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#2442 - Sunday, April 9, 2006 - Editor: Gloria Lee  

One by one the guests arrive
The guests are coming through
The open-hearted many
The broken-hearted few

And those who dance begin to dance
And those who weep begin
Welcome, welcome, cries a voice
Let all my guests come in

Part of "The Guests"
by Leonard Cohen     

(The above is NOT associated with interview to follow, just found it irresistible. Almost ALL his photos seem to be copyrighted.-G.)

These selected excerpts are way less than half the long article, but if you like Leonard Cohen and his music even half as much as I do, you may want to just start from the beginning and read the whole thing from the web. If not, Zen and this complex man are pretty good reading, anyway. Also, this same website has poetry and art unavailable elsewhere, for the true afficianado, most from the  Mt.Baldy era. -Gloria  

Interview by Pico Iyer  

Poetry and Art from the scrapbooks
...directly from Leonard Cohen

In Spring 1997 Leonard Cohen, or Jikan - as the other monks at the Zen Center of Mount Baldy near Los Angeles used to call him - started to contribute to The Leonard Cohen Files with colour copies of sketches, paintings, drawings and computer art taken from his numerous scrapbooks. Cohen also gave his permission to show any of these on the pages of this "Blackening Pages" section. Several works of art have never before been seen in public.



by Pico Iyer

In an austere Zen monastery up on Mount Baldy, the once sybaritic,
sex-obsessed poet has finally found his soul-mate.

    selected excerpts:  

But many would be most surprised of all to know that the definitive ladies' man and husky poet of the morning after is now living year-round in the Mount Baldy Zen Center, 6,250 feet above sea level, in the dark San Gabriel Mountains behind Los Angeles, serving, as he says, as "cook, chauffeur, and sometimes drinking buddy" to a 92-year-old Japanese man with whom he shares few words.

Cohen has, in fact, been a friend of Joshu Sasaki ever since 1973, though he has not made a fuss about it, and votaries will get clues to this part of his existence only from a couple of tiny elliptical vignettes in his 1978 book, Death of a Lady's Man, and occasional songs like "If It Be You Will" that, like his 1984 collection of psalms, Book of Mercy, express absolute submission. Apart from his 26-year-old son, Adam, and his 23-year-old daughter, Lorca, the Japanese roshi seems to be the one still point in Cohen's endlessly turning life, and now he accompanies the man he calls his friend to Zen centers from Vienna to Puerto Rico, and goes through punishing retreats each month in which he does nothing but sit zazen, 24 hours a day for seven days on end.

The rest of the time he works around the Zen center, shoveling snow, scrubbing floors, and most enthusiastically working around the kitchen (he tells me, with mischievous pride, that he has a certificate from the county of San Bernadino that qualifies him to work as a waiter, busboy, or cook). For the monk here known as Jikan (or "Silent One"), the things he's famous for a command of words, beautiful suits, a hunger for ideas, and a hypnotist's ease at charming the world are thrown aside. "In the zendo," he tells me, not unhappily, "all of this disappears." ("This" referring, I think, to his name, his past, the life he carries around within him." "You don't notice if this woman's beautiful or ugly. If that man smells or doesn't smell. Whoever you're sitting next to, you just see their pain. And when you're sitting, you feel nothing but the pain. And sometimes it goes, and then it's back again. And you can't think of anything else. Just the pain." He pauses (and the chanteur/enchanteur slips out again). "And, of course, it's the same with other kinds of pain, like broken hearts."

The icon who's been entertained and idolized by everyone from Prince Charles and Georges Pompidou to Joni Mitchell and Michelle Phillips, the regular visitor to the top of the European charts who's inspired not one tribute album (like most legends), but a dozen worldwide, the Officer of the Order of Canada recently described, in The United States of Poetry, as "perhaps the continent's most successful poet," seems to thrive on this. He's too happy to write anymore, he tells me soon after I arrive (though, one day later, he's showing me things he's writing, toward a new Book of Longing). And, though the face is still strikingly reminiscent of Dustin Hoffman's especially if he were playing Harold Bloom he's well hidden in the bobble cap that his roshi "commanded" him to wear. "This whole practice is mostly about terrifying you," he says happily. "But there's a lot to be gained in those terrors. It gets you so efficiently into a certain place."

And the place is one that Cohen has been journeying toward all his life, in a sense. "There's a bias against religious virtue here," he assures me, grinning, one morning, as bells toll outside and I smell sweet incense in the air and hear clappers knocking in the distance "and it's very appealing. So you never have the feeling that it's Sunday school. And you never have the feeling that you're abandoning some cavalier life, or getting into some goody-good enterprise. Not at all. Not at all." When a Buddhist magazine recently asked Cohen to conduct an interview with Sasaki, he gladly agreed, provided that they could talk about "wine, women, and money." And to be sure we've hardly been introduced for the first time before the disarming sinner/songwriter is using "pussy" and "shunyatta" in the same sentence.

It's not so much that Cohen has given up the world he still has a duplex that he bought with two friends near the Jewish district of Fairfax (where his daughter currently lives), and when I visited him at two o'clock in the morning, I heard the crackle of a transistor radio in his bedroom. The man with a gift for being in tune with the times is still providing the songs that are heard on the sound track to Oliver Stone's state-of-the-art Natural Born Killers, appearing at Rebecca De Mornay's side at Hollywood functions not so long ago and inspiring a new generation of grunge poets to the point where Kurt Cobain famously sang, "Give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld so I can sigh eternally." But he nonetheless managed to come to L.A., archetypal center of surface and self-absorption and turn it into a high, cold mountain training more rigorous than the army.

In some ways, he's been there since the beginning. His songs, after all, have always been about obedience and war, pain and attention and surrender, and he's always seemed a curiously old-fashioned, even forbidding figure who abhors clutter and goes it alone and learns to be on his knees as well as on his toes focused and penetrating and wild. The dark skies and spare spaces and mythic shapes around Mount Baldy feel uncannily like the landscape of a Leonard Cohen song. Besides, the self-styled "voice of suffering" has never chosen to diversify his themes; he just goes deeper and deeper into them. The refrain that lights up his recent song "Democracy" actually appears in his novel, Beautiful Losers, from 30 years ago; the poem he recited as a prologue to volume one of Rare on Air, the KCRW compilation-album series, was one he wrote for his first book, composed in part when he was in high school. Even 30 years ago, when he was known as a woman-hungry, acid-dropping, enfant-terrible provocateur, he was writing, "Prayer is translation. A man translates himself into a child asking for all there is in a language he has barely mastered." [...] 

Now, as we sit in his cabin one cold December morning, a string of Christmas lights twinkling sadly from the roadside shack across the street, "Mike Suzie" scrawled into the pavement, he's telling me that he makes no claims to piety or knowledge: His training here is just a useful response to the "predicament of his life." This "connection the unavoidable presence of the Other has driven us to religion," he says, explaining why he thinks "the great religion is the great work of art." We "form ourselves around these problems," he goes on. "These problems exist prior to us, and we gather ourselves, almost molecularly, we gather ourselves around these perplexities. And that's what a human is: a gathering around a perplexity."

He sips some coffee from a cup with the logo of The Future on it, beside him the thick notebooks where poems hundreds of verses long will get condensed, often, into a single six-verse song. Around us, as we sit, almost nothing else except a bottle of Sparkletts water, a few candles, a toothbrush, and, tucked into a light switch, a picture of the Winged Victory. Cohen has not slept, most likely, for six days. "It's driven us to art," he says, returning to his theme of the Other. "I mean, it's so perplexing, the humiliations, the glories that are so abundant, and it's such a dangerous undertaking. I was just looking through my notebooks, and I saw something nice. It was: 'I set out for love, but I did not know I'd be caught in the grip of an undertow. To be swept to a shore, where the sea needs to go, with a child in my arms, and a chill in my soul, and my heart the size of a begging-bowl.'"

And even on this lofty perch, with nothing visible but rock and tree and the occasional sign prohibiting the throwing of snowballs, he doesn't deny the "fixed self" that awaits him whenever he comes down from the mountain, and in fact goes out of his way to downplay his presence on the mountaintop. "Everyone here is fucked up and desperate," he says brightly. "That's why they're here. You don't come to a place like this unless you're desperate." Yet over and over, amid the calculated irreverence, the gamesmanship, and the crazy-wisdom subversiveness - one of the reasons he became a monk two years ago, he says, was "Roshi wanted me to do so for tax purposes" - I see something touching and genuine truly coming through. Leonard Cohen, I realize, is really, really trying, with all his body and his soul, to simplify himself as strictly as he does his word-drunk verses.

One morning at dawn, as we talk about Van Morrison and Norman Mailer and how "living in England is like living in a cabbage," Cohen gets to talking of Cuba, and the time, just after the revolution, when he was walking along the beach in his Canadian Army khaki shorts with his camping knife, imagining himself the only North American on the island, and got arrested as the first member of an invading force.

"So anyway, there I was, on the beach in Varadero, speculating on my destiny, when suddenly I found myself surrounded by 16 soldiers with guns. They arrested me, and the only words I knew at the time were 'Amistad de pueblo.' So I kept saying, 'Amigo! Amistad de pueblo!' and finally they started greeting me. And they gave me a necklace of shells and a necklace of bullets and everything was great."

Then, suddenly, he stops. "What time is it?"

I tell him and he says, "I shouldn't be talking about my adventures when we're about to listen to a wonderful teisho." And Leonard Cohen disappears into the black-robed disciple again, and into a reverent silence.

Another day, another tale as short and abstract and mythic, almost, as any of his ballads about worshipping at the altar of beauty, as he suddenly volunteers to tell me about his last girlfriend.

"When I met Rebecca [De Mornay]," he says, "all kinds of thoughts came into my mind, as how could they not when faced with a woman of such beauty? And they got crisscrossed in my mind. But she didn't let it go further than that: my mind. Except it did. And finally she saw I was a guy who just couldn't come across."

"'Come across?'"

"In the sense of being a husband and having more children and the rest." He stops. "And she was right, of course. But she was kind enough to forgive me. I had breakfast with her the other day, and I told her, 'I know why you forgave me. Because I really, really tried.' And she said, 'Yes.'" End of story, end of song.

At times, as I listened, spellbound against my will by this man with beautiful manners and a poet's rare diction, moving back and forth between hippie existentialist and Old World scholar, now referring to "bread" and "tokes" and "beating the rap," now talking in a high-pitched tone of "ancient" and "dismal" and "predicament," I could see the coyote trickster who's been working the press for three decades or more. I felt disconcerted, almost, by his very niceness, his openness, his courtesy, as he continually kept thanking me for "being kind enough to come here," and tended to my every need as if I were the celebrity and he the poor journalist and referred to "what you're nice enough to call my career." I felt there was something excessive to his modesty, his unusually articulate and quick-witted sentences bemoaning his lack of articulateness and sharpness ("I'm sorry. You get this kind of spaciness at moments in retreats. They say zazen brings short-term memory loss"), his claiming not to know, after 20 years in L.A., how long it takes to drive to Santa Barbara. [...]

"I feel," says Cohen a little later, when we're alone, "we're in a very shabby moment, and neither the literary nor the musical experience really has its finger on the pulse of our crisis. From my point of view, we're in the midst of a Flood, a Flood of biblical proportions. It's both exterior and interior - at this point it's more devastating on the interior level, but it's leaking into the real world. And this Flood is of such enormous and biblical proportions that I see everybody holding on in their individual way to an orange crate, to a piece of wood, and we're passing each other in this swollen river that has pretty well taken down all the landmarks, and pretty well overturned everything we've got. And people insist, under the circumstances, on describing themselves as 'liberal' or 'conservative.' It seems to me completely mad."

Of course, he says impatiently, he can't explain what he's doing here. "I don't think anybody really knows why they're doing anything. If you stop someone on the subway and say, 'Where are you going - in the deepest sense of the world?' you can't really expect an answer. I really don't know why I'm here. It's a matter of 'What else would I be doing?' Do I want to be Frank Sinatra, who's really great, and do I want to have great retrospectives of my work? I'm not really interested in being the oldest folksinger around.

"Would I be starting a new marriage with a young woman and raising another family? Well, I hated it when it was going on" - signs of the snarl beneath the chuckle - "so maybe I would feel better about it now. But I don't think so.

"What would I be doing? Finding new drugs, buying more expensive wine? I don't know. This seems to me the most luxurious and sumptuous response to the emptiness of my own existence. "I think that's the real deep entertainment," he concludes. "Religion. Real profound and voluptuous and delicious entertainment. The real feast that is available to us is within this activity. Nothing touches it." He smiles his godfatherly smile. "Except if you're courtin'. If you're young, the hormonal thrust has its own excitement."

Before I leave, he catches my eye, and his voice turns soft.

"We are gathered here," he says, "around a very, very old man, who may go tomorrow. So that gives an urgency to the practice. Everybody, including Roshi, is practicing with a kind of passionate diligence. It touches my heart. It makes me proud to be part of this community."

Before I leave the following morning, the roshi invites me, with Cohen, to his cabin for lunch. It's a typically eclectic meal, of noodles and curry, taken quietly and simply, in a small, sunlit dining area. As ever when the roshi is around, Cohen sits absolutely humble and silent in one corner, all the tension emptied out of his face; everything about him is light, like a clear glass once the liquid's drained.

Then he tells me a little about how he was once fascinated by Persian miniatures. He talks of the intensity of "living in a world of samples." He cleans up around the kitchen and ask his old friend, very gently, if he'' tired. When we go out into the parking lot, a woman comes up and starts telling him how much his songs have meant to her, and Cohen gives her his warmest smile and leaves her with a kind of blessing.

"A practice like this," he tells me, " - and I think everyone here would say the same thing - you could only do for love."

"So if it weren't for the roshi, you wouldn't be here?" I ask.

"If it weren't for the roshi, I wouldn't be."

And as I set off down the mountain - listening with new ears to the old songs, and seeing the shadow of an old Japanese man in the love songs and the ballads about "the few who forgive what you do and the fewer who don't even care" - I realize that the whole stay has affected me more powerfully than anything I've done in years. Why? Mostly, I think, because of a sense of the deep bond between Sasaki and Cohen, and the way neither seems to need anything from the other, yet each allows the other to be deeper than he might be otherwise. "Roshi knows me for who I am," Cohen had said, "and he doesn't want me to be any other. 'International Man,' 'Culture Man,' he calls me; he knows I am an 'International Man.'" And, by all accounts, he will take everything Cohen brings him - his selfishness, his anger, his ambition, his sins - and, while holding them up to him, accept him.

It's touching in a way: The man who has been the poet laureate of commitophobes, who has never found in his 63 years a woman he can marry or a home he won't desert, the connoisseur of betrayal and self-tormenting soul who claimed 25 years ago that he had "torn everyone who reached out for me," and who ended his most recent collection of writings with a prayer for "the precious ones I overthrew for an education in the world" - the man, in fact, who became an international heartthrob while singing "So Long, Marianne" and "That's No Way to Say Good-bye" - has finally found something he hasn't abandoned and a love that won't let him down. "Roshi said something to me the other day that I like," Cohen tells me just before I leave. "'The older you get, the lonelier you become and the deeper the love that you need.'" For the old and the deep and the lonely, change, it seems, may not be the only aphrodisiac.

"I think that's real deep entertainment," he concludes.
"Religion. Real profound and voluptuous and delicious entertainment."

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