This article on Leonard Cohen's last album, You want it darker, was published 3 weeks before the poet's death on Nov. 7, 2016
At eighty-two, the troubadour has another album coming. Like him, it is obsessed with mortality, God-infused, and funny.
Leonard Cohen at home in Los Angeles in September, 2016. Photograph by Graeme Mitchell for The New Yorker
When Leonard Cohen was twenty-five, he was living in London, sitting in cold rooms writing sad poems. He got by on a three-thousand-dollar grant from the Canada Council for the Arts. This was 1960, long before he played the festival at the Isle of Wight in front of six hundred thousand people. In those days, he was a Jamesian Jew, the provincial abroad, a refugee from the Montreal literary scene. Cohen, whose family was both prominent and cultivated, had an ironical view of himself. He was a bohemian with a cushion whose first purchases in London were an Olivetti typewriter and a blue raincoat at Burberry. Even before he had much of an audience, he had a distinct idea of the audience he wanted. In a letter to his publisher, he said that he was out to reach “inner-directed adolescents, lovers in all degrees of anguish, disappointed Platonists, pornography-peepers, hair-handed monks and Popists.”
Cohen was growing weary of London’s rising damp and its gray skies. An English dentist had just yanked one of his wisdom teeth. After weeks of cold and rain, he wandered into a bank and asked the teller about his deep suntan. The teller said that he had just returned from a trip to Greece. Cohen bought an airline ticket.
Not long afterward, he alighted in Athens, visited the Acropolis, made his way to the port of Piraeus, boarded a ferry, and disembarked at the island of Hydra. With the chill barely out of his bones, Cohen took in the horseshoe-shaped harbor and the people drinking cold glasses of retsina and eating grilled fish in the cafés by the water; he looked up at the pines and the cypress trees and the whitewashed houses that crept up the hillsides. There was something mythical and primitive about Hydra. Cars were forbidden. Mules humped water up the long stairways to the houses. There was only intermittent electricity. Cohen rented a place for fourteen dollars a month. Eventually, he bought a whitewashed house of his own, for fifteen hundred dollars, thanks to an inheritance from his grandmother.
Hydra promised the life Cohen had craved: spare rooms, the empty page, eros after dark. He collected a few paraffin lamps and some used furniture: a Russian wrought-iron bed, a writing table, chairs like “the chairs that van Gogh painted.” During the day, he worked on a sexy, phantasmagoric novel called “The Favorite Game” and the poems in a collection titled “Flowers for Hitler.” He alternated between extreme discipline and the varieties of abandon. There were days of fasting to concentrate the mind. There were drugs to expand it: pot, speed, acid. “I took trip after trip, sitting on my terrace in Greece, waiting to see God,” he said years later. “Generally, I ended up with a bad hangover.”
Here and there, Cohen caught glimpses of a beautiful Norwegian woman. Her name was Marianne Ihlen, and she had grown up in the countryside near Oslo. Her grandmother used to tell her, “You are going to meet a man who speaks with a tongue of gold.” She thought she already had: Axel Jensen, a novelist from home, who wrote in the tradition of Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs. She had married Jensen, and they had a son, little Axel. Jensen was not a constant husband, however, and, by the time their child was four months old, Jensen was, as Marianne put it, “over the hills again” with another woman.
One spring day, Ihlen was with her infant son in a grocery store and café. “I was standing in the shop with my basket waiting to pick up bottled water and milk,” she recalled decades later, on a Norwegian radio program. “He is standing in the doorway with the sun behind him.” Cohen asked her to join him and his friends outside. He was wearing khaki pants, sneakers, a shirt with rolled sleeves, and a cap. The way Marianne remembered it, he seemed to radiate “enormous compassion for me and my child.” She was taken with him. “I felt it throughout my body,” she said. “A lightness had come over me.”
Cohen had known some success with women. He would know a great deal more. For a troubadour of sadness—“the godfather of gloom,” he was later called—Cohen found frequent respite in the arms of others. As a young man, he had a kind of Michael Corleone Before the Fall look, sloe-eyed, dark, a little hunched, but high courtesy and verbal fluency were his charm. When he was thirteen, he read a book on hypnotism. He tried out his new discipline on the family housekeeper, and she took off her clothes. Not everyone over the years was quite as bewitched. Nico spurned him, and Joni Mitchell, who had once been his lover, remained a friend but dismissed him as a “boudoir poet.” But these were the exceptions.
Leonard began spending more and more time with Marianne. They went to the beach, made love, kept house. Once, when they were apart—Marianne and Axel in Norway, Cohen in Montreal scraping up some money—he sent her a telegram: “Have house all I need is my woman and her son. Love, Leonard.”
There were times of separation, times of argument and jealousy. When Marianne drank, she could go into a dark rage. And there were infidelities on both sides. (“Good gracious. All the girls were panting for him,” Marianne recalled. “I would dare go as far as to say that I was on the verge of killing myself due to it.”)
In the mid-sixties, as Cohen started to record his songs and win worldly success, Marianne became known to his fans as that antique figure—the muse. A memorable photograph of her, dressed only in a towel, and sitting at the desk in the house on Hydra, appeared on the back of Cohen’s second album, “Songs from a Room.” But, after they’d been together for eight years, the relationship came apart, little by little—“like falling ashes,” as Cohen put it.