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An Interview with Leonard Cohen

From Brick 77

Brick 77

I have known of Leonard Cohen since I was twelve. My babysitter used to play the album Songs of Leonard Cohen on our hi-fi, over and over again. I didn’t understand the songs, but I sang along. I didn’t know what love was, but his songs pointed the way. “So Long, Marianne,” “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye,” “Suzanne” . . . the songs sent me to his poetry. I bought Selected Poems of Leonard Cohen and memorized his words. His poems are vivid on the page, but spellbinding when you hear him read them. That voice.

            Leonard Cohen was born in Montreal in 1934, and lived in that city until the mid-fifties. He first made his mark as a poet, with the collections Let Us Compare Mythologies (1956) and Spice-Box of Earth (1961), the latter of which brought him international acclaim. He moved to Hydra, Greece, in 1960 and during a seven-year period there, published another collection of poetry, Flowers for Hitler (1964), and the novels The Favorite Game (1963) and Beautiful Losers (1966). It was not until he was thirty-three, however, that Cohen transformed into a singer/songwriter. Judy Collins recorded his song “Suzanne” in 1966 for her album In My Life, and when the album went gold in 1967, she encouraged Cohen to make the transition to public performer. She brought him to sing live for the first time at a Vietnam protest concert on April 30, 1967, and although Cohen, too shy to continue, walked off the stage halfway through “Suzanne,” Collins and the audience convinced him to return, and he completed the performance to raucous applause. That year he released his first album, The Songs of Leonard Cohen. In the nearly thirty years since his debut as a troubadour, Cohen has recorded thirteen other albums, including Songs of Love and Hate (1971), Death of a Ladies’ Man (1977), Various Positions (1984), and Ten New Songs (2001), and he collaborated with Anjani Thomas on her album Blue Alert, which will be released this year. McClelland & Stewart is also publishing a new collection of his poetry and drawings this spring, entitled Book of Longing.

            The interview took place in cavernous Studio 42 in the Canadian Broadcasting Centre in Toronto, on a Saturday morning in February 2006, the day before five of Cohen’s songs were inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. There were two chairs in a corner of the studio, one for me and one for Leonard Cohen. It was stark, dark, and intimate. Leonard Cohen rarely gives interviews. I got lucky.


Rogers: Congratulations on this award.

Cohen: Thanks, thanks so much.

Rogers: The fact that it’s a songwriting award, what significance does that have for you?

Cohen: Well, being a songwriter, it hits the mark. It’s a great thing, and the people coming up to sing my songs is a wonderful thing—Willie Nelson, k. d. lang, and Rufus Wainwright. It’s just wonderful because you never try to write a bad song, but most of them are pretty poor. Now and then you hit it, and I wish everybody could have that experience of writing something that moves into the world and touches people.

Rogers: Do you know when you’ve done that?

Cohen: No. You get a sense of it, but you never know for sure. I always say that if I knew where the good songs came from I’d go there more often.

Rogers: When did you know you would be a songwriter?

Cohen: Well, I never thought of myself as a songwriter. I always loved music and I played guitar. I thought of myself as a writer, as a novelist, but I couldn’t make a living that way so I thought as an interim activity, just to tide myself over, I’d try to write some songs, because the so-called folk-song renaissance had started, and there were people like Joan Baez, and Dylan, and Phil Ochs, and Judy Collins—they were already working. I’d been in Europe, in Greece, for a long time so I didn’t really know what was happening. I came back. I used to listen to a lot of country music, and I had a country band when I was young.

Rogers: The Buckskin Boys.

Cohen: The Buckskin Boys, yeah. But I never thought I’d end up as a songwriter. I thought this was just a temporary activity, but I think I was better at it than writing novels. But I’m not sure.

Rogers: Country music is a surprise to me because, now knowing this, I can hear a little country fiddle in a song like “Closing Time,” but where did you listen to country music? Was there lots of it on Montreal radio or what?

Cohen: There were a number of clubs in Montreal where there was country music, and there was a radio station that I used to listen to under the covers when I was very young. I think it was WWVA from Wheeling, West Virginia. We used to be able to pick that up in Montreal.

Rogers: Judy Collins recorded your song “Suzanne” before you did, right?

Cohen: Yeah, I was in New York and I was introduced to her. I played her a couple of songs and she said, “Well, no, there’s nothing, you know, but call me if . . .” So I finished that song “Suzanne” and I played it for someone in Montreal and they said, “No, there’s a lot of songs like that.” So I called up Judy Collins and I sang it to her on the phone and she said, “I want to record that immediately.” And she recorded it. On the basis of her recording, other people heard it and eventually John Hammond of Columbia Records took me out for lunch. I sang it for him, and some other songs, and he offered me a contract.

Rogers: What was it like singing “Suzanne” for John Hammond?

Cohen: Well, he just made you feel that you were a natural even though you were nervous and you didn’t feel like a natural and never had. I’ve never felt like a natural.

Rogers: But you’ve been the best male vocalist in Canada according to the Junos.

Cohen: A very charitable designation.

Rogers: You may know that Paul Kennedy, who’s the host of CBC Radio’s Ideas, is trying to get you a Nobel Prize in Literature.

Cohen: [laughs]

Rogers: He wants me to ask you about “Suzanne” and who Suzanne was.

Cohen: You know, songs come to you in a whole lot of different ways, but there was a Suzanne who was associated with the song, and her name was Suzanne Vaillancourt. She was the wife of a friend of mine, Armand Vaillancourt. I had begun to write the song, and I had the figure, the guitar figure, and I had many verses about the harbour, about Montreal Harbour, but I loved Suzanne Vaillancourt. She was very beautiful and she’s a very unusual spirit, so I certainly felt that when I was young and a lot more. But she did invite me to her place near the river and did serve me.

Rogers: Tea and oranges?

Cohen: Tea and oranges. She allowed me to locate the song and make it about something. It was in some more abstract realm—the song—and she gave it a location and a form, and I was very grateful.

Rogers: Did she love you too?

Cohen: No, I don’t think there was any—you know, people are hopelessly attracted to one another at that age.

Rogers: And not later?

Cohen: I don’t know, maybe later too, but certainly sex is the sport of the young, as Allen Ginsberg said, especially in those days. But there were many legitimate and worthwhile obstacles to our meeting in that sort of way.

Rogers: Once you knew you were going to be a songwriter, did it change the way you wrote?

Cohen: One is always surprised when one is described as anything, because in the inner chambers of your heart you’re always struggling to come to some definition of yourself that is reasonable. “Songwriter” doesn’t occur to me in the morning. I mean, I know that that’s my gig and I’ve got to come up with a number of songs to be able to continue this curious career. But it kind of dawns on you after a while that that’s what you are. I have my notebook full of verses.

Rogers: And sketches.

Cohen: And sketches. And I guess that’s who I am and what I do, but I reluctantly award myself that title. I never thought—I never describe myself to myself that way.

Rogers: But I think in some of the songs that you’ve written there’s such a close relationship with poetry obviously, but form too. There’s a soundtrack to Night Magic where you wrote the lyrics in Spenserian ode form.

Cohen: Yeah, that’s true.

Rogers: Which is amazing.

Cohen: I’ve always been interested in form, maybe because I don’t trust my own spontaneous nature to come up with anything interesting, and form imposes a certain opportunity to get deeper than your first thought. There’s a school of poetry that believes first thought, best thought. That would have condemned me to an inauspicious superficiality if I had followed that, because I don’t have any ideas. Irving Layton once said to me, “Leonard is free from ideas.” I don’t have an idea and I don’t trust my opinions. I think my opinions are second-rate, but when you submit yourself to a form, then something happens and you’re invited to dig deeper into the language and to discard the slogans by which you live, the easy alibis of language and of opinion. And if you’re looking in the Spenserian stanza, for instance—which is a very, very intricate verse form—you have to come up with many rhymes of the same sound; you’re invited to explore realms that you usually don’t get to in ordinary, easy thought. I’ve considered my thought stream extremely uninteresting, and it’s only when I can discard it that I find I can say something that I can get behind.

Rogers: Do you think opinion is second-rate in general?

Cohen: Well, for the purpose of conversation, opinion is valuable.

Rogers: It gets you through.

Cohen: It just gets you through the dinner. You know, I could dredge up an opinion and even defend it, but I’m less and less willing to do that. It becomes more and more tiresome to defend an opinion that you never fully embraced in the first place. So it’s a useful social tool. We’re living in a time now when opinion is becoming as rigid and belligerent as religion and faith are, so we’re living in this period when you’re defined by opinion. People want to know are you for or against this particular issue and will base their entire possibility of friendship with you on opinions that you may hold or not hold, so that’s another reason to keep quiet about most things.

Rogers: Did you always feel that way?

Cohen: I’ve never had much faith in my own take on things, and I know that the world is far too complex, first of all, for a solution. This is not the realm of solutions. We were exiled from the garden, and that’s what I understand is the nature of the human predicament. This is not paradise, and we can’t really put the world in order. It doesn’t mean one shouldn’t try to live in harmony with one’s self and one’s friends. As far as bigger visions are concerned, I simply don’t have the chops. I don’t have the equipment to penetrate or unfold or decipher this bewildering range of human activity that confronts me.

Rogers: And are you at peace with that?

Cohen: Well, I certainly accept it, and if I’m not at peace I accept that too. There are times when you get riled up about things and it’s just one’s own nature. I can’t figure it out, can you?

Rogers: You’re asking me? [laughter] No! No, I can’t, but sometimes I get little glimmers of light, I think, such as in a song like “Anthem,” where you say, “Forget your perfect offering, forget your perfect offering . . .”

Cohen: Yeah, if you can, it’s not a bad idea, because first of all, there is no perfect offering, and anything you come up with is going to be flawed, and understanding that the whole thing is flawed and that this is not Eden, that it is a flawed world . . . well, all these things are easy to say, but it’s true that if you’re lucky you can begin forgiving yourself for your meagre offering.

Rogers: Let me ask you about the other four songs that are going to be inducted.

Cohen: Sure.

Rogers: “Bird on a Wire.” Where did it come from?

Cohen: I think I stole the tune. Somebody remarked to me, “Isn’t that the tune from . . . ?” There was another tune. The song began because the municipality in this little village where I lived in Greece began stringing telephone and electrical wires—there was no electricity on the island—they began stringing wires all over the place. And it was very annoying because suddenly this view you’d come a thousand miles for was now criss-crossed by wires, and I was resenting this deeply until a bird came, and a lot of birds came actually, and would sit on this wire. So that was the genesis of the song, I think. I may have made this story up.

Rogers: It’s a good story.

Cohen: Well, I think it’s true, but as I say—elements, components, of your life will find their way into the song. I used to listen to the people coming home late at night, the men coming home from the tavernas late at night. Even though they woke people up, it was a tolerated custom where men (and I was often one of them) would come home and you’d see them, or you’d see us, climbing the stairs of this little village—it was all built around steps—our arms around each other and singing in very close harmony: so that phrase “Like a drunk in a midnight choir.” And choir rhymed with wire, so that was a gift, and it allows you to also lift your heart in gratitude because wire and choir rhyme: “Like a bird on a wire / Like a drunk in a midnight choir.” How lucky you are to come up with that, and if it weren’t for the obligation of rhyme, you would never find those congruences.

Rogers: Let me ask you about “Everybody Knows,” because this is another inductee: “Everybody knows that the dice are loaded / Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed.” What kind of song is this?

Cohen: I don’t know, I guess I was kind of trying to write a tough song, a song that indicated to myself and the world that I really knew the score about something or other. We all have these archetypes floating around in our minds and we become them from moment to moment, so that guy was a kind of know-it-all who’d been there and done that and seen it all. I think that was how it began, but then under the tyranny of rhyme other lines emerged that I could never have possibly come up with. There are good lines there: “long-stem rose” and “without your clothes.” Things like that are just wonderful gifts and I don’t know how they arrive, I don’t know how they arrive. It’s not that I don’t sweat over it, because I do—I sweat over every word, and it takes me a long time to bring these songs to completion—but when these little gifts appear you’re still wonderfully surprised and grateful. So that song has a particular number of them. And then it began to allow me to explore my own feelings about the way things were, rather than become active in some cause, which is not really my nature. I could activate impulses that somehow coincide with a sense, or a need, or an appetite for reform. I think Yeats’s father said that poetry is the social act of a solitary man.

Rogers: Another song being inducted is “Ain’t No Cure for Love.”

Cohen: “Ain’t No Cure for Love.” That song I hardly remember. Can you sing it? I forget how it goes.

Rogers: [singing] “There ain’t no cure / There ain’t no cure . . .”

Cohen: That’s for sure.

Rogers: Okay. [laughter]

Cohen: I remember that part. Sometimes you don’t really know what a song is about. “Ain’t No Cure for Love”—I mean, I just know it’s true. And it suggests that love is an ailment. It’s not an original idea that love is a fever or a disease, but in another sense it’s the same landscape as “There is a crack in everything”: that our impulses and our motivations, they’re hopeless. First of all, we don’t determine them. We receive them, we act on them, and we fall in love with things and with ideas and with people, and we can’t help ourselves—we’re just programmed, we’re constructed that way, in the same way that we’re bloodthirsty homicidal predators. In the same way we’re tender creatures filled with the highest ideals and the profoundest aspirations and the widest appetite for love. And regardless of all the evidence—there’s mountains of it to the contrary—we simply cannot help falling in love. Not just with each other (but that’s certainly part of it) but with principles and ideals and a dream of virtue.

Rogers: Do you know more about love now than you did when you wrote—

Cohen: I was never good at it. I mean, let’s face it. This I can say with real certainty.

Rogers: Has it been a good dance?

Cohen: It’s been a good dance. I just wrote a song that Anjani Thomas called “Thanks for the Dance” and it goes “Thanks for the dance, it was hell, it was swell, it was fun / Thanks for all the dances, one-two-three, one-two-three, one.”

Rogers: Beautiful. Will that show up on the new cd with Anjani Thomas?

Cohen: Yes, yes, that’s the final song of that album called Blue Alert.

Rogers: You go back a ways with her.

Cohen: Anjani played keyboard and sang backup for me on a 1984 tour, so I’ve known her for a long, long time. I’ve known her professionally and now we’re neighbours of the deepest kind.

Rogers: You have a new album coming out and a new book of poetry?

Cohen: Yes I do, I have a book of poetry called Book of Longing, and it’s poems and drawings and it has a wonderful cover.

Rogers: What’s on it?

Cohen: It’s a bird. What I like about it is that it was a drawing I had discarded and had no use for, but I endlessly recycle my scribbles and sketches, and it’s really wonderful when something reappears. You should never throw anything away, including people and ideas. It’s really true that you should never give up on anyone. Everything can be used.

Rogers: So there’s a book, there’s a CD, there’s this lovely induction into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Cohen: So very kind to have this happen to a number of songs, because to have songs go into the hearts of your countrymen and women is really a wonderful thing. I heard an interview with Oliver Stone once and he said, “I had a hit with [I think it was] Platoon. Every artist should experience this.” He said if he could decree something, he would have every artist experience a hit, because there’s nothing like it, it’s unstoppable, and you just have the sense that the whole world is expressing this unspeakable hospitality to your soul. I’ve never had a huge hit, but my songs, a few of them, have made their way, and I’ve had that feeling like when you go into a café someplace and, you know, a song of yours is playing, or you pass by a park and some kid is playing one of your songs. It’s really great and this is the kind of symbolic culmination. There is no hall of fame. It is just the heart.

Rogers: I have to ask you about “Hallelujah.”

Cohen: That song also comes out of the same places as “Crack in Everything” and “Ain’t No Cure for Love.” It says, “And even though / It all went wrong / I’ll stand before the Lord of Song / With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.” I guess that kind of sums it up for me.

Rogers: You’ve heard k. d. lang sing it.

Cohen: Oh, I just love that version.

Rogers: It is magnificent, isn’t it?

Cohen: Oh, it’s glorious.

Rogers: She’s glorious.

Cohen: She does that to most of the things that she sings, but that is a wonderful moment when she sings that song on her last album, it’s just beautiful.

Rogers: So with all these things going on, Leonard—I mean you were concealed for a while, I guess, and you’re back to being revealed for a little while—are you hot again?

Cohen: I never even used that word about myself for most of my life, but things are tough now, and if you want to survive in the marketplace, first of all you have to acknowledge the fact that there is a marketplace and that there are people who operate it and manipulate it. I can’t get into it that way.

Rogers: When you were up on Mount Baldy with your spiritual leader, Roshi—

Cohen: My old friend Roshi, he’s ninety-eight.

Rogers: He’s still alive.

Cohen: Oh, he’s still alive. He said to me, “Excuse me, I forgot to die.”

Rogers: [laughs] Nice.

Cohen: But he’s at the top of his form. Now that’s an inspiration. I never thought of him as my spiritual leader but as someone who exhibits the unusual capacity to thoroughly understand your own predicament. We all try to do that for the people in our lives, but it’s an art or a skill like anything else and some people have that. I was never interested in Buddhism—I have a perfectly good religion—but I was interested in Roshi’s remarkable and unusual interest in other people. Because I didn’t feel I was at home anywhere. So I wanted to study; I wanted to avail myself of that hospitality. If he had been a professor of physics at Heidelberg, I would have learned German and studied in Heidelberg. But he happened to be a Zen master, so I put on the robes and I entered the monastery and I did what was necessary and appropriate to be able to enjoy his company.

Rogers: When you came down from the mountain, how did it change how you went through your day?

Cohen: There’s a tremendous respect in that tradition that appealed to me very much, so I cooked for Roshi for many years.

Rogers: What did you make him?

Cohen: Well, he had to have a lot of protein at his age, so I cooked a lot of fish. He liked tuna and salmon. I used to make a lot of teriyaki salmon, and rice, of course, with every meal.

Rogers: Ever make him a Red Needle?

Cohen: Well, Roshi taught me a lot about drinking. Roshi is a great drinker and he taught me to discern—at least in the early stages of the evening—between, let’s say, the taste of Hennessy and Martell cognac. He’d test me. But I could never get him interested in wine, in French, or red, wine. He drank the poisonous raw sake, which he cherished, and I could never really embrace sake drinking. If your heart has been nourished by the highs of Bordeaux, it’s hard to really get into sake.

Rogers: I should say, a Red Needle, I understand, is your drink that you—

Cohen: I invented the Red Needle in Needles, California. I can’t make it anymore, like most things. I can construct a facsimile of the Red Needle now—because basically it’s tequila and cranberry juice, and a little bit of soda water to give it a bit of a fizz, and some fruit—but when I invented it and proselytized it, I was the evangelist of the Red Needle for a number of years and it took off. But I’ve forgotten now, like most things, like an opinion. The Red Needle has fallen into disuse.

Rogers: I’m so sorry.

Cohen: There are other practitioners of the Red Needle who can accomplish it.

Rogers: Irving Layton, your friend and mentor, died in January, after a long battle with Alzheimer’s. You’ve said that even with Alzheimer’s, Irving’s voice couldn’t be silenced.

Cohen: You know there’s something about Irving that is so amazing. I went to see him in his last days and he hadn’t recognized me for a while, but before that I visited him at the hospital. We found a place to smoke and I was helping him light his pipe, his hands were trembling, and he says to me, “Have you noticed some decline in your sexual appetite?” This must be about eight years ago, and I said, “Yeah, well, I have, Irving, somewhat, you know.” He said, “I’m relieved to hear that, Leonard.” I said, “So I take it, Irving, that you yourself have noticed some decline in your sexual appetite.” He said, “Yes, I have.” And I said, “When did you first begin to notice this?” He said, “Oh, about the age of sixteen or seventeen.”

Rogers: [laughs] Lovely.

Cohen: That was true. But you know, it’s a curious and mysterious disease, Alzheimer’s, and I don’t have any particular insight into it, but the last time I visited Irving, I brought him some cheese Danish—I was with Musia Schwartz who was so devoted to him—and cut it up and put it down in front of him and he said, “Thank you very much.” And I said, “Orange juice?” And he said, “Thank you very much.” I had the feeling that he was very peaceful. He really enjoyed that cheese Danish. He didn’t look up, there was no need to thank anyone, but more than that I just felt that he’d gone beyond the social conventions. It wasn’t as though it were some kind of enlightened or spiritual silence, it wasn’t that at all, it was a completely different—it was just a sense that nothing need be said or can be said. It’s not that it was taken for granted; it’s more that it just was the way it was and it was completely all right with him, and the only invitation that was in the air was for it to be all right with you too. I just sat there completely relaxed while Irving felt no need or obligation to acknowledge my presence. That’s the last time I saw him.

Rogers: So you’ve been able to deal with the unfairness of the way he went out?

Cohen: Well, you know, these things we simply cannot penetrate. I thought his exit was very graceful, it was silent and maybe unfair, but the mind, it was at rest in some way, this incredible mind that had imagined Canada for all of us, it seemed to me to be at rest.


This interview was originally broadcast on Sounds Like Canada in February 2006, produced by Carole Warren.

Shelagh Rogers has been with CBC Radio for twenty-five years. For twenty-five years she has wanted to interview Leonard Cohen. She can retire now.

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