Leonard Cohen Talks To Ramesh Balsekar In 1999 About Roshi, Artists, Salmon Teriyaki, Songwriting, Cognac, Raising Children, …

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This is an extraordinary conversation between Leonard Cohen and Ramesh Balsekar that I have not previously seen online. It covers a number of topics of interest to those who have followed Cohen’s career.

Those unfamiliar with the connection between these two men may wish to read the next section before going onto the conversation they held. Those who know about the relationship already can safely skip ahead to the heading, A Resonance between Two Models – Leonard Cohen & Ramesh Balseka.

Leonard Cohen & Ramesh Balsekar

In her biography of Leonard Cohen, I’m Your Man, Sylvie Simmons writes about the period the Canadian singer-songwriter spent in India to learn from Ramesh Balsekar:

Something had happened to Leonard in India. Something–as he told [songwriter] Sharon Robinson–”just lifted,” the veil of depression through which he had always seen the world. Over the space of several visits Leonard would make to Mumbai over the next few years, returning to his room at the Hotel Kemps Corner and making his daily walk to satsang, altogether, he spent more than a year studying with Ramesh–”by imperceptible degrees this background of anguish that had been with me my whole life began to dissolve. I said to myself, ‘This must be what it’s like to be relatively sane.’ You get up in the morning and it’s not like: Oh God, another day. How am I going to get through it? What am I going to do? Is there a drug? Is there a woman? Is there a religion? Is there something to get me out of this? The background is very peaceful.” His depression was gone.

Nina Martyris, reviewing Cohen’s “Book Of Longing” in the Times of India Mumbai, August 20, 2006, notes

But of special interest to his Indian fans is the scattering of poems set in Mumbai, an unlikely Mecca for a man searching for the larger answers to life, but to which Cohen turned after being somewhat disillusioned by his sabbatical in a Zen monastery. Ten years of austerity at Mt Baldy in Los Angeles in the service of his master Kyozan Joshu Roshi came to an end when the troubled troubadour found that the base desires he had sought to escape only thrived on the rare mountain air.

I shaved my head
I put on robes
I sleep in the corner of a cabin
sixty-five hundred feet up a mountain
It’s dismal here
The only thing I don’t need
is a comb

Only Cohen could compress a world of irony into that one bald line “The only thing I don’t need is a comb”. Solace of sorts, even an entry point into understanding the contradictions of life, arrived through an unexpected route — at an up scale Breach Candy apartment, at the feet of the venerable Ramesh Balsekar, a retired banker turned philosopher-guru who didn’t even know who the old man in his morning audience was until his grand daughter hysterically informed him that this was the Prince of Darkness himself. The guru’s robust optimism was more than a match for Cohen’s mournfulness and the two became friends. “Ramesh has saved my life. I was dying in that monastery,” Cohen later told a friend, after many expoundings on Balsekar’s central theory which, like all complex thought, comes disguised in beguiling simplicity — that happiness, which is the human aim, can be achieved if one does not blame oneself or others for any happening, good or bad.

“I heard many interesting and precise ideas, which later I blurred into verse, while in the precious company of Kyozan Joshu Roshi, and Ramesh S. Balsekar. Their compelling concepts were so imperfectly grasped that I cannot be accused either of stealing or absorbing them,” wrote Cohen in the acknowledgments.

A Resonance between Two Models – Leonard Cohen & Ramesh Balseka

Jane Adams, the author of A Resonance between Two Models – Leonard Cohen & Ramesh Balseka, begins with this explanation:

During my visit to Ramesh in Mumbai, in early 1999, I witnessed the following conversation with Leonard Cohen, and bought the tape. After I got home, I made this transcript.

I’ve excerpted this section as a sampling:

[Leonard Cohen] I’ve been sipping at the nectar. It’s very delicious to be here. On the intellectual level, your model becomes clearer and clear to me – your conceptual presentation – and so does my old Teacher’s. On the experiential level, I feel the weakening of certain proprietorial feelings about doership.

[Ramesh Balsekar] That is a very good word! Proprietorial – me, mine! I see. Now, this weakening – how do you mean this weakening, when did it start? Did it start thirty years ago? Is that what you are saying?

[Leonard Cohen] I couldn’t characterize this seeking as spiritual. It was a kind of urgent …

[Ramesh Balsekar] You mean what started thirty years ago was not really spiritual?

[Leonard Cohen] No Sir.

[Ramesh Balsekar] I see. I see.

[Leonard Cohen] I don’t know if it is today. The description seems to pale in the urgency of the actual search, which is for peace.

[Ramesh Balsekar] Yes. Yes.

[Leonard Cohen] And you know, over the years, especially anyone who hangs around a Zendo meditation hall, is going to get a lot of free samples, as you put it. If you sit for long hours every day, and are subjected to sleeplessness and protein deficiency, you’re going to start having experiences that are interesting. It was a hunger for those experiences that kept me around, because I NEEDED those experiences.

[Ramesh Balsekar] YES! The HUNGER for those experiences. Yes! So?

[Leonard Cohen] I forget where we were. I’m sorry.

[Ramesh Balsekar] You said, experiences happened, and there was a hunger for those experiences.

[Leonard Cohen] There was a hunger to maximize, to continue, a greed to … a greed for those kinds of experiences develops. Which is what happens in monasteries.

[Ramesh Balsekar] I entirely agree, yes. There is a greed for those experiences.

[Leonard Cohen] Very much so. And I must say that my old Teacher puts little value on those experiences.

[Ramesh Balsekar] I see. In fact, did he WARN you against them?

[Leonard Cohen] Warns you, and BEATS YOU, against them!

[Ramesh Balsekar] With his stick? On your shoulder?

[Leonard Cohen] Yes Sir. We are not encouraged to take these hallucinations seriously.

[Ramesh Balsekar] But how effective are those beatings, Leonard?

[Leonard Cohen] Not effective at all. I’ve seen them more effective in the case of other monks than they were in this case. So I respect the system; it’s a rigorous system based on a very useable model, but it wortks for some and does not work for others.

[Ramesh Balsekar] Quite right. I see. And what you’ve been hearing for ten days, has it made some difference, do you think?

[Leonard Cohen] Sweet!

The complete transcript and more drawings of the two men can be found at A Resonance between Two Models – Leonard Cohen & Ramesh Balsekar by Jane Adams. (JaneAdamsArt: Sept 28, 2014)

DrHGuy Is Taking A Day (Or 2) Off

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Things have been, as readers may have noticed, a tad hectic in Cohen World the past month, what with 80th birthday commemorations and a new album being released. (BTW, Leonard, don’t even think about pulling this same stunt on your 90th birthday.) Consequently, DrHGuy is going on R&R to recover his sardonic zing.

Credit Due Department: Photo by Henry Diltz. This shot is  from “Leonard Cohen: Everybody Knows” by Harvey Kubernik (see review at Leonard Cohen: Everybody Knows by Harvey Kubernik – A Delight For Cohen Fans).

Now In English Translation: Javier Mas On Touring With Leonard Cohen – July 2014 Interview

LEONARD COHEN

Introduction

In a July 1 radio interview (broadcast July 11, 2014), Javier Mas, who plays 12 string acoustic guitar, bandurria, laud and archilaud in Leonard Cohen’s band, talks about how he came to be hired for the tour, his freedom as a performer, his relationship with and assessment of Leonard Cohen, and more. While many points are intriguing (e.g., the role Anjani Thomas played in recommending Mas to Cohen for the Tour and the problems with the American musicians’ union), my two favorite specific anecdotes follow:

1. When Leonard Cohen first called him to ask about the arrangements he had done for the 2007 tribute album, Javier Mas tried to defer the discussion because he mistook the Canadian singer-songwriter for “an African friend who also has a deep voice.”

2. Javier Mas admits to initially feeling embarrassed when Leonard Cohen, who, as Mas notes “is older than me,” would kneel to sing to him. Mas first made a face to signal “do not do this.”Then, at intermission,

I said I was embarrassed and told him to do it no more. Leonard told me he was excited to do it … and since [then he] does every concert.

Now, Cohen kneeling before him has become an inspiration with Mas replying to Cohen’s singing with the guitar.

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The interview was originally broadcast on Spanish radio and is also available as a transcript. Both the broadcast and the text (both in Spanish) can be found at El músico español que puso a Cohen de rodillas by Alfonso Cardenal. Cadena Ser: July 1, 2014. The entire interview has been translated into English by Helen Ketcham.

The Spanish musician who brought Cohen to his knees

July 11, 2014 | by Alfonso Cardenal
Photos by Dustin Rabin

The life of Javier Mas (1952) changed forever after a phone call at Christmas in 2007. Leonard Cohen was on the other end of the line with his tattered, deliberate voice. The Canadian poet was coming to Mas for help with his return to the stage after more than a decade away. That call came after a series of coincidences, those things in life that wind up causing tremendous rewrites to the script of our existence. The first of these coincidences was a tribute album to Jackson Browne, coordinated by poet Alberto Manzano, a translator and friend of Cohen. Alberto and Javier became friends and when Manzano, years later, decided to organize a tribute album to Leonard Cohen with Spanish and international artists, he thought of Javier for the artistic direction for the album. Anjani Thomas, Cohen’s girlfriend at the time, and the son of the Canadian singer also took part in this heartfelt tribute. When Anjani returned home she decided to play that album for Cohen. The poet listened attentively and was amazed by the evocative arrangements Mas had done for songs he had been listening to for decades. “When I returned to the United States I told Leonard that Javier would be a great choice for his return,” says Anjani Thomas in ‘Time 25′. “I played some songs from that album and he looked for more things by Javier, liked them and decided to call him to become part of his tour,” adds the singer. That album—and even the Jackson Browne one– was the starting point for the fascinating story of Javier Mas, a fabulous multi-instrumentalist capable of traveling from the Maghreb to Africa by way of Andalusia, the gypsy sounds or the flavor of the Mediterranean.

On ‘Hour 25′ we wanted to tell this story and talk to the characters– with Alberto, Anjani and Javier- in an effort to capture the great adventure of this guitarist who as a teenager played the Canadian’s songs and who for more than five years has shared travel, hotels, meals and stages with one of the most relevant musical artists, a man who kneels before Javier at each concert, enthralled by the sounds Javier has created for his music.

The story we want to tell starts with a call from Leonard Cohen. What was that conversation like?

It was a pretty casual thing. He had sent me an email earlier saying he had really liked the arrangements I had done for the 2007 tribute album. He said he’d liked them a lot, and could I send them to him? Then he called me, it must have been around Christmas of that year. It was nighttime and I was about to go to bed. I was surprised, and in fact I mistook him for an African friend who also has a deep voice. I said it was a bit late and he told me who he was. We started talking and he told me he wanted to perform again, and asked me if I would be willing to accompany him. He had to fix some problems with managers and prepare the tour. A year later he called me and we settled the details, but the first call totally caught me by surprise.

Cohen has given you a lot of freedom onstage. What did he ask you to do? How did he want you to help?

Leonard told me he hadn’t played guitar for fifteen years and he was concerned. He wanted me to help him return to the guitar and rehearse without time pressures. When we decided on the instruments that I would play, the bandurria, the laúd, and the archilaúd, we started rehearsing and he gave me absolute freedom, told me to be inspired, not to worry about anything and just play. From there we started playing. I was pulling out the arrangements I had made for his tribute album and we were working based on those, adapting everything to his tonality and voice. I was taking notes at the hotel and we were building my part. He let me express myself and it was very nice, a very free feeling. Whenever we saw something that didn’t fit, we would change it.

And what is Leonard Cohen like?

Well, he’s a dear man, very charming. He’s a very intelligent person and a great poet. I’ve been working with him for six years and he is a very pleasant person, a good person and a good boss. He’s very understanding but also very strict. It’s been a very interesting experience.

Onstage Cohen is one of those musicians who communicates the most, he creates a special sense of closeness with the audience, and we’re talking about the audience in a large arena…

It’s like that, he’s just the same offstage. He interprets the song but he is not acting. We’ve traveled a lot and he is a great brother. We have spent a lot of time together and he is a gentleman. I meet him in the morning, we’ll drink coffee and he’s the same, he even wears the same hat and almost always wears a suit.

When you joined the band Cohen had problems with American musicians union …

Yes, it was the first thing that happened. I spoke with him in 2008 and he told me to go to the USA as soon as possible. That surprised me. He said he would call his lawyer to deal with the paperwork and that’s when the problem arose with the union. It’s a very closed union and letters had to be written explaining that the instruments I played had to be played live, by me, and that there were no musicians in the US who played what I play. I also had to go to the embassy and ask for a visa. It was two months of a lot of paperwork.. All January and February of 2009. I had to explain my résumé but eventually got a very good visa with which I can play worldwide.

When you started playing you used to do songs by Leonard…

Well, I started before that. I started at age 9 with the bandurria, playing popular music and when the rock boom came, I switched to drums with a group that imitated the Kinks. Then the singer-songwriters reached us, thanks to the radio program by Angel Alvarez, who played Dylan albums, Cohen, The Band. I really liked that music and started playing those songs and translating them to understand the lyrics. That’s how I learned English. Among those records was Cohen’s “Songs From a Room,” which I loved. I knew many songs from that album and then when I played with him I was very excited because I was 15 when he made his songs.

And what did you feel when Cohen knelt for the first time while you played…

Well, embarrassed, very embarrassed. That caught my attention. Remember, he’s older than I am … When he knelt to sing to me, I looked at him with a “don’t do this to me” expression on my face. Then at intermission I told him, I said I was embarrassed and told him not to do it anymore. Leonard told me he was excited to do it. He did that at the first concert in Canada, when we started the tour. I’d already told him not to do it anymore but he made a rascally face at me and told me no, he liked doing it and since then he does it at every concert. I’m used to it now and it inspires me, now I reply with the guitar when he sings me a verse. It’s all right.

Now that you’ve been on the road with Cohen for six years, what is it that has caught your attention most in all this time?

Many things. The nicest thing is playing for so many people. We began with small gigs in Canada, but the thing started growing and we were playing for more than 15,000 people. I think what strikes me most is the welcome he gets worldwide. He had retired and suddenly his songs are still playing and he has been welcomed in a way that even he did not expect, all around the world as well, including the USA, where he said that his music had not been very successful. I also like the way the performances are laid out; they’re more than three hours long and they are very emotional performances. Also, he has put me in an important position in front of everything, where I can hear the band very well and I have the audience right in front of me.

What do you think is special about Cohen’s career?

Well, his work; the great singers have 6 or 7 fantastic songs and the others are okay. Cohen, like Dylan and a few others, has 30 or 50 songs that are awesome besides being a brilliant writer. Many people come to the concerts for his poetry, many college students studying his poetry.

What Cohen song would you choose as a spectator?

When I was little I liked “You Know Who I Am” or “Bird on the Wire;” after touring with him I have several, but I’m crazy about “Sisters of mercy.” There are many songs.

And to play?

Where I can express myself most is on “The Gypsy’s Wife,” where I do a bandurria version I am very happy with, and with the violin it adds up to a sort-of-gypsy arrangement that is very good, I like it a lot. Cohen has many songs with lots of variety. I really like almost all the repertoire. But for an album I stay with “New Skin for the Old Ceremony.”

You also participated on “Old Ideas,” Cohen’s last album.

Yes, it was a brilliant experience.

I also really like your solo album “Tamiz.”

Thank you very much. I try to combine the world of accompaniment, I have worked many years with Maria del Mar Bonet, Manolo García, Raimundo or Kiko, with my instrumental music. It’s not very commercial music but I’m doing my thing. On tours I get exhausted and I have to take advantage of holidays. We do stretches of four months of travel that are pretty intense and I end up just exhausted. Here in Spain we do tours but we go home every week, but there, since the market is the whole world, the tours are from January to May and you have to pack clothes of all kinds. They are used to it and you have to learn to rest. Jackson Browne gave me some advice because if you go out at night you won’t last. I’ve gone out very little since Christmas and I’m exhausted.

Must-See Video: TV Broadcast Of 1988 Leonard Cohen Oslo Concert & Interview

oslo88

This outstanding 1988 NRK show was promoted online recently as part of the celebration of Leonard Cohen’s 80th birthday. Because of all the Cohen-associated content (album reviews, tribute recordings and concerts, Red Needle-powered parties, …) generated by both Mr Cohen’s birthday and the release of Popular Problems, some fans may have missed this treat from the I’m Your Man Tour. Happily, it remains available on YouTube.

The program includes First We Take Manhattan, Joan Of Arc, I’m Your Man, Ain’t No Cure For Love, Chelsea Hotel #2, Hallelujah, Tower Of Song, Take This Waltz, and segments of an interview with Vera Kvaal.

Leonard Cohen – Oslo Concert Hall 1988 (Concert + Interview)
Uploaded by Marlene Jansen

Credit Due Department: A special thanks goes to Linda Sturgess, who originally alerted me to this video.

Now Online: Cohen Through The Years (1976) by Harvey Kubernik

[Leonard Cohen's "Greatest Hits"] is a tribute to the strength of Cohen, who is perhaps popular music’s weirdest schizophrenic: almost a legend throughout Europe and England as a poet/performer/artist, but only a minor, if growing, cult figure in the States.

Cohen Through The Years by Harvey Kubernik
Melody Maker, 6 March 1976

This short article includes

  • Cohen’s “total artistic control” over the Greatest Hits album
  • Working with John Hammond,  John Simon, and Bob Johnston
  • Collaborating with John Lissauer

lc-thru-the-years

Found on eBay; Seller: pamphilon

Now Online: “No. I’ve Never Contemplated Suicide, Says Leonard Cohen” by Peter Wilmoth (1985)

Interviewer: What is [Leonard Cohen] like on a night on the town?
Leonard Cohen: “People say I’m a hoot to be with”

No. I’ve Never Contemplated Suicide, Says Leonard Cohen
by Peter Wilmoth. The Age: May 24, 1985

No. I’ve Never Contemplated Suicide, Says Leonard Cohen is not a profound article; it is, in fact, a puff piece written in anticipation of an Australian tour. It is not, however, without its charms. In addition to the “hoot be be with” quote, the piece debunks the Leonard Cohen is a dour misanthrope image, provides the 265th entry to the Leonard Cohen Nicknames list: “High Priest Of Suicide Rock,” notes Cohen’s influence of then contemporary artists such as Ian McCulloch and Cohen’s appreciation of You’ve Got Foetus On Your Breath, and reveals that the Canadian singer-songwriter enjoys bowling and pool but excels in neither sport. It certainly warrants a read.

click on image to enlarge

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