This 1993 Saturday Night profile humanizes a man often elevated to god-like status, and shows an artist who worries endlessly about his work, suffers mental breakdowns and likes to eat Cheezies.

[[{“fid”:”4352″,”view_mode”:”default”,”fields”:{“format”:”default”,”field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]”:””,”field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]”:””},”type”:”media”,”link_text”:null,”attributes”:{“height”:”640″,”width”:”640″,”style”:”width: 400px; height: 400px; margin-top: 10px; margin-bottom: 10px; float: right;”,”class”:”media-element file-default”}}]]Ian Pearson, “Growing Old Disgracefully,” Saturday Night, March 1993

By Laura Hensley

It’s 1993 and Leonard Cohen has been in the public sphere for over thirty years. His newest album, The Future, was released recently, in November 1992, and Ian Pearson is profiling the tortured Canadian artist for Saturday Night magazine. The responsibility cannot be taken lightly; the poet, author and folksinger icon has been around long enough to be exhaustively written about. 

But if Pearson felt an underlying sense of anxiety in approaching his subject to write “Growing Old Disgracefully,” he doesn’t show it. Instead, he humanizes a man often elevated to god-like status, and shows readers a side of an artist who worries endlessly about the quality of his work, suffers mental breakdowns and likes to eat Cheezies. 

In Pearson’s opening scene, he takes us to a video shoot for “Closing Time,” a tune from The Future. He begins the scene by witnessing a production assistant banishing an old man from the “Crew Only” spread of food and redirected to the meagre “Extras Only” offerings. As the scene progresses, we learn that the disciplined man isn’t merely an “extra” but Cohen himself. The obedient star walks to his newly assigned table, without revealing his identity to the P.A. The irony of the assistant’s mistake is that Cohen at this juncture is about four years deep into newfound popularity, having started collecting a wider fan base after his 1988 release, I’m Your Man, became popular with a younger audience. Pearson portrays his character in this wry, light tone throughout the story. He never calls Cohen modest per se, but you can find great examples of modesty sprinkled throughout the piece.

As Pearson moves us through the opening scene, he tells us more about Cohen’s lady-loving reputation. It would be easy to reference past instances to illustrate Cohen’s womanizing ways (and at one point he does), but instead he shows readers examples in front of him to convey a sense of Cohen’s suave nature. The exchange on set between Cohen and Toronto actress Rebecca Jenkins gives us all we need: “She told him she was starting a new relationship and within minutes she was having a heart-to-heart chat with Cohen as if he were her oldest confidant.” 

After engaging the reader with these few hundred words, Pearson reminds us why he is writing about Cohen now: the new video and album to promote. The gentle shift from Cohen as “extra” to ladies’ man to aging artist gives flow to the narration of Pearson’s writing. 

As we learn more about Cohen, Pearson is careful in his description. Since Cohen is a famous figure, readers likely have already constructed an image of him. But Pearson doesn’t want to give in to reputation or preconceived ideas—he’s writing about Cohen in the here and now, and how the singer is evolving as he ages. Through sets of contradictions, Pearson gives the reader a sense of Cohen’s fluid being: “he is a committed Jew” and a “disciplined Zen devotee,” a “devoted father” and an “incorrigible ladies’ man.” Pearson is successful in portraying Cohen as someone who has “never been safe to pigeonhole.” This is one reason why Pearson’s profile is so successful: he leaves judgment to the reader. He himself doesn’t want to label Cohen but the reader can, if she wants to. 

Since Pearson is profiling Cohen’s new work, it is imperative to write about the music itself. The way in which Pearson switches gears and shifts focus to Cohen’s songwriting is as subtle as his other transitions. Pearson describes Cohen’s musical career while simultaneously relating it to periods of his life. He tells us how The Future was influenced by his relationship with Rebecca De Mornay, and how he’s dedicated the album to her. By providing inspirational context Pearson further develops our understanding of Cohen, and gives the reader something more meaningful than just Billboard chart numbers (which are nevertheless included). Pearson once again shows examples of modesty through chosen quotes he includes from Cohen. When he recreates the exchange between Cohen and Bob Dylan, he writes that Cohen “was embarrassed” to tell Dylan that the now-ubiquitous modern standard “Hallelujah” had taken him years to write.  

An aspect of this profile that is especially telling is the scene where Pearson speaks to Cohen about his children. Pearson doesn’t write extensively about Adam and Lorca Cohen, but he includes telling details that illustrate their father’s relationship with them. Cohen tells Pearson, “I really don’t have much of a life. You know a sweet moment in my life is every morning when my daughter comes up to my kitchen and we have coffee together.” His writing is far more effective through short, strong snips than references to the past and retelling second-hand stories. Pearson’s focus on Cohen changing with age can be summarized with this one quote. 

“Growing Old Disgracefully” is loaded with superb scenes, quotes and information. Pearson has given us not just one but multiple sides of Cohen in an effort to try to convey the totality of the artist’s being. Behind the glitz, the fame and the accolades, and the mystique of Cohen’s reputation, Pearson has shown us a man who simply sees himself as “just another songwriter living in L.A.”

[[{“fid”:”4353″,”view_mode”:”default”,”fields”:{“format”:”default”,”field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]”:””,”field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]”:””},”type”:”media”,”link_text”:null,”attributes”:{“height”:”960″,”width”:”642″,”style”:”width: 100px; height: 150px; margin: 10px; float: left;”,”class”:”media-element file-default”}}]]Laura Hensley is currently working on her Master of Journalism at Ryerson University. Her writing has appeared in Worn Fashion Journal, MTV Fora and the Eyeopener.

Students and non-students alike may write a Great Canadian Literary Journalism story on a worthy piece of literary journalism/long form/feature writing/reportage. If interested, please contact Bill Reynolds, reynolds@ryerson.ca.

Photo by Marc Cornelis, via Flickr.

Leonard Cohen – Saturday Night 1993 by ipearson