Leonard Cohen Corrects Himself: 'I Intend to Stick Around Until 120'

Chris Willman
Leonard Cohen and his son, Adam Cohen, during a listening session for his new album at the Canadian consulate in Los Angeles on Oct. 13, 2016.

The reports of his death-readiness have been greatly exaggerated, Cohen told guests at a gathering in Los Angeles.

Leonard Cohen would like to set the record straight -- straighter, anyway. Yes, he was quoted in a lengthy profile from the New Yorker as saying he is “ready to die," a statement that set off alarm bells around the world. But that was more of a philosophical statement than actual up-to-the-minute health report. Contrary to fan fears, there are no signs of his imminent album, You Want It Darker, due out Oct. 20, ending up a posthumous release.

Appearing before a small audience of invited guests at the Canadian consulate in Los Angeles Thursday night, Cohen addressed the elephant in the room right away, when host Chris Douridas asked, “How are you feeling?”

“Uh, I said I was ready to die recently,” acknowledged the 82-year-old singer/songwriter, as nearly everyone leaned forward in their folding chairs. “And I think I was exaggerating. I’ve always been into self-dramatization. I intend to live forever.”

During the half-hour Q&A that followed a playback of the new album, Cohen talked about two album projects he hopes to follow this one up with (“God willing”) and wrapped up his appearance by graciously and drolly reiterating the point: “Thanks for coming, friends. I really appreciate your standing up when I came into the room. I hope we can do this again. I intend to stick around until 120.”

Having effectively taken himself off the deathwatch at the outset, Cohen smiled easily as he took prepared questions from Douridas and a series of foreign journalists -- though he did make a passing nod to possible recent health problems. “My son and my daughter have both been an incredibly sustaining force, especially thorough this recent bad patch,” he said, as Adam Cohen, who just produced one of his father’s albums for the first time, sat by his side. “So I’ve been blessed and grateful for their company… Adam is a great singer/songwriter in his own right. To have his own microscopic attention to my work is really a great privilege.”

One other aspect of the much-forwarded New Yorker profile came up, and that was the surprisingly lengthy quotes in it from Bob Dylan, who spoke or wrote to editor David Remnick at length about his appreciation for Cohen’s work, particularly what he called his underrated melodies. Cohen acknowledged that “it was very generous” of Dylan to sing his praises, but when asked if he wanted to talk about what his fellow singer said, Cohen deflected the topic to a related subject.

“I won’t comment on what (Dylan) said,” Cohen demurred. “But I will comment on his receiving the Nobel Prize, which to me is like pinning a medal on Mount Everest for being the highest mountain.”

Talking about his songwriting routine, Cohen referenced Dylan again and spoke as if personal determination and will had very little to do with real artistic achievement, almost seeming to echo the “I was born like this, I had no choice” line from his classic “Tower of Song.”

“I think that Bob Dylan knows this more than all of us: you don’t write the songs anyhow,” Cohen said. “So if you’re lucky, you can keep the vehicle healthy and responsive over the years. If you’re lucky, your own intentions have very little to do with this. You can keep the body as well-oiled and receptive as possible, but whether you’re actually going to be able to go for the long haul is really not your own choice.”

In response to a convoluted question from an English journalist about his choices regarding a working regimen and aesthetic purity, which wrapped up with “Does that make any sense?,” Cohen answered: “Nothing in this racket makes any sense, to tell you the truth. I’ve often said if I knew where the good songs came from, I’d go there more often. Everybody has a kind of magical system… that they employ in the hopes that this will open up the channels. My mind was always very cluttered, so I took great pains to simplify my environment, because if my environment were half as cluttered as my mind, I wouldn’t be able to make it from room to room.”

He acknowledged that he still often takes years to finish his songs… so maybe fans shouldn’t be too quick to read a current mood into You Want It Darker, just as how astronomers shouldn’t base the state of a star on the light just reaching us. “I’m very slow,” Cohen said. “It comes kind of by dribbles and drops. Some people are graced with a flow; some people are graced with something less than a flow. I’m one of those.” And: “The fact that my songs take a long time to write is no guarantee of their excellence.”

The new album’s title track features an appearance by the choir from the hometown Montreal synagogue the Cohen family attended, going back for generations, and a solo appearance by its current cantor, whom Cohen was meeting in person for the first time at the consulate. A Japanese reporter asked about a recurring a line in that track: “Hineni Hineni / I’m ready, my Lord,” perhaps implicitly wondering if this seemingly religious cry tied in with his recent “ready to die” quote.

But Cohen wasn’t about to spiritualize the lyric. “That declaration of readiness, no matter what the outcome, that’s a part of everyone’s soul,” he said. “We all are motivated by deep impulses and deep appetites to serve, even though we may not be able to locate that which we are hoping to serve. So this is just a part of my nature and I think everybody else’s nature to offer oneself at the critical moment when the emergency becomes articulate. It’s only when the emergency becomes articulate that we can locate that willingness to serve.” A pause. “That’s getting too heavy,” he added. “I’m sorry. Strike that!

Intimations of mortality, the letting go of earthly connections, and rich Judeo-Christian references run heavy through You Want It Darker — but then, this could be said of most Cohen albums. A Spanish writer inquired about whether his sense of religion has deepened recently. The short answer seemed to be no. The long answer:

“I’ve never thought of myself as a religious person. I don’t have any spiritual strategy. I kind of limp along like so many of us do in these realms. Occasionally I’ve felt the grace of another presence in my life. But I can’t develop any kind of spiritual structure on that. So I feel that this is a vocabulary that I grew up with. This biblical landscape is very familiar to me, and it’s natural that I use those landmarks as references. Once they were universal references, and everybody understood and knew them. That’s no longer the case today, but it is still my landscape. I try to make those references. I try to make sure they’re not too obscure. But outside of that, I can’t — I dare not — claim anything in the spiritual realm for my own.”

The album's closing songs feature far more elaborate string arrangements than usual for a Cohen album, thanks to another collaborator, Patrick Leonard (of Madonna fame). Cohen spoke of wanting to develop that into a possible side project. “I would like to work with Pat in any capacity… He is such a magnificent composer. I don’t think there’s anybody working today with those kinds of skills, who could translate one of my tunes into that really beautiful chamber music. So yes, I hope we can come up with something orchestral with some spoken material — and I also, God willing, hope that perhaps that another record of songs also might emerge. But one never knows.”

Cohen was not about to become explicit on all his personal secrets. A journalist from Belgium asked if there was any symbolism to the fact that he is holding a cigarette on the new album cover. Dourides stepped in and amplified why that might stand up as a question: “Yeah, I thought you quit smoking?”

Cohen’s simple answer: “Some guys you just can’t trust.”