Leonard Cohen: Working for the World to Come

We range the buzzer on the front door. No answering voices, no footsteps were heard. Suddenly the bolt lifted on the lock and the door apparently opened by itself. "Hello?" "C'mon up," a voice called from the top of the stairs. We crouched down in order to look up the stairs that were directly in front of us. At the top of the flight stood Leonard Cohen peering down, holding a longer string which was connected to the lock on the door. Another string worked the door shut.

Interviewers: You work the door like a kite?

Cohen: Yeah. It's fun.

It was a cold mid-winter's afternoon and we were at Leonard Cohen's Montreal duplex-studio. He took our coats and led us into the kitchen where we sat down at an old walnut dining room table. The walls of the apartement were white. Simplicity of form and colour dominated the place. In a corner of the kitchen there was a waterheater with a large bust of Irving Layton sitting on top of it. Next to the door an electric socket protruded from the wall and on top rested another Layton icon - a small pen and ink profile. We chatted for a while and then took some photographs in the bedroom and the living-room. On the living-room wall the only adornment, a painting of an unidentified female saint, stood out against the white surface.
The buzzer rang. "That's Mort with the schnapps," said Cohen. In walked Montreal artist, Morton Rosengarten, and we all went into the kitchen where after a few glasses of schnapps, Cohen said: "Let's do it." Leonard Cohen was born in Montreal in 1934 and educated at McGill and Columbia. He won, but declined to accept, the 1968 Governor-General's Award for Poetry for Selected Poems 1956-1968.

Interviewers: What are you working on now? We've heard it described as a mini-musicale?

Cohen: Yeah. I'm in the midst of a new record and a new book of poems but I've also been working on an opera with Montreal composer Lewis Furey. It could be described as a demotic opera. In other words, it's an opera, but it's not a rock opera. It's an opera in the sense that the music is quite complex and it's not based on two-four or four-four rhythms like a rock opera. The difference is that it's colloquial or demotic. It's not for trained voices. It has the formality of an opera, with about an hour and a half of music.

Interviewers: Is it being taped or done live?

Cohen: Our original concept was a video tape for television - a video disc. It could be adapted for stage, but it isn't far enough along. The possibilities of production will determine it's final form.

Interviewers: When will it appear?

Cohen: Well it's ready now and it's just a matter of finding a channel for it.

Interviewers: Is it designed for a Canadien, or an international market?

Cohen: Well it wasn't designed with any borders in mind. I think it could play anywhere. We'd like to put it on in Canada and have it as one of the first productions of the private pay-television apparatus. I think that would be appropriate.

Interviewers: What will the text be like?

Cohen: The lyrics are mostly in Spenserian stanzas. There are three or four hundred lines of verse in it, mostly in Spenserian stanza.

Interviewers: Is there a story behind it?

Cohen: It resembles the Faust story.

Interviewers: But it's not the Faust story?

Cohen: No. It's not the Faust story. I think the story is about as important as the story is in an opera, which means it isn't terrible important. Mostly in an opera the action is conveyed musically. You have people singing lines like: "Pass the butter." Then:"No, I'll have the salt." (Laughter). And it's all in Spenserian stanzas.

Interviewers: That's an interesting extension of the songs because songs sometimes can convey much more meaning than poetry. You once said that songs are not as pedagogical.

Cohen:I don't think I ever set up a conflict or comparison between songs and poetry. It's just a different mode. There is something about reading lines on a page which is very powerful. Hearing something also has its powers, I wouldn't set up a conflict between forms.

Interviewers: Do you think there is any strategy involved in employing a video casette at a time when popular culture is becoming increasingly more visually oriented?

Cohen: I've never had a strategy. To me it was perfectly natural that my work would penetrate and find an audience in the popular culture and I think you can approach it in any way you want. I think it's important not to let it tyrannize you. I don't think we're completely creatures of that culture and neither are we creatures of our own personal culture. We're continually moving back and forth between those two areas. I never had a strategy because I never felt alien from popular culture. You just set the thing up in the way you can handle it. I don't have the kind of mind to do anything else. I think Irving Layton once described my mind as "unblemished by a single idea." I never had a plan. I had a certain kind of faith although. I would never have given that word to it. If the work was good enough or, more specifically, if the work was appropriate to move into the world, it would move into the world. There are certain kinds of work that stay with you. You don't develop any kind of chip on your shoulder because that kind of work doesn't move out or gain hundreds of admirers. I have a clear idea of the process, of a song say, in the popular realm. The world can use certain kinds of work at certain times and at certain times it can't. You can't develop an ideology about the world or about yourself in regard to how your work is accepted. You just do what you have to do to satisfay a certain hunger or loneliness, in order to make contact with the world. There is a tradition of contact that has been going on for thousands of years. It's not just your solitary effort in the matter but generations of men before you who have done the same thing and have tended to connect the same kind of way. So that tradition is there. You can lean on it and be encouraged by it and sustained by it.

Interviewers: Do you think that you're getting back closer to the roots of poetry as it was probably originally sung?

Cohen: I'm not sure that - whether it was originally sung. That's one of the superpositions we have to make us anxious about what we're doing. I'm not sure whether it was originally sung ... or whispered.

Interviewers: On your last album, Recent Songs, there was a different sound and a wider range than with some of the other albums. You weren't quite as angry or self-deprecating. Is that a fair reading of it?

Cohen: That's grossly unfair. (Laughter.) That's hard to say from the outside, because I never have the sense of the luxury of choice. Songs come from a ceratin endeavour and you surround them with the kind of accompaniment that they require. So the thing is not done objectively, it's done organically. It emerges just the way it is.

Interviewers: You don't set out to do that?

Cohen: Yeah.

Interviewers: On your last album you had a song "Un Canadien Errant" with a mariachi band as back-up musicians. It emerged sounding like a very Latin tune rather than a Québécois folksong.

Cohen: I thought the resonances that were developed through that kind of treatment were quite interesting and humorous, because you have a Jew singing a French-Canadien song with a Mexican band. So it really does become a statement of exile.

Interviewers: Is there any reason why you left out the last verse?

Cohen: I never knew the last verse too well. How does it go?

Interviewers: Something like: "Even though I die, my Canada, I will expire or languish with your name forever with me - my dear Canada."

Cohen: I don't think I ever used to sing that. I hadn't sung that song for years and years. What were the French words?

Interviewers: "Non mais on expirant, O mon cher Canada, Mon regard languissant, Vers toi se portera."

Cohen: (Pause.) I remember vaguely hearing those. I never learned those, and the song seemed to work with two verses and instumental and final verse.

Interviewers: Do you see French-Canadiens in the context of that song? Was that song directed specifically at them?

Cohen: The complexities of singing that song are enormous. I think it would take volumes to unfold. It just has a certain irony, humour and poignancy in the way it was done, because in a certain sense, we - the English-speaking Canadiens in Montreal - are the exiles. The song turns around and has harmonics that are quite interesting.

Interviewers: You dedicated the album Recent Songs to Irving Layton. What sort of relationship do you have with him?

Cohen: It's more a friendship which involves mutual respect. We are friends and fortunately we also happen to like each other's work. I can't really determine any literary characteristics to the friendships. He's is just a guy I like. He's a guy who likes me. We've been friends for twenty-five years. I think a lot of stuff has rubbed off both ways. I've never studied his work to see if there have been influences on my work. There was a great deal of his work I didn't understand until i got older. A lot of his work about marriage and that sort of thing I didn't understand until I was married. I think there are positions that have migrated back and forth between us. I write from a more liturgical Jewish background which I was closet to. He's using a cultural background. I think that still is the case. Irving sees the Jewish people with a kind of destiny in the world, which I also see. But the approaches are different. It would be a good study to look for mutual influences. There is something to be examined there.

Interviewers: You've also been associated with Louis Dudek over the years. He brought out your first book from Contact Press.

Cohen: I'm fond of Louis Dudek, but I don't think he's fond of me. I think he feels I've sold out to Mammon and took a wrong turning somewhere. I think he considers me less pure than I might be. His view is much like that of Ezra Pound, that the world is irrevocably corrupt -- a very Manichean view, where you have the artists on one side, who are very pure, and on the other side you have the world which is Satanic and you don't make an accomodation with the world. It's a very Christian idea. I don't think the world is stained irrevocably. I don't buy this view. I don't think the purity of the artist is concerned with those matters. There is such a thing as integrity and purity but I don't think it rests on those kind of activity. I think that we have to recognize that in 'the world' there are certain activities, publications like Playboy and Esquire, and they too have certain standards of craftsmanship. There are certain standards of excellence that operate in the world that are valuable for any artist. There is also the danger that if you isolate yourself in a certain artistic circle, an artistic community or milieu, that you will not even be satisfying the operative standards of excellence which pertain in the world at large.

Interviewers: What is the only essential ground-rule?

Cohen: I think that excellence is the only standard. There's all kinds of other matters like making a living and freedom from having to satisfy whatever regulations pertain to the artistic circle, which are often very tyrannical. I never felt my work needed any label or refuge.

Interviewers: There's a woodcut on the cover of Death of a Lady's Man and also on the sleeve of the album New Skin for the Old Ceremony which is taken from a book by Jung. Has Jung been an influence on you?

Cohen: I don't know Jung's work that well, but I've kept his books as references throughout the years. I know the general Jungian principles. I more or less came to Jung through oriental studies. He'd written some prefaces to the I Ching and also The Secret of the Golden Flower. As a western scientist, his appreciation of the Oriental psychology and Oriental psychical anatomy -- mysticism, whatever that means -- dissolved the western view that their psychology was mystical. He saw systematically a diagram of the psyche. It was valid. That kind ol view developed in the West in the Forties where we had a radical change in our perception of their work. I think Jung probably led in that re-evaluation of Oriental methodology. It's the science of the orient. It's not mysticism. The word mysticism is used in a somewhat pejorative sense. The point Jung makes in all his prefaces is that these things are pragmatic, that they refer to the mechanics of the psyche and can be properly studied. He de-mystified the work that the Orientals had done.

Interviewers: Were you trying to use Jungian psychology and techniques in Death of a Lady's Man?

Cohen: I don't really remember what the premise of the book was because, as I said, I don't write from a position ol luxury. I write from a position of scraping the bottom of the barrel. I don't really know what that book was about. As I say in one of the paragraphs "my work is alive." Wherever you can go to find those mechanics that produce a living thing, that is where I have to go, because I'm not at a banquet table where I can pick and choose from all the delicacies. You go to the place that gives you those elements that can produce something that is alive.

Interviewers: So writing Death of a Lady's Man wasn't the kind of draining or purifying experience that Beautiful Losers was.

Cohen: I think Beautiful Loser was the same thing. You always try to do your best.

Interviewers: With what is at hand at the time?

Cohen: Yes. Whatever scraps, shards you have at your disposal.

Interviewers: What did you mean when you said that The Favourite Game was a third novel and not a first?

Cohen: I had written a first novel, The Ballet of Lepers, and had written a lot of short Stories and long pieces and I completely overhauled the various versions of The Favourite Game. There is another Favourite Game that exists in the Thomas Fisher Library at the University of Toronto which is radically different from the one I published. I had done at least four versions of The Favourite Game so by the time the final novel came out it wasn't a first novel.

Interviewers: Montreal has played a major role in your novels. Have you deliberately set out to render the life of the city or was the sense of the city just incidentally in the work?

Cohen: I was just talking to a girl -- Gail Scott -- who is writing a book that's trying to give you a sense of the city, like Joyce's Dubliners -- that makes the City come alive. No, I neuer began with an intention to render the life of the city. I began with hunger. An appetite. I neuer believed I had to justify the city because I was in the city and that this city, Montreal, was the "Jerusalem of the North," that this was a holy city. The spirit was somehow invigorated here. It was illuminated. We were here already. I didn't have to invoke it.

Interviewers: So once again, it's just the material at hand.

Cohen: Mostly, that's it. If there is an aesthetic, you go where you go to feel alive.

Interviewers: You wrote an unpublished Story, "The Juke Box Heart" ...

Cohen: What was that about? That's a great title!

Interviewers: In it you wrote of growing up to approximate a thirteen-year old's romantic dream of the outsider, the exile, the private-eye figure who walks dark, wet streets late at night with a hat pulled down over one eye.

Cohen: No recollection of that at all. (Laughter.) Great Story. I mean not the slightest recollection.

Interviewers: Does the detective figure attract you -- Sam Spade, etc.?

Cohen: Well, I've always liked raincoats.

Interviewers: Particularly blue ones. Do you still have one?

Cohen: Yes. I'll put it on. (Puts on raincoat.) How about a picture under the bare lightbulb?

Interviewers: I think you've answered our questions about whether one grows up to approximate one's thirteen-year old fantasies.

Cohen: I'm glad you guys are getting down to the important stuff.

Interviewers: Has any pop-romantic figure, such as Bogart, influenced you?

Cohen:I've never been particularly influenced by anything that's going down.

Interviewers: In the Sixties you were quite into pop culture.

Cohen: I always was.

Interviewers: Do you like pop culture?

Cohen: Sure. When it's good. I don't feel separated from it. I listen to radio a good deal. I have my views as to whether the music is good and is speaking to me, but I certainly recognize that I'm part of it. I never felt "that's going on and I'm not whith it." I always felt it was mine and I always felt it was good and there's always something good happening in that realm at all times.

Interviewers: Do you see yourself as being type-cast as a Sixties figure? Has it been a problem for you?

Cohen: I don't think it's a problem. I think it's certainly true. Certainly here in Canada.

Interviewers: Do you see Canada as developing a certain mythos? I'm speaking specifically of Kateri Tekakwitha, who has just been beatified.

Cohen: I did a lot for that girl. I was very gratified when someone sent me an Italien newspaper an the day she was beatified and it had an excerpt in Italien from Beautiful Losers . I did love the woman.

Interviewers: Do you see yourself as the advocat for that saint?

Cohen: Oh, I'm behind her all the way. I'd like to see her advance into every heart. (Laughter.)

Interviewers: Has the Christian mythos been a creative force for you?

Cohen: I love Christ. I see Christianity as the world historic mission of certain ideas that the Jews developed. Christianity is a mighty movement, and that is the way those ideas penetrated the world. Christianity is the missionary arm of Judaism. As Maimonides said, "We're all working for the world to come."

Interviewers: Do you have any vision of that world to come?

Cohen: No, except that one inhabits it from time to time. You fall out of it and then climb back into it.

Interviewers: What has it been like when you've been in it?

Cohen: Wonderful. It's almost like this one.

Interviewers: It has schnapps and everything. (Laughter.) You said once that was lacking in Judaism now is the prophet's vision -- that the prophet and the prophetic vision had been down-graded in Judaism and all that was left was the priests.

Cohen: I said that?

Interviewers: Yes, and it caused quite a commotion at the time. It was in a speech before the Symposium on the Future of Judaism in 1964.

Cohen: I went that far?

Interviewers: And you said a lot worse but far be it from us to bring all that up. (Laughter.)

Cohen: I think at the time I said that I was simply unaware of what the Jewish tradition was. I think that within our tradition there have been various attempts to understand Christianity and make an accomodation with the figure of Christ. I was unaware of Maimonides' statement at the time. Christ and Mohammed were toilers in the vineyard. Based on ignorance and some distorted views of the Jewish tradition, I said those things. My studies now indicate that Judaism is not lacking in the vision of the prophet.

Interviewers: Have you visited Israel?

Cohen: I was there under many circumstances: as a tourist, as a volunteer in the armed forces and as a performer. I think it is a very great country, probably the most democratic country in the world. It's alive.

Interviewers: How does Jerusalem compare to Montreal?

Cohen: They've got a long way to go. (Laughter.)

Interviewers: How do you feel when academics categorize your work?

Cohen: You know, it just depends on the academic. Someone like Dennis Lee -- I'd be hard-pressed to call him an academic. Some men arise and are generous and don't have an ideology to lean on. It doesn't matter to Dennis Lee why Beautiful Losers came about, whether or not it was my pitch to hit the bestseller lists, or a private vision, or whether it compromises the idea of artistic purity. Those things are irrelevant to a man like Dennis Lee. Dennis Lee understands that the work arises and he has to confront it. That to my mind is the mark of a high spirit and a high critical process.

Interviewers: You've said that your work could survive regardless of what form it eventually took. Was there any particular point where you said, "I know this is good, regardless, and is something that is artistic and can endure?"

Cohen: I never had a landmark in my mind. I never really was touched by those concerns. It was a matter of the work and wherever it would go, there it would go. I had a certain kind of confidence that part of it would move out -- that part of it would leave the page and touch other hearts.

Interviewers: You were in Havana during the Bay of Pigs fiasco and wrote a poem, "The Only Canadien Tourist in Havana Turns His Thoughts Homeward..." Why did you go down there?

Cohen: I don't know.

Interviewers: You seem to have walked into several revolutions. Greece before the Colonels took over, Ethopia ...

Cohen: Yeah, I've been into a few of those places: I've actually stumbled into my share of revolutions, I guess.

Interviewers: Was it purely coincidental, or ...

Cohen: I guess there might be some unseen hand at work.

Interviewers: Politically, as an English writer living in Quebec with roots here, how have you been affected by the advent of a Separatist government?

Cohen: Seems very familiar to me. I don't feel anything has happened. I think this was always happening and that this has always been the spirit of the Province. It moves, it changes continually. We're in a period now where the majority of the people are asserting their own sense of themselves. It will intensify and de-intensify depending on what the conditions are. It seems to be natural and appropriate. I can't get myself revved-up about it.

Interviewers: That last line in the Havana poet -- do you think that you or anyone has broken that "stoney silence on the Seaway"?

Cohen: I think everybody has broken it. I don't quite know what I meant by that line. I think that whatever we call this thing, Canada, that it's one of the best places in the world. It's our ambiguities about it that make it great. Those ambiguities about it that make it great. Those ambiguities about it create all kinds of loopholes, wherein we can operate with a great deal of freedom. I don't have an aggressive view of Canada. I have a very warm feeling about this country.

Interviewers: Is that why you come back so often?

Cohen: Yeah.

Interviewers: In the 1965 film Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen you were painted as a sort of rebel. Do you see yourself in those terms?

Cohen: Those are other people's labels. You indulge in fantasies about who you are and what you're doing and what your work is worth. You move from a position of significance or insignificance. You move back and forth between those poles in terms of what you are and what you do.

Interviewers: You once said that the job of poet is to make the reader say, "This is what I am." Do you still see that role for yourself as the 'evocateur' of yourself in other people, to make them recognize who they are? Is that still there?

Cohen: It's not a bad statement. It isn't something I'd say now but it isn't something I'd repudiate. I think the idea of recognizing your true self vivifies all selves.

Interviewers: In terms of your music, was there any deliberate decision on your part not to tour Canada?

Cohen: I don't know how that came about. I feel I should tour Canada. The mechanics of the operation are a little more difficult for me and that involves relationships with the record company, with the media and eventually comes down to my livelihood since it's a tremendous effort to tour. I tend to tour in those places where the audience is already there, and the distance between cities is short -- for instance, France. When I meet people in Canada they say, "Are you still singing, I haven't heard you in a long time?" Much of that is my fault. I haven't really devoted any time to Canadien audiences and there is an audience in Europe that is aware of what I do. When I get around to touring, and the tremendous effort that is involved in touring. I tend to go to those places where it's 'cooking'.

Interviewers: You were recently in Australia. How were the audiences there?

Cohen: Australia ia a wonderful country. Sometimes I think if I was twenty years old I'd go there. It's very beautiful. It's an island in the South Pacific where everybody speaks English and they have electricity. (Laughter.) I was surprised with the audiences and the familiarity with my work.

Interviewers: Death of a Lady's Man was tremendously popular in England.

Cohen: Yeah, it did okay there. Different segments of the work connect with different countries.

Interviewers: If you won the Governor-General's Award today, would you turn it down as you did in 1969?

Cohen: I think they should give it to me anyways and let me decide. I think I would accept it now. I feel I would want to affirm Canada.

Interviewers: How important is privacy and elusiveness?

Cohen: I wish you guys would go immediately! No really, in a very pedestrian way, you have to have a lot of time to yourself or else you're not going to do anything. I think it does encourage a certain ruthlessness in your character just to clear away the time that you need to satisfy your hunger to blacken pages. You've got to be quite severe with yourself and with your family.

Interviewers: This is a bit like asking you "Is professional wrestling fixed" ...

Cohen: That's a theological question.

Interviewers: You once said that "The Romantic Movement was the last attempt of men to disguise what they'd always known about women." What have you always known about women?

Cohen: They drive me crazy!

Interviewers: Do you have any heroes? What do you consider a hero?

Cohen: What I consider a hero is a guy who goes to work every day and supports his family. The ordinary guy. I think to hold it together nowadays is a heroic enterprise.

Interviewers: How do you want to be remembered?

Cohen: Uh, how about 'He's a great guy'?

Interviewers: Is that it?

Cohen: No. I haven't said my last word. I'm still scratching away.

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