Simmons serves up deft and very compact readings of every last Cohen album, and of his books of poetry; she not only goes carefully through his often difficult novels, but extracts from their jungles of pages sentences more auto-biographical and perhaps expansive than anything in the songs to explain the man and his “fresh and ancient” vision. Of “Suzanne,” she notes that it’s “both implausibly intimate and ineffably spacious”; of his sudden and typically unexpected return in the mid-1980s, after a long stint of writing psalms and songs of devotion, she says that he sounds like “an old French chansonnier who had mistakenly stumbled into a disco.” She doesn’t linger on her one-liners, but the book is crammed with subtle in-jokes and allusions for those who choose to read closely (watch for the ukeleles); and in that perfect phrase about the “chansonnier,” she begins to explain how, unlike many a folkie from the ‘60s, Cohen was able to come back with a new voice—and fresh success—in the techno-80s, a metropolitan man of the world who could pass, if he so wished, for a decadent European playboy.
Yet what has arisen most searchingly out of these last 30 years is that Cohen has made a special art out of both his fallenness and his grasp of a higher perspective; he’s given sorrowful and lasting voice to what happens when the self dissolves even as he’s never denied that his own self may still be fractious and disobedient and ready to turn on its better side. When being in the monastery got too much for him, Simmons writes, he’d get into his car and slip off to a McDonald’s down the mountain for a Filet-O-Fish before heading home to watch TV (often The Jerry Springer Show), until his antsiness had been worked out of his system. At the same time, one of the most charismatic and sought-after singers in the world has spent decades now driving his aged teacher to doctor’s appointments and fetching him chicken soup.
The remarkable thing about his latest work is that he’s holding 100,000 people captive at Glastonbury by singing of emptiness and the self as nothing but smoke. And more than many a Zen writer, from Gary Snyder to, in fact, John Cage, he harks back to the classic Eastern tradition of devoting most of his late work to death. Cage, for example, wrote beautifully about the clarity that arises out of meditation and how “the acceptance of death is the source of all life”; Cohen pushes even further, towards not just an acceptance but a shrugging embrace of extinction. He employs the self to cut through the self—writes so personally, he touches some impersonal core in us—and he voices the truths of meditation while always acknowledging that he’s not in full possession of them (his most recent album begins with his mocking any claims to being a “sage” or “man of vision,” and admitting rather to being a “lazy bastard living in a suit”). When people acclaim him as a wise man today, it’s partly because he seems so alert to his follies; when they reach towards him for his radiance and strength, it’s not least because he is so acutely aware of how soon radiance and strength will give out.
Whenever I spend time with him, I’m spellbound by the droll gravitas, the warmth, the constant solicitude and the extraordinary gift with words; but when I come away from the small house in a very rough part of L.A. he shares with daughter and grandson, I realize I’ve been most moved by what you don’t hear so much on the records: his deep commitment to his kids, the seriousness and voraciousness of his reading, especially on matters of the spirit, the depth of his silences. Many a visitor finds herself just sitting with him in his small garden, saying nothing, enjoying a communion deeper than personality or intention.
I look at him from one angle and see the flawlessly cool and stylish heart-throb who made my wife weak at the knees just by offering her a cigarette; I look at him from another angle and see a very shy, bookish boy with a mischievous, rather sheepish grin. The man who has everything has always longed, it seems, to be—to have—nothing.
In the end, of course, what matters—as Cohen himself would most eloquently stress—is the work, not the man. And from the beginning Cohen’s two themes have been suffering and seeing things as they are, the latter a particularly urgent concern, perhaps, for one who feels so strongly the hunger for romance. Some writers—Gary Snyder, say, or Jim Harrison—have drawn upon their Zen practice to express a wide-awake, embracing transcription of all that the natural world might offer us, in its mixed beauty and capriciousness; others—such as Peter Matthiessen or Cage—have gravitated more towards the austere elevation and cutting away of illusions that Zen study fosters, as if to pare away at every excess until what remains is what is, nothing more, nothing less.
Cohen, by nature and background, clearly belongs with the latter group, and has never been interested in “first thought, best thought”; he labors over songs for more than a decade and will keep making changes and adding twenty-second thoughts till the very last minute. More than eighty notebooks went into “Hallelujah.” What he’s especially brought to the expression of the Zen tradition is an undistracted and sophisticated psychological acuity. Insofar as Zen can try to break down our attachments to theories and notions of the self, through hard labor and relentless discipline, Cohen has been as unwavering a student as any, finding in the monastery a perfect way to be alone in company and to unearth a silence that’s “communicative”; yet he habitually refers to Zen as a “hospital for the broken-hearted” and the words he uses again and again in his songs are “panic” and “bewilderment.”