A wide-ranging and frank conversation with one of the UK’s best-selling crime novelists.
‘So we’re drinking and we’re dancing, and the band is really happening, and the Johnnie Walker wisdom running high.’ – Leonard Cohen, Closing Time
I’ve been confined to my scratcher [he means bed – Ed] for a few days. I’m better now, thanks for asking, or maybe it’s just the drugs. Anyway, it stopped travelling, drinking, tasting and (up until now) writing.
The advantage was that, other than mainlining daytime antique shows and drifting into crazy and crazed sleep patterns, I could listen, uninterrupted, to music. Leonard Cohen’s never far away in normal circumstances, but he’s been on heavier than usual rotation recently for obvious reasons. He became the foundation of the sick bed soundtrack.
Leonard Cohen: The late singer used whisky to ease his stage fright
And so to Closing Time’s opening phrase. We’ve all been there, or wish we had, or fooled ourselves into thinking that we were. We have experienced the whisky wisdom running high, been energised by a flood of erudition and intellect, the sudden blazing revelation of truth, and words that come too quickly to articulate.
A place where the problems of the world seem to solve themselves after one amber kiss, where madcap schemes are hatched, lifetime friendships formed and rivalries banished. Where everyone is spinning and dancing in a room which is revolving on a planet that is hurtling through the void.
We know, as Cohen tells us, that ‘there will be hell to pay when the fiddler stops’, but she is still there, elbow bent, and as long as that music continues there is hope that these mad possibilities may become reality; the world will change and be better.
Why did he pick whisky to help fuel this? ‘Johnnie Walker wisdom’ works in terms of rhythm and alliteration, but Cohen always chose his words precisely, laid them down gently. Whisky is a wise drink when treated with respect. It has a quality which, in the right company and at the precise moment, will suffuse the company with a golden glow of possibilities. It binds you all tight, illuminates and warms. It is a drink of the heart.
He knew this because he was a whisky drinker. He would have one before going on stage to calm the stage fright that he still suffered from, even in his eighties. His voice, he once said, was the result of ‘about 500 tonnes of whisky and millions of cigarettes’.
But Closing Time is a Leonard Cohen song. On the surface, it’s about decadence and debauchery, but it’s also about love, lust, ageing, parting and death. It’s a mad dance at the end of time, where we have one eye looking out for the dawn to break behind our left shoulder.
It asks: should we stop dancing and be sensible, or keep dancing because connecting with life is what matters? It says this hedonism has to be balanced, that the wisdom accrued fades in the morning light as the hangover hits. The party will stop. Closing time will happen.
You search for the possibility that the moment can be stalled, that maybe a balance can be achieved and the wisdom retained. There was a glimmer of that possibility contained in a video interview Cohen gave when he was sequestered at the Mount Baldy Zen Center in California. On entering his quarters, he offers his interviewer a whisky. She’s surprised.
One more pour: When treated with respect, there’s wisdom to be found in whisky
‘When one isn’t working and is entertaining, it would be entirely appropriate to drink,’ he replies. ‘In fact, it would be a great breach of hospitality if I didn’t offer you something to drink.’ She’s still clearly bemused. Zen monks aren’t meant to have a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label and Riedel glasses.
‘If you want to take a nip of Scotch and still follow the [Zen] regime then… fine,’ he explains. ‘If you can incorporate it into your practice, then go ahead. People worry that I am not working hard enough, or suffering enough… or following the regime as seriously as I should, [but] even though I smile occasionally and raise my glass, I am suffering sufficiently and following all the rules.’ He grins.
As the song slides into 5am introspection, he sings: ‘It looks like freedom, but it feels like death, it's something in between, I guess it's closing time,’ which seems a particularly prescient phrase at this point in history.
At a time when wisdom seems to be in short supply, we need to find that bar and that fiddler, then create some of our own. The music of hope will play until we tell it to stop. The hangover is too dreadful to contemplate. One more sip. It’s not closing time yet.
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