Ten years ago, Leonard Cohen told a journalist that he’d “read somewhere that as you get older the brain cells associated with anxiety begin to die. So, I might have saved myself the rigours of monastic life if I had just waited until it happened.” And so, Cohen’s Zen-like demeanour tonight in the opulent Mayfair Hotel shouldn’t have come as a surprise: after all, his “monastic life” has continued since his ordination as a Buddhist monk 16 years ago, and at the ripe old age of 77 – coaxed out of retirement last decade because of bankruptcy – those anxious brain cells must be few and far between. Pleasingly, they seem to be the only grey matter on the wane.
Cohen’s here to hold court over the first playback of his new album,Old Ideas, which alludes as much to his advancing years and the shadow of death as it does to his strong, spiritual beliefs. Greeted onto the stage by the equally dapper, corduroy-clad Jarvis Cocker (this evening’s host), Cohen graciously bows to the assembled Who’s Who of Europe’s music press, removing his signature fedora for the only time in the night. His voice is an octave lower still, the wrinkles more defined on his face, and his shoulders slightly slumped. But he retains what will always be his essence: his wit. If there was ever any doubt that he would grow old gracefully, it’s been swiftly dispelled tonight.
“What’s it like listening to your own album in a roomful of people?” asks Jarvis, when the playback’s complete (there’s something wonderfully Lynchian about listening to Leonard Cohen sing about himself in the third person, while his handwritten lyrics are projected onto the wall, then looking up to see the back of his head, listening and reading along with you). “I wasn’t listening,” says Cohen, instantly, wryly. And so the tone is set. Cocker admits that the early Pulp album It was a rip-off of Cohen’s work. Leonard is flattered, but modest. “You just work with what you got. I never had a strategy. I always felt I was scraping the bottom of the barrel. I never had the sense that I was standing in front of a buffet table.”
What unfolds is a delightful game of cat and mouse, in which Cohen hilariously shirks his interrogator’s attempts to find meaning in his songs. “I’ll buy into that,” he says, with a smirk, as Cocker expounds his theory on Darkness, one of the best cuts from the excellent Old Ideas. To those assembled, it’s a brilliant dose of good-natured schadenfreude. This eminent raconteur leads Cocker, so often an enigma toward the media, on a merry dance, until the questions are open to the floor.
Cohen holds forth on his womanising (“Back then it was agreeable to have a reputation or some kind of list of credentials so you didn’t have to start from scratch with every woman you walked into. Now it doesn’t really matter one way or the other.”), Chuck Berry (“’Roll over Beethoven / Tell Tchaikovsky the news.’ I’d like to write a line like that.”) and even indulges a populist query on Hallelujah (“I wrote many, many verses. I don’t know if it was eighty, maybe more or a little less. My tiny trouble is that before I can discard a verse, I have to write it. I have to work on it, and I have to polish it and bring it to as close to finished as I can. It’s only then that I can discard it.”) All the while, he’s humble, gracious and magnificently entertaining.
In the twilight of his career, Cohen, at last, seems content. The “rigours of monastic life” have vaporised his niggling self-doubt and depression. As he sits back, smiling at each question, no matter how ridiculous, it strikes us that Cohen the lothario has gone, replaced instead by Cohen the patriarch – the most relevant septuagenarian you could ever imagine.