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"Please come in, friends” he says, opening the door to his home in Montreal. “How do you do? I’m Leonard.”
There are six of us altogether, a combined CBC production crew from “The National” and radio program “Q”, here for an exclusive Canadian interview with the famously media-shy Leonard Cohen. We introduce ourselves individually and he shakes hands with each one of us in turn, repeating “How do you do? I’m Leonard”. Then, “Would anyone like a coffee? I’ve just made a fresh pot.”
We hadn’t known what to expect of the man. Negotiating the interview with Cohen’s concert promoter had been extremely tough – often unpleasant. This “handler” had given us a time, date, place and city but was vague on details. What was the specific address? How much prep time would we get before “roll”? What sort of room was on offer, and was it large or small? When we emailed a list of basic questions and mentioned what conditions would work best for optimum quality broadcast – all standard stuff - he phoned and screamed at us, then dictated a bunch of rules ranging from a nearly-impossible-to-achieve time “window” for set-up (cut corners!) to technical constraints (not a lot of cables!) to crew conduct (don’t talk to Cohen!).
So what did it mean? Was Leonard Cohen, a man who represents himself to the world as a humble Buddhist monk, really a prima “don” who demands to be treated like celebrity-royalty?
As it turns out, definitely not! Leonard Cohen is unpretentious, accommodating, and gracious before, during and after the interview.
He has owned the same house in Montreal for some 35 years, located in the old Jewish neighborhood where he grew up. It is a modest, “just folks” kind of place, the opposite of upscale and trendy. The furniture looks unremarkable and from an earlier time. There are no fancy electronics. Kitchen cupboards may well be original. The living-room door-handle needs repair. The washing machine is well used: The entire street does their laundry at his place, he says. I ask Cohen about not being here much: he owns another house in Los Angeles, where he spends much if not most of the year, plus he travels a lot, especially lately with his concert schedule. He tells me he considers this place his true home, a place that connects him to his roots and to his family. “Who takes care of it when you aren’t here?” I ask him. “My neighbours”.
Cohen’s dining room table holds two candles and a cloth with the words “Shabbat Shalom”, meaning good Sabbath, suggesting rituals for a Jewish meal on Friday evening. I ask him about this. (From my research, I know that he does not see any conflict between practicing Zen Buddhism, which he considers to be a method of inquiry, a way of investigating the “self”, and practicing Judaism, which he considers to be his religion.) He tells me that this is a tradition he likes to keep.
Overall, Leonard Cohen treats us more like guests he has invited over for an afternoon of socializing than a group of strangers who have invaded his private domain, here to do a job. After the interview is over, he offers us more coffee, olives and “hamentashen”, a Jewish pastry traditionally served at this time of year during the holiday of “Purim”. Several people have brought digital cameras. He poses for picture after picture without complaint.
I have brought a copy of “The Book of Longing” with me. I ask him if he would mind signing it. He writes: “To Lani, thank you for coming over, warm regards, Leonard Cohen, Montreal 2009.”
The poet and singer/songwriter speaks about his distinguished career with the host of CBC Radio's "Q", Jian Ghomeshi, from his home in Montreal...