The Face May Not Be Familiar, but the Name Should Be: It's Composer and Cult Hero Leonard Cohen

updated 01/14/1980 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/14/1980 01:00AM

'What we used to call the artist is becoming obsolete. For some, I stand for that'

He averages 12 encores a concert and leaves capacity audiences on their feet, screaming for more. Fans bring around stacks of his books and albums for autographs and send him bouquets and gifts with adoring notes: "To thank you for all the times you have comforted me when there has been no one else." At 45, Leonard Cohen is a poet, novelist, lyricist, composer, folk singer—and undisputed cult figure.

To look at him (he is a wan 130 pounds) and hear him sing is to wonder what all the excitement is about. His baritone is quavery and nasal; few church choirs would welcome him. The word charisma in any conventional sense seems inappropriate. So why are Leonard Cohen fans mad about the boy? His words and music.

Since his first recorded song, Suzanne, became the hit of campus coffeehouses 13 years ago, Cohen has become a survivor of the '60s. Surprisingly, his cultists today often are teenagers, the children of his early admirers. His latest LP, Recent Songs, which came out in September, never made the charts. Yet it was included among the top 10 pop albums of the year by the New York Times. Cohen wryly notes that two of his seven albums went gold, but "it only took 12 years." He does not conceal his bitterness toward the record business. "Like all American industry," he says, "it is based on greed and short-term profits, and that doesn't coincide with organic things."

Cohen's a show business legend in Europe. In 1972, halfway through a concert in Jerusalem, he decided his performance was too "awful" to continue and announced that all tickets would be refunded. The audience stood and shouted for him to stay—"If you can't sing to us, we'll sing to you"—and they broke into So Long, Marianne, one of his biggest hits. It was an object lesson. Even when his voice threatened to quit during a 50-concert tour of eight European countries that ended last month, Cohen went on. "A tour is a rigorous test of character," he says. "I ask myself, 'Can you do it again? Have you lost your capacity to touch audiences?' When you do a tour carefully and bravely, you get a lot of information about your own resources and how to conserve them. There's a certain relief in having a tight schedule and not having to worry about what to eat or if you're going to be lonely."

After a concert he will sometimes have a drink with his group; but other nights he returns to his room to ruminate and write, such as the song Came So Far for Beauty on his new album: I came so far for beauty / I left so much behind / My patience and my family / My masterpiece unsigned.

Cohen's lyrics are always essentially the same—intense musings about women, sad laments of vanished love, mystical descriptions of his search for truth and God—but the music he introduced in Europe during the recent tour was quite different. To his guitar he has added the jazz-blues of a Texas fusion band, Passenger, as well as the sobbing notes of a Russian violinist and some string work on an ud, a Middle Eastern lute, played by a mandolinist who has worked with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The result is a vibrant meld of East and West.

Cohen came rather late to his career as a folk singer by way of his poetry and novel writing (he has published nine books, some in multiple printings). The son of Russian Jews, he was born in Montreal. His father had been a dashing officer in the Royal Montreal Regiment in the First World War, and Leonard remembers him as "a very patriotic man." He was a snappy dresser who wore a monocle and spats and ran a dredging company that dug provincial canals. Although he died when Leonard was only 9, he left a vivid impression on his son. After the funeral the boy wrote a note about him and buried it in the garden along with one of his father's bow ties. "It was the first thing I wrote," Leonard remembers. "I've been digging in the garden for years, looking for it. Maybe that's all I'm doing, looking for the note." He attributes the melancholy quality of his music to the sad Russian songs his mother, Masha, sang to him and his sister.

By the time Leonard entered McGill University at the precocious age of 15, he played the piano, guitar and clarinet. Performing at barn dances with a C&W trio called the Buckskin Boys and singing jazz at the Birdland club, a popular hangout, he earned enough to leave home and move into Montreal's bohemian quarter. "We were the first beatniks," he says. "My family was alarmed by my clothes, ways and hair."

In his undergraduate days, Cohen also began seriously to write—poems to girls mostly. By 1956 he had enough verse to publish his first collection, Let Us Compare Mythologies. The volume won him a $2,000 government grant and a plane ticket to any city he chose.

It was Jerusalem, with stopovers in London, Rome and Athens, but he never made it all the way. In London he stayed with Stella and Jake Pullman, friends of friends, who offered to take him in on two conditions: that he light the fire every morning and then write. With Mrs. Pullman riding herd on him, Leonard finished a draft of his first novel, The Favorite Game, in eight months. "I owe my discipline to Stella," he says.

Moving on to Greece in 1960, Cohen simultaneously discovered the island of Hydra and Marianne Ihlen, a beauteous Norwegian divorcee with a 3-month-old son. The island seemed an ideal environment for writing. Leonard bought a house with a $1,500 legacy from his grandmother, and he and Marianne settled down. The sojourn lasted six years, with frequent trips to Montreal. His short stories and occasional journalistic assignments paid expenses, and visits by such beatnik friends as Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso kept the insular life from becoming dull.

The idyll was shattered in 1965, when Leonard had a breakdown after completing his second novel, Beautiful Losers. It was brought on, he says, by drugs combined with writing in the hot sun. He was unable to eat for 12 days, ran a 104-degree temperature and hallucinated. After two months in bed, he recovered and went to New York. There he was swept into the circle of musicians hanging out at the Chelsea Hotel—Phil Ochs, Judy Collins, Tim Buckley, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Janis Joplin. Leonard liked the sound and the scene, which caused him to drift away from Marianne. She stepped out of his life after nearly nine years and went back to Norway—an event Cohen commemorated with his hit: So long, Marianne, it's time that we began / To laugh and cry and cry and laugh about it all again...

The transition from fiction to song-writing was swift ("It paid the grocery bills") and easy. Though Suzanne was a hit, Cohen never got rich from it. "I signed a piece of paper that I didn't read carefully, and the song was hustled away from me," he explains. "I thought if someone had long hair and wore boots you could trust him." But Leonard had more tunes in his head. He made his singing debut with Judy Collins at a New York benefit and soon cut his first album, The Songs of Leonard Cohen, for Columbia.

Most of his lyrics are drawn from the travels and vicissitudes of his life: His tunes may take 10 years of rearranging and revision to complete. One exception was the popular Sisters of Mercy, which Cohen wrote in one night after sheltering two girls from a snowstorm in his Edmonton hotel room. (Some enthusiasts believe the song is about whores; he denies it.)

In 1968 in Manhattan, Cohen met 19-year-old Suzanne Elrod in an elevator. "He was going in, I was going out," Suzanne remembers. He about-faced, and soon Elrod moved into his apartment in the Chelsea Hotel. For both, it was a time of change. They left the world of coffeehouses behind and Cohen kicked his amphetamine habit, living for a time in Montreal with his mother. "She was his most dreamy spiritual influence," says Suzanne. "The only thing that bothered me was that she always called me Marianne." Then the couple moved to a cabin in the Tennessee backwoods. Says Suzanne, "We admired the wild peacocks, listened to the stream in the morning, watched the sunset in the evening. I was devoted to him. As long as someone like him was in the universe, it was okay for me to be here. I was walking on tiptoe—anything for the poet. Our relationship was like a spider web. Very complicated."

It was an on-again-off-again arrangement as the couple moved back and forth between Montreal and Hydra. Leonard described it in a 1973 lyric, a year after their first child, Adam, now 7, was born: I tried to leave you, I don't deny. / I closed the book on us at least a hundred times...

When Leonard wrote and composed, which was most of the time he was home, Suzanne was writing, too, in her journal ("describing what a bad chap I am," says Leonard). She also started a pornographic novel. "I wrote it to make us laugh," she remembers. In 1974 they had a daughter, Lorca, now 5 (named for Federico García Lorca, the martyred Spanish poet-playwright). Though Cohen had given Suzanne a filigreed Jewish wedding ring, the union had never been formalized. The relationship became strained and about the time his mother died, in 1978, they separated. Suzanne took the children to live near Avignon, France. "I believed in him," she says. "He had moved people in the right direction, toward gentleness. But then I became very alone—the proof of the poetry just wasn't there." Suzanne claims he is not living up to a child-support agreement he signed when they broke up. For his part, Cohen complains about Florida-bred Suzanne's "Miami consumer habits. My only luxuries are airplane tickets to go anywhere at any time. All I need is a table, chair and bed."

In the 22 months since the separation, Leonard has followed a high-tension regimen—writing, arranging, recording, touring, living out of a suitcase, interspersed with brief periods of collapse and recovery on Hydra or Mount Baldy, Calif. On the Coast he consults "a sort of Buddhist monk," Joshu Sasaki, who runs an L.A. center for meditation and manual labor. "When I go there, it's like scraping off the rust," Cohen says. "I'm not living with anybody the rest of the time. Nobody can live with me. I have almost no personal life.

"I think there is something to defend. I don't want to browbeat anyone with it, but I know what is good for me and my works. What we used to call the artist is becoming obsolete, and for some people I symbolize that. They feel my loyalty has not been compromised. I've always been there serving the nameless, and it doesn't matter if I don't have a voice."

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