norway. Eventually, Marianne married again. But life had its burdens, particularly for Axel, who has had persistent health problems. What Cohen’s fans knew of Marianne was her beauty and what it had inspired: “Bird on the Wire,” “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye,” and, most of all, “So Long, Marianne.” She and Cohen stayed in touch. When he toured in Scandinavia, she visited him backstage. They exchanged letters and e-mails. When they spoke to journalists and to friends of their love affair, it was always in the fondest terms.

In late July this year, Cohen received an e-mail from Jan Christian Mollestad, a close friend of Marianne’s, saying that she was suffering from cancer. In their last communication, Marianne had told Cohen that she had sold her beach house to help insure that Axel would be taken care of, but she never mentioned that she was sick. Now, it appeared, she had only a few days left. Cohen wrote back immediately:
Well Marianne, it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine. And you know that I’ve always loved you for your beauty and your wisdom, but I don’t need to say anything more about that because you know all about that. But now, I just want to wish you a very good journey. Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road.
Two days later, Cohen got an e-mail from Norway:
Dear Leonard 
Marianne slept slowly out of this life yesterday evening. Totally at ease, surrounded by close friends. 
Your letter came when she still could talk and laugh in full consciousness. When we read it aloud, she smiled as only Marianne can. She lifted her hand, when you said you were right behind, close enough to reach her. 
It gave her deep peace of mind that you knew her condition. And your blessing for the journey gave her extra strength. . . . In her last hour I held her hand and hummed “Bird on the Wire,” while she was breathing so lightly. And when we left the room, after her soul had flown out of the window for new adventures, we kissed her head and whispered your everlasting words. 
So long, Marianne . . .
Leonard Cohen lives on the second floor of a modest house in Mid-Wilshire, a diverse, unglamorous precinct of Los Angeles. He is eighty-two. Between 2008 and 2013, he was on tour more or less continuously. It is highly unlikely that his health will permit such rigors ever again. Cohen has an album coming out in October—obsessed with mortality, God-infused, yet funny, called “You Want It Darker”—but friends and musical associates say they’d be surprised to see him onstage again except in a limited way: a single performance, perhaps, or a short residency at one venue. When I e-mailed ahead to ask Cohen out for dinner, he said that he was more or less “confined to barracks.”

Not long ago, one of Cohen’s most frequent visitors, and an old friend of mine—Robert Faggen, a professor of literature—brought me by the house. Faggen met Cohen twenty years ago in a grocery store, at the foot of Mt. Baldy, the highest of the San Gabriel Mountains, an hour and a half east of Los Angeles. They were both living near the top of the mountain: Bob in a cabin where he wrote about Frost and Melville and drove down the road to teach his classes at Claremont McKenna College; Cohen in a small Zen Buddhist monastery, where he was an ordained monk. As Faggen was shopping for cold cuts, he heard a familiar basso voice across the store; he looked down the aisle and saw a small, trim man, his head shaved, talking intently with a clerk about varieties of potato salad. Faggen’s musical expertise runs more to Mahler’s lieder than to popular song. But he is an admirer of Cohen’s work and introduced himself. They have been close friends ever since.

Cohen greeted us. He sat in a large blue medical chair, the better to ease the pain from compression fractures in his back. He is now very thin, but he is still handsome, with a full head of gray-white hair and razory dark eyes. He wore a well-tailored midnight-blue suit—even in the sixties he wore suits—and a stickpin through his collar. He extended a hand like a courtly retired capo.

“Hello, friends,” he said. “Please, please, sit right there.” The depth of his voice makes Tom Waits sound like Eddie Kendricks.

And then, like my mother, he offered what could only have been the complete catalogue of his larder: water, juice, wine, a piece of chicken, a slice of cake, “maybe something else.” In the hours we spent together, he offered many refreshments, and, always, kindly. “Would you like some slices of cheese and olives?” is not an offer you are likely to get from Axl Rose. “Some vodka? A glass of milk? Schnapps?” And, as with my mother, it is best, sometimes, to say yes. One day, we had cheeseburgers-with-everything ordered from a Fatburger down the street and, on another, thick slices of gefilte fish with horseradish.

Marianne’s death was only a few weeks in the past, and Cohen was still amazed at the way his letter—an e-mail to a dying friend—had gone viral, at least in the Cohen-ardent universe. He hadn’t set out to be public about his feelings, but when one of Marianne’s closest friends, in Oslo, asked to release the note, he didn’t object. “And since there’s a song attached to it, and there’s a story . . .” he said. “It’s just a sweet story. So in that sense I’m not displeased.”

Like anyone of his age, Cohen counts the losses as a matter of routine. He seemed not so much devastated by Marianne’s death as overtaken by the memory of their time together. “There would be a gardenia on my desk perfuming the whole room,” he said. “There would be a little sandwich at noon. Sweetness, sweetness everywhere.”

Cohen’s songs are death-haunted, but then they have been since his earliest verses. A half century ago, a record executive said, “Turn around, kid. Aren’t you a little old for this?” But, despite his diminished health, Cohen remains as clear-minded and hardworking as ever, soldierly in his habits. He gets up well before dawn and writes. In the small, spare living room where we sat, there were a couple of acoustic guitars leaning against the wall, a keyboard synthesizer, two laptops, a sophisticated microphone for voice recording. Working with an old collaborator, Pat Leonard, and his son, Adam, who has the producer’s credit, Cohen did much of his work for “You Want It Darker” in the living room, e-mailing recorded files to his partners for additional refinements. Age and the end of age provide a useful, if not entirely desired, air of quiet.

“In a certain sense, this particular predicament is filled with many fewer distractions than other times in my life and actually enables me to work with a little more concentration and continuity than when I had duties of making a living, being a husband, being a father,” he said. “Those distractions are radically diminished at this point. The only thing that mitigates against full production is just the condition of my body.

“For some odd reason,” he went on, “I have all my marbles, so far. I have many resources, some cultivated on a personal level, but circumstantial, too: my daughter and her children live downstairs, and my son lives two blocks down the street. So I am extremely blessed. I have an assistant who is devoted and skillful. I have a friend like Bob and another friend or two who make my life very rich. So in a certain sense I’ve never had it better. . . . At a certain point, if you still have your marbles and are not faced with serious financial challenges, you have a chance to put your house in order. It’s a cliché, but it’s underestimated as an analgesic on all levels. Putting your house in order, if you can do it, is one of the most comforting activities, and the benefits of it are incalculable.”

by David Remnick, New Yorker |  Read more:
Image: Graeme Mitchell