Interview / Leonard Cohen
April 07th, 2008
T: For some reason, people don't like the idea of some guy who lives much of the time on a Greek island and has thousands of women wanting to spend just an hour with him.
COHEN: The guy you're describing, I don't like him already.
T: In Stephen Scobie's book on you, there's an A.J.M. Smith quote from 1928 that says Canadian literature will not improve "until we have been thoroughly shocked by the appearance in our midst of a work of art that is both successful and obscene.” If that's true, then obviously Beautiful Losers makes you deserving of a Governor General's Award.
COHEN: It did become successful and certainly it's obscene in some places. Beautiful Losers only sold one thousand copies when it came out. Then the landscape opens up as more people have a certain kind of experience. Not that it's so important that this book becomes clearer. I understand it's only a very small thing in this world.
T: You once said there's nobody in this country who can appreciate your work.
COHEN: I don't know if that's true. Critics have to make a living. For instance, there's an analysis of Beautiful Losers in a book called Savage Fields by Dennis Lee which is pretty good. It's certainly better than anything I could do. His approach is so comprehensive and brilliant. Only once every couple of years do I get that brilliant. I'm pretty well writing out of the trench. Trying to get my nose and eyes over the edge of the trench to see who's shooting at me. But Dennis Lee's up there on a water tower looking over the whole landscape.
T: Speaking of critics, what do you think of the theory that your work has arisen out of the fifties? Scobie writes, "Cut off from social contacts and responsibilities, the self turning in on itself becomes perverse and morbid, seeking death."
COHEN: If an argument is put forward forcefully enough, I'll go along with it. In fact, I'm even starting to buy critics' versions of my work.
T: Do you buy the version that you're a black romantic in the tradition of Baudelaire, Genet and Rimbaud?
COHEN: I don't reject these things. If somebody says something to you, it's more like an opportunity to evaluate where they're coming from. Black romantic. I don't even know what that means. It sounds okay. Black, I guess, is solemn, lightless, heavy, desperate.
T: Black romanticism is the negation of self. Like that line at the very end of one of your songs, "I guess you go for nothing, if you really want to go that far."
COHEN: I don't know. I think maybe some writers move in an atmosphere of bewilderment and astonishment. They sit down at a table two hours a day and try to locate themselves. Or justify themselves.
T: Previously you've always avoided aligning yourself with political groups. Could you tell me why you went to Israel "to fight the Arab bullet"?
COHEN: Well, there is a line in the Bible, "You shall not stand idly by your brother's blood." I do feel some communion, some sense of brotherhood with Jews. I do have some old fashioned emotions about those things. I feel a sense of solidarity with their struggle. I also feel it with the Egyptian struggle. That's the trouble. You can embrace both sides of the question.
I didn't feel that good being on Egyptian sand. We shouldn't really have been there but I knew we had to be there. The time I really felt bad about it was when an Israeli soldier came up to me and gave me some Egyptian money. He'd got it off a corpse or a prisoner. It was a souvenir. He put it in my hand and he walked away. I thought it belonged to some guy who was probably going to spend it on a beer that night. I just buried it in the sand.
Neither side is right. We know that right off the top. To press people into military service isn't right. The Israelis have lost the cream of each generation. So have the Egyptians. This is the real human crunch. This is the real human predicament. This universe is only to be tolerated, it's not to be solved. All these things are unclear but amidst this incredible lack of clarity we have to act. That's what the whole tragic vision is about.
T: A lot of people are going to figure the ambivalence that results is a copout.
COHEN: Well, with a lot of work that we call poetry- that intense writing-what really emerges are the harmonics. You put different ideas or approaches together and they strike fire in some way. Something emerges from that juxtaposition that has resonance.
T: So you're just trying to tune in on an energy when you write?
COHEN: I consider a lot of my work to be a kind of reportage, trying to make a completely accurate description of the interior predicament.
T: So it isn't always rational.
COHEN: It isn't always rational. It doesn't follow the laws of logic. Or even of rhetoric. You have to juxtapose elements to get something that corresponds to an interior condition. All poetry is based on differences. Wherever there's tension, wherever there's life, wherever there's the positive/negative, female/male, yin/yang. That's what creates the universe.
That's the kind of writing I like to do. Where you're writing on an edge, where you're really trying to get it right. I don't mean so it endures and the next generation looks into it, although it would be nice if it happened. I'm interested in only one thing: if it lives.
T: You've written somewhere that you believe in God. ..
COHEN: Because I've experienced the absolute.
T: And the absolute is zero? COHEN: It's a zero that is continually manifesting as one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten. T: A totality?
COHEN: It's the fundamental ground or field which is nothing, the still centre or whatever metaphor you use for it. It's neither dead or alive. It is an indescribable energy. That's zero. It's so empty that myriads and myriads of forms rush in to fill it at every second.
T: You've said having sexual intercourse is the greatest peace. Is that zero?
COHEN: The sexual embrace is beyond self. You don't exist as you. Your partner doesn't exist as your partner. That is the place we all come from. Then we come back to life. That zero or emptiness or absolute is when we don't have any questions. The self we have is just the result of a question. The question is who am I? So we invent a self, a personality. We sustain it, we create rules for it. When you stop asking those questions in those moments of grace, as soon as the question is not asked and the dilemma is dissolved or abandoned, then the true self or absolute self rushes in. That's our real nourishment.
A real religious education makes that experience available to people. The kinds of religious education available today are mostly concerned with a very specific definition of what God is. Just to define God specifically is a great mistake. It's better to have a kind of education that doesn't even mention God, that allows people to experience that absolute or the dissolution of the particular self.
T: In Beautiful Losers you wrote, "disarmed and empty, an instrument of grace." Can you make that condition happen?
COHEN: Those conditions arise spontaneously. Often they're the result of writing. I have in a poem, "How sweet to be that wretch, forgotten by himself in the midst of his own testimony." When an experience is embracing or total you don't know who you are. When you jump into a pool of really cold water, when you hit that water there's no you.
T: How often is your writing a dive into cold water?
COHEN: From time to time. There is no explanation for it. It's free from an explanation. It's like explaining the kiss you give your wife. you can explain it from a sociological point of view, from an erotic point of view, from all kinds of points of view. but it really doesn't have anything to do with that moment of the embrace. You can speak about it, but it's just a kind of gossip.
When you're writing out of the total embrace of the experience of the emotion of the moment, what comes out of there is really authentic. People ask what does that song, "Suzanne," really mean? The people who lay back and are ravished by the song know exactly what it means.
T: I used to listen to that song all the time. I didn't fathom it at all but you're saying I understood it simply because I enjoyed it instinctively.
COHEN: Yes. If the thing is authentic you tune into it immediately. You embrace it immediately. It includes you. That's what I mean to say. The song also includes you because it's really authentic. Afterwards you can say why it included you, but that's not so important.
T: Now, about your music. Do you try and write with the melody and lyric coming together at once?
COHEN: Different ways. Usually that's what happens. That's certainly the way "Suzanne" was written and "That's No Way to Say Goodbye" and "Famous Blue Raincoat."
T: Do you recognize the influence or kinship of Bob Dylan?
COHEN: I've always recognized him as a great poet. And certainly we like each other's work. I met him after a concert in Paris last year. We went to a restaurant and spent the afternoon exchanging our new lyrics. He's a friend.
T: You're both Jewish.
COHEN: Well, I know I was certainly touched by synagogue music and liturgy. And the Bible had a mighty influence. I think it's probably true that most Jewish writers are affected by those traditions. But it's not something we've talked about much.
T: Perhaps the US/Canada border has made a significant difference. Extroverted Americans/introverted Canadians. So Dylan is the public speaker and you're a private speaker.
COHEN: It's a nice thought.
T: There's one song of yours, "Sisters of Mercy," that I particularly like. The lyrics are so enigmatic that for years I thought it must be about either nuns or prostitutes. I was surprised to learn how autobiographical the song is. ..
COHEN: I actually wrote that song in Edmonton. There were two young women on the street. I met them in a doorway. There was a snowstorm. They mentioned they had no place to stay. I told them they could stay in my room. There went right to sleep. It was a beautiful night. The North Saskatchewan River was iced over. I just sat there in an armchair, watching them sleeping. I wrote the song in one night.
That's very unusual for me. When they woke up I sang the song for them.
T: Do you carry around an inner story like that for each of your songs?
COHEN: That's an interesting way of putting it. Yes, sometimes I do invoke an inner story, I suppose. Especially when you're singing a song every night on a tour. You go back to that inner story in your own mind and you can use it as a door to get back into the song as you're performing. To make it fresh.
T: Do you have any ideas as to why Europe, and particularly France, has responded so strongly to your work?
COHEN: It's something I've thought about a lot. I used to just say, "It's because they can't understand the words." But it probably has more to do with their musical traditions over there. Also, artists are less brutalized by their record labels in Europe. The American record companies are far more profit-oriented. Somehow my music was dubbed not commercial enough for the States. So they took away the support for touring. And of course that hurts your sales. They don't promote you as much.
T: How many concerts have you played behind the Iron Curtain?
COHEN: I've done four concerts in Poland. There were very good. I think the audiences identified with the polarities expressed in the songs.
T: Maybe if you live in a country with an oppressive government, the expression of the private voice becomes more important, more precious.
COHEN: I think that's it.
T: Conversely, on the bright side, a lack of interest in your work here could indicate North American society is relatively healthy.
COHEN: Yes. My music seems to go over particularly well in places with bad governments. Or new governments. Spain and Portugal. Places like that. And Scandinavia. Whereas in Germany I've declined in popularity. The intellectual establishment there doesn't find me sufficiently left-wing. The audiences are always hospitable everywhere you go because they've made the effort to come out and see you. But you can pick these things up from the reviews.
T: How important is the title of the album Various Positions?
COHEN: The critic for Le Monde said each song on Various Positions is a complete universe. I don't know about that. I just know the title is true. To me, it's simply an accurate description of the work. One of the songs is called "Dance Me to the End of Love," which I also made a video for. It's a kind of Eastern European wedding dance. Another song is "Coming Back to You," which has a country n' western feel. Another song is "Hallelujah." Another is called "The Law." So they're various positions.
T: Do you think your reputation as a "literary" figure restricts your sales in North America?
COHEN: Certainly in some quarters of both establishments-the literary and the musical- my two activities work against me. The president of Columbia Records greeted me as "Our Poet from Canada." in Europe I've never had to justify myself as a singer but certainly in North America the legitimacy of my enterprise is called into question. And similarly, until Book of Mercy came out, people in the Canadian book world tended to think I had sold out to the music business.
T: Tell me about Book of Mercy. What were the circumstances that generated it?
COHEN: Silence. I was silenced in all areas. I couldn't move. I was up against the wall. It was the only way I could penetrate through my predicament. I could pick up my guitar and sing but I couldn't locate my voice.
T: Then what happened?
COHEN: I began to have the courage to write down my prayers. To apply to the source of mercy. At first I had tried to deal with it by not writing. I felt that writing was a kind of self-conscious activity that might come between me and what I wanted to speak. But I found that was the way that I speak. I found that the act of writing was the proper form for my prayer. It was the only type of sound I could make I didn't bring much to it. I didn't bring concerns about whether there is a God or not. Those are just questions of the mind. The mind has the capacity to question but not to answer.
T: so you didn't decide to write Book of Mercy. It decided for you.
COHEN: That's right. Now I find it's the toughest book to talk about. Because it is prayer. One feels a little shy about the whole thing. We're such a hip age. Nobody wants to affirm those realities. It doesn't go with your sunglasses. But I know that the voice in the book is true. And I know that the book is true. It lifted me up to write it.
T: Book of Mercy is entirely on a spiritual plane. ..in a materialistic age. It's thoroughly un-modern.
COHEN: Yes. I think the book will have to be around for a while to find its place. You can't think of it as some book by some guy that you think you already know something about. If the book hangs around for a while, if it has that staying power, then people who need it can use it.
T: The voice of the narrator reminded me somewhat of Kahlil Gibran.
COHEN: Well, that's okay. People love that writer. He's been put down by the intelligentsia. But he speaks to millions of people. And the things he says are true. You get a feeling for a certain ecstasy in the man's life. You get the feeling that he really perceived those things. Yet it's incredible how people will put him down.
T: That's because many people don't think someone like Kahlil Gibran is sophisticated enough. For many people sophistication in art is a necessity, an ultimate virtue.
COHEN: Sophistication is the current style. We're growing rich. Our cities are getting big. Our kids are going to university. It's appropriate for the times. But the practice of religion, the gathering of people to articulate the burden of their predicament, those things are important, too.
T: In music, because you don't have much of a vocal range, I think many people assume you don't have enough flexibility or sophistication as a musician.
COHEN: I think you're right.
T: But as you put it, "People say I'm a mediocre musician because I might only use three chords. I have merely decided to opt for the greatest simplicity." That statement reminded me of a John Fogerty quote about B.B. King. "B.B. King plays one note better than anybody."
COHEN: I like that. It's like what the young girl said after the old man made love to her. "You older fellows don't have the stamina but at least you get it right the first time."
T: Maybe your lyrics are so abnormally complex that your songs require a sense of musical simplicity for balance. So if you wrote simpler lyrics, you might want to use more complex arrangements.
COHEN: Except I never have a strategy when I write. I don't have any assembly line approach to it. The kind of writer I am, I'm never raking it in on any level. You're always starting from scratch. I don't have a James Bond series going on or anything. I find it all gets harder rather than easier. I have the tools. I know how to use them. But the content becomes more and more difficult. And there is no guarantee that the difficulty of the process will produce excellence. I just try to let the song function for itself in the end. I've merely learned a few tricks along the way.
T: When I turn on the radio these days I find lots of music but a dearth of good songs.
COHEN: You should try listening to country music. George Jones, for instance. He has great songs. If we think the audience can handle it, we do "The Tennessee Waltz" with the band. Those are terrific lyrics. I didn't know the second verse so I wrote one for myself. "She goes dancing through the darkness to the Tennessee Waltz / And I feel like I'm falling apart / The stronger the drink / The deeper the sorrow / Since she left and broke my heart."
T: When you go back and look at the lyrics to those old songs which have lasted like "Tennessee Waltz" and "Goodnight Irene," the lyrics are almost perfect.
COHEN: "Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright."
Essay Date: 1979, 1984, 1985