The John Hammond Years

Interview with John Hammond
and Leonard Cohen

BBC, September 20, 1986

Transcribed from audio tape
by Elizabeth Bacon-Smith

John Hammond signed Leonard Cohen
in New York for Columbia Records

Leonard Cohen: John Hammond ~ he’s always struck me as the finest example of what we could call the ‘American aristocracy.’ He stands, and has always stood for, a certain kind of integrity and morality, in music and his dealings with musicians. I don’t think there’s another man of his stature in the country.

[Narrator: Leonard Cohen. In the early 1960s, Leonard Cohen was beginning to make a name for himself, in Canada, as a poet and writer. He left his native Montreal and moved to Europe.]

Leonard Cohen: I had been living in Greece...writing. I had established some sort of modus vivendi, where I would come back to Canada, and do some journalism or sell a short story...and put together the thousand dollars that I needed to live for a year in Greece. And then I’d go to Greece and write. And, although my books were well received, especially in Canada, and the reviews were good, I couldn’t make a living.

So, in hindsight, it seems like the height of folly to decide to solve your economic problems by becoming a singer. But I’d always played guitar, and I’d always sung. And I’d played in a country-western band, in Montreal, a barn-dance band, really. We’d done church basements and high schools...we had a caller. I’d always loved country music, and I was on my way down to Nashville, to either become a studio player, or try to make a record. I’d written songs, and I’d always been interested in folk music. It was through folk music that I became interested in what they call ‘literature.’

In New York, I discovered this whole Renaissance of so-called folk music...Phil Ochs, Judy Collins, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, David Bloom.....

Narrator: What year was this?

Leonard Cohen: This must have been 1965, ‘66. I came down to New York, and I didn’t have very much success in getting the ear of anyone. I visited some agents and they’d say, “Turn around kid......let‘s have a look at you. Aren‘t you a little too old for this game?” I was 32 at the time. I think I was eating very little; I was about 116 pounds...and going to all the clubs, and listening and playing and writing. Just the ordinary cliche of a young writer in New York.

[Narrator: Leonard Cohen’s life of hardship, on the streets of New York, didn’t last long. The turning point was a meeting with the up-and-coming folk singer, Judy Collins.]

Leonard Cohen: I was introduced to Judy Collins by a Mary Martin. Mary Martin is the young woman, who came from Toronto, and worked in New York in the music world. She was instrumental in bringing The Band and Dylan together. She managed Van Morrison for a period. She was a very enterprising and very sensitive woman...and very supportive.

I sang a few songs for Judy Collins and she liked them. Then, I went back to Montreal, and I wrote a number of songs in that period. One of them was “Suzanne.” I phoned Judy Collins, and kind of nestled the telephone between my ear and my shoulder, and I played her “Suzanne.” She said, “I’m going to do that this week, in the studio.”

Leonard Cohen: People often ask me whether I set the poems to music, but I think I know the difference between a lyric and a poem. Most of my songs began with the phrase of music and a phrase of the lyric. Usually, the tunes were completed before the lyric. Then, there’s that long process of uncovering the lyric, and fitting it to the melody.

A song probably comes out of 10 or 11 stories. I think that you need the accumulated evidence, of a lot of experience, before a good song can emerge. I’m not sure where you go for songs, or how it’s done. Otherwise, I’d go there more often. I don’t really know how it happens. The song could’ve been called by any name because I had the guitar pattern, before I had the name of the woman. But, the wife of a friend of mine is named Suzanne, and she did invite me down to her place near the river, the St. Lawrence. And she served me ~ I believe it was Constant Comment ~ tea, which is composed of tea and oranges. And I did enjoy her hospitality.

More or less, the song is reportage in the first verse. Then, because Montreal is a religious city, and there are symbols of all the great faiths around...that verse about Jesus; and we were emerged, and we were by the river. And then, the last verse tried to sum up, somehow, the kind of compassion and attention that a man looks to receive from a woman.

Leonard Cohen: The writing of “Suzanne,” like all my songs, took a long time. I wrote most of it in Montreal ~ all of it in Montreal ~ over the space of, perhaps, four or five months. I had many, many verses to it. Sometimes the song would go off on a tangent, and you’ll have perfectly respectable verses, but that have led you away from the original feel of the song. So, it’s a matter of coming back. It’s a very painful process because you have to throw away a lot of good stuff. To come back, and to get those three verses of “Suzanne,” that took me quite a long time.

I remember saying to Sam Gesser, who is a figure ~ not unlike John Hammond ~ in Canadian music...a man who has helped a great, great many singers and musicians in Canada...and I said to Sam, “I think I got a good song here.” I played it for him, and he affirmed. He said, “There’s a lot of songs like that around, though, Leonard.”

[Narrator: Not everyone agreed with that lukewarm assessment of “Suzanne.” The song was a hit for Judy Collins, and people started getting interested in Leonard Cohen.]

John Hammond: “Suzanne,” of course, was his great tune...and there was one artist who was very enthusiastic about him, Judy Collins. And, also, Judy loved him, but Joan Baez loved him, too...yeah, those two. Women all feel very protective about him, because he’s a very dark, gloomy-looking man, you know; and they all want to protect him.

Leonard Cohen: I knew who John Hammond was before I met him. Mary Martin called him up and asked him if he would listen to some songs of mine. He called me up and he said, “Leonard, would you like to have lunch with me....” I knew what he had done in American music. I knew the singers that he’d brought, to Columbia. So, if there was ever a man you could trust, it was John Hammond.

John Hammond: As a friend of mine said, “John, there’s this poet from Canada, who I think you‘d be interested in. He plays pretty good guitar, and he’s a wonderful songwriter, but he doesn’t read music, and he’s sort of very strange. I don’t think Columbia would be at all interested in him, but you might be.” So, I said, “Well, fine....”

Leonard Cohen: I was staying at the Chelsea Hotel on 23rd Street [in New York City]. We met in the lobby and he took me down to a restaurant that no longer exists, on 23rd Street, and he bought me a very nice lunch. We didn’t really talk about anything, in particular. He seemed to be putting me at my ease, which I appreciated very much at the moment. Then, he said, “Let’s go back to the hotel, and maybe you’ll play me some songs.”

So, we went up to my room in the Chelsea Hotel, and it’s hard to play for somebody, just cold like that; but, if you could do it for anybody, it would be John Hammond, because he made it easy. I believe I sang him the songs that were on my very first record. I believe I sang the “Master Song” and the “Stranger Song,” “Suzanne,” and a song that I never recorded about rivers. I don’t remember...[suddenly recalling] “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye,” I sang for him.

John Hammond: So, I listened to this guy, and he’s got a hypnotic effect. He plays acoustic guitar, of course; and he is a real poet; and he’s a very sensitive guy.

Leonard Cohen: I sang him six or seven songs. He didn’t say anything between them. At the end of those six or seven songs, he said, “You got it, Leonard.” I didn’t quite know whether he meant a contract, or the ‘gift,’ but it certainly made me feel very good.

John Hammond: I thought he was enchanting...because that’s the only word you can use! He was not like anything I’ve ever heard before. I just feel that I always want a true original, if I can find one, because there are not many in the world; and the young man set his own rules, and he was a really first-class poet, which is most important. They all looked at me at Columbia and said, “What, are you....? A 40-year-old, Canadian poet? How are we going to sell him?” I said, “Listen to him...” and, lo-and-behold, Columbia signed him.

Leonard Cohen: Within a week, I was in the studio at Columbia recording, and John was in the control room. He was the producer.

Leonard Cohen: John had arranged for some musicians to be there, and we started playing a few songs. After one of them, I remember John saying over the speaker, “Watch out, Dylan!” He had a very curious...a very curious way of affirming the singer, in the studio. First of all, he would sit behind the console, at the side of the console, with a newspaper. And that took the edge off it. You didn’t feel that he was surveying every move you made. It was a very compassionate kind of ‘lapse of attention’ that he would display, which I’m sure was a very highly-engineered and very well-tested way of putting the performer at ease. He would appear to be reading his newspaper, and I’m sure he was reading his newspaper; but it just took that edge of pressure off, so that you could feel you could make a mistake, without him looking at you ~ because when you’re in the studio in the first days, you really think that everything you do is wrong; and a lot of things that I did were wrong.

You know, he never said anything negative. There were just degrees of his affirmation that you could pick up, very quickly, as you got to know him. Everything you did was “good,” but some things were “very good.” When it was only “good” ~ and that “good” came out of a real goodwill, but if it was just “good” ~ just the enthusiasm that was attached to “good,” you knew you had to do another take.

One of the songs that was hard to put down was the “Master Song.” I wrote that on a stone bench, at the corner of what was Burnside and Guy Street, in Montreal. I think they’ve put up a statue to Norman Bethune there. I remember sitting on that bench, working out the lyric of that song.

Narrator: Is there anything behind that song that brought you to it?

Leonard Cohen: I’m never sure what’s behind a song. I think in those days there was much concern with the idea of masters and disciples, with the idea that some people knew a lot more than you did; and the world was one vast monastery, in which we were all laboring to acquire enlightenment. I think the song treats that vision sardonically.

Leonard Cohen: There was this church-like atmosphere in the studio, and there were also candles. Perhaps, there was even incense burning, I don’t remember. I asked John if he wouldn’t mind getting a mirror into the studio. He didn’t raise an eyebrow.

John Hammond: I said, “Sure!” And the engineer looked at me as if I were crazy, but he did his thing with the mirror!

Leonard Cohen: In Montreal, I had always thought of myself as one day becoming a singer, and I used to stand in front of the mirror and sing, to see how I looked, or to sing to myself, I don’t quite know why; but maybe nobody else was there, and I needed another presence, a tangible presence.

John Hammond: That was in Studio E. It was a small studio we had at 49 East 52nd Street. He was alone, in the studio, and it used to be lit with incense and candles; and we had no lights on in the studio, and it had a very exotic effect. He had a hypnotizing effect on everybody. And he felt comfortable with the mirror. And I thought, “Well, here’s a true original!”

Leonard Cohen: There wasn’t even a hint of a question or a consideration in his voice, and the next session, there was a full-length mirror in front of the microphone. I imagine that he did that for a lot of people, without the slightest trace of judgment.

Leonard Cohen: When I first went into the studio, John Hammond arranged for me to play with four or five, dynamite, New York, studio musicians. Those takes were lively, but I kept listening to what the musicians were doing. It was the first time I had ever played with a really accomplished band, and I was somewhat intimidated by this. I didn’t really know how to sing with a band. I really didn‘t know how to sing with really good, professional musicians that were really cooking; and I would tend to listen to the musicians, rather than concentrate on what I was doing, because they were doing it so much more proficiently than I was.

Then, John Hammond got the idea that I would just lay down basic tracks, with an extremely sensitive musician by the name of Willie Ruff, a bass player, a man who had come out of Yale, classical background and jazz. We began to put down the basic tracks, just guitar and bass.

John Hammond: Well, Willie Ruff is a great, bass player and a French horn player. He teaches at Yale; he’s a full professor of music at Yale. He’s a black guy from Sheffield, Alabama, and somebody I trusted immediately. Leonard always needed reassurance, of some kind, and he recognized that Willie was a supreme musician; and it was a wonderful combination, the two of them. Willie had toured the world with a pianist called Dwike Mitchell, of the Mitchell-Ruff Duo, and he was a linguist. Willie was a highly-sophisticated musician, not only as a jazz musician, but he was one of the best French horn players we had here. He never played French horn with Leonard, though. Willie was not upset by the fact that Leonard couldn’t read music, and he just realized this guy was a genius of his own kind.

Leonard Cohen: Willie Ruff kept the time, and his slides from one chord to another just kept the song moving forward; and I put down, I think the completed vocal track and bass of “Suzanne,” the “Master Song,” “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye,” and “Sisters of Mercy.”

Leonard Cohen: I don’t remember anything, in particular, that went down between me and Willie, during those sessions, except that I was able to do them with a sense of confidence. The support that Willie Ruff brought to those sessions was crucial. I couldn’t have laid down those tracks without him. He supported the guitar playing so well. He could always anticipate my next move, he understood the song so thoroughly. He was one of those rare musicians that play selflessly, and for pure and complete support.

John Hammond: So, the record came out, and it sold remarkably well. And I had a lot of fun with him. He was a completely weird guy, who liked to go around the streets of Montreal and play pinball. And I liked to play pinball, too, so that was a great bond that we had, in the beginning. And he was extremely well-read (he lived on a little isle outside of Greece) and, eventually, of course, it got him down to Nashville. And Nashville was astounded by him, because they hadn’t seen anything like him, and they never will again. Well, that’s the way he was. He never sold out. He never did anything, except what he wrote. He knew about three chords, and I think he still knows about three chords, and it didn’t matter. The only thing I could do was to stay out of his way, and give him whatever reassurance he needed, and I could do that pretty well.

Leonard Cohen: It was the sense of affirmation that he could confer. It was that sense that you could legitimately stand in the company of the other artists that he had brought to Columbia. It was that feeling, that kind of confidence, that allowed me, who had never been in a studio, to open up and make a record.

I always think of something Irving Layton said about the requirements for a young poet, and I think it goes for a young singer, too, or a beginning singer: “The two qualities most important for a young poet are arrogance and inexperience.” It’s only some very strong self-image that can keep you going in a world that really conspires to silence everyone.

Transcribed and reprinted here
with Leonard Cohen's permission
Photo source not known