by Roy Hollingworth
Melody Maker, February 24, 1973"I'm leaving the music scene...maybe the other life
won't have many good moments either, but I know
this one, and I don't want it"
LET'S sing a song boys. . . . 'This one has grown old and bitter"
- fragment from Songs of Love and Hate
There was this room. Two storeys up from wet Holborn. It was a damp room, and on the floor of it covered in paper and an old cardboard coffee cup was a gold record.
It bore the legend "Songs of Leonard Cohen 250,OOO U.K. Sales". Gold discs look cheap when you look at them closely. But this one didn't.
"He's coming at 4 p.m. er, I'll put you in a room", said somebody. "Do you drink? What do you want? Will scotch do? I think there's some in the other room", said the somebody. The room was depressing.
CBS is motion. . . crank, . . . ring . . . phone. . . bla . . . crank.
"He's in reception. For God's sake get somebody down there! He's in reception, and he's talking to the receptionist. Get somebody down there, and get him up here. He's in reception. . . . Would you believe that. He's standing in reception!"
CBS people functioned. Somebody was sent down to get him but he'd already come up hands in pockets, smiling in a whimsical way. I think he was wearing carpet slippers. He looked smaller than he did the last time I saw him.
But is was unmistakably Cohen.
A day's growth lay black across his olive-skinned chin and cheeks. He stood, and looked somehow pointless. Stood, surrounded by people who were fussing. He wanted no fuss. He didn't talk to them, but meekly followed the mass of instructions he was being given. "Come this way, we'll do this now. . . . Can you come here? . . . I'm so-and-so Mr. Cohen."
To all intents and purposes he looked like some half-tramp who'd been brought in from the cold, and was about to receive the sort of treatment old tramps are given every now and then. You know, they're given a meal, champagne, and put in the best hotel and they appear as chatty stories in the Mirror or the like.
Still smiling this strange, but warm smile he half-followed the "scene". Still with hands in pockets. Then a look spread over his face I think I was the only one to catch it. It was a look of "What am I doing here? I don't want to be here." It vanished quickly.
They CBS fussed, and continued to fuss, and after five minutes the two of us had been ushered like children into this even smaller room. It contained a large desk, behind which was a large dudey chair. In front of the desk was a narrow wooden chair, slightly lower than the other.
Cohen now a little more relaxed, took the small chair, slumped, and sat in a huddle. It can only be described as a huddle, for he still refused to take his hands out of his pockets. I lounged into the big bosses' chair.
We exchanged pleasantries. It was nice to see each other again. It was.
"I feel like a boss man in this chair. Have you come for the job?" I spoke.
"Actually, that's not such a jest," said Leonard, laughing a little. "I could do with a job." His hands came out of his pockets. One hand dropped a pack of Turkish cigarettes on the table the other hand took a Turkish cigarette, and then both hands lit it, and delivered it to the mouth.
An unusual conversation followed.
It went a little something like this.
YOU'VE been in England for [quite a] while now. What have you been doing?
He began to croak. His voice was very croaky, and slow, and drawn out. His words were punctuated with sighs.
Yeh, I've been here for a while off, and on. You see it's all been to do with this film they made of me on the European tour last year. It was a case of me wanting to cut out of everything indefinitely but to leave a film of me for what you might call promotional purposes.
"So a film crew followed me around 23 cities, and spent an enormous amount of money. It was my money. I was paying for the film. Well, the film was shot, and when all the concerts were finished I was happy. I wanted to get out of the scene, and just forget it.
"But, a couple of months later we get a call saying that the film's ready. So we fly to London, and see the film, and well, it's totally unacceptable so like that was 125,000 dollars on something that was totally unacceptable. That's a lot of money, and I don't really have all that much money."
"Yet I was in a financial crisis, and something had to be done with it. I think there still might be a film of sorts. It was something I didn't want to. go through I just wanted the film done, and then get out of the scene."
You say, 'get out of the scene'. What do you mean?
"Well, I'm leaving. I'm leaving now."
Are there any specific reasons for you leaving?
"Oh well, I don't want to cut out completely. I want to continue writing songs, but I want to return to another rhythm; a rhythm I'm more used to."
You don't want any sort of 'one album a year' thing then?
"Well (laughing a little), they never got me to do that anyway. I don't write that many songs. You know, my interests are in other places now. At one time I really thought music had some sort of social import now it's just MUSIC . . . wonderful.
"You know I like to listen to music myself, but, well, I don't feel I want to have the same involvement with it. It's over."
He talked of the rhythm he wanted to find. . . . And that would be found in maybe a monastery.
I want to think about things in a more direct way. You can't overlook the fact that you get to a stage with records when you're purely doing it for money you know you try and keep something going. But youve got to pay attention to the thing. Sure you can leave it all to the hands of others but when you see them put back an echo that's so distorted you realise that it's YOU who has to pay attention all the time. If you don't want to pay attention well, then you cut out.
"The public may not know whether I've cut out or not. I don't know how it will appear. There WILL be a record every now and then."
What do you feel about these people Leonard? I mean there's an album in a room back there which they're going to present to you. It's for 250,000 sales.
"Right. Oh if I have songs, then they'll be recorded. But first I have to make sure that I go away, and find a style of life I'm more suited to. Somehow I haven't organised my life within rock very well. Somehow IT the rock life became important; rather than the 'thing' that produced the song."
I feel that feeling is at a high in rock at the moment. There are a lot of people who have suddenly found that they've lost themselves. There's much disillusionment about. Do you agree?
"I dont even want to talk about it. I dont want it to be the substance of an interview. But look, write anything you want. I dont like hearing myself speak about the problem. To me, you know, its the substance of an interview, like how they say in the monastery, May all beings accomplish whatever tasks they are engaged upon.
"Well, I wish everybody well on the rock scene, and may their music be great. May there be some good songwriters and there will. But I dont wanna be in it.
"I have songs in the air but I dont know how to put them down. Anyway, Im going."
Have you been writing much recently?
"Ive found myself not writing at all. I dont know whether I want to write. Its reached that state. I have a book of poems out, and I'm pleased with them. But I don't find myself leading a life that has many good moments in it.
"So I've decided to screw it. And go. Maybe the other life won't have many good moments either . . . but I know this one, and I don't want it.
"No matter how withdrawn you feel from the scene no matter how protected you think you are. No matter how little you think you're really involved with it. . . . You find yourself drawn into it.
"You find yourself worrying like 'I should have another song. I should write this. I should do better. I should appear more on public. I should be greater. I do envy that song, I do envy this one.' Well . . . forget it."
"I just feel like I want to shut-up. Just shut-up."
IT WASN'T an interview. We were just talking. The next topic was Derby County v. Tottenham Hotspur. That may sound a bizarre thing to talk about.
We shared each other's feelings for the state of the music business. Goddamit, I nearly gave it all in right there and then but thought 'no', people have to read what this man is saying. "Make this your last interview," said Leonard. "And let's both quit together." We'll see.
Dylan disappeared successfully and came back. What do you feel about that?
"Yeah, he did, and I admire him. I've heard stories about him, and I've heard his music, but I don't know him personally. Yeh, he did get out of the public's eye. But you see I have a different problem I've never been in the public's eye. But even so, I just wanna take off. I don't want to hear about this business. I want to get back to working."
Are you going to vanish forever do you feel it's going to be a permanent thing?
"I've no idea. It's not like I'm announcing my retirement. No, not at all. It's a totally psychic thing, on a very private level. It may turn out that the public won't realise any difference. It may turn out that the records still keep coming, and the books keep coming. But I won't be there, I won't be part of it. Can you see what I mean?
"It's really ironic," he continued, "that there's that gold record out there, because it's come at the very end of things.
"I finished work yesterday, I'm going back to the States tomorrow. That's that. It's over. I'm off. I have nothing to do, no concerts, no commitments."
You've obviously made enough to exist off the money you have then.
"Well, this film's been a blow financially, but I don't have a great deal of bread. Well, I don't really know." He stopped and smiling, said "My lawyer tells me I have money. But I never see it."
I think I want to go away too I said. But I know damned well I haven't got any money.
"But do it," he said. "This is the time. This is the time to retire to another life. This is a time to retreat. It's a time when inferior men are coming forward, and the scene is being taken over by men who are rather shoddy. This is a purely personal feeling, from personal experiences.
"They may want to make me a bigger star but I have other plans."
Is it totally ego?
"I think it's a matter of pride. Yes pride, and manliness, and dignity. It's a subtle thing. I mean we're not doing anything different than when we sat down and talked a year ago. But in the last 12 months we've been feeling things, a lot of us have been feeling things. A lot of us have seen what's been happening to this scene."
"I feel happy now. Happy that I've made my decision. Now I have no problems."
THE ROOM now seemed to be a sealed chamber a sort of timeless zone. Cohen emits a charisma of tranquility, of calmness, and a very beautiful warmth. We smiled, and smoked cigarettes; and talked about New York City, and drugs, and other things.
I told him: "I played 'Songs of Love and Hate' all over Christmas. It meant something. There was a certain sacredness about it. Myself, and my lady couldn't stop playing it."
"Thank you," he said. "I don't want to stop that, I don't want to stop that sacred thing I know I have with some people. Gee, I wish you could hear some new tapes that are ready."
You mean you've done another album?
"Well, I taped some stuff off the tour which 'they' wanted me to do, and which I wanted to do, because the treatment of some of the songs was very different. It really does show the band."
I heard there were some weird things going on with the tour. Something went wrong in Tel Aviv didn't it?
Yeh, there was a riot. We were supposed to be playing a small hall 2 to 3,000 people. Well, when we got off the 'plane they drove us into this sports arena! It was huge there were about 10,000 people there. Well, that would have been okay. Horrible, but okay.
"Anyhow, nobody was allowed to be seated on the floor so the audience was about a quarter of a mile away. They had huge speakers about six feet tall."
"So I asked the people to come down, and sit closer to me, and they started to come, and the usher wouldn't let them. It wasn't a serious rot, but one or two people got it. It made me sad.
Then there was Jerusalem, which was beautiful. It was sort of the end then. It was planned to be a sort of farewell tour. I was going around playing for the people I'd been writing for . . . and then it was all over."
He paused, and gently rubbed the side of his nose, gently stroked his chin, and then held both hands out a gesture of an emotion about to flow.
"I feel it in my hands when I pick up the guitar. I feel that I'm no longer learning, and that my life is not right for it. I began to feel I was doing some of the songs a dis-service. So I have to get into something else."
His voice had now dropped to a low, croaking whisper. His lips hardly moved, but his eyes were fixed clearly, and firmly on mine whenever he spoke. He lit another cigarette, and smoked it in a very soft way.
If you could how they say 'Do it all agin' would you 'do it all agin'
"What I wanted to do was to make one record, and have it reach a lot of people. I had a feeling that the songs I had written were destined for people, I didn't have a 'private' feeling about them. I knew my work was for people.
"But it didn't happen like that. It took a number of years to reach people, and somehow I got involved with the 'market place', and I got involved with my progress . . . which I never wanted. It didn't happen overnight, like I wanted it to. I thought it would."
"But, as I say. It took time. And now it's incredibly ironic that after five years there's this gold disc . . . (a half-laugh) five years!
"It's curious," he added.
Yes, it's CURIOUS.
"Yeh, I suppose I'd do it again, because I suppose I was doing what I wanted to do."
A completely private conversation followed again regarding our disillusionment with rock, again regarding it being a time to leave.
"Maybe you should write that we both sat down, had a private conversation and both quit. Maybe you should do that. Just write that."