Having Lunch With Leonard Cohen

One of the finest talents of modern music, Leonard Cohen has enjoyed something of a resurgence in later life. I got the opportunity to pick the great man's brain on everything from love to the human condition...
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One of the finest talents of modern music, Leonard Cohen has enjoyed something of a resurgence in later life. I got the opportunity to pick the great man's brain on everything from love to the human condition...

Few names in music have more cool cachet than that of Leonard Cohen. Back in early 1988 it was all very different. Cohen hadn't delivered an album in more than four years. 1984’s Various Positions, was (wrongly) deemed so sub-standard that his US record company chose not to release it. By 1988, Cohen’s music biz stock was at its very lowest. To the post-punk generation he was, in the words of Paul Weller, "the bloke who makes music to slit your wrists to." Somehow, during those post-post years the ocean had rolled over Leonard Norman Cohen, leaving him so out of fashion as to be almost forgotten.

He was about to release his comeback album, I'm Your Man. The press weren't exactly queuing up to interview him. I'd have happily queued up for six months in the cold to spend five minutes in his company, not least because I'd recently had the best sex of my life to the accompaniment of his debut album, 1967’S Songs Of Leonard Cohen. In the event, I spent an invigorating two hours in his company. He had a reputation of being reserved to the point of impossibility. Truthfully, I've never met a funnier or more graceful man. We met in the restaurant of a Covent Garden hotel. The next table consisted of a gaggle of blue-rinsed old ladies on a WI outing. My abiding memory is Laughing Len congratulating me on lowering my voice when I used the word "cunt", quoting from one of his poems. "Jon," he said, gently taking my hand, "the word 'cunt' should always be whispered." Spoken like a true poet.

For over twenty years, Leonard Cohen's anguished, monotone ballads have echoed inside gloomy bedsits the world over. The list of Cohen classics is long - "Suzanne", "Famous Blue Raincoat", "Bird on the Wire", "Avalanche", "Sisters of Mercy", to name a few and his work inspires heated devotion in his legions of followers. His latest album, I'm Your Man, shows Cohen attempting to come up to date by dallying with dance music.

Bing Crosby's "That's What Life Is All About" quietly saturates the hotel lounge. Len Cohen, the poet, is whispering, as you might expect, in that deep, trembling, hurt way of his.

"It's good, that sandwich. How's yours? OK? Is yours cheese? It looks like chopped egg from here."

I always have a cheese one. There's something about cheese...

"Yeah, you're right about that."

Len orders a big roast beef one with salad. Then it starts. I ask him if he thinks his serenity is always on the verge of collapsing into something else - manic laughter, irresponsibility, repugnance even. I say, sorry it's such a big one to start. Then he smiles.

"That's OK. I've been round the block a couple of times today. I think I can handle it. Basically, I feel that everything is changing into something else. Serenity is not a condition I find myself in too often. When it comes, I tend to wallow in it for as long as it lasts. It's an excellent thing. We should have more of it. It doesn't matter whether you need it or not. It comes."

In the poem "To A Teacher" you write of "a long pain ending without a song to prove it". Have you been attempting to conquer pain by facing it?

"I think that activity is natural to us. Then there's the question of one's work and making one's living. These things don't really occur in the metaphysical realm. These are just things that anybody's got to do. It's what we've got to do between meals. That line is taken from a poem that was written to a specific person, a Montreal poet who went over the edge. Up to a certain point, he'd been able to document his condition very accurately. Then he just went too far. Tried to kill his wife. Was put in a loony-bin. Died some time after that."

Has it been a case of getting to know your sorrow, trying to reach the end of your sorrow?

"I don't really think you have a luxury in these matters. I don't think you can regard whatever condition you are in as an experiment. When you're in it, you are in it and our duty is to transcend sorrow. Nobody wants to stick around in these places. If you've got ways of getting out of them, I think it's your responsibility to do so. As far as joy is concerned, the more the better. At the moment? I have a few laughs."

What is desperation? Queues? Crowds? Decisions?

"I guess that the source of all suffering is a sense of separation between you and everything else. That separation is always fictitious but that fiction is always very powerful. Sometimes, you kneel before it. It is a fiction, though, and it has to be dissolved like all other fictions. There are all kinds of distances. There's distance which is needed for perspective but there's also a sinister distance in which you feel totally separate from everything around you. That's the same as suffering."

Is love something of a delusion? Julian Barnes talks about the delusion in imagining that other people could possibly find our condition as thrilling and eye-watering as we do ourselves. That makes sense.

"I see everything as a delusion, Love is the reality (laughs)."

Dorothy Parker once remarked, "Love is like quicksilver in the hand. Leave the fingers open and it stays. Clutch it and it darts away." This also seems to make sense.

"Yeah, I think Blake said something similar. 'He who binds himself to a joy doth the winged thing destroy. He who kisses the joy as it flies lives forever in Eternity's sunrise.' Everybody, in a certain way, approaches things with a dissecting scalpel. It's a good idea to leave that on the shelf for a while if you can."

Maybe it's better to be in love than to be in most things, though. I mean...it's better to be in love than to be in Cardiff. Or in trouble with the police.

"Well, that's probably true. I think that we have a natural affinity for each other and we are all deeply connected but we get into this illusion that we are separate, alone, abandoned. This also produces suffering."

In "There Is A War", you sing of the war between a man and a woman along with the other kinds of warfare. Getting even. As though the same rules apply...

"A lot of people ask me about that song but a lot of people forget that the last line of every verse is, 'Let's get back to the war'. Of course, there's all kinds of conflicts between men and women, rich and poor, all kinds of castes and classes. I talk of getting back to the war meaning that we have to throw ourselves into the predicament. If we are willing to get into it, to confront it, that's one of the ways through it."

Is there anything greater in life than the sight of a naked beautiful woman?

"Not too many."

Like in "Came So Far For Beauty", you seem, at times, to be completely under the spell of beauty, almost submissive to it. Could you give up everything for beauty?

"Again, I don't think these things are decisions one makes. If you have the kind of nature where you are ready to go the whole way, then you're stuck with that kind of nature and you just go the whole way."

Does it transform the world?

"I don't know about the world. Beauty certainly does something for me (laughs). I'm a sucker for it. This is bigger than the both of us."

What are the sacred things? Sex most of all? Love. Intimacy. The Eyes. The Intensity. The secret? The first kiss. Anything else?

"Well, in all these things, you stand the risk of being rejected. I think that's mostly what constitutes danger for people, the sense that it's not going to work. Outside of famine, war, torture, sickness and death, that's probably the thing on a daily level that we worry about the most. Is sex the most sacred? I dunno. I forget (laughs)."

You have to be as clear as possible.

"Clarity is one of the things I like to go for. I don't think we're ever free from this mysterious mechanism, though. Mystery can go all the way from not knowing what to do with yourself to standing in awe at the vast activity of the cosmos which no man can penetrate. I don't think we're ever free from any of that. On the other hand, you can't go around continually expressing your awe before these celestial mechanics. These are things that maybe we should keep to ourselves. I think that we're surrounded by, infused with and operate on a mysterious landscape, every one of us. It's something to keep your mouth shut about if it really is a mystery."

Len Cohen comes from Montreal's moneyed Westmont district. His father died when he was nine but he doesn't talk about that. One day, he was sitting down at a card table on a porch when he decided to quit his job. He started writing a poem instead. He graduated from McGill University in 1955 and turned himself over to writing. He was barely out of his teens when he published his first collections of poems, Let Us Compare Mythologies and The Spice-Box of Earth. Two novels, The Favorite Game (1963) and Beautiful Losers (1966) followed. His first LP, The Songs Of Leonard Cohen, arrived in 1967, with dark, brooding masterpieces like "Suzanne", "Sisters Of Mercy", "So Long Marianne" and "Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye". They were full of beauty; tender, acute perceptions on the vagaries of falling in and out of love. The voice was a gentle, baying monotone. It never rose. It was plaintive and consuming.

"I don't think anybody really knows what they're doing at any point."

It was to remain so, through twenty years of heavy-hearted lamenting. Some dissenters saw Cohen as a lugubrious folk minstrel with nothing but misery and self-pity to offer. His followers adored him. There was something in the man and the voice that inspired heated devotion. The songs poured out. "Bird On The Wire", "Famous Blue Raincoat", "Chelsea Hotel No.2", "Who By Fire", "Take This Longing", "The Guests", "If It Be Your Will"...all of them haunted by that black, somber wash of a voice. Best of all were 1971's Songs Of Love And Hate (which featured the almighty "Avalanche") and 1979's Recent Songs. Strangest and, perhaps, most intense of all was 1977's Phil Spector collaboration, Death Of A Ladies' Man, of which more later.

Through all this time, Cohen has endured as the supreme stylist of the anguished ballad, of the dark romance, of the melancholic state. Fusing sexuality with spirituality, most of his work (from records to poems) has sidestepped the risk of damp self-indulgence. Cohen, believe me, is rarely, very rarely funereal. There is a massive sense of joy glistening in these songs. Len Cohen's broken voice sounds like its owner has seen and felt it all but it never sounds like its owner wants to give up and get out. This romantic comes to tell how it is. It is not without suffering. It is not without splendour or wild rejoicing. It comes to worship or abandon itself. Sometimes to warn or to weep. But never to wilt, and lick dust.

Barry Manilow's "If I Should Love Again" saturates the hotel lounge.
Do you simply aim to cause ripples?

"I don't think anybody really knows what they're doing at any point."

I must say, Len, that's an admirable thing to say.

He laughs.

"How did I ever get into this racket? I dunno! What am I exactly doing in it? I don't know. I haven't got a clue. I think it just comes down to nudging the guy next to you and saying, 'That's the way, isn't it?' They can either agree or not agree. One is continually trying to affirm something with the man in the next seat. I don't think it's like a buffet table where you choose what you're gonna eat. Somehow things are given and they are given powerfully. You're stuck with them. Your own nature is one of those things. You don't wake up in the morning and choose the sort of guy you're gonna be. Maybe you can in a really superficial way. Like in Rhinehart's Dice Man. I loved that book very much, as a wonderful escapist idea. I think you're kind of stuck with who you are and that's what you're dealing with. That's the hand that you've been dealt. To escape from the burden of decision is a delightful notion...but nothing more."

The darkness in your songs almost sounds like a sense of menace at times...

"There's certainly a dark side to it. I also think there's a couple of laughs in there which people miss."

When you sing, "Giving me head on the unmade bed, while the limos wait in the street" in "Chelsea Hotel No. 2", that always makes me laugh.

"That's not a bad line, is it?"

Why are there two limos, though?

"One for each of us. We're both waiting to leave. We're both killing time or something!"

You've always written about emotional pain, never physical pain.

"I don't think I written about that and I don't know too much about it. I've had the occasional toothache, y'know."

You once walked out on the stage to 500 people and remarked, "The person here in the most pain is me." Could you ever have said something like that and not laughed out loud?

"Well I can't even remember saying it! It is a hilarious line, though. I think Steve Martin could have delivered that line better than me. If I ever said anything like that, I hope I was laughing."

Your new LP is completely off the beam, nothing like you've tried before. An emphasis on dance. It sounds almost too willing to come up to date.

"You think it works?"

I think it's an interesting failure.

"OK. Well...it wasn't a curious effort to come up to date but I don't think you can stand apart from what's going on. You say it's erratic, uneven. Mmmm. I'm interested in stretching out a bit. I think my sound has always been a little different to whatever else has been happening, though. Out of time or something."

You're a man out of time, Len?

"Well, let's just say I hear a different drum. Like that poem I wrote that went, 'When it comes to lamentations, I prefer Aretha Franklin to Leonard Cohen, let us say he hears a different drum'. I never thought I had a voice in the sense of a singer's voice. I can hardly carry a tune but I think it's a true voice in the sense that it's not a lie. It presents the singer and the story he's telling."

Going back to Death Of A Ladies' Man, you said at that time, "Sometimes the heart must roast on the fire like a shish kebab." That seems to have been a messy time for you. The making of the LP now seems dominated by all that surrounded it. There's that story that it was virtually recorded at gunpoint.

"Well, Phil (Spector) had a lot of guns all over the place. You'd always be tripping over bullets that had fallen out of guns. Once I challenged one of Phil's bodyguards to draw on me. It got that tense. My state of mind was only slightly less demented that Spector's at the time."

Wasn't this a time of great personal tragedy for you?

"I don't know if I'd dignify my condition by the use of the word tragedy. When I was writing the album with Phil, it was all very agreeable. He is a very charming and hospitable man. Though he did lock the doors when you visited him so you couldn't leave without his permission. Outside of that, he was a very sweet guy. As far as the actual record went, it was definitely the most painful to make because I lost control of it. Phil would confiscate the tapes every night under armed guard. There was a lot of love in the air though, curiously enough. Phil is a very affectionate person if you manage to penetrate the extremities of his expression. At one time, at three o'clock in the morning, he came over to my place with a bottle of red wine in one hand and a .45 in the other. He put his arm around my shoulder, shoved the .45 into my neck and said, 'Leonard, I love you.' I said, 'Phil, I sincerely hope you do!' I had the notion of hiring my own private army and fighting it out with them on Sunset Boulevard but I was a coward in those days."

Didn't you also have some weird scene with Mailer over the poem "Dear Mailer"? ("Dear Mailer, don't ever fuck with me, or come up to me, and punch my gut, on behalf of one of your theories. I am armed and mad. Should I suffer, the smallest humiliation, at your hand, I will kill you, and your entire family.")

"I actually recited the poem to Mailer with a smile, at some reading where we met up. He didn't punch me out but he was alarmed. He said, 'God, don't publish that. You don't know that some loony isn't going to be excited by it and do what you threatened to do.' It really scared him. I then had second thoughts about the poem because suddenly I saw it from his point of view. Earlier, I saw it as a humorous response to the position he was taking at the time, coming on like a bully. I had a real laugh when I originally wrote it. I then tried to stop its publication but it had already gone to press."

Perhaps your most famous line is, "For you've touched her perfect body with your mind" from "Suzanne". Is it special to you?

"People have quoted that a lot. It's one of those lines where you either say, 'Yeah, that's the way it is', or you puke."

Perhaps your most interesting lines come from a poem in The Energy of Slaves, where you write, "My own music is not merely naked, it is open-legged, it is like a cunt, and like a cunt, must needs be houseproud." Now, that's quite a line, Len.

He laughs.

"Well people should have a kind of nervous reaction to that word. It is one of the sacred words and it deserves to be whispered. I'm glad you whispered it when you said it."

Could you just as easily have said that your work was like a prick?

"Not myself, no. I guess a woman could have said that (laughs). I'm starting to remember the line now. It takes a while for it to return. I guess, at the time I wrote that (around 1969), I felt in a grieved state where I somehow felt that everything I was coming across in writing and everything around me was false. I was hungry for a kind of expression that was a lot more raw than what I was getting. I wanted to read something that was on the front-line, that comes from real, undiluted experience and I wasn't defending anything. Now that word belongs to the woman and to her nakedness and that is still the prerogative of the woman to uncover and that power is still not diminished."

I assume that the words pour out of you.

"Not at all. I always feel I'm scraping the bottom of the barrel when I write and it takes a long time to bring anything to completion. I don't get any sense of luxury or excitement. I always hope I'm going to come up with something, anything. The hunger to speak is there but the capacity is seldom there."

A tall man in a black suit suddenly approaches our table and hands Len a small black travel bag. Len lets out a huge sigh of relief. The man bows and disappears.

What's that then, Len?

"I left it in the car last night. It's got everything. My tattoo."

You've got your tattoo in your bag?

"It's one of those stick-on ones, a big snake, a present for my daughter. Here's my airplane tickets. Cheque books. A picture of my girlfriend."

Can I have a gander, Len?

"Sure. I took it myself."

Very beautiful. What's that bit of paper there?

"That's my AIDS test result. Negative. It's good to carry that around. 'Hi, I'm Leonard, here's my card!' It's like being let out of prison, getting one of those."

Do you feel like the spokesman for the human condition? That's a big job.

"If I was sure I had the job, I'd probably feel pretty good."

Do you always see emptiness coming? Can you always avoid it?

"I think loneliness or emptiness is a fearful condition and I've certainly felt it throughout my life. I think you have to learn to live with it. You have to get used to being married to your hand."

A solitary man?

"I tend to spend a lot of time alone but it's usually because I've gone to the wrong city or lost my phonebook. We're always moving between those poles."

What makes you shy or vulnerable?

"I'm always on the edge of helplessness, though that's not the edge I like. I prefer the other edge, the one that gives you the notion that you're on top of things."

Do you ever wish you could be a virgin again?

"I'm completely innocent. Absolutely. I am an innocent man."

Do you ever feel that your own feelings are not like anyone else's?

"On the contrary. I feel that my feelings are like everybody else's. I don't think a writer knows his feelings, though. That's why he writes. I would say that he probably knows them less than anyone else. Generally speaking, a writer is more confused, more bewildered, than other people who aren't writers. One of the absolute qualifications for a writer is not knowing his arse from his elbow. I think that's where it starts. With a lack of knowledge. The sense of not knowing what is happening and the need to organise experience on the page or in the song is one of the motivations of a writer."

You seem to completely trust the emotions. The emotional response. Does this imply that you distrust the intellectual response?

"I don't want to present myself as some kind of anti-intellectual fascist. There's a lot of that going on today and it's a very fashionable position. I think we should row with both oars. There's the intellect and the emotions."

You seem to have been through some weird times. I recall you saying at some point in the mid-seventies, "It may turn out that the records still keep coming and the books keep coming but I won't be there."  What did that mean?

"What did I mean by what? Search me! I've never been very attached to my opinions. I'm not flippant about them but, whenever I hear myself say something, I recognise my own unwillingness to stand behind it."

Is communication terrifying?

"It's the easiest thing and the hardest thing."

What do you remember?

"My mother crying. My father dying. My childhood was very ordinary. I always seemed to be living exactly the same childhood as all my friends. There were never any special stresses. Nothing extraordinary about it. I can't even say that it's extraordinary now. One's own life is mysterious. The predicaments one finds oneself in at particular moments are the result of a web of inextricable circumstances which I certainly can't penetrate. As you get older, you begin to accept the circumstances."

You have a strong purpose of mind?

He laughs.

"To do anything...bullfighting, boxing, motorcar racing, singing, or even getting to work every morning. I don't know what I'm doing most of the time. There's a certain humour in realising that. I can never figure out the kind of tie to put on in the morning. I don't have any strategy or plan to get through the day. It is literally a problem for me to decide which side of the bed to get out on. These are staggering problems. I remember talking to this trappist monk in a monastery. He's been there twelve years. A pretty severe regime. I expressed my admiration for him and he said 'Leonard, I've been here twelve years and every morning, I have to decide whether I'm going to stay or not.' I knew exactly what he was talking about."

How would you like to be seen?

"I would like the word stylist. I'd like to think of myself that way. You want your work to have certain qualities. To be stylish in the way that any designer of an aircraft or automobile would want their machine to move well."

Would you like to come back as something else...a scorpion or a bullfrog or any of those things?

"As long as it isn't Leonard Cohen, I'll settle for anything."

What happens next?

"I pick up my black bag and get on a plane."

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