by Adrian Deevoy
The Q Magazine, 1991
He’s been a poet and songwriter for more than 40 years, but Leonard Cohen still can’t find a rhyme for ‘orange’. “It drives you mad,” he tells Adrian Deevoy. “Before you know it, you’re crawling across the carpet in your underwear.”
“I don’t know if I can do this,” apologises Leonard Cohen. “It’s like your wife is in the next room talking to another guy.”
He eases himself off the sofa, shuffles across his living room and presses the eject. “I’m Your Fan,” he reads, tenderly fingering the source of his discomfort, “A Tribute To Leonard Cohen. That’s something, ain’t it?”
Not wishing to appear ungrateful, he slots the cassette back into the machine, lowers the volume and resumes his conversation.
“Believe me,” he says in that familiar, funereal mumble which, if anything, is more melodic than his singing voice, “any attention I get, I’m grateful for. I never believe anyone when they say that they want to pay tribute to me. Jennifer Warnes was saying for years that she wanted to do an album of my songs and I always took that as an expression of friendship. I never expected her to go ahead and make it. Same with Christian Fevret (a French magazine editor and avid Cohenophile) who has put this thing together. He presented me with the idea and we ran through some group names. I didn’t know all of them but I knew Ian McCulloch whom I’ve met on several occasions and R.E.M. and The Pixies and Lloyd Cole and John Cale. It seemed like a really nice thing but I said, Yeah, seems like a great idea. Goodbye and good luck. I never thought I’d hear from him again.”
But Fevret came back with a double album of Cohen covers including R.E.M. reworking First We Take Manhattan, Ian McCulloch tackling Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye, Lloyd Cole revisiting Chelsea Hotel, House Of Love virtually xeroxing Who By Fire, James bravely attempting So Long, Marianne, The Pixies wrestling with I Can’t Forget and John Cale marvellously interpreting Hallelujah.
“Have you heard what Nick Cave has done with Tower Of Song?” asks Cohen, plainly touched by the gangle-limbed gloomster’s brutal deconstruction of his song. “I love that. It’s weird, but it’s a really intelligent approach. He’s thought about it. And he’s caught the spirit of the song, got inside the . . .” He pauses to listen to McCulloch’s contribution which is quietly seeping from the speakers. He closes his eyes and smiles distantly. “Gotta listen in,” he laughs, “they might be getting something wrong.” He collects himself and continues. “I’m so flattered. I just go into some sort of suspended state. You’re never going to hear me say I don’t like . . .” He fades out again as The Pixies’ Black Francis growls, “I’ve loved you all my life/That’s how I want to end it”. “Wow,” exhales Cohen. “Hear the conviction in that?”
As That Petrol Emotion launch into Stories Of The Street, he finally cracks. “Hey, we’re really going to have to take this down. It’s such an exquisite distraction.” He turns the volume right down. “We’ll try it as background music, although my guess is that it’ll make it more tantalising.” All goes swimmingly until the opening phrases of Suzanne stop Cohen in his tracks. “Who’s singing this?” he asks.
It is Geoffrey Oreyama, who is signed to Peter Gabriel’s Real World label. Cohen squints toward the hi-fi.
“When you hear a guy singing a song like this, which you wrote before he was born, it gives you a good feeling.” He is genuinely choked with emotion. He takes a deep breath. “This isn’t a casual moment for me.”
“Have some wine. You shouldn’t refuse, it’s a sacrament.” Wearing a crumpled black linen suit, a grey T-shirt and ecclesiastical black shoes and socks, Cohen clambers up the outdoor staircase of his mid-town Los Angeles home cradling a bottle and some glasses in the crook of his arm. Outside, kids play on golf-green lawns and the sun pours down on to low, white-washed houses. “They tell me this isn’t a very good neighbourhood,” he shrugs, “but I haven’t experienced any unpleasantness. Come on through.”
Off the main living room is Cohen’s fully mod-conned writing area, complete with Apple Mac computer, modem, fax machine and a digital synthesizer. Earlier he had been indulging his newly-discovered passion for freehand computer graphics, drawing, not surprisingly, a woman’s face. Peering through a heavy-framed pair of spectacles he had attempted to close the machine down in order to give his full attention to his guests. Unfortunately, the file he was using began to crash. “Jesus! Shit!” Canada’s national poetry prize winner exclaimed by way of a greeting. “What the fuck’s happening?”
The assorted hi-techery contrasts suddenly with the cool ambience and pared-down simplicity of the rest of the house. Apart from the occasional wooden table and ornate gold candlestick, the furniture is predominantly white, receding into bleached floors and walls. Through the clinically clean kitchen is a sparsely decorated bedroom, again all white apart from a black television set perched above the bed. In the hall there is a mirror surrounded by a collection of hats and caps. An anthology of Cohen-composed prayers entitled Book Of Mercy lies on a work-top. Several cordless telephones are dotted around the house.
At 57, Leonard Cohen is lined but well-preserved. Like a pickled walnut. Although, as he says, his hair is grey and he aches in the places where he used to play, he is still a tasty bit of older man. The two young women who drift in and out this afternoon (both answering to the name of “Sweetheart”) certainly seem to enjoy his twinkle-eyed company. And they happily attend to his every whim. He merely asks them to go to the bank or collect some food, engages them in some prolonged and presumably psychosexually-charged eye contact, and off they go with a spring in their step.
But that’s why he is Leonard Cohen, poet of romantic despair, and we are not.
“Being called a poet is not very attractive,” he says pouring some glossy, red Sauvignon into a tiny, engraved glass. “It’s like being called a hippy. There’s something a bit fruity about being called a poet. So whatever that activity is — when you write lines that don’t come to the edge of the page — you just keep quiet about it.”
It was, nonetheless, the card marked ‘Poet’ that the young Canadian plucked from destiny’s Job centre in the early 50’s. He was soon drawn into Montreal’s small but self-assured New Poetry clique. “Each time we met,” remembers Cohen, “we felt that it was a landmark in the history of thinking, let alone poetry. We had a very exalted view of things. But a humorous view too. We had a good time. It wasn’t anguished. There was a great deal of fellowship and drinking.
“You’ve got to understand that the English writing scene in Montreal is tiny. It’s a French city and the actual number of people writing in English is very small. It didn’t have any prestige or prizes at the time. Not even any girls. But a few of us were on fire and we’d write for each other and any girl that would listen.”
It was this incentive, which would fan Cohen’s creative flames for the next 35 years, that led him to publish two of his own poetry collections, Let Us Compare Mythologies (1956) and The Spice-Box Of earth (1961), followed, in 1964, by the then controversial Flowers For Hitler. But even if his verse seduced the odd impressionable female student, the rent remained unpaid. If there was any money to be made in this writing lark, Cohen decided, it was in novels. By 1966 he had written two.
“The Favorite Game was a young man’s first novel about his own dismal situation,” says Cohen, condensing the plot for the modern, busy person. “In the second novel, Beautiful Losers, it began to take off, it really cooks. Both books were very favourably reviewed. Beautiful Losers had glorious reviews. Glorious. But it sold 3,000 copies. It was then that I realised that I’d have to examine the situation a little more closely. Having done so, I realised that I probably wouldn’t be able to support myself working as a novelist. On reflection, it’s been downhill ever since then. That was my peak! I look at those poems I wrote when I was 15 or 16 and I’d be more than happy to write those now. They were beautiful. I was great at 15. I don'’ know how innocent it was but it was certainly very penetrating. I look at those lyrics and their imagery and sense of authority is as good as anything I can come up with now. We forget what we were like at 15. There’s a 15-year-old wisdom just like there’s a 57-year-old wisdom. I can’t quite locate the latter but I believe it’s in there somewhere.”
“Come into the kitchen,” insists Cohen. “We’ll talk while I make you some tacos like you’ve never tasted before in your life.” So the legendary songwriter sets about preparing a light Mexican lunch, pondering, as he does, how he ever came to be a musician.
“I never did set poetry to music,” he says, fetching a slab of Swiss cheese from the fridge. “I got stuck with that. It was a bum rap. I never set a poem to music. I’m not that hopeless. I know the difference between a poem and a song! Anyway, I’d been in a band, The Buckskin Boys: three guys playing a harmonica, guitar and bucket bass. The guy who played the bucket bass was called Terry. We used to play hoedowns at square dances at schools and halls. We had quite a career going for a while.”
The transition from hoedown band to his first solo LP, The Songs Of Leonard Cohen (an album so bleak and introspective it made many people feel that their dog had just died) must have been quite drastic.
“Well, strangely,” he says, thickly slicing a beef tomato, “there was no real transition because it was all folk music and country music. Very simple. It was a very natural move for me. I guess it took a certain amount of confidence to make that first record but as my friend says, ‘The necessary qualifications for being a poet are arrogance and inexperience.’ I had lots of those types of qualifications and I’d gotten to the point where I had to hustle my backside into some sort of paying proposition.”
Released in 1967, The Songs Of Leonard Cohen flew directly in the face of the musical fashion of the time. While everyone else was getting high and experimenting with the complex studio-trickery that produced psychedelia, Cohen was mournfully thrumming a nylon-stringed guitar, mumbling darkly about imprisonment, guilt, betrayal, scalpel blades and torturing frocks.
“No, it wasn’t rock music or lyrical protest music,” admits Cohen, now carefully daubing sour cream onto the sizzling taco. “It was an individual sound. It wasn’t conscious. I didn’t have and still don’t have a strategy. It just didn’t feel like a career to me. I had this naive view that I would do what I did, the world would consider it to be of a certain value and pay me accordingly. That was as far as I looked into the matter. Although, as regards psychedelia, I’d been out of touch for a bit, to tell you the truth, I’d been out in Greece, living on Hydra. At that time I could live on Hydra for $1,100 a year and live a good life. So I’d come back to Canada and make a thousand bucks doing some job or other and then go back to Hydra and write and swim and sail. I bought a house there for $1,500. I still have it. All of this sounds very idyllic but it was naive and because I’d never set up a career — what Joni Mitchell later called the ‘star-stoking machinery’ — for myself, by the time the 70’s came round and everything had gotten hard-nosed and materialistic, I got wiped out. The records stopped selling, they stopped putting some of them out in America, markets dried out and by the time the 80’s arrived, I was pretty near broke.”
But The Songs Of Leonard Cohen has sold more than 10 million copies. Surely that acted as a powerful wolf-from-door deterrent?
“First of all, the song Suzanne was stolen from me,” he frowns, taking a Galloping Gourmet-styled draft of wine at the stove. “Someone smarter than me got me to sign the publishing over to them. I lost Suzanne, The Stranger Song and Dress Rehearsal Rag. I finally got them back, three years ago, but I’d lost a lot of money. Although, fortunately I got them back before the resurrection of my own career, which sort of started in 85 and really picked up in 88 with I’m Your Man.”
To what would he attribute this resurrection?
“I really don’t know,” he smiles, serving the delicious salsa-spiced concoction on to a plate. “Maybe a new generation picked up on it. There’s always those kind of people around, I guess. And I always had a feeling that those songs weren’t dead yet. I’m fond of saying that my songs last just as long as a Volvo — about 30 years.”
He laughs and places some cutlery on the table.
“Here, you’re going to love this. Let me get you a drink while you come up with more penetrating questions.”
You made Death Of A Ladies’ Man in 77 with Phil Spector. Was that collaboration as weird as it sounded?
“Much weirder. I’m too ashamed to tell the whole truth of what happened there.”
The stories have it that Spector had armed guards in the studio in order to encourage your performance.
“Oh, it was a long time ago.”
But do you remember there being guns around?
“There were a lot of guns around. Phil had bodyguards and he liked guns. So did I, but I didn’t happen to have any armed bodyguards. But you’ve got to understand, there was a lot of wine and other stuff around, so it wasn’t just that there were a few guns around the place. People were skating around on bullets, guns were finding their way into hamburgers, guns were all over the place. It wasn’t safe. It was mayhem, but it was part of the times. It was rather drug-driven. But I like Phil, and the instinct was right. I’d do it again. Now would be a good time.”
Have you ever been involved with drugs yourself?
“I’ve looked into most of them. I never really got into cocaine. I tried it but I don’t really like ingesting things through my nose. It always seemed so undignified for a chap of my stature.”
What was your drug of choice at that time?
“Well, I don’t like to speak about these things because I don’t want to corrupt the youth . . . but I always liked speed.”
He refreshes his glass and addresses the inevitable topic of depression.
“Well, I can’t deny it; I have known that side of things,” he laughs drily. “It’s funny how people take it. In a way I guess it’s like drinking. Sometimes when you take a drink, it brings you down. Other times it can make you quite gay. I think a lot of people have had that reaction to my work. It’s a downer but, curiously enough, although this may be hard to believe — and I have documentary evidence downstairs if you have trouble believing this, letters and all kinds — some people say this stuff got them through the night.”
Is the humour in your work misunderstood?
“Oh, totally. But what can you do? I get a chuckle or two out of it.”
Is it a misconception that all your songs are overly romantic?
“Well, if you examine the work I think you’ll find quite a realistic take on the whole matter. The notion I get of ‘romantic’ is someone who cherishes illusions. I think just a partial study of my songs — if anyone was actually bored enough to undertake such an enterprise — will discern that the illusions are few and far between. But if people want to call me romantic . . . there are worse things to be called.”
Do you ever feel that you have exploited relationships by writing about them?
“That’s the very least way in which I have exploited relationships. If that was the only way I’d exploited a relationship then I’m going straight to heaven. Are you kidding me?”
Did you ever manipulate a relationship because you knew the situation would lend itself to a good lyric?
“I never cared that much about writing. But I’ve never been a vampire. I feel that writing is more like dealing in the ashes of something that’s been burnt. It’s detailing the evidence rather than the experience.”
Have you always found it easier to write about women?
“I’ve never found it easy to write. Period. I mean, I don’t want to whine about it or anything but . . . it’s a bitch! It’s terrible work. I’m very disciplined in that I can settle down into the work situation but coming up with the words is very hard. Hard on the heart, hard on the head and it just drives you mad. Before you know it, you’re crawling across the carpet in your underwear trying to find a rhyme for ‘orange’. It’s a terrible, cruel job. But I’m not complaining.”
Have you felt restricted by your voice over the years?
“Sometimes I can’t stand the sound of my voice. It went through periods. The first and second records it sounded right. Then I stopped being able to find the right voice for the songs. The songs were good and the intention was good but the voice wasn’t really up to it. I lost it for a while. When I did Various Positions (85) it was coming back and when I got to I’m Your Man (88) I was in full stride.”
That leaves 15 years when your voice didn’t feel right.
“What the hell. Some guys never get it right.”
You wrote Chelsea Hotel about Janis Joplin. Were you aware, during the time you knew her, that she was killing herself?
“I hoped that Janis might have been in for a long haul the way that Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell have been but you kind of knew that the candle was burning at both ends and she probably wouldn’t make it. Just in the way that she sang and the way that she lived. But at the time we didn’t know that you couldn’t do that forever. It’s like now they say that cigarettes and sugar and even white bread can kill. But we didn’t even know that heroin could kill you.
“I was somewhat older than most of those people so I favoured a moderate position. Also, because I’d come up through the literary side, I knew the biographies of the poets and how they’d wrecked themselves. So I didn’t feel like going on the trip. And I did caution moderation to a few people but you can’t get them to stop using something unless they want to do it themselves.”
Chelsea Hotel chronicles your affair in very personal detail. Is a subject never too sensitive or personal to write about?
“I don’t think my writing has got personal enough yet. I think it has some way to go before it gets really personal. When it’s really personal everybody understands it. There’s a middle ground which is just unzipping and self-indulgence but when you really tell the truth people immediately perceive that. Like when I wrote the lyrics for I Can’t Forget, it went through so many transformations to get it really personal. It started off as a kind of hymn and I ended up stuck sitting at this very kitchen table thinking, Where am I really? What can I really tell anyone about anything? So I thought, I’ve got to start from scratch. How am I living this day? What am I doing now? So I wrote, ‘I stumbled out of bed/Got ready for the struggle/I smoked a cigarette/And I tightened up my gut/I said, This can’t be me, must be my double/I can’t forget I don’t remember what.’
“I think when you get really good, you write a line like, ‘I found my thrill on Blueberry Hill’, or, ‘The moon stood still on Blueberry Hill’. That’s beautiful, isn’t it? ‘The moon stood still’.”
“I’ve got to thank you for coming here,” Cohen says as he sways gently towards the stereo. “You’ve given me a reason to drink this delightful bottle of red wine.”
We’re back in the living room to listen to a few tracks from his ninth, and as yet unfinished, studio album, called (he thinks) Be For Real.
The first track he plays, Democracy, is a rolling essay on the arrival of equal political rights in America. Musically, it’s in the I’m Your Man mould, all sub-sonically deadpan voice, bubbling sequencers and muted instrumentation It is quite wonderful. As we listen, Cohen lightly closes his eyes, as if in a trance, and mouths the words, nodding from time to time as a particularly well-turned phrase rumbles to the surface. When it ends, he laughs to learn that it sounds, well, very much like Leonard Cohen. There are, it dawns, few other points of reference.
“It can be tricky working in original genres,” he agrees. “There aren’t really any other songs like this. You’re creating forms and it’s hard to know where to take them. So you say to the guitarist, Play it so it sounds like . . . what? There’s no real precedent. It’s hard for yourself too. You end up thinking, Is there really a song here? Does it actually exist? You’re constantly dealing with these doubts.”
He hunts around for a tape of another track. He searches through his desk. Makes a phone call. Looks around the tape machine.
“Can’t find it anywhere,” he says shaking his head and rifling through a drawer. “Maybe Dylan came by and stole it.”
Eventually a cassette of the temporary title track and a cover version of an old soul-gospel song, Always, is located. Both are gorgeous, full-blown band ballads. “What a groove!” Cohen shouts over the booming bass and soaring backing vocals. Is that real brass? “Fuckin’ right it is!” He slaps his legs as the ad-libbed couplet “I don’t give a damn about the truth/Except the naked truth” is declared to be perilously close to Barry White territory. “Thank you!” he calls back above the swelling chorus. “Sincerely!”
The informal playback concluded, he decants the last of the wine in his tiny glass and the conversation, like many of his songs, enters the realm of the abstract.
We begin talking about his 18-year-old son’s recent near-fatal car crash; this leads on to dancing (“I can’t dance, I just move my hips in a sort of rhythmically suggestive manner”); the history of the synthesizer; the banana on the cover of I’m Your Man (scholars assumed there was some deep meaning to the photograph but it was, he regrets to say, just a casual snap taken as he ate his lunch) and the story of his fleeting appearance in Miami Vice.
“In truth, I had a much bigger part. I went down there and did my first scene and the assistant director rang me up and said, You were really great, truly wonderful. And I said, OK, thanks a lot. Then the casting director from New York called me up and said, You were fantastic, truly wonderful! And I said, You mean I’m fired. And he said, Yeah, we’re cutting all your other scenes and giving them to another guy.”
Then, somehow, the talk turns to the meaning of Tower Of Song which, it transpires, is “that place where the writer is stuck. For better or worse you’re in it. I’ve come this far down the line, I’m not going to turn around and become a forest ranger or a neuro-surgeon. I’m a songwriter. It’s where you are and it’s where you’ve got to be. And you have to come to terms with your own predicament.” He quotes — by way of an extension to the song First, We Take Manhattan — from a new song he has written, If You Could See What’s Coming Next: “If you could see what’s coming next/If you could see the hidden text/You’d say, Give me love or give me Adolf Hitler/And you’d say, Give me back the Berlin Wall/Give me Stalin and St Paul/You’d say, Give me Christ or give me Hiroshima/Just get me out of this mirror.”
We discuss Zen meditation, something Cohen has studied for many years.
“It’s no big deal. I spend a couple of months a year in one of the centres or monasteries. You get up real early in the morning and there’s training programmes and physical work to do. It’s all very structured. It’s a nice way to re-align in peace and quiet with no noise or telephones. Just me and my own dismal thoughts.”
We examine the myth that Leonard Cohen is a 3am-untipped-French-cigarette-empty-Cognac-bottle-woman-of-European-extraction-kinda-guy.
“Well, I’m normally up at around five, so that could create problems. In fact, that late-night view of me is changing in some circles. I’m not that melancholy chap you could depend on to depress your friends any more.”
We talk about marriage and why Cohen, a great lover of womankind, has never taken the plunge. “Too frightened,” he concludes.
You wonder whether he’s kept in touch with the various Suzannes and Mariannes who so evocatively populate his songs. “Pretty much so,” he sighs. “It’s the inescapable lousiness of growing old.”
Marianne is now married and lives in Norway, and Suzanne is still in Montreal.
As the day begins to fade and evening — as Leonard Cohen would have it — is tuning up, the man we have amusingly come to know as Laughing Len says goodbye and returns to his computer for a further session of electronic doodling.
“The song Suzanne is journalism,” he says of his most celebrated composition. “It’s completely accurate.”
There were tea and oranges involved?
“Well,” he laughs, “the tea actually had little pieces of orange peel in it. But ‘tea and oranges’ sounds better, doesn’t it? She lived near the water in Montreal. And she did used to ‘take you down to her place near the river’. You could ‘hear the boats go by’ and you could ‘spend the night beside her’. All those things . . .”
And . . .
“. . . and I touched her perfect body with my mind.” He leaves a masterfully-weighted pause. “Mostly because she was married to a friend of mine and I couldn’t touch her with anything else!”
© 1991 The Q Magazine and the author.
Thanks to Andrew Jackson for editing this interview for The Files!