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The many sides of Leonard Cohen: in his own words
By
Andrea Warner

Published

November 11, 2016

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There’s no argument about it: Leonard Cohen made his life count. He was a student, poet, painter, songwriter, singer, novelist, musician, businessman, collaborator, occasional actor, boyfriend, father, friend, Buddhist and so much more.

He also had an innate love of the English language. It reveals itself in every interview. Cohen was a wonderfully thoughtful person, at least in terms of how he selected his words and the care with which he phrased every statement and every aside. There’s an economy to his speech, it’s never flowery or fussy, but it’s always poetic and interesting.

Which is why it’s such a comfort to read so many archival interviews with Cohen himself and let his own words guide us through his multitudes. From his beginnings in country music to his brushes with Hollywood, and from embracing the left to his fondness for playing psychiatric hospitals, these are the many sides of Leonard Cohen.

On his country music origins

"I don't have any reservations about anything I do. I always played music. When I was 17, I was in a country music group called the Buckskin Boys.” — Rock’s Backpages, 2008

"I played an acoustic guitar with an electric pickup. It was really a square-dance band. We played in church basements and high-school auditoriums. In those days, dance bands still did the traditional tunes that go with square-dancing. We'd play 'Red River Valley' and 'Turkey in the Straw.'" — Frets, 1988

“Writing songs came later, after music. I put my guitar away for a few years, but I always made up songs. I never wanted my work to get too far away from music. Ezra Pound said something very interesting. 'When music strays too far from music, it atrophies. When music strays too far from the dance it atrophies." — Rock’s Backpages, 2008

There was no real transition from hoedown band to his first solo record, [The Songs of Leonard Cohen] 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." — Q, 1991

On being a poet

"Being called a poet is not very attractive. 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." — Q, 1991

On his breakdown

“I wrote Beautiful Losers on Hydra, when I thought of myself as a loser. I was wiped out; I didn’t like my life. I vowed I would just fill the pages with black or kill myself. After the book was over, I fasted for 10 days and flipped out completely. It was my wildest trip. I hallucinated for a week. They took me to a hospital in Hydra. One afternoon, the whole sky was black with storks. The alighted on all the churches and left in the morning … and I was better. Then I decided to go to Nashville and become a songwriter.” — Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: interviews and encounters, pg. 15

“The thing about Sartre is that he’s never lost his mind … Like Bertrand Russell, he hasn’t flipped out. Anybody who has flipped and survived, who hasn’t been broken by conformity or pure madness like an incapacity to operate, knows the ecstasy and the hallucination and the whole idea of the planets and of the music of the spheres and of endless force and life and god — enough to blow your head off.” — Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: interviews and encounters, pg. 15

On playing psychiatric hospitals

“Those people are in the same landscape as the songs come out of. I feel that they understand them.” — Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: interviews and encounters, pg. 22

On songwriting

A Q&A from Songwriters on Songwriting, 1992:

Do you generally begin a song with a lyrical idea?

It begins with an appetite to discover my self-respect. To redeem the day. So the day does not go down in debt. It begins with that kind of appetite.

In your experience, do any of these things work better than others?

Nothing works. Nothing works. After a while, if you stick with a song long enough it will yield. But long enough is way beyond any reasonable estimation of what you think long enough may be. In fact, long enough is way beyond. It’s abandoning, it’s abandoning that idea of what you think long enough may be. Because if you think it’s a week, that’s not long enough. If you think it’s a month, it’s not long enough. If you think it’s a year, it’s not long enough. If you think it’s a decade, it’s not long enough.

Some songs take a decade to write. “Anthem” took a decade to write. And I’ve recorded it three times. More. I had a version prepared for my last album with strings and voices and overdubs. The whole thing completely finished. I listened to it, there was something wrong with the lyric, there was something wrong with the tune, there was something wrong with the tempo. There was a lie somewhere in there, there was a disclosure that I was refusing to make. There was a solemnity that I hadn’t achieved. There was something wrong with the damn thing. All I knew is that I couldn’t sing it. You could hear it in the vocal, that the guy was putting you on.

Is “Anthem” in any way an answer to Dylan’s song “Everything is Broken”?

I had a line in “Democracy” that referred specifically to that Dylan song “Everything is Broken,” which was "The singer says it’s broken and the painter says it’s gray..." But, no, “Anthem” was written a long time before that Dylan song. I’d say '82 but it was actually earlier than that, that that song began to form.

Including the part about the crack in everything?

That’s old, that’s very old. That has been the background of much of my work. I had those lines in the works for a long time. I’ve been recycling them in many songs. I must not be able to nail it.

On singing

“I’ve never thought of myself as a singer anyway …  I’ve been free from those considerations because so many people over the years told me I don’t have a voice. I kind of bought that. I never thought that much about it to begin with. I knew I didn’t have one of the great voices.” — Q, 1991

“My voice just happens to be monotonous [and] I’m somewhat whiney, so they are called sad songs. But you could sing them joyfully, too. It’s a completely biological accident that my songs sound melancholy when I sing them.” — Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: interviews and encounters, pg. 26

On finishing a record

"I tend to get shattered as I bring a project to completion. I have to discard versions of myself, and versions of the songs, until I can get to a situation where I can defend every word, every line. But that place often involves a real shattering of equanimity, or of balance ... I have to go to this naked and raw place. And it usually involves the breakdown of my personality, and I flip out … I can't go into crowds, I don't want to leave my house, I don't want to leave my room, I don't want to answer the phone, all my relationships collapse." — Newsday, 1992

On writing

“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." — Q, 1991

"Well, I've never been intimidated by form ... What we call a novel, that is, a book of prose where there are characters and developments and changes and situations, that's always attracted me, because in a sense it is the heavyweight arena. I like it — it frightens me, from that point of view — because of the regime that is involved in novel-writing. I can't be on the move, it needs a desk, it needs a room and a typewriter, a regime. And I like that very much.” — Crawdaddy, 1975

On acting

In addition to a few bit film parts, Cohen made a brief appearance on Miami Vice in 1986.

"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.’"

On popular art

In this interview with the Guardian in 1988, Cohen rejects Martin Amis’s description of Simon and Garfunkel’s music as “not so much art as therapy.”

"I think that's a rather mean-spirited approach to a man's work. Everything can be diminished from this point of view. If you don't like something and think it's cheap, unless you really have a great sense of responsibility for your culture, I think it's best to keep it to yourself. That might be the song that gets someone through a dark hour. He wouldn't say that about Bach. There's something elitist and snotty about that kind of remark."

Cohen then goes on to vehemently oppose the writer’s assertion that Suzanne Vega makes similarly self-absorbed music, and that the style is “both symptomatic of, and reinforcing, a climate of passivity and retreat.”

"With all the legions of Satan and forces of evil flourishing on the planet, I think it's hardly fair to pin the destruction of the Western world on Suzanne Vega! I think she's a delightful young woman who sings beautiful songs that speak to people at a certain point. All this plumbing the culture-mongers do is quite irrelevant. If someone has the grace to write a song that touches the hearts of thousands, I think it's a matter for applause. Or of silence, if you think the air has been polluted by a song."

On embracing the left, politically

In a 2002 interview with Spin, Cohen talked about a childhood camp counsellor who changed his life.

“He played good guitar and he introduced me to folk singing via unionism and left-wing thought. I found out about a whole leftist position, a resistance position. I’d never known there was anything to resist.”

On thinking, philosophy and ideas

“I like it when things are questioned. When the very basis of the community is questioned. I enjoy those moments.” — Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: interviews and encounters, pg. 25

“I haven’t had an idea in a long long time. And I’m not sure I ever had one. Now my friend Irving Layton, the great Canadian writer, said, ‘Leonard’s mind is unpolluted by a single idea.’ And he meant it as a kind of compliment. He’s a close friend and he knows me, and it’s true. I don’t have ideas. I don’t really speculate on things. I get opinions but I’m not really attached to them. Most of them are tiresome. I have to trot them out in conversations from time to time just to co-operate in the social adventure. But I have a kind of amnesia and my ideas just kind of float above this profound disinterest in myself and other people. So to find something that really touches and addresses my attention, I have to do a lot of hard, manual work.

“... When I say that I don’t have any ideas, it doesn’t come to me in the form of an idea. It comes in the form of an image. I didn’t start with a philosophical position that human activity is not perfectable. And that all human activity is flawed. And it is by intimacy with the flaw that we discern our real humanity and our real connection with divine inspiration. I didn’t come up with it that way. I saw something broken. It’s a different form of cognition.” — Songwriters on Songwriting, 1992

“I have this feeling that if you liberate yourself, anything you lay your hand on can sparkle.” — Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: interviews and encounters, pg. 13

Hang out with me on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner

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