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Leonard Cohen: Zen And The Art Of Songwriting

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Leonard Cohen: Zen And The Art Of Songwriting

Leonard Cohen: Zen And The Art Of Songwriting

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Leonard Cohen is on a performance tour for the first time in 15 years, and he's singing the songs he became famous for in the '60s and '70s, like "Suzanne," "Chelsea Hotel" and "Famous Blue Raincoat," as well as later songs he's known for like "I'm Your Man," "Everybody Knows," and "Democracy."

(Soundbite of song, "Democracy")

Mr. LEONARD COHEN (Singer/Songwriter): (Singing) It's coming through a hole in the air from those nights in Tiananmen Square. It's coming from the feel that this ain't exactly real, or it's real, but it ain't exactly there. From the wars against disorder, from the sirens night and day, from the fires of the homeless, from the ashes of the gay, democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

GROSS: That recording is from the new double CD "Leonard Cohen: Live in London." Much of the motivation for performing again is financial. His former business manager stole just about all Cohen's money while Cohen was at a Zen center where he lived for five years.

Although he won a $9.5 million settlement, it's unclear if he'll ever see a penny of it. I'm sorry that it was a financial disaster that led to his public return, but awfully glad that he's performing and recording again. I'm not sure any singer-songwriter better expresses cynicism, despair, romantic longing, and the desire for transcendence.

Cohen published poems and novels before he started recording. When I spoke with him in 2006, he had just published a collection of poems called "Book of Longing." I asked him to read a poem.

Mr. COHEN: I'll just start reading this poem. It's called "Thousand Kisses Deep." It's a long poem. Some of it is just meant to be read. Some of it is meant to be sung. I'll start with two or three verses of the part that's meant to be read.

You came to me this morning, and you handled me like meat. You´d have to be a man to know how good that feels, how sweet. My mirror twin, my next of kin, I'd know you in my sleep. And who but you would take me in a thousand kisses deep?

I loved you when you opened like a lily to the heat. See, I'm just another snowman, standing in the rain and sleet, who loved you with his frozen love, his secondhand physique, with all he is, and all he was, a thousand kisses deep.

I know you had to lie to me. I know you had to cheat, to pose all hot and high behind the veils of sheer deceit. Our perfect porn aristocrat, so elegant and cheap. I'm old, but I am still into that, a thousand kisses deep.

GROSS: That's Leonard, and here he is singing the part that's meant to be sung.

(Soundbite of song "Boogie Street")

Mr. COHEN: (Singing) I'm turning tricks, I'm getting fixed, I'm back on Boogie Street. You lose your grip, and then you slip into the masterpiece. And maybe I had miles to drive and promises to keep. You ditch it all to stay alive, a thousand kisses deep.

GROSS: That's Leonard Cohen from his CD "Ten New Songs," and the poem is published in his book, "Book of Longing," which is a collection of his poems.

Leonard Cohen, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's so great to have you on the show.

Mr. COHEN: Oh, thank you.

GROSS: You know, there's the expression Boogie Street in that poem. What does Boogie Street mean to you?

Mr. COHEN: Well, Boogie Street is what we're all doing. We're all on Boogie Street, and we believe that we leave it from time to time. We go up a mountain or into a hole, but most of the time we're hustling on Boogie Street one way or another.

GROSS: Now, you took a several-year-long retreat from Boogie Street and went to a Zen center on the West Coast, and was it five years that you were there?

Mr. COHEN: I was there five or six years, yes.

GROSS: So you've been alternating, I guess, in your life between Boogie Street and meditation?

Mr. COHEN: Well, actually, a monastery is just part of Boogie Street. In fact, on Boogie Street you go back to your flat or your apartment and you close the door and you kind of eliminate the rest of the world. You kind of eliminate Boogie Street.

So there's really more respite from Boogie Street on Boogie Street than there is in a monastery because a monastery is designed to eliminate private space.

There's a saying - like pebbles in a bag, the monks polish one another. So in that kind of situation you are always coming up against someone else. So in a certain sense coming up against someone else all the time is Boogie Street.

GROSS: Well, that must be really hard. I mean, I think of you as a fairly - your reputation as being kind of solitary and reclusive. So we always think of you as being reclusive when you're at the Zen center. Now you're saying it's actually you're always in the company of other people.

Mr. COHEN: Yes, you - it's designed to overthrow that appetite for privacy.

GROSS: Now, some of your poems have alternate lives as songs, like "A Thousand Kisses Deep," which we opened with, and you've set poems by other poets to music, including one by Lord Byron. Is there much of a difference to you between a poem and a song lyric?

Mr. COHEN: Well, there are certain - there are certain poems that really do lie very gracefully on the page. For instance, to take an obvious example, if - a poem by e.e. cummings has a certain graceful display on the page, and some poems just naturally are meant to be absorbed in silence, where the tempo is decided on by the reader, and he could reverse it and forward it and linger.

There are other kinds of lyrics that have their own metrical, imperial advice, and they invite you to move swiftly from line to line. And there are poems that are, of mine, that are always candidates for a song. Sometimes they don't make it and sometimes they do.

GROSS: Take a song like "Famous Blue Raincoat." I think that is such an extraordinary lyric and that it works, it works as a poem. I mean, it's just so well written.

Mr. COHEN: Some of them do. Some of them do.

GROSS: Did you write that as a poem or as a song?

Mr. COHEN: I wrote that as a song. But it's always the same for me, but it's only afterwards that I realize that I can, that it does arise with a melody, or sometimes it arises with a melody that doesn't work, or the other thing happens, you know, a melody and a lyric arises, but you know, the lyric doesn't deserve that kind of expression, and you're left with a good tune.

GROSS: Would you talk a little bit about writing the lyric for that song?

Mr. COHEN: I don't know. I don't remember how it arose. I don't remember how any of them get written.

GROSS: What about the image? Do you remember how you got the image of the famous blue raincoat torn at the shoulder?

Mr. COHEN: Well, I had a blue raincoat. It was a Burberry, and it had lots of buckles and various fixtures on it. It was a very impressive raincoat. I'd never seen one like it. I think I bought it in London, and it always resided in my memory as some glamorous possibility that I never quite realized.

So it began to stand for that unassailable romantic life, the opposite of a cloak of invisibility, the garment that would lead you into marvelous erotic and intellectual adventures. So that's what the symbol was, I think.

GROSS: That's great. And was there somebody like the character in the song who was almost like a brother to you and then betrayed you by becoming involved with your lover? I mean, is this a story, or is it based on something that happened?

Mr. COHEN: Oh, it's happened many times. I think that's happened to me a lot. It happens - when one is in that world. You know, fortunately, you know, I've been expelled from that particular dangerous garden, you know, by my age.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COHEN: So I'm not participating in these maneuvers with the frequency that I once did. But I think that when one is in that world that, you know, even if the situation does not result in any catastrophic splits, as it does in "Famous Blue Raincoat," one is always, you know, edging, and one is always protecting one's lover and one is always in a certain sense on the edge of a jealous disposition.

GROSS: Why don't we pause here, and soon we'll hear more of your poems, but let's hear one of your early songs, and this is "Famous Blue Raincoat." My guest is Leonard Cohen.

(Soundbite of song "Famous Blue Raincoat")

Mr. COHEN: (Singing) Ah, the last time we saw you, you looked so much older, your famous blue raincoat was torn at the shoulder. You'd been to the station to meet every train, and you came home without Lili Marlene. And you treated my woman to a flake of your life, and when she came back she was nobody's wife. Well, I see you there with the rose in your teeth, one more thin gypsy thief, well, I see Jane's awake. She sends her regard.

GROSS: That's Leonard Cohen, singing his song "Famous Blue Raincoat," and Leonard Cohen has a new book of his poems called "Book of Longing."

You know, before we heard that song, you said that you were kind of, what, exempt from the world of, like, sexual passion now and jealousy and all that because of...

Mr. COHEN: Well, one is not exempt, but one is not - because one is not as welcome into the garden.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Right. But you know, that kind of reminds me of a line that you wrote that I really love from your song "Tower of Song." You have the line, I ache in the places I used to play.

Mr. COHEN: Yeah. Absolutely.

GROSS: What a great line.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Is that something you sweated over, or did you just kind of get that?

Mr. COHEN: Well, you get it, but you get it after sweating. In other words, you discard - I'm in this situation where I can't discard anything unless I finish it. So I have to finish the verses that I discard. So it takes a long time.

I have to finish it to know whether it deserves to survive in the song. So in that sense, all the songs take a long time, and although the good lines come unbidden, they're anticipated, and the anticipation involves a patient application to the enterprise.

GROSS: My guest is Leonard Cohen. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: We're listening to the interview I recorded with Leonard Cohen in 2006. He's on his first performance tour in 15 years. His London concert from last July has just been released on a double-CD.

You seem driven by two opposing engines. You know, on the one hand, so many of your songs are about, you know, lusts and appetites and beauty, and you know, seeking pleasure of various sorts. And at the same time you've also devoted years of your life to meditation and the desire for some kind of transcendence.

So - and also your songs make it clear that you're not unfamiliar with, you know, depression and regret and fear, which are again the kind of things that one tries to quiet through meditation. Did you become a Buddhist because your desires were so dominant?

Mr. COHEN: Well, I never became a Buddhist, to tell you the truth.

GROSS: Should I just use the word practicing meditation?

Mr. COHEN: Well, I don't even - I bumped into a man many years ago who happened to be a Zen master. I wasn't looking for a religion. I had a perfectly good religion. I certainly wasn't looking for a new series of rituals or new scriptures or dogmas. I wasn't looking for that.

I wasn't looking for anything exalted or spiritual. I had a great sense of disorder in my life, of chaos, of depression, of distress, and I had no idea where this came from, and the prevailing psychoanalytic explanations at the time didn't seem to address the things I felt.

So I had to look elsewhere, and I bumped into someone who seemed to be at ease with himself. It seems a simple thing to say, he seemed to be at ease with himself and at ease with others. And without ever deeply studying at the time what he was speaking about, it was the man himself that attracted me.

GROSS: So this was your teacher? What kind of teacher - is he still alive, I should ask first?

Mr. COHEN: He's still alive. I just had tea with - well, it wasn't tea. It was liquor. I had a drink with him on his 99th birthday...

GROSS: Whoa.

Mr. COHEN: ...a lovely evening I spent with him.

GROSS: How did you decide it was time for you to leave the Zen center?

Mr. COHEN: I don't know. I'm never sure why I do anything, to tell you the truth. I don't know if I could tell you the whole story because it's very private, but I felt the reason I'd gone to see Roshi and had become a monk, it was appropriate to become a monk because if I was going to be in his scene, that was the uniform.

As I've often said, if he had been a teacher of, you know, physics in Heidelberg, I would've learned German and studied physics in Heidelberg. So it was appropriate for me to become a monk, but the life was very -is very rigorous.

I mean, it's designed to overthrow a 21-year-old. So I was already in my, you know, 60s and late 60s. So there was that part of it, but I had the feeling that it wasn't doing any good, and it wasn't really addressing this real problem of distress, which seemed to be the background of all my feelings and activities and thoughts.

So I began to feel that this is a lot of work for very little return. That was a kind of, the kind of feelings, the kind of superficial feelings I had. There were other feelings that are ambiguous and too difficult to describe. They deserve or probably should be described in song or poetry rather than conversation.

GROSS: We'll hear more of our 2006 interview with Leonard Cohen in the second half of the show. Here's "Tower of Song" from his new CD, "Leonard Cohen: Live in London." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of song, "Tower of Song")

Mr. COHEN: (Singing) Now my friends are gone, and my hair is grey. I ache in the places where I used to play, and I'm crazy for love, but I'm not coming on. I'm just paying my rent every day in the tower of song. I said to Hank Williams: How lonely does it get? Hank Williams hasn't answered me yet, but I hear him coughing all night long, a hundred floors above me in the tower of song.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. COHEN: You are very kind to me.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. COHEN: (Singing) I was born like this, I had no choice. I was born with the gift of a golden voice, and 27 angels from the great beyond, yeah, they tied me to this table right here in the tower of song.

So you can stick your little pins in that voodoo doll...

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with more of our 2006 interview with Leonard Cohen. The great songwriter and singer is back on the road doing his first tour in 15 years. The tour is largely a response to having being financially wiped out by his business manager, who absconded with Cohen's money. Cohen has a new CD called "Live In London," featuring a concert from last July. I spoke with Leonard Cohen in 2006 after he published a collection of his poems called "Book of Longing." Many of them were written at a Zen monastery in California, where he lived for five years.

I would like you to read another poem from your book, "Book of Longing." And this is called "Titles." Would you tell us when you wrote this?

Mr. COHEN: I've been writing it for a while, but I finished it last winter, in Montreal. It's a poem called "Titles."

I had the title poet, and maybe I was one for a while. Also the title singer was kindly accorded me even though I could barely carry a tune. For many years I was known as a monk. I shaved my head and wore robes, and got up very early. I hated everyone but I acted generously, and no one found me out. My reputation as a ladies' man was a joke. It caused me to laugh bitterly through the 10,000 nights I spent alone. From a third-story window above the Parc du Portugal, I've watched the snow come down all day.

As usual there's no one here, there never is. Mercifully, the inner conversation is canceled by the white noise of winter. I am neither the mind, the intellect nor the silent voice within; that's also canceled. And now, gentle reader, in what name, in whose name do you come to idle with me in this luxurious and dwindling realms of aimless privacy.

GROSS: That's a great poem. That's "Titles" from Leonard Cohen's collection of poems, "The Book of Longing," or "Book of Longing." You know, I just particularly like the part - because I think this is really funny - I hated everyone but I acted generously and no one found me out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COHEN: It's true, eh?

GROSS: And that was in the monastery, that you're talking about?

Mr. COHEN: Yeah. It's not the whole story but it's enough of the story to justify the line.

GROSS: I want to talk with you a little bit how your voice has changed over the years. When you started performing you had a much, kind of, you know, clearer and higher voice. Your voice has deepened and roughened over the - over the years. And we can hear it when you speak; you can hear it in your records from the late '80s on. Has that changed because of cigarettes? Or...

Mr. COHEN: Well, yeah, about, you know, five hundred tons of whiskey and, you know, a million cigarettes - 50, 60 years of smoking. But I don't smoke anymore.

GROSS: How did you stop?

Mr. COHEN: Well, I had my throat examined. I was having trouble getting the smoke down, so I thought I'd better have my throat examined. And it's a very disagreeable procedure. They put a little camera up your nose and down your throat and, you know, the doctor looked at it with a scowl on his face. He said - I said, okay, do I have it? And he said, no, but you are on the royal road. So I thought I'd better give up the smokes.

GROSS: Do you feel as a songwriter, do you feel a connection to Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen - those guys, the kind of classic American popular songwriters?

Mr. COHEN: Well, I think they are better than I am. You know, I just think they know more about music. Someone like Cole Porter, his rhymes are, you know, much, much more elegant than mine. I have a very, you know, very limited, a very limited kind of expression, but I've done the best that I can with it and I've worked it as diligently as I can, but I don't really - except for one or two songs, maybe like "Hallelujah" or "If It Be Your Will" - I think those are probably my two best songs. I don't think I - I rise to the level of those - of those great songwriters.

GROSS: It's funny, you know, you have one recording of Irving Berlin's song "Always," and the last few lines are a lyric that you added of your own.

Mr. COHEN: Right.

GROSS: And it's such a sweet song, you know, I'll be loving you always with a love that's true always, you know, not just for an hour or not just for a day, you know, not for just...

Mr. COHEN: It's such a beautiful song.

GROSS: And so - but your last few lines take this, you know, really lovely sweet song and suddenly it's like, really dark and sour.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COHEN: You could depend on me for that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Exactly. I'm just going to recite your last few lines if you don't mind.

Mr. COHEN: Sure, I don't remember them.

GROSS: Not for just a second or a minute or an hour, not just for the weekend and a shakedown in the shower, not just for the summer and the winter going sour, but always. That's like...

Mr. COHEN: That's good.

GROSS: It's great.

Mr. COHEN: That's really good.

GROSS: When I hear that, I think of you almost as having sat down and said, Irvine Berlin is great; this is one of the differences between me and him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: In our sensibilities.

Mr. COHEN: Well, of course the treatment of the song, you know, is so very different. I think I changed the tempo too. I think his is three-four and I changed it to four-four and, you know, brought in a different - a completely different kind of - a kind of drunken version of it.

GROSS: Uh-huh. And do you think you are more kind of cynical on some of your songwriting than any of those kind of classic guys could ever be?

Mr. COHEN: You know, that's a question I've just asking myself in the past few days because somehow I have heard Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World It Could Be" - every turn, I hear it, for some odd reason. It's such a very beautiful song. And I think to myself, you know, why don't I leave a couple of songs like that behind me, you know. And I'd like to. You know, there's a lot of things I'd like to do, but when you're actually in the trenches and, you know, you're in front of the page or, you know, the guitar or the keyboard under your hands, you know, you have to deal with where the energy is, you know, what arises, what presents itself with a certain kind of urgency.

GROSS: I want to play one of your very cynical songs, and it's one of my favorites of yours and it's "Everybody Knows" from your 1988 album "I'm Your Man." And I mean, to get this song at its really full cynicism, there's a movie called "Exotica" from 1994 in which - by Atom Egoyan - in which, like, a young teenage girl has this set-piece that she dances all the time at a strip club, and she's always dressed as, like a schoolgirl in, like, the pleated skirt and the button-down shirt. And she strips to your song "Everybody Knows." Before we hear it, would you talk a little bit about writing it?

Mr. COHEN: I wrote it with Sharon Robertson - a woman with whom I've collaborated on many songs. I don't really remember. I wanted to write a tough song. You know, I had the feeling that, you know, I was Humphrey Bogart or some - I began it in France, in Paris, at a cafe in the 14th arrondissement and, you know, I don't know who I thought I was at the time, but it was, you know, somebody who you couldn't put anything over on. I think that was the mood, you know. I'm a guy - you know, I'm incredibly gullible in my ordinary civilian life, but as I was sitting there I was the guy that you couldn't put anything over on.

GROSS: Well, here is "Everybody Knows," Leonard Cohen recorded in 1988.

(Soundbite of song, "Everybody Knows")

Mr. COHEN: (Singing) Everybody knows that the dice are loaded, everybody rolls with their fingers crossed, everybody knows the war is over, everybody knows the good guys lost, everybody knows the fight was fixed, the poor stay poor, the rich get rich. That's how it goes, everybody knows. Everybody knows that the boat is leaking, everybody knows the captain lied, everybody got this broken feeling, like their father or their dog just died, everybody talking to their pockets, everybody wants a box of chocolates and a long-stem rose, everybody knows.

GROSS: We'll talk more with Leonard Cohen after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: We're listening to the interview I recorded with Leonard Cohen in 2006. He's on his first performance tour in 15 years. His London concert from last July has just been released on a double CD.

I want to ask you a couple of questions about beauty. There is something very vexing about beauty when it comes to people. You know, you don't need to be told about the pleasures of being in the presence of beauty and how attractive beautiful people are, but when it comes to physical beauty, that can also sometimes be a superficial beauty, yet you can, some people almost become like a slave to it, either embodying it or being attached to somebody who does. In your song "Chelsea Hotel" there's a few lines that go - excuse me for kind of ruining your lines by quoting them, but...

Mr. COHEN: You don't ruin them.

GROSS: You write: You told me again you preferred handsome men, but for me you would make an exception, and clenching your fist for the ones like us who are oppressed by the figures of beauty, you fixed yourself, you said, well, never mind, we are ugly but we have the music.

Do you think of yourself as being someone who has been oppressed by the figures of beauty?

Mr. COHEN: Oh yeah. Well, there's no question about that. I still am, you know; I still stagger and fall.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COHEN: Of course I have that, this happens to me all the time, and you know, you just - you just have to get very careful about it because it's inappropriate for an elderly chap to register, you know, authentically his feelings, you know, because they really can be interpreted, so you have to get quite covert as you get older, or you have to find some avuncular way, you know, of responding. But still you just really are just, you're wounded, you stagger and you fall.

GROSS: In the song, you know, the character says to the singer - we are ugly but we have the music. And the character says to you that they preferred handsome men but for you they would make an exception. So if you don't see yourself as physically beautiful, what has it been like to feel like you're a slave to beauty yet feel that you don't embody that yourself?

Mr. COHEN: Well, I have asked this question to a lot of people that are, you know, certifiably beautiful who don't feel that they are beautiful. I think this is a - it's a platitude, but it's a common experience. So - so I don't think anybody beats the rap in this realm. We all feel when we're loved that some concession has been made. And you know, we probably - none of us deserve the love that we expect. So it when comes to us, you know, we can legitimately understand it as an exception to the rule.

GROSS: But you never felt like - because, like...

Mr. COHEN: There were times that I thought I was good looking. You know, I don't know about how you feel. But, I mean, there were times I felt I was good looking. But most of the time, you know, especially - you know, the damn thing about it is that, you know, there's comparisons around, you know? So there's people around you that always look better. You know? And, you know, since we're in, you know, a competitive world, especially the world of love and romance, you know, one never feels really up to it. And now and then I have, you know. But most of the time, I haven't.

GROSS: But you've never felt like, oh, that some kind of almost, like, double standard was going on where you responded to beauty and yet felt that - and your physical presence didn't embody that yourself?

Mr. COHEN: Oh, yeah, I felt, you know, like a snail...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COHEN: a worm, like a slug, you know, many times.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Okay.

Mr. COHEN: I think the last time was this morning, at breakfast.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COHEN: I'd like to recite the lyric of one of my more recent poems, if we have a moment. This is how it goes: I used to be your favorite drunk, good for one more laugh. Then we both ran out of luck, and luck was all we had. You put on a uniform to fight the Civil War. I tried to join, but no one liked the side I'm fighting for. So let's drink to when it's over, and let's drink to when we meet. I'll be waiting on this corner where there used to be a street.

It wasn't all that easy when you up and walked away, but I'll leave that little story for another rainy day. I know your burden's heavy as you wheel it through the night, the guru says it's empty, but that doesn't mean it's light. So let's drink to when it's over and let's drink to when we meet, I'll be standing on this corner where there used to be a street. You left me with the dishes and a baby in the bath, and you're tight with the militias and you wear their camouflage. Well, I guess that makes us equal, but I want to march with you. Just an extra in the sequel to the old red-white-and-blue. So let's drink to when it's over, and let's drink to when we meet. I'll be waiting on this corner, where there used to be a street.

It's going to be September now for many years to come, many hearts adjusting to that strict September drum. I see the ghost of culture, with numbers on his wrist, salute some new conclusion that all of us have missed. So let's drink to when it's over and let's drink to when we meet. I'll be waiting on this corner, where there used to be a street.

GROSS: That's fantastic. And that's a song to you?

Mr. COHEN: Yes, it's a song. I wrote with it with Anjani. I got the tune. I've put down a few versions of it. But I don't have it - I haven't nailed it yet, but it's on its way.

GROSS: Man, that poem just really kind of gets to one of the things I love about your writing, which is, at the same time, you're kind of trapped in the world but smart enough to know you're trapped. Do you know what I mean?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: It's like you're in it and looking down at it at the same time.

Mr. COHEN: Yeah. That's good. That's - on the operating table, a lot of people have that experience.

GROSS: Well...

Mr. COHEN: The anesthetic does it to you. You know, you're being operated on, and yet you're on top of the thing, looking down at your body being destroyed. That's everybody's condition.

GROSS: It's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much for reading some of your work and talking with us.

Mr. COHEN: Oh, it's been really good. Thanks so much for inviting me.

GROSS: Leonard Cohen, recorded in 2006. He's on his first performance tour in 15 years. And he has a new CD called "Leonard Cohen: Live In London," recorded in concert last July. This is FRESH AIR.

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