It was about 9 o’clock one Montreal morning, and I found myself at Leonard Cohen’s front door.
It wasn’t a trip I’d initially anticipated. It was late 1992, Cohen had just released a new album, The Future, and I’d jumped at the chance to finally interview someone I’d listened to and nearly worshiped since teenage years, when I asked my parents for a copy of The Best Of one Christmas. To my dismay, the interview had been set for his hotel room in Manhattan. Wearing a suit and sitting on the edge of his bed, Cohen was welcoming and patient, talking about how the industry seemed to be more appreciative of him now, especially starting with his previous album, I’m Your Man.
“People have been very kind,” he said, talking of his once-indifferent label, Columbia. “My phone calls are rapidly answered. Limousines receive me at the airport. There are flowers in my hotel. So I know something’s going on, and it’s quite agreeable.” He smiled at the idea that no one was mocking him anymore for implying we were in the end-of-world times. He was 58 and he called bands like the Stones “mere children.”
As I got up to leave, I asked if we could continue the conversation elsewhere – perhaps in his home in Canada. With no hesitation, he said, “Of course. Come on up.” His handler was taken aback and not terribly thrilled I’d suggested this, but Cohen had decreed, so it would be.
That sense of generosity – artists like that rarely jump at the chance to have a reporter barge into their home – was my latest indication that Cohen was no ordinary musician, singer or writer. To those who discovered him, at whatever point in their life, he was heroic on multiple levels. He wasn’t conventionally handsome, didn’t have a pop-star or rock-star voice, and seemed perpetually in need of another cup of coffee, both on record and in photos. He was more Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate than Mick Jagger. Yet for those of us who were gawky or couldn’t sing well but wanted to consider ourselves well-read, articulate or funny, he was salvation. The first song of his I ever heard was “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye,” which was beautiful, tender, and sensuous, but didn’t give a full picture of the wit, charm, and spirituality in his songs and voice-of-God delivery.
Cohen had a home in California at the time, where a friend told me he loved to watch his clothes go round and round in the washing machine, but on this grey, wintry, dusky morning, he was back in his native country. So there I was, standing in front of an unassuming brownstone in Montreal’s Jewish neighborhood, next to delis and hardware stores on a main shipping drag. Cohen himself had suggested I arrive at that early hour – early for musicians, anyway – and the man who opened the door looked as if he’d already been up for a while. He was dressed in a three-piece suit and invited me into the long, cozy kitchen. “Have you had Canadian bagels?” he asked; when I said I hadn’t, he insisted I must and lit up the oven.
“This notion that the common people aren’t up to the complexities or sophistication of my work is completely inaccurate and elitist.”
While he fussed over the bagels, we talked more about the album, Canada and Bill Clinton’s election (he was already a fan of Clinton’s wife, for numerous reasons). He talked about his music and image and the frustrations he often felt at being pigeonholed as a cult act, even by his label. “I’ve always suggested to them in my mild-mannered way that they might stop thinking of me as an intellectual poet, that they might take their lead from some of these European countries and think of me as a pop singer,” he said. “This notion that the common people aren’t up to the complexities or sophistication of my work is completely inaccurate and elitist. Everybody has more or less the same emotional life. The heart is not subject to education, certainly not of the university variety. The heart just cooks and splatters like shish kebob in everybody’s breast.”
No, it was not your standard rock-star setting or even interview.
In words that would take on more meaning a decade or more later, when he would be rediscovered, Cohen said that morning, “The young are perennially interested in integrity, and they tend to resurrect artists on that basis. I know I did as a kid when i started to write. The people who had a certain air about them, of having taken the whole thing seriously – people like Hank Williams, Leadbelly, Yeats. The young have an unerring sense for bullshit.” He smiled. “They’re good at that. One is happy to be on the other side of the barn.”
Suddenly I heard the sound of footsteps descending from the stairs from an upper floor. Turning around, I saw it was Rebecca De Mornay. The two had been a rumored item for a while at that point, but the sight was still shocking: of De Mornay, at the peak of her The Hand That Rocks the Cradle phase, blond, lithesome and wearing one of Cohen’s sweatshirts.
“I never laid a hand on her,” Cohen deadpanned.
As gracious as Cohen was, she joined us at the table. A bottle of red wine sat there, although I can’t recall if either of them had any at that moment. She was about 25 years younger than Cohen. He called her sweetheart and she rubbed his arm. They’d met each over five years before. “Solid-gold artists would kill for this kind of anguish,” he said to me, followed by a smile.
“I first heard you when I was 10,” De Mornay said to me as Cohen listened. “My mother was going out on a date and wanted me to go to sleep, so she lit a candle – for a child alone in a house – and said, ‘I’ll put a record on that’ll put you right to sleep.’ And that’s when I first heard Leonard. And I remember it did put me to sleep. But it was comforting.” Cohen smiled bemusedly, the slightest roll of an eye.
At one point, perhaps no longer amused by all the small talk, Cohen looked directly at me: “So, why are you here?”
I was taken aback: For a moment, a steely strength, which surely accounted for his durability as much as his songs, emerged. I told him I thought this would be a better place for a conversation than a hotel room, and with that, his guard went back down and on we talked. “I’ve never chosen a style that was deliberately obscure,” he said. “I’ve always tried to write hits. I never came up with the idea of writing a song that would mystify anybody and prevent anyone from tapping their foot to it. It’s just that nobody tapped their foot to it.” De Mornay laughed.
Two of his local friends stopped by, one a sculptor, for more coffee. Cohen told them about his busy promotional schedule. “Oh, yes,” he told them with a proud smile. “You have no idea how hot I am to the record company.” He flashed an all-teeth, almost-boyish can-you-believe-it? grin. “No idea.”
At one point Cohen perked up. “We’d better make a quick raid on the smoked meat factory, so you can have a taste of the smoked-meat sandwich for which Montreal is famous,” he told me. With an indication that Cohen and De Mornay needed some degree of alone time, the three of us – me and his friends – headed out the door.
We returned with sandwiches and scarfed them down, but soon it was afternoon and I had to leave. Snow had started to flicker in Montreal, and I began packing my bag. “Do you have a scarf?” Cohen asked. I said no, I hadn’t brought one, and he pulled out a long, thin scarf with a black-and-red checkered pattern, and handed it to me. I thanked him but said I couldn’t possibly take his scarf, but like a nice Jewish mother or father, he insisted, and I took it.
The scarf remains in my closet. As rock-star interview mementos go, it’s admittedly mundane. But now, as we really do seem to be facing apocalyptic times, it’s a reminder of the comfort and wisdom he left behind, the kind that could always get anyone through good and bad weather, and good and bad times.