1988 Backstage Interview With Leonard Cohen
Leonard Cohen’s November 9, 1988 concert at Massey Hall in Toronto was broadcast live on CBC radio and rebroadcast on March 11, 1990 on The Entertainers, a CBC “variety program of entertainment news, interviews, and recorded music and concerts.”
Included with the musical tracks was a backstage interview conducted by Ralph Benmergui, who served as host, correspondent, and interviewer for a number of news and entertainment programs on CBC radio and television before joining the Green Party of Canada as a strategic communications adviser in 2009.1
Notwithstanding some nervous laughter by Benmergui, he does an admirable job as interviewer. As for Leonard Cohen, I can only repeat what has become my mantra in this matter – Leonard Cohen gives good interview.
These videos (audio-only recordings with a still photo) are extracts from that broadcast.
Leonard Cohen Interview Highlights
While numerous points of interest are covered in this interview, I would hold that the most significant discourse is Cohen’s explication, just after the three minute mark of Part 1, of country music as the art form in North America in which “the deeper and more complex subjects are treated.”
- Life on the Leonard Cohen tour bus, including sleeping well on the three-high bunks, a discussion which segues into Cohen’s preference for high bunks at summer camp and his diligence as a child in making his bed.
- Description of Cohen as “a funny guy” in contrast to his reputation as a dark, mysterious figure. Cohen somberly notes, “Yes, I have a good time.”
- Reply from Leonard Cohen when asked if he has a strategy: “It’s hard to develop a strategy, especially in this accidental life.”
- Cohen quotes Wordsworth as a foil to his own experience, “Contrary to what Wordsworth said, I never felt my life was ‘recollected in tranquility.”2
- Discussion of the revitalization of Cohen’s popularity in the US although he was, in his words, “always able to sustain a modest career in Europe” although “It’s been much less secure in North America.”
- Cohen’s agreement that “Jennifer’s record [the Famous Blue Raincoat album by Jennifer Warnes] did do a lot in resurrecting my credentials.”
- Discussion of why Cohen’s work is more readily accepted in Europe than in North America. Cohen’s hypothesis is that he fits into the European tradition of “somebody who can’t sing that just stands up and tells a story. … [Europe has] this tradition of self revelation in popular music. We have it here – it’s called country western music. … I think that’s where the deeper and more complex subjects are treated. Popular music seems … a lot of the pop tunes are about first love or just some kind of sense of dis-ease about things but country music – often the singers are older, they stay around a longer time … they can treat in a kind of serious way their lives, their marriages, their work.”
- Cohen’s review of Federico García Lorca’s influence on him, especially writing and performing “Take This Waltz.
- The universal “Ay, Ay, Ay, Ay”
- Cohen’s love of music, his desire “to be loved by as many people as possible,” and the inaccuracy, he believes, of him being classified as a “folk singer.”
- Irving Layton’s steadfastness in the literary tradition and his “continuous and deep conversation with immortality.”
- Cohen’s denial that he is seeking after spirituality: “I don’t have a spiritual strategy and his explanation of how issues, spiritual and otherwise, are incorporated into his songs: “Occasionally, your back is against the wall, and you cry out for help and that becomes a type of song. Events surround you. You develop a sense of resignation. That becomes a song like “If It Be Your Will.” … You’re provoked, you’re feeling somewhat demented. That becomes a geopolitical manifesto full of menace like “First We Take Manhattan.” But these statements develop with a sense of immediacy although the process of refinement is very long. The impulse for the work is immediate and [word obscured by applause].”
- Leonard Cohen on the meaning of “First We Take Manhattan:
“I’m not sure of what it means right now because I had this long voyage from Chicago. I think it means exactly what it says. It is a terrorist song. I think it’s a response to terrorism. There’s something about terrorism that I’ve always admired. The fact that there are no alibis or no compromises. That position is always very attractive. I don’t like it when it’s manifested on the material plane – I don’t really enjoy the terrorist activities – but Psychic Terrorism… I remember there was a great poem by Irving Layton that I once read, I’ll give you a paraphrase of it. It was ‘well, you guys blow up an occasional airline and kill a few children here and there’, he says. ‘But our terrorists, Jesus, Freud, Marx, Einstein. The whole world is still quaking…”
- Leonard Cohen: “I don’t meditate at all. Occasionally, I go off to a monastery, spend a month or two …”
- Cohen’s concern about the environment order but not politics.
- Cohen’s observation that he was brought up “to consider myself a descendent of the high priest … and it was taken rather seriously in my family.”
- The celebration of dogmatic cosmology of religions3 with an exception made for the use of religious codes in a repressive way (e.g., to stop young people from masturbating).
- What Ralph Benmergui terms “the sexual element.” Cohen: “I like all kinds of smut, and I also like high-toned revelations of this interest. I find the whole matter totally engrossing. … I don’t think I’m unique in this respect.”
Leonard Cohen Interview, Toronto 1988 (Part 1)
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Leonard Cohen Interview, Toronto 1988 (Part 2)
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Credit Due Department: The photo of Massey Hall was taken by Nephron. Photo of Ralph Benmergui by Barrie Greens
Note: Originally posted June 20, 2011 at 1HeckOfAGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric
- Wikipedia [↩]
- The Wordsworth quote is from the preface to the second edition of Lyrical Ballads (1800). The context from which the phrase is drawn follows: “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” [↩]
- Note that this point echos the discussion just minutes earlier of the attractiveness of the certainty afforded by the terrorist position [↩]