Matters of Vital Interest: A Forty-Year Friendship with Leonard Cohen
by Eric Lerner
Da Capo Press
Screenwriter, novelist and editor Eric Lerner by chance met Leonard Cohen at the St. Joseph’s Abbey in 1977, at a “sesshin” – an “intensive Zen retreat” – led by a Rinzai Zen master Joshu Sasaki Roshi. That meeting began a 40 year friendship that only ended when Cohen passed in 2016, and is lovingly documented in this intimate and honest account.
Matters of Vital Interest is not another biography of a rock star, but rather the story of two men, bonded by their devotion to Zen, who found common ground in their shared humanity. Cohen’s musical work, as well as his poetry are mentioned only in passing – you’ll find few new details uncovered here. The two men were both writers by trade, and they shared a mutual dislike for the business side of art. As they exclaimed many times over the years, “all you need is a hit”. For Lerner that meant writing a successful screenplay, or a well-regarded novel. For Cohen it meant creating brilliant and unique works of art that would be ineptly promoted by his record company, released to an indifferent public. Cohen’s only interest in the whole process seemed to have been earning just enough money to continue to live near Roshi’s temple in Los Angeles, and provide for his extended family.
Both men suffered from severe medical issues throughout their friendship, Lerner with spinal problems, and Cohen’s cancer, and the two shared a grim sort of deathbed humor about it all. Lerner’s account of the last few months of Cohen’s life, and particularly his final night, are incredibly moving, yet show the men still making plans for yet another journey even as Leonard passed.
If you’ve been seduced by the poetic words of Leonard Cohen then the story portrayed here will only deepen your appreciation of his genius, a mysterious figure in an Armani suit. But thanks to his friend, Eric Lerner, he’s a bit less enigmatic, a bit more relatable than before. Matters of Vital Interest is a sensitive, compelling look at how a friendship grows and survives. Highly recommended.