Leonard Cohen’s Spiritual Sojourn In India By Ratnesh Mathur

india1Introduction By DrHGuy

After leaving the Mount Baldy Zen Center, Leonard Cohen came to Bombay late in 1998 to study with Ramesh Balsekar. During that stay, Ratnesh Mathur met the Canadian singer-songwriter and came to know him during his visits to India. In Leonard Cohen, India, & Me By Ratnesh Mathur, Ratnesh described his relationship with Leonard and aspects of Leonard’s experiences in India. Today’s post focuses on the spiritual significance of that journey. I have edited the text, primarily to put it in colloquial English and reorganized the content for easier reading.

Update: Unpublished Photos Of Leonard Cohen In India – With Ratnesh & Sangeeta Mathur And Unidentified Companion

Relief From Depression Vs Spiritual Enlightenment

Much has been written about how Leonard’s trip to Bombay cured his life long depression. Both Indian-based tribute pieces in which I was involved, Bird on a Wire: How Bombay helped Leonard Cohen find his voice again (Scroll.in) and When the light got in for Leonard Cohen (BBC India), chose titles that implicitly featured the depression cure notion.  And, indeed, Leonard himself testified to the depression and its dissipation to both Sylvie Simmons and me, but it somehow became the key aspect of his stay in India. The importance of the lifting of Leonard’s depression notwithstanding, it was actually a side-effect.

Leonard came to India as a religious seeker – not a novice but a man deeply knowledgeable about Indian philosophical thought (i.e., the Upanishads/Vedanta and Buddhism). And, here in India, Leonard found answers to his spiritual questions through a mix of street/cultural life and Vedantic and Buddhist wisdom.

wrteMy contention is that Leonard Cohen’s quest – the subject of his seeking – has somehow been shunted aside in previous reports. In realigning the focus, I have found the following articles most relevant:

Leonard Cohen On The Bhagwad Gita

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“It was a crazy, crazy time” Leonard Cohen’s 1970 Backup Singers


The Women Of Leonard Cohen’s Army1

In a previous 1970 Leonard Cohen Tour posting, Corlynn Hanney Talks About Singing Backup On The 1970 Leonard Cohen Tour, I note the following:

When researching Leonard Cohen’s 1970 Aix-en-Provence Festival concert2 made me unavoidably aware of ongoing confusion about not only dates, venues, and even the existence of certain 1970 concerts but also who sang backup – and more research in secondary sources succeeded in further  muddying the waters – I finally succumbed to the obvious: I sought out someone who was there.

As it turned out, this was an especially fruitful strategy, the notion of unanticipated consequences about which one reads so much bad press notwithstanding. Both of Leonard Cohen’s 1970 backup singers, in fact, provided not only factual data about that enterprise but also intriguing perspectives of the tour.

The initial goal of today’s post was, in fact, simply to clarify who did – and did not – sing backup for Leonard Cohen during the 1970 Tour. A funny thing, however, happened on the way to this goal. In the process of looking for an accurate roster of female vocalists for Leonard Cohen concerts that took place over 40 years ago, I found instead a story of love, music, danger, celebrities, marriages, an irresistibly charming auberge, an irresistibly charming Leonard Cohen, revolution, a horseback ride through the French countryside, and even a specimen of that elusive, much-longed-for happily ever after ending.

Yep – just another Leonard Cohen Tour.

That romantic tale starts but by no means ends in today’s post – which also begins the original task of delineating Leonard Cohen’s backup angels of the 1970 adventure.

Leonard Cohen and Backup Singers 1970 (venue unknown)

The Boys In The Band

The male membership of the band is clear: Bob Johnston (who was also Cohen’s Nashville-based Columbia A&R staff producer) and Nashville-based musicians Charlie Daniels (electric bass, fiddle), Ron Cornelius (lead guitar, harmonica), and Elkin “Bubba” Fowler (guitar, banjo).

Susan Musmanno, Corlynn Hanney, & Aileen Fowler – Leonard Cohen’s 2 Great Backup Singers In 1970

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  1. The band for the 1970 Leonard Cohen Tour nicknamed themselves “The Army.”  More about that in a later post. []
  2. See Leonard Cohen At The 1970 Aix-en-Provence Festival – Maoists, Music, Mud, Money, & Mayhem []

Leonard Cohen, India, & Me By Ratnesh Mathur


Introduction By DrHGuy

After leaving the Mount Baldy Zen Center, Leonard Cohen came to Bombay late in 1998 to study with Ramesh Balsekar. During that stay, Ratnesh Mathur met the Canadian singer-songwriter and came to know him during his spiritually significant visits to India. This is Ratnesh’s account of that journey. I have edited the text, primarily to put it in colloquial English and reorganized the content for easier reading.

Update: Part 2 of this account is now online at Leonard Cohen’s Spiritual Sojourn In India By Ratnesh Mathur

Update: Unpublished Photos Of Leonard Cohen In India – With Ratnesh & Sangeeta Mathur And Unidentified Companion

Meeting Leonard Cohen – Bombay 1998

My first recollection of listening to Leonard Cohen’s music is somewhere around 1979/80, when I was 12 or 13, and definitely by my early teens. My cousins in Calcutta first introduced me to his music. I recall borrowing several cassette tapes, one of which was “Songs of Leonard Cohen.” That was around the time I started listening to Bob Dylan. Prior to this (i.e. between 1975 and1980), most of what my siblings and I heard at home was disco (Boney M, Abba, Luisa Fernandez, etc.) and  pop (Bee Gees, Carpenters, Cliff Richards, etc) on LPs, cassettes, and radio (“In the Groove” and “Date with You”).

I had a vast collection of music of many genres through my childhood. My appreciation for the singer-songwriter genre with its meaningful lyrics (Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen) came only in my late teens and early college years (between 1989 and 1993). I began writing music reviews on new rock and pop releases for newspapers and magazines (e.g., Hitavada, Connect Magazine, Economic Times). The deeper I went in understanding lyrics, the more I came to appreciate Leonard Cohen’s work. Before I met Leonard, I had heard four  of his albums and read some of his books and a dozen articles about him on the internet.

bookplus1200In 1998, I came across a newspaper article that reported Leonard Cohen was in Bombay. It didn’t give the name of the hotel but did indicate the area. I wrote to the Blackening Pages, the Leonard Cohen Fan club on the internet, hosted by Jarkko Arjatsalo in Finland, to gather details but to no avail. So, I began calling hotels in the area, and an operator actually connected me to Leonard in his room.

While Leonard declined to meet, he did agree to sign my CDs and books if I left them at reception. The next day when I arrived to leave the books, the reception desk informed Leonard, and he came down. After we met, he invited me for tea. The ensuing conversation went on for five hours.

As one might expect, it began with me donning my journalist hat to ask about details of his poems which had triggered my curiosity and the “inside story” of the 1960s rock movement (I had many questions about Woodstock, 60s sex, rock and roll, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, singer songwriters like Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Joan Baez, new bands like REM, Suzanne Vega etc.). Because Leonard was a kind man, he humored me, answering my queries.

It soon became evident, however, that he wasn’t keen on discussing his own views on other musicians or his own poetry. Instead, he shifted the conversation into the personal and after two hours of taking notes (I still have them), I stopped the documentation and let it flow as he began asking about me. At first, my answers focused on clarifying the cultural context, based on the assumption that he was new to India. I soon realized that he already knew a lot about the country & certainly a lot more than me about Indian religion. He was the first Jew I’d ever met so  I asked him some basic questions about Judaism. He even suggested a book on the history of the Jews by Herman Wouk as a starter for me.


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“For those who discover it, [Leonard Cohen’s] work may offer a respite from the bodied politics of religion, our second-rate discourses and polemics. Our brokenness.”

Literature and music can often be interpreted as having religious modes, as well as themes and issues considered ‘theological,’ but Cohen regularly tapped the well of religion with a seriousness of purpose that few popular artists before him or after could match. He engaged the divine throughout his career, at a time when the power of faith had arguably been diminished by the despair of Auschwitz, Hiroshima, and Vietnam. Cohen was raised in Judaism by parents who told him he was a direct descendent of the high priest Aaron. He was also an ordained Zen monk, an appreciator of Christianity and Gnosticism, and a reader of Hindu philosophy. Among his peers, Cohen’s religiosity made him somewhat of an anomaly. He exhibited a rare spiritual seeking that could not be reduced to mundane curiosity or fashionable affect, and he undertook this journey with the severity of a scholar, but went beyond pure theology.quotedown2

From The Broken Grace of Leonard Cohen by Paul DeCamp (University of Chicago Divinity School: April 13, 2017). Photo by Rama via Wikimedia Commons (cc). Read the full article at the link.

Leonard Cohen Nickname #335: Great Bird Of Night


I’m uncertain about the reasons, but Great Bird Of Night, the most recent addition to the Leonard Cohen Nickname List resonates. Its origin follows:

This dead-end flotsam dropped away when I watched the film of Leonard Cohen’s recent London concert. This great bird of night is my favorite troubadour.

From The Arts Versus Food and Birds by Jim Harrison, (A Really Big Lunch, Grove/Atlantic, Inc., Mar 24, 2017) Emphasis mine. Ongoing readers may recall that Leonard Cohen referenced Jim Harrison’s 1988 novel, Dalva.

The Leonard Cohen Nickname List is a collection of sobriquets, aliases, bynames, cognomens, appellations, alternative names, and monickers denoting Leonard Cohen along with citations indicating the origin of each nickname.

Credit Due Department: Contributed by Rike

“Leonard Cohen is unimaginable without, and indissoluble from, his voice.” Christopher Hitchens


In Unspoken Truths (Vanity Fair June 2011),  Christopher Hitchens writes about the idea of what the introduction calls  “’a writer’s voice,’ or the essential link between speech and prose,”a concept poignantly significant to Hitchens because of the loss of his speaking voice to cancer. In illustrating his points, Hitchens invokes both W.H. Auden and Leonard Cohen. The pertinent excerpts follow:

When you fall ill, people send you CDs. Very often, in my experience, these are by Leonard Cohen. So I have recently learned a song, entitled “If It Be Your Will.” It’s a tiny bit saccharine, but it’s beautifully rendered and it opens like this:

If it be your will,
That I speak no more:
And my voice be still,
As it was before …

I find it’s best not to listen to this late at night. Leonard Cohen is unimaginable without, and indissoluble from, his voice. (I now doubt that I could be bothered, or bear, to hear that song done by anybody else.)

… More solemnly: “All I have is a voice,” wrote W. H. Auden in “September 1, 1939,” his agonized attempt to comprehend, and oppose, the triumph of radical evil. “Who can reach the deaf?” he asked despairingly. “Who can speak for the dumb?”

Credit Due Department: Photo by Ted McDonnell.

Note: Originally posted Sep 25, 2011 at 1HeckOfAGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric