Leonard Cohen's funny. No joke

By Simon Round, May 30, 2008

Front Row: Leonard Cohen
Radio 4, May 26

It is strange that Leonard Cohen has a reputation for being miserable when, as this interview with Mark Lawson clearly demonstrated, he is a very funny guy. Anyone who is familiar with the work of the legendary Canadian poet/singer/artist will also know that he is also gifted and enormously interesting.

Despite being born Jewish, Cohen lived for five years as a Buddhist monk in the 1990s having endured a breakdown, during which time his stage fright caused him to consume two or three bottles of wine every evening.

He was, he said, “a useless monk. If you end up in one of the those places it means you can’t deal with the world.” He explained that the monastery he attended was a bit like “a spiritual rehabilitation centre”.

Lawson wondered whether, if you were a failure to enter such a place, to leave made you an even bigger one. Cohen agreed, laughing. Yet we should all be such failures. His body of work has been used and referenced everywhere from Absolutely Fabulous to Shrek; he has been covered by some of the world’s greatest performers including fellow Jew Bob Dylan.

In fact Cohen told of an afternoon he spent with His Bobness in a café in Paris. “He asked me how long it had taken to write Hallelujah, a song which he had covered. I said it took two years although actually it took slightly longer.” Dylan retorted that some of his songs had taken just 15 minutes to write. Oh to have been the waiter serving the café au lait to that particular table.

Despite the fact that Cohen claims “never to have met a religion I didn’t like”, he still maintains his links with Judaism. “I have always felt a part of that tradition. I practise that and my children practise it,” he told Lawson.

In fact, he claims that his investigations into other “spiritual systems” as he calls them, has actually enhanced his understanding of Judaism. The other great event of Cohen’s recent life occurred when, after five years, he emerged from his life as a Buddhist monk to find that his former manager, Kelley Lynch, had misappropriated more than $5 million of his money. Said Cohen: “It’s enough to put a dent in your mood” — see what I mean? He really is a funny guy.

Fortunately, Cohen seemed to apply the lessons of Zen Buddhism to his predicament. His reaction was truly philosophical. “Everybody gets taken,” he said. His primary emotion was boredom at the tedious round of meetings which resulted from the crime. He found himself in endless discussion with lawyers and forensic accountants — the Buddhist part of him must have began to wonder with he had done something really bad in a past life.

His dedication to writing is unquestionable, with a huge number of published poems and songs, many of them funny, many more intensely profound. However, he was not averse to seeking help when attempting to find a good rhyme, which  he delightfully referred to as “sonic coincidences”. To that end he confessed to flicking through a rhyming dictionary, allowing the rhymes to associate, reading it much like one would fiction. “These are desperate circumstances,” he laughed.

Yes, he really was Laughing Len.

Last updated: 9:11am, May 30 2008