Adam Cohen: Paternal Instincts
The verdict is in.
So says Adam Cohen, anyway, son of the legendary Leonard Cohen. He’s talking specifically about being a writer, but, after years of rejecting his family folk tradition and (rather unsuccessfully) chasing mainstream rock star fame, fortune and the women that might follow both, the jury has finally emerged, throwing down one certain ruling: you are, and will always be, your father’s son.
It’s a life sentence, sure. But it’s one that Cohen will no longer take with any hesitation. In fact his newest record, Like A Man, is a full-on surrender: the songs self-latched handcuffs, leading him down the row he’d be on the lam from for so much of his life. Now it’s a calling, not a prison. It wasn’t always that way.
“I have, in a circuitous manner, finally become the man I’d imagined I’d be, at least in song,” he says, at home in Los Angeles before he heads out on a tour. Growing up the son of a celebrity or successful musician certainly has its peaks and pitfalls, and Cohen’s was a unique one. While his father is no doubt regarded as one of the greatest living songwriters, he was never exactly a mainstream success in the way that might breed snooping paparazzi the likes of which plagued friend and peer Sean Lennon; those flashbulbs that open doors to private clubs, raucous parties, glossy magazines. Cohen thought he could get there with music.
“I had commercial ambitions for my career and for my songs,” he says. “I wish I could say it was out of rebellion, but it wasn’t … I was just interested in sex, drugs and rock and roll, and I thought I could live the high life with pop songs and get on the radio. It turns out I wasn’t even good at it, so it was a double waste of time. Triple if you add the fact that I was also not dignifying the tradition I come from.”
That tradition, of course, is stark, raw folksongs with confessional, fearless and often melancholy lyrics constructed as carefully as poems. The thing is, Cohen had actually been dignifying that tradition since his youth. While his band, Low Millions, pumped out pop-rock, he’d also write songs like the slower, acoustic love melodies that appear on Like AMan, stashing them away.
“They span twenty years,” he explains about the tracks in a voice and manner so similar to his father’s. “The oldest of which is twenty years old, and the newest of which is maybe five or six. In fact, what unites them all is that they were one after another abandoned for two main reasons: one being they resembled my father’s work too closely, and two, they didn’t appear to have the mobility that I was naively and myopically seeking for my songs.”
From growing up with his mother Suzanne in France and up until 2007, Cohen hadn’t even ever played a note of his father’s songs in public. The moment came after he was nearly pondering retiring from music; his son, Cassius, was a few months from birth. The ideas of paternity, legacy and birthright were all heavy in his mind. So he decided to sing “Take This Waltz” in Barcelona. In Spanish. “Learning it for the stage for the first time in my mid-thirties was cathartic,” Cohen says. He’s done so ever since.
It makes sense that a song about a waltz is what helped him cross the threshold and start embracing his lineage: the dance is not a solitary one. You need a partner, a leader. Cohen lost the fear of waltzing with his own eternal pairing and continued on, following the road to what would become Like a Man. The record is distinctly Leonard Cohen-sounding; in lyricism, construction, the pairing of words to rhythm. It’s striking but not copycat: the genes seem clear. Even the choice of a nylon string guitar, which his father used frequently, was intentional.
“There are two seminal songs that really embody the tone, ethos and ambition of the record,” he says. “’Like A Man’ and ‘What Other Guy.’ They’re both romantic, lyrically driven. They’re soft, but imminent nods to my father’s influence … they are quintessentially what I am doing and they represent this voice that I have uncovered.”
This is the record I wish I had the courage, wisdom and maturity to make first. But as they say, better late than never.” Or as his father might say, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”