“It doesn’t suck, Leonard.”
DrHGuy to Leonard Cohen after listening to Popular Problems at Casa Cohen
Introduction: Aug 6, 2014 Leonard Cohen Visitation
At the end of the preceding post in this account of the sunny August afternoon the Duchess and I spent with Leonard Cohen and his personal assistant, Kezban Özcan, at his home in Los Angeles,1 we had just arrived at Mr. Cohen’s residence to find our musical icon of choice awaiting us in his front yard.
I should point out that stepping out of our parked car marked the commencement of the second part of our two-step plan we had painstakingly constructed for our visit:
- Show up
- See what happens2
The details of our anticipated audience with the singer-songwriter-poet-novelist-icon were – oh, let’s go with “ambiguous.” Or, we could, with more exacting precision, go with “Once we arrived, we had no clue what to expect.”
In addition to the stress inherent in launching oneself into the abyss of an agendaless get-together, I have always harbored a certain apprehensiveness about meeting Leonard Cohen because our connection is my web sites that feature him and, while those sites have promoted his performances, described the honors he has received, and featured bits of his philosophy and humor, the quality that makes my blogs unique is the not infrequent use of the singer-songwriter-poet-novelist-icon to induce a cheap laugh.
For example, I began writing about Leonard Cohen by publishing a discussion with Anjani, Leonard Cohen’s romantic partner, proposing she dump him in favor of hooking up with me and certain other female vocalists in a three-way or four-way (the numbers and the selection of the other participants were pat of our online negotiations).3 Not long afterward, I posted 10 Unbelievable Secrets About Leonard Cohen, one representative entry of which follows:
The inspiration for the Leonard Cohen song, “Suzanne,” was actually Dolly Parton. Her service as Cohen’s muse was kept secret because of her personal respect for and professional dependence on her partner at that time, Porter Wagoner. Also, the line from “Suzanne” that reads “And she feeds you tea and oranges” was originally “And her breasts are big as melons.”
While others applauded Cohen’s entry into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I chose to focus on the difficulty he and the other candidates had finding the route to the stage for the induction ceremony.4 I’ve also offered to fix his problematic lyrics, improve his poorly staged concerts, and salvage his incompetently managed merchandising (one solution: The Leonard Cohen Bobble Head). There’s more, but you get the idea.
Not every superstar, I’ve become aware, reacts to such japery with guffaws and knee-slapping.5 Concert-goers have been removed, admirers have been threatened, and fan sites closed for little more than cracking wise. And, certainly more than a few Cohen admirers have taken me to task for poking fun at an artist who personifies dignity and gravitas. Consequently, while Leonard himself has always professed himself a fan of of this brand of humor, that history has made me a tad edgy prior to our meetings. Like the old saying goes, “Live by the Leonard Cohen Bobble Head, die by the Leonard Cohen Bobble Head.”
But, both Duchess and I had met Leonard before – and he had inevitably been, as one would presume, exceedingly Cohenesque – engaging, entertaining, charming, and, according to one of us, sexy. Most of all, he has been gracious. After my first face to face meeting with the man,6 I wrote,
I confess to being unaware of the most elemental musicological knowledge, I am ignorant of the basics of songwriting, and I haven’t a clue about iconicity. I do, however, know graciousness when I’m overwhelmed by it.
And, Leonard Cohen may be the most aggressively gracious person on the planet.
And it turns out, proponents of personal growth will be pleased to learn, the cumulative graciousness of Leonard Cohen over the years had finally overcome my (arguably deserved) concerns, leaving me delighted rather than distressed about the prospect of spending time with him.
Welcome To The Neighborhood
We had read about the modesty of Leonard Cohen’s home and the iffiness of his neighborhood. Pico Iyer’s characterization is representative of descriptions that can be found in a number of such articles :
It’s an extraordinary thing. He lives in this tiny house in central Los Angeles that’s so dangerous I’m scared ever to visit it, an area where everyone has barred their windows, you can almost hear sirens and breaking glass. Out of all my friends in California — normal people, struggling writers — he lives in the single most modest place. I and my friends seem rich next to Leonard Cohen. He shares a house with his daughter and he might as well be in the monastery and he’s been there for almost 30 years.7
And the fact is that Leonard viewed the 1992 L.A. riots up close and personal from this same house:
“I live about 8 minutes drive from South Central & the local shops were going up. My 7-11 grocery store went up, Goodman’s Music where I buy my musical supplies, Radio Shack, where I buy my electronics, they all went up. From my balcony I could see five great fires. The air was thick with cinders.”8
Well, Leonard Cohen’s home will not be mistaken for Graceland or Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch or, for that matter, Joni Mitchell’s digs in Laurel Canyon. It’s a medium sized duplex (albeit significantly larger than the house in which I spent my childhood) with an exterior stairway one climbs to reach Leonard’s second story apartment. His daughter, Lorca, lives on the first floor. His son, Adam, has a home within a few blocks, as does Anjani Thomas.
And it is sparsely furnished, in keeping with his aesthetic,
I find the simple life voluptuous. I like … a good chair and a good table.9
Nonetheless, once inside, we immediately felt at ease. Leonard Cohen’s home is a handsome and undeniably pleasant household. (Of course, one has to factor in that my judgement may be skewed by growing up in a part of the Ozarks where gated communities are inhabited exclusively by cattle and upper-class is spelled “d-o-u-b-l-e-w-i-d-e.”)
Nor did we pick up any menacing vibes from the neighborhood. For my part, I could attribute this to being jaded from those years training at a medical center on the south side of Chicago (aka “the baddest part of town” according to Jim Croce’s Bad, Bad Leroy Brown), but Penny, who grew up a valley girl, also thought it unremarkable – “just an older Hollywood neighborhood.”
Is is, in short, the kind of place that would have met Aunt Thelma’s highest standard: “Good enough for Jesus to visit.”10
Today’s Specials At Cafe Cohen
Heck, he even makes sure his backstage visitors partake:
The next thing I recall [backstage in Chicago in 2009] is Leonard (note we’re on a first name basis now) urging me to have something to eat from the crew’s buffet. This is accomplished by him taking my arm to lead me through the line of covered dishes, opening each of the 6-8 main offerings, describing the contents, and adding his recommendations.
Should I ever awaken in a post-apocalyptic desert with starving mobs battling over any edible morsel, my plan is to track down Leonard Cohen. If there is food to be had, he will, I am convinced, find it and insist that his guest, even if the status of guest is self-appointed, dine from the bounty.11
And, in fact, following the initial exchange of greetings,12 Kezban began laying out an outrageously splendid buffet: figs, dates, walnuts with aguave & cinnamon, baklava, raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, blue cheese, celery, cheese, börek, watermelon, … while Leonard uncorked a bottle of chardonnay.
Leonard and Kezban described the dishes with Leonard heavily promoting the celery and blue cheese. Because my experience with Turkish cuisine is sadly deficient, I asked Kezban about a couple of the offerings:
The name for the savory pastry is börek and pide in Turkish. The one with the elongated shape had ground beef and spices in it. And the round one had feta cheese in it. These savory dough pastries come in so many different shape and flavor, but Leonard and my family love these two the best. And the desert we had was baklava with pistachios sweetened with honey, I got those in New York just recently.
It wasn’t just the food in front of us that captured Leonard’s interest. When he discovered we were traveling to Victoria later on our trip, he lavishly praised the afternoon tea at the Empress Hotel as a not to be missed event for visitors.
After the chardonnay was emptied, our host urged popping the cork on a bottle of champagne. When I demurred, protesting that I have to remain sufficiently sober to drive home, Leonard Cohen made the most extraordinary offer – open the champagne, spend the night here, and drive home after breakfast.
See what I mean by “Leonard Cohen may be the most aggressively gracious person on the planet?”
Much of that day’s conversation has already been posted at Calling On Leonard Cohen & Kezban: The Cat, The Cane, The Conversation. One item, however, couldn’t be published at that time. Shortly after we arrived, Leonard told us “I’d like you to listen to my new album and tell me what you think.”
And, after we finished lunch, Duchess and I moved to Leonard’s desk and heard, via his computer, the nine tracks that comprise Popular Problems. (Incidentally, the food service continued during this portion of the program. Leonard prepared a latte and served it to Penny while we listened.)
While the odds against a negative review from us approximated infinity and beyond, it was clear that there was some tension attendant to the event and that the four of us were distinctly relieved once we revealed – each in his or her own way – our enthusiasm for the album. Duchess gushed superlatives, especially lauding “Slow,” while I opted for the more austere yet heartfelt “It doesn’t suck, Leonard.”
In celebration of our approval of the album, Leonard, who had already plied us with chardonnay, dosed the Duchess with latte, and twice offered champagne, shared a glass or two of his Lagavulin whiskey.13
That’s The Way To Say Goodbye
After quaffing the drinks, taking a few more photos, and saying our goodbyes, we departed.
As Porky Pig would put it, “That’s all folks.” There were no philosophical exchanges requiring heavy intellectual lifting, I didn’t dig up any previously unrevealed historical curiosities, we didn’t compare religious backgrounds …
We chatted about our kids, the weather, and travel plans, we ate and we drank, and we listened to some music. We’re OK with that.
Credit Due: The photo atop this post was taken by Kezban Özcan via her way cool selfie iPhone app.
- See Directions To Leonard Cohen’s Home … Then turn right & drive until you see a house with the Lord Byron Of Rock ‘n’ Roll waiting in the front yard [↩]
- This two-step plan is a strategy I’ve repeatedly used throughout my adult life. I first heard it articulated on Season 1, Episode 22 of Sports Night, the brilliant comedy which ran on ABC from 1998 to 2000. In the dialogue between the Casey and Dan, the sportscasters, the plan was attributed to Napoleon:
Casey: Technically, I have a plan.
Dan: What’s the plan?
Casey: It’s Napoleon’s plan.
Dan: Who’s Napoleon?
Casey: A 19th century French emperor.
Dan: You’re cracking wise with me now?
Casey: He had a two-part plan.
Dan: What was it?
Casey: First we show up, then we see what happens.
Dan: That was his plan?
Dan: Against the Russian army?
Dan: First we show up, then we see what happens.
Dan: Almost hard to believe he lost. [↩]
- See Anjani And DrHGuy [↩]
- See Inductees Enter Wrong Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Hall [↩]
- One wonders how other famous singer-songwriters might have responded to ongoing mockery of this ilk. As a mental exercise, consider the likely reactions of these entertainers: Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, John Mellencamp, Justin Bieber, Lenny Kravitz, Steven Tyler, Morrissey, and Bono. And, let’s not even ponder what might happen with rappers. [↩]
- See What Leonard Cohen Told Me Backstage In Chicago [↩]
- Pico Iyer on the strange connection between the Dalai Lama and Graham Greene by Jeff Baker in The Oregonian (April 06, 2010) [↩]
- Melancholy Baby by John Walsh. The Independent Magazine: May 8, 1993 [↩]
- Leonard Cohen On His Poems, Zen, Hallelujah, His 6 Good Songs, Money, America, And The Squirrel [↩]
- In the Bible belted-and-suspendered Ozarks, we heard the following question repeatedly proposed from the church pulpit and the Sunday School lectern: “What would you do if Jesus came to your house today?” Well, the truth is I would have been creeped out, especially if he didn’t call first, but I understood the message underlying this query: we should live our lives in such a Christian manner that we would be prepared if Jesus dropped in for a visit such that the only change required would be frying up an extra pork chop for dinner. Aunt Thelma, however, viewed living in a Christian manner only the starting point. She certainly wouldn’t risk our Lord and Savior stopping by unexpectedly to find her place a mess. [↩]
- See What Leonard Cohen Told Me Backstage In Chicago [↩]
- The highlight of these salutations took place when Leonard Cohen a fait la bise à Duchess (that’s the fancy-schmancy way of indicating bi-cheekal smooching.) [↩]
- See Leonard Cohen On Smoking & Drinking In 2014 [↩]