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Leonard Cohen is the next-best thing to God

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1. Rebecca De Mornay wears his sweatshirts.
On a snowy, dreary Montreal morning that looks the way his music sounds, Leonard Cohen is taking out the garbage. No one, however, does trash disposal like Leonard Cohen. For one thing, he’s wearing a sharply cut gray suit — at 10 a.m. For another, he ends the act with a flourish: After he dumps the trash into a can directly outside the cozy kitchen of his drab rowhouse in Montreal’s ethnic shopping district, he walks back in and takes from his jacket what appears to be a matchbook-size piece of wood.

”You know what this is?” Cohen intones, the sound of the Lord on a bad day. ”It’s old-fashioned French incense. You just light it and stand there.” So he lights it and stands there, and as a thin strand of smoke snakes its way around his hang-dog face, Cohen smiles ever so subtly. The image is the very essence of cool, and you start to understand not only why you want to be there (to paraphrase his song ”Suzanne”) but why Cohen — singer, songwriter, poet, and patron saint of angst — is an underground hero revered by everyone from Bob Dylan to R.E.M.

Cohen is an unlikely idol. At 58, he’s even older than most aging baby-boomer rock stars, whom he calls ”mere boys.” For 25 years, he has recorded a series of intense, often lugubrious albums (the latest is The Future), singing of romantic bondage, spiritual conflict, oppression, and depression — hardly sunny pop sentiments. He’s also part intellectual (”I’m much too preoccupied with myself to notice changes in the commercial environment,” he says when asked about fellow CBS artist George Michael’s suit to get out of his contract with the label) and part schlumpy Jewish guy. ”Have you had any of our famous Montreal bagels?” he asks, lighting the ancient stove that, along with a few wood tables and chairs, constitutes most of the furniture in his narrow three-floor home.

Suddenly there are footsteps from upstairs, and into the kitchen pops actress Rebecca De Mornay, Cohen’s ”very close” partner, wearing black jeans and a wintergreen sweatshirt. ”Want some coffee?” Cohen asks her attentively. The two have been a rumored item for five years. It’s hard to imagine a stranger-looking couple — the elegant basset hound and the fresh-faced starlet 28 years his junior — but they seem happy. She coproduced one song on The Future, and he accompanied her to the Oscars telecast last year.

After a while, Cohen looks at her and says, ”That’s a nice shirt.” She giggles: ”Well, it’s yours, actually.”

With that, Cohen looks straight at the reporter in his home and, with a face so straight you could use it as a ruler, says, ”I never laid a hand on her.” Not only is he a revered rock hero, not only is he worshiped by Rebecca De Mornay — but he can deliver a great line, too.

2. Brooding is fundamental.
”I first heard you when I was 10,” says De Mornay, sitting next to Cohen. ”My mother was going out on a date, so she lit a candle and said, ‘I’ll put a record on that’ll put you right to sleep.’ And I remember it did put me to sleep. But it was comforting, too.”

Cohen has elicited both of those responses throughout the idiosyncratic journey he calls a career. Born and raised in Montreal, he published his first collection of poems in 1956. Two novels and more poetry followed; then, in 1967, he recorded an album. ”I was trying to come up with a solution to being a writer and not having to go to a university to teach,” he says. Songs of Leonard Cohen established him as a musician as well as a writer. Judy Collins had a hit with ”Suzanne,” and his musical career was off and running.

Or off and crawling. Cohen has heard the criticism: that his music is too morose and downbeat, and that he can’t carry a tune with two hands. To this day, his following hasn’t gone beyond a large cult, and only one of his albums (his debut) has gone gold in the U.S., although in Europe he sells millions. Pop music kept changing, but Cohen stuck to what he knew best, and lo and behold, the world has come around to the bleak but amusing sentiments of his songs. His 1988 comeback, I’m Your Man, was hailed as the return of a conquering hero. And his pensive, reclusive image endeared him to sulking twentysomethings, who were in pre-K when his songs were featured in Robert Altman’s 1971 McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Eighteen alternative bands, including R.E.M. and the Pixies, recorded Cohen’s tunes on a 1991 tribute, I’m Your Fan.

The world is still a confusing place on The Future, a place where culture is dying, where men are reduced to rubble in the presence of women. ”One idea on my new record is that the human predicament has no solution,” he says. ”We were tossed out of the garden; this isn’t paradise. And to look for perfect solutions is a very difficult burden to bear. That’s my theme: It’s a mess — thank God.”

Cohen has no easy theories explaining why Hollywood actresses aren’t the only people interested in him right now. But he does offer one plausible scenario for his newfound relevance. ”A catastrophe has taken place, but now we’re waiting for the flood,” says Cohen, who witnessed the L.A. riots from the balcony of his apartment there. ”And if the butcher shop isn’t exactly in our backyards or living rooms, then it’s certainly down the street. That whiff of homicide and destruction is in one’s psyche now.

”I say this now and nobody raises an eyebrow,” he shrugs, relaxing a bit. ”But I’ve been saying it for a long time. They’re just not raising their eyebrows so high anymore.”

3. They don’t make bohemians like him anymore.
Take that back — they don’t make people like Leonard Cohen anymore. ”Becoming what they call a bohemian was not encouraged by families like my own,” says Cohen, who was born of upper-class Russian Jewish parents. ”It was most charitably considered a phase the child would grow out of. But in my case, I didn’t grow out of it. It got worse and worse.” He smiles gently. ”And so I find myself in the sorry predicament…”

Hold your sympathy, though. Cohen has lived everywhere from Greece to Nashville and now divides his time between Montreal and Los Angeles. And he truly is a boho. A Buddhist, he meditates daily and says he survives on ”modest” record royalties. Some of his behavior seems a little too pat, as if he’s living up to his image; today, for instance, he is wearing a beret indoors. Yet friends insist it is no act. ”There were times when he would live in hotels for months at a time,” recalls a longtime friend, sculptor Mort Rosengarten. ”All he’d need was a bed, a desk, and a pen.”

His L.A. apartment, says another friend, was for quite some time furnished with only a bed and a nightstand, until he opted for his first big purchase, a combination washer-dryer. ”He’d sit there,” she says with a chuckle, ”and watch his clothes spin around.”

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