IN 1968, AN IMPOSSIBLY BRASH 33-YEAR-OLD CANADIAN POET NAMED Leonard Cohen declined his country's most prestigious literary prize, the Governor General's Award. In fact, he didn't even bother showing up, sending a terse telegram to be read by the master of ceremonies. "Though much in me craves this award," it said, "the poems absolutely forbid it."
He was just being a smart-ass, Cohen now acknowledges, though why, he says, is no more clear to him now than it was then. That evening, Cohen went to a party at a hotel suite in Ottawa. Upon arriving, he was motioned into the bathroom by a fellow Jewish Montrealer, novelist Mordecai Richler.
"He asked, rather sternly, why I refused the award," recounts Cohen. " 'I don't know,' I said. This seemed to stop him in his tracks. 'Any other answer and I would have punched you in the nose,' " Richler replied.
The young poet apparently had gotten more recognition than he could handle. And it was only the beginning. Over the next 20 years, Cohen would become a national icon, a cult figure, considered possibly the most literate singer-composer ever to grace the commercial pop scene. Now 57, Cohen has been enshrined, though often reluctantly, in various works of biography and criticism, including the "Junior Encyclopedia of Canada," where, presumably, readers too young to have experienced the existential frisson inspired by such seminal ballads as "Suzanne," "The Window" and "Famous Blue Raincoat" can quickly bone up on what the poet-singer still refuses to call a career.
"I thought of myself as specifically not having a career," Cohen says, "but, rather, as having some kind of destiny. It wasn't a Messianic complex; I meant it in a microscopic sense. There was an unfolding to be done; my work was to unfold. But that notion and every other nice description of myself broke down, melted, dissolved or shattered in the ordinary abrasive conditions of a human life."
This Montreal-born poet, novelist and songwriter, with his penchant for dark expensive suits, beautiful women and affected reclusion, is a perennial comeback artist who has turned the nervous breakdown into a finely honed creative tool. It was once said that if a young French woman owned one record, it was likely to be his. Imagine "what Rod McKuen might have come up with if he'd been an artist," Canadian critic-poet Douglas Fetherling has suggested. "Or what Soren Kierkegaard would have written for laughs if he'd been that kind of fellow."
Although Cohen's star waned during the mid-'70s, when he crafted a series of albums so depressing and inaccessible as to daunt even the darkest young fancy, the old ghost came back decisively in 1988 with "I'm Your Man." It was one of the hippest bodies of music of the decade, certainly one of the funniest, and his first resounding commercial success. Despite himself, Cohen the cult figure is finally receiving acceptance from the mainstream.
Cohen has in fact staked out a surprisingly resilient stronghold as what someone once called "the Ghost of '60s Past," brazenly haunting the periphery of pop. His sudden reappearances delight old fans who thought he'd long since faded, while appealing to new, mostly young ones astounded that someone like Leonard Cohen exists at all and is permitted to make records. Typical is the case of screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin, who last spring introduced his teen-age son to Cohen's music. "He just loved it," says Rubin, who won an Oscar last year for "Ghost." But when asked what he had played, Rubin referred to "Songs of Leonard Cohen," Cohen's first album, released in 1968 and containing such songs as "Suzanne" and "So Long, Marianne." Upon discovering that Cohen had released nine other albums since then; that Suzanne Vega, Jennifer Warnes and Ian McCulloch list him as an important influence, while one heavy-metal band--Sisters of Mercy--took its name from one of his songs (there is also the lesser-known Edmonton band, Famous Blue Raincoat), and that "Everybody Knows" became an anthem for apocalyptic teen-age angst in the film "Pump Up the Volume," Rubin expresses amazement.
"I saw that movie," he says, "but I didn't know that was Cohen."
That may change; Cohen's music recently has received the kind of attention usually reserved for better-known performers such as the Grateful Dead and Elton John. "I'm Your Fan," a tribute album initiated by the influential French rock magazine Les Inrockuptibles, was released worldwide last year. It features assorted Cohen classics played by such artists and bands as House of Love, Ian McCulloch, The Pixies, Famous Dead People, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and John Cale. Cohen says he was touched by the effort.
The troubadour trickster also hopes to complete his own new album sometime this spring. Long overdue, this project is eagerly awaited by fans and no less so by Cohen, who yearns for release from the project's four-year-long tyranny.