“I discovered Leonard Cohen, who had a literary approach to lyrics.” Kazuo Ishiguro On Leonard Cohen & Bob Dylan

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Excerpted from Kazuo Ishiguro, The Art of Fiction No. 196, interviewed by Susannah Hunnewell. Paris Review Spring 2008 No. 184

INTERVIEWER

What was your next obsession, after detective stories?

ISHIGURO

Rock music. After Sherlock Holmes, I stopped reading until my early twenties. But I’d played the piano since I was five. I started playing the guitar when I was fifteen, and I started listening to pop records—pretty awful pop records—when I was about eleven. I thought they were wonderful. The first record that I really liked was Tom Jones singing “The Green, Green Grass of Home.” Tom Jones is a Welshman, but “The Green, Green Grass of Home” is a cowboy song. He was singing songs about the cowboy world I knew from TV.

I had a miniature Sony reel-to-reel that my father brought me from Japan, and I would tape directly from the speaker of the radio, an early form of downloading music. I would try to work out the words from this very bad recording with buzzes. Then when I was thirteen, I bought John Wesley Harding, which was my first Dylan album, right when it came out.

INTERVIEWER

What did you like about it?

ISHIGURO

The words. Bob Dylan was a great lyricist, I knew that straightaway. Two things that I was always confident about, even in those days, were what was a good lyric and what was a good cowboy film. With Dylan, I suppose it was my first contact with stream-of-consciousness or surreal lyrics. And I discovered Leonard Cohen, who had a literary approach to lyrics. He had published two novels and a few volumes of poetry. For a Jewish guy, his imagery was very Catholic. Lot of saints and Madonnas. He was like a French chanteur. I liked the idea that a musician could be utterly self-sufficient. You write the songs yourself, sing them yourself, orchestrate them yourself. I found this appealing, and I began to write songs.

INTERVIEWER

What was your first song?

ISHIGURO

It was like a Leonard Cohen song. I think the opening line was, “Will your eyes never reopen, on the shore where we once lived and played.”

INTERVIEWER

Was it a love song?

ISHIGURO

Part of the appeal of Dylan and Cohen was that you didn’t know what the songs were about. You’re struggling to express yourself, but you’re always being confronted with things you don’t fully understand and you have to pretend to understand them. That’s what life is like a lot of the time when you’re young, and you’re ashamed to admit it. Somehow, their lyrics seem to embody this state.

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Note: Originally posted Sep 24, 2013 at DrHGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric