New Collection Showcases Leonard Cohen Was 'Preoccupied With Brokenness'
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. When Leonard Cohen died two years ago at the age of 82, he left behind many unpublished poems and lyrics. Some of his final poems, lyrics, notebook entries and drawings are collected in the new book "The Flame." His son, my guest Adam Cohen, wrote the forward. Adam also produced the album his father recorded shortly before his death called "You Want It Darker." Adam is a singer and songwriter whose album "Like A Man" went gold in Canada in 2012. He was born in Montreal in 1972. Adam is going to talk with us about Leonard Cohen as a writer, performer and father and tell us about working closely with his father in the final year of his life.
Leonard Cohen's lyrics have a depth few songwriters have achieved, reflecting reverence and despair, his attraction to beauty and his knowledge of brokenness, lyrics informed by his Judaism, his practice of Zen Buddhism and his doubt. Some of his many well-known songs include "Suzanne," "So Long, Marianne," "Famous Blue Raincoat," "Chelsea Hotel No. 2," "Everybody Knows," "Tower Of Song," "I'm Your Man," and of course his best-known, most frequently recorded and performed song "Hallelujah."
Adam Cohen, welcome to FRESH AIR. I just want to start by saying I love your father's music. I loved his writing. And I feel privileged to have had the chance to hear him in concert and to talk with him on our show. And I'm grateful for the chance to talk with you today. So thank you for being here. When I interviewed your father in 2006, after the publication of a book of his poems and songs, he asked to read a poem that he'd just written that hadn't yet been published. But it's now published in this new book, "The Flame." So I thought it would be a perfect way to start with your father's reading of that poem, "A Street," from our 2006 interview.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
LEONARD COHEN: (Reading) 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.
(Reading) 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.
(Reading) 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.
(Reading) 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 Leonard Cohen recorded on our show in 2006. His son, Adam Cohen, is my guest. And the new posthumous collection of Leonard Cohen's final poems, lyrics, notebooks and drawings is called "The Flame." It's just been published, and it includes the poem that we just heard. Adam, what does it mean to you to have so much of your father's latest, you know, his - the work he did before he died collected in this new book?
ADAM COHEN: (Laughter) You know, first of all, I'm just so struck by hearing my father's voice, which I seem to be listening to almost more than I ever did, even when he was alive. I love his poetry. I love his words. I love the way he marshals language. I am - I'm weary (ph) of discussing my father. I always have been, especially when you have a person who had such an inimitable way of - and command of language. So I'm hesitant. And I didn't even know whether I should - I'm not certain I should be here speaking about him. But it's a stirring subject, and I have been enlisted. I'm enlisted in the campaign to let everybody know how wonderful I think he was.
GROSS: Do you feel protective of his privacy? 'Cause in my opinion, like, your father was very elliptical in his writing and pretty private about his life. He alluded to a lot of things in his songs but never quite came out and said them in a direct way.
A. COHEN: Oh, I - I'm not certain that's true in terms of the use of the word direct...
A. COHEN: But I will say that to speak on his behalf feels like a little bit of a transgression, you know? You have a man who has designed his life around trying to not demystify a process, and his work really does speak for itself. So, you know, of course I urge people to just consult it if they're interested in it. It's - yes, it's complete with contradictions. You know, you go from things that are actually quite direct to things that are mysterious and elusive and designed to be transcended because of it.
But he was preoccupied with the brokenness of things, the asymmetry of things. You know, as he says, forget your perfect offering. There's a crack in everything. Or in his most famous song, "Hallelujah," it doesn't matter what you heard, the holy or the broken hallelujah. So he was always preoccupied with the idea of the imperfection of things.
GROSS: Yeah. There's a crack in everything, and that's where the light gets in. I don't have the line exactly at my fingertips, but, I mean...
A. COHEN: It's - yeah, ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in.
GROSS: Yeah. So like, whatever light can get through the crack (laughter), it does, you know? I mean, he sees the light, but he sees the thing that only has a crack that lets the light in, you know? He always heard the duality of everything, is I think what I'm trying to say. So...
A. COHEN: You know...
A. COHEN: ...I remember him dancing so beautifully around these kinds of questions which I think he was irritated by (laughter) to the very core. And when I say that, I don't mean to be disparaging of the person constructing the questions. I think it's natural for us to be curious and to articulate our concerns or our thoughts or our questions. But I think it's also natural for the, quote, unquote, "artist" to preserve the kind of mystery and to not talk about the mechanics, almost like a porno, you know? This goes in here. That goes in there. There's something bigger than the mechanics, and that is the end result, the stirring quality of what is the result of an artist's work.
And, you know, I think he - as he said, you know, I put my paper hat on my concussion and dance. He tried on many occasions to dance around questions or cooperate the - as best he could. And I feel like such a shabby impostor, trying to be the (foreign language spoken) for him - you know? - the ambassador of this particular book, which I had very little to do with, frankly, other than offering a title for it or...
GROSS: You wrote a very eloquent introduction, which I will be quoting as time goes on here (laughter).
A. COHEN: Thank you.
GROSS: So I think you've said he left behind, like, lockers' worth of notebooks. What are you doing with them? I mean, you're describing - like, he was always writing. There was always, like, cocktail napkins and pages and - in his pockets. You found a notebook in the freezer once. So what are you doing with the findings?
A. COHEN: Well, it's amazing. There's so much paperwork to go through. From the simplest point of view, there's the archival work, which is assembling everything and trying to pay homage to it for posterity. Then there's the completion of works of his. In this instance, it's "The Flame," this book. And then there were also some songs which I was tasked with finishing, you know? You may know I produced his last record called "You Want It Darker." And while working with him, many, many poems were read, sometimes, to a mere kick drum - you know? - just for meter, for tempo. And so there's this sense of responsibility to keep the songs alive, as he always used to say.
GROSS: I want to play the title song on the final album that was released when your father, Leonard Cohen, was still alive. It's called "You Want It Darker." And then we'll talk about working with him on it. And this is - it's - what can I say? It's a great song.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU WANT IT DARKER")
L. COHEN: If you are the dealer, I'm out of the game. If you are the healer, it means I'm broken and lame. If thine is the glory, then mine must be the shame. You want it darker, we kill the flame. Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name. Vilified, crucified in the human frame. A million candles burning for the help that never came. You want it darker. Hineni, hineni. I'm ready, my Lord.
GROSS: That's Leonard Cohen from the final album that was released while he was alive, the title track, "You Want It Darker." My guest is his son, Adam Cohen, who wrote the introduction to a new collection of Leonard Cohen's final poems, notebook entries, lyrics and drawings called "The Flame."
That song is so much about facing death and of having a God who allows suffering and accepting the suffering but yet not being, like, happy about it or trying to make it seem like suffering's great (laughter). You know, he's not trying to be spiritual in a dismissive way of all the suffering that we endure.
I want to read what he wrote about you for the liner notes of this album. He wrote that without your contribution there would be no record. He said, (reading) At a certain point, after over a year of intense labor, both Pat - who wrote the melodies - and I coincidentally broke down with severe back injuries and other disagreeable visitations. In my case, the situation was bleak, the discomfort acute, and the project was abandoned.
(Reading) Adam sensed that my recovery, if not my survival, depended on my getting back to work. He took over the project, established me in a medical chair to sing and brought these unfinished songs to completion, preserving of course many of Pat's haunting musical themes. It is because of my son's loving encouragement and skilled administration that these songs exist in their present form. I cannot thank him enough.
What were you able to do for him physically to make it possible for him to record the album? He mentions you put him in a medical chair. Can you describe the setup that you helped create for him?
A. COHEN: I think maybe the more interesting thing, certainly to me, would be to just say that we were riding some kind of mysterious wind and the grace of the occasion. There was an urgency to the entire mission. And of course that had to do with his serious health issues. He was immobilized. He had multiple compression fractures of his spine. And it involved an incredible monastic effort on his part to be present and to deliver the way he did.
But there's something about his work in general not just on the last album but in this book and in general. He invites you into your own inner life because he takes the inner life seriously. He's not like one of these contemporaries - I won't mention any names, but there are many wonderful contemporaries of his who have in my estimation become nostalgia acts. They're nostalgia acts because they're somehow - they've succumbed to the temptation of going back into their older catalog. And they're regurgitating things, whereas this man was speaking from the very rung that he found himself at in life.
GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Adam Cohen, and he's the son of Leonard Cohen. And now there's a new collection of Leonard Cohen's final lyrics, poems, notebook entries and drawings. And these are all collected in the new book "The Flame." And Adam Cohen wrote the introduction to it. We're going to take a short break, and then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF NAOMI MOON SIEGEL'S "IT'S NOT SAFE")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Adam Cohen. He's the son of the late Leonard Cohen. And there's a new collection of Leonard Cohen's final poems, lyrics and drawings and notebook entries, previously unpublished, and it's called "The Flame." And Adam wrote the introduction to it.
I'm going to ask you to read a poem that's published in the new collection, in the posthumous collection of Leonard Cohen's works. So is there something that you could choose that would be relevant to what we're talking about now?
A. COHEN: You know what? I don't want to read these poems. I think that in some way or another, if we could urge people to consult the work with smaller samples - otherwise, it takes a kind of lugubrious tone that I think he would have been very, very reticent to have accepted.
GROSS: I'm wondering if you think that's because, like, when your father sang his songs or read his poems, there was this really dark quality, but there was this, like, kind of existential distance from it at the same time and a transcendent as well that made for a really complicated mix of emotion. Is that what is troubling you about the idea of you reading the poems yourself, that he brought this kind of just - you know, even through his voice this complicated quality of whatever pain or anguish and spirituality he was expressing at the same time, and that you don't feel like you could?
A. COHEN: I think it's simpler than that. You know, I'm reminded of so, so many lines in which he talked about the solitude of the experience of reading. And there's so many poems in which he alludes to the idea that this is a private matter. And so there's something contradictory. It feels like a transgression for me to read them.
GROSS: I appreciate you saying that as his son. But as a fan of your father's work, I will say that he performed his work in concerts to large crowds of people. And there are so many performers who have performed his songs. So they have - his work has a life outside of his mouth.
A. COHEN: Thank goodness.
GROSS: And his work has a life outside of the solitary experience of a reader sitting alone in his room, quietly reading his poems. So I just...
A. COHEN: Oh, and his...
GROSS: ...Want to get on the record (laughter) as saying that.
A. COHEN: No, and I'll go one step further with what you're saying just because I don't believe that they're contradictory in a sense. I mean, this is a man who's put the word hallelujah on many millions of people's lips, you know? So that's the sound of a preacher man. Of course, when it's attached to song, it's supposed to lift and exist the way songs have always existed.
I just mean that there's something about reading the poetry that feels instructional or has a kind of rigor to it, a lugubrious quality that I don't believe was intended. There's something more beautiful about the notion of people quietly thumbing through this book and observing and, as I say, really taking the time with the jewels that are embedded in every line, taking their own time, not with my meter, not with my voice.
GROSS: Since you've declined to read more poems by your father, I'm going to play him reading...
A. COHEN: I hope I'm not being cantankerous or intransigent.
GROSS: No, it's just - I'd be lying if I didn't say I was a little disappointing. But I can live with that. So I thought I'd play your father reading another poem of his from the interview that we recorded in 2006. And this is a poem called "Titles." And it was published in a book that he did in 2006 of poems and lyrics. So this is Leonard Cohen recorded in 2006 on FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
L. COHEN: (Reading) 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 lady's man was a joke. It caused me to laugh bitterly through the 10,000 nights I spent alone.
(Reading) From a third-story window above the Parc du Portugal, I have watched the snow come down all day. As usual, there's no one here. There never is. Mercifully, the inner conversation is cancelled 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 these luxurious and dwindling realms of aimless privacy?
GROSS: I think that poem, Adam, gets to a little about what you were talking about - the connection of your father writing in solitude and the reader reading alone...
A. COHEN: And as you noted...
GROSS: ...And entering his solitude, yeah. Solitude.
A. COHEN: As you noted, also a kind of humor, you know, embedded.
A. COHEN: I remember - I loved one of his lines where he says, it feels so good not to love you like I did. It's like they tore away my blindfold and said, we're going to let this prisoner live. I always thought that was hilarious.
GROSS: My guest is Adam Cohen. He's written the foreword to a new collection of previously unpublished writings and drawings by his father, Leonard Cohen. After a break, Adam will talk about how after his parents divorced when he was a child, his father managed to stay in his life, even though Adam and his mother had moved to the south of France. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF IT BE YOUR WILL")
L. COHEN: (Singing) If it be your will that I speak no more and my voice be still as it was before...
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Adam Cohen, a songwriter and singer who's the son of Leonard Cohen. Adam has written the foreword to a new collection of his late father's previously unpublished lyrics, poems, notebook entries and drawings. It's called "The Flame." Adam also produced the final album his father released before his death, called "You Want It Darker." Leonard Cohen was very weak and in pain when he recorded it.
Is there a song you remember from your childhood that sticks in your mind, a song that meant a lot to you, maybe even a song you remember your father writing?
A. COHEN: I mean, when I was really young, I remember him composing "Hallelujah."
GROSS: You remember him writing it?
A. COHEN: Oh, yeah. And I remember him being - it took him 12 years (laughter). So, you know, it started when I was very, very young. I'd hear verses. I think there were 84 verses to that song. I remember coming down to the kitchen table. And he was there with a nylon-string guitar in his underwear. And there would always be verses to consult. And I remember even being invited to sing with a group of people in New York City when he was recording the song for his own album, which, by the way, Sony at the time didn't want to put out.
It's an amazing turn of events to have this man's popularity have grown. You know, he lived in a kind of iconic anonymity if you buy those two - if you buy that unlikely union. And to have grown in popularity so much at the end of his life and for - to get back to your question - for me to have sat on the side of the stage, you know, watching my old man at 5 years old and all the way up to - into my 40s, the whole canon of his work is living inside of me, is playing in my head, is triggered by conversation.
GROSS: Yeah. So for "Hallelujah," as you say, there were 84 verses. I don't think he ever recorded all 84.
A. COHEN: (Laughter).
GROSS: But did it take 12 years and 84 verses before he considered it completed because of dissatisfaction with the verses that he'd previously written or because there was still so much he wanted to say in the format of that song?
A. COHEN: As the - a popular poem states, a poem is never finished but rather abandoned.
GROSS: (Laughter) Do you think he was frustrated working on it for so long or that it was satisfying?
A. COHEN: I think frustration was expected. The success of being able to let it go was the unexpected. You know, I think he - as I say, he was very vocational. From the earliest stage, he would wake up earlier than anybody he knew to blacken pages and gave up an enormous amount or what he would refer to as compromised an enormous amount. I'll go back to that song. I came so far for beauty. I left so much behind. My patience and my family, my masterpiece unsigned.
GROSS: You know, you quote that, you know, some people subscribe to the philosophy first thought, best thought. And that's often attributed to one of the beat writers, but that your father believed last thought, best thought.
A. COHEN: Yeah, he believed...
GROSS: So he edited - I take it he edited his songs a lot. He went through a lot of drafts.
A. COHEN: It was a constant process of filtration and refinement for certain.
GROSS: So why don't we hear "Hallelujah," your father's version?
A. COHEN: Sure.
GROSS: OK, so this is Leonard Cohen - yeah, go ahead.
A. COHEN: You know, there was a moratorium on that song, you know, in my family. So (laughter)...
GROSS: Oh, is that right? Is that...
A. COHEN: ...I get - yeah, it feels like a transgression. Yeah.
A. COHEN: Please refrain from playing "Hallelujah."
A. COHEN: Oh, I feel like - I think he felt like, you know, it was going to cause Leonard Cohen fatigue or something, you know? Or, you know, give some other songs a chance to get played (laughter). It was partly a joke and partly his own exhaustion, I think, with the song.
GROSS: So in spite of the moratorium your family has on "Hallelujah," I think we'll play it anyways. Are you OK with that?
A. COHEN: Oh, God. Yeah, I'm going to report you to the bully police.
GROSS: (Laughter) OK. So here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HALLELUJAH")
L. COHEN: (Singing) Now, I've heard there was a secret chord that David played, and it pleased the Lord. But you don't really care for music, do you? It goes like this. The fourth, the fifth, the minor fall. The major lift. The baffled king composing hallelujah.
UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (Singing) Hallelujah, hallelujah. Hallelujah, hallelujah.
L. COHEN: (Singing) Your faith was strong, but you needed proof.
GROSS: That's Leonard Cohen singing "Hallelujah," and my guest is Leonard Cohen's son, Adam Cohen. And there's a - he wrote the introduction to a new collection of posthumously-published Leonard Cohen lyrics, poems, notebook entries and drawings. And it's called "The Flame." So, you know, "Hallelujah" - I think like 200 people have recorded "Hallelujah." And - but it didn't become well-known until Jeff Buckley recorded it, like, maybe 10 years or more after your father recorded it, which is just so strange. But it's a sign of how, I think, there was a period of years when your father's genius wasn't fully acknowledged. When - you know, he had the initial period of hits. And then I think people just - a lot of people just kind of drifted away and then rediscovered him. And what was it like for you and for him during that period when, I think, he'd been a little bit forgotten?
A. COHEN: Yeah (laughter). I feel like my father probably felt like his whole life was characterized by that description, that he'd been forgotten - forgotten by the angels, forgotten by the, you know, cupid, forgotten by - I know that he was not satisfied. He was a seeker, and he wasn't satisfied with either the position that he had for the most part in society. He wasn't happy with society itself. That deepened the conflict.
He wasn't satisfied with the people he had chosen to be around him. He wasn't satisfied with his role as a father. He wasn't satisfied with his role as a lover. And through this layer upon layer of dissatisfaction, he somehow mustered an incredible buoyancy and ability to be one of the most delightful people anyone ever came across. And it wasn't with any sense of bitterness or judgment. I think he just felt like he had this shabby little life. And his only solace was the work itself.
And that's what made the end of his life that more astonishing and surprising and delicious - you know, this unexpected ability to fill, you know, 20,000 seats in any major city in the world, these reviews from people that were like, you know, this - it was like they were reviewing the Sistine Chapel itself. It was accompanied by commercial success and accolades. And to see him take his hat off, you know, and thank the jubilant audiences one after the other was to see a man who was genuinely surprised and delighted by the reception that he thought he was never going to get in life.
GROSS: When I saw him probably in the late 2000s - like 2009 maybe; I can't remember what year it was - was kind of like being in a church or a synagogue. There was this (laughter) sense of, like, the devotion of his fans to him and his devotion to the music and to things larger. And he ended it with what struck me as a benediction. And I forget exactly what he said. But, you know, to those of you who are going home, you know, to your families, enjoy your families. And to those of you who live alone, enjoy your solitude. And I thought, like, people don't say that. That's such a beautiful thing to say. It's such a...
A. COHEN: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: ...Lovely way of sending people home and sending home people who are going home alone. Enjoy your solitude.
A. COHEN: Yeah. May these songs find you in your solitude. May the blessings...
GROSS: Yeah, that's what - that was it.
A. COHEN: Actually, the exact quote is, "may the blessings find you in your solitude."
GROSS: I thought that was just beautiful.
A. COHEN: Well, this is a man who, as he says and I think you've just played it - you know, although he had a reputation as a ladies' man, you know, he was - he had to grit his teeth at the 10,000 nights he spent alone. He understood something about solitude.
GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Adam Cohen. He's the son of the late Leonard Cohen. And there's a new collection of Leonard Cohen's final poems, lyrics and drawings and notebook entries previously unpublished. And it's called "The Flame," and Adam wrote the introduction to it. We're going to take a short break, and then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF VITO LITURRI TRIO'S "JUST A DREAMER")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Adam Cohen, and he's the son of Leonard Cohen. And now there's a new collection of Leonard Cohen's final lyrics, poems, notebook entries and drawings. And these are all collected in the new book "The Flame." And Adam Cohen wrote the introduction to it.
So you were born in 1972. Some of your father's most famous songs were already written and recorded by the time you were born - "Suzanne," "So Long, Marianne," "Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye," "Bird On The Wire," "Chelsea Hotel," "Who By Fire." So did you hear them a...
A. COHEN: Are you saying he didn't need me?
GROSS: So did you hear them a lot when you were growing up? I mean, so, like, when I was growing up, I thought about songs and singers. But I didn't think about songwriters, you know? I just thought about, like, what's the song and who's singing it? But you were - your father was a songwriter. So you must have had an awareness that songwriting was a craft. It's something people actually did. And you must've been - like, grown up with these songs. I don't know if he played them around the house. I don't know if you even heard them when you were young.
A. COHEN: Of course I heard them. Yeah, no, I was a 5-year-old on the side of stages watching them being performed and...
GROSS: Oh, of course. Right.
A. COHEN: ...Looking out into the - looking at the faces of audiences, you know, in different times and places. And I was a deep, deep admirer of the melodies of - at first, you know, as a child, just the melodies - the generosity of the melodies. And then as I grew older, there was the complexities and the beautiful marshaling of language. And then you grow older, and then you sort of see - I remember I myself, you know, was making a record at the time. And I'd scrapped it. And I asked my father for counsel.
I said, Dad, you know, meet me. I really got to talk to you. I got to pick your brain. And we were sitting on the corner of Wilshire and La Brea, and I confessed to him that I was going to scrap this entire record and was expecting him to put his hand on my shoulder and say, like, that's my boy - you know, altruistic values. Don't ever stop, continue refining. But instead, he turned to me and said, man, you're going to scrap your record? That's an amateur move. I said, amateur move? He says, yeah, it's not about how you feel about the record. It's how the songs make them feel.
And at that moment, I realized that the love I had always had for his material wasn't just about their construction, but it was also about their intentionality. He was holding up this baton that he had been given by the love he had for the people who came before him. And he was holding it up, and something about the canon of his work that - has always maintained that baton off the ground.
GROSS: How old were you when your parents separated?
A. COHEN: Five, 6 - I don't remember.
GROSS: So how much did you get to see your father after that?
A. COHEN: I'm in a relationship now, and the imperfection of a union between two people has been demonstrated to me in (laughter) vivid colors and dimensions. And the fact that my father was able to stay in his children's life despite those complications and then some was remarkable - is remarkable to me. My mother moved my sister and I to across the world many occasions, not just to get away from him - in fact, not to get away from him at all but just to follow our own whims. And my father, you know, would often even park a caravan at the end of a dirt road just to be near us. He's always been part of our lives. He'd always - he always maintained a role in our lives despite my parents' separation.
GROSS: So a caravan is like a mobile home?
A. COHEN: Oh, yeah. The - like, what do you call those? Like a jet stream kind of thing.
A. COHEN: Yeah. I remember my mother moved my sister and I all the way to the south of France where we lived - and there was a long dirt road. And he bought one of these sort of caravan jet-stream type things. And he put it at the T where the road met the dirt road. And he just lived there (laughter). And my mother didn't want him on the property. So, you know, every day after school, the bus would drop us off. And we'd see Dad in his caravan. And so I remember...
GROSS: How long did he do that for?
A. COHEN: Well, he did that and variations of that throughout my entire life. And, you know, as I say, the intent to be part of his children's life - the deliberateness with which he contorted his own life and schedule to make sure that he was present in our lives was a feat.
GROSS: There's something really terrible that happened to him that in its own way is maybe responsible for the revival of his career and for his reconnection to people around the world. And that's - he had an accountant or a business manager who, like, drained your father's savings and sold the publishing rights to your father's song. That's kind of like stealing his soul to sell all the publishing rights to his songs. I mean, that just seems like such a transgression. And like, I think it's your sister who discovered that it happened. Like, your father didn't even know.
A. COHEN: Yeah. You know, as he often joked, it is hilarious that he thought he could resolve his economic woes with song and poetry and incredible that - (laughter) with the canon of his work and with his devotion to blackening pages in melody that he built the life he built for himself. And when he experienced this episode that you're referring to, it actually did compel him back out of retirement, back onto the road. And that is what was part of what I referred to as the most sort of joyous and unexpected episode of his life, which was to discover that all this time, absence had made the heart grow fonder. Who knew?
He had always benefited from this kind of iconic status, you know? People like Kurt Cobain and others, you know, would quote him. And - but it didn't result in the kind of mass appeal. And lo and behold, from this economic crisis arose this most unexpected and festive of periods in his life. I want to say festive. I mean, it was incredible to see the amount of universities that suddenly started teaching his works, studying his works, or even a whole rabbinical clan adopting his lyrics as liturgy. Madison Square Garden and The O2 - you know, 20,000 seaters suddenly being filled. They never sold more than 6,000 tickets. So thank goodness for that economic crisis.
GROSS: So did he ever get the song rights back? Because...
A. COHEN: No.
GROSS: ...It seem it - really?
A. COHEN: Yeah. No, those are gone.
GROSS: My guest is songwriter and singer Adam Cohen, who is the son of Leonard Cohen. Adam wrote the forward to a new collection of his father's previously unpublished writings called "The Flame." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSIONS IN THE SKY'S "REMEMBER ME AS A TIME OF DAY")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded with Adam Cohen. His father, Leonard Cohen, died two years ago. Adam has written the foreword to a new collection of his father's previously unpublished writings and drawings called "The Flame."
OK, so you are a singer-songwriter, too. You grew up with your father's voice. You grew up with him writing. You grew up with him reading to you. You watched him backstage as he performed. Was it hard for you to find, like, your own voice, to recognize that his voice was a part of you, that it influenced you in the way that people have a right to be influenced by the people who they take in as they're going through their formative years? Was it hard to acknowledge that influence in the same - and at the same time figure out who you were as a singer and songwriter?
A. COHEN: You know, I'm triggered to answer that in two ways. I mean, the first is to look at it statistically, you know? Statistically, I think in humanity, you know, Napoleon's son, Frank Sinatra's son - you know, it's very, very difficult to capture people's imaginations in the same way as one would if your name was Joe Smith - you know? - and you had no provenance. Statistically, the heirs of people who do great things can often not do great things as remarkably and in such a beloved way. There's that. And then there's the idea that - you know, that I grew up perhaps under this tyrannical shadow, this oppressive, tyrannical shadow.
And it's quite the contrary. I mean, this was one of the most generous, attentive, nourishing characters I'd ever met. He encouraged me up to the upper-sunniest (ph) branches of the family tree. And as I say, you know, I really do believe my story is far more of a success story, not just the instruction I got from a master, not just having his attention and encouragement and the example of his own life and work. But the great privilege of being invited - again, you know, having started in the mailroom of the family business, the great privilege that it was to end up at the penthouse, you know, making boardroom decisions with my boss.
GROSS: You've talked a little bit about how other people might see you as Leonard Cohen's son, but you haven't talked about yourself, about your own process of development as a songwriter and finding your own voice.
A. COHEN: Well, there's just something comic about, you know, this incredible oak. You know, this - I see him as exceptional, as miraculous in almost - in a way. And, you know, to be talking about my little sprout next to his offering just seems comic (laughter).
GROSS: You have the right to talk about yourself without apologizing. Even if it's unimportant you have the right to talk about it and the right to talk about yourself and...
A. COHEN: Well...
GROSS: ...To claim your own identity.
A. COHEN: As - you know, that reminds me of one of my favorite lines from my dad. He says, I will not be held like a drunkard under the cold tap of facts.
A. COHEN: So these are your facts, ma'am.
GROSS: (Laughter) All right. All right. So with all that said, I want to play a song of yours. Given how careful you are about curating things, I'm going to ask you to choose a song (laughter). And I know this is - I'm forcing you. This is against your will. You'd probably me rather not play anything. But consider yourself forced to choose a song of yours for us to play.
A. COHEN: Well, given the context, I think we should play a song that my old man always loved. It was a song called "What Other Guy."
GROSS: OK, here's Adam Cohen.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT OTHER GUY")
A. COHEN: (Singing) I know what you look like in the morning. Your kisses are soft and warm. I can draw you with my eyes closed. I've seen you with nothing on but the radio. I know how many years of French you took, your favorite movies, your favorite books. I know what really gets you going, glowing. I know where you go with your beautiful friends. I know what you taste like when the night ends. I know the kind of thing that makes you laugh, the way you tilt your head for a photograph. What other guy knows you like that? And I can name the first guy you ever kissed. I can name the perfume on your wrists. What other guy knows you like that? Oh, Anne. Oh, Anne. I know what you want by what you're wearing.
GROSS: That's Adam Cohen singing his own song, "What Other Guy." And Adam Cohn wrote the introduction to a new collection of his father - his late father Leonard Cohen's final poems, lyrics, notebook entries and drawings. It's called "The Flame." Thank you for letting us (laughter) - letting us play that (laughter).
A. COHEN: You're painting me out to be a real control freak. I love it.
GROSS: Yeah. Yeah, kind of, kind of. Adam Cohen, I really appreciate you doing this. I know you're not very comfortable talking about your father or even talking about yourself in this kind of setting. So thank you again so much.
A. COHEN: Thank you so much - most gracious and patient of you. Thank you.
GROSS: Adam Cohen wrote the foreword to "The Flame," the new collection of his father Leonard Cohen's previously unpublished lyrics, poems, notebook entries and drawings. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about how terrorists, governments, political campaigns, even street gangs have weaponized social media with real-world consequences. Our guests will be P.W. Singer and Emerson Brooking, authors of the book "Likewar." I'm Terry Gross. We'll close today with Leonard Cohen.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M YOUR MAN")
L. COHEN: (Singing) If you want a lover, I'll do anything you ask me to. And if you want another kind of love, I'll wear a mask for you. If you want a partner, take my hand, or if you want to strike me down in anger, here I stand. I'm your man. If you want a boxer, I will step into the ring for you. And if you want a doctor...
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.