“Rock is where I feel at home. Besides, I like disguises” Leonard Cohen On His Music Being Categorized As Rock

Is “Lord Byron Of Rock ‘n’ Roll” An Oxymoron?

The consensus sentiment arising from the kerfuffle over Leonard Cohen winning the Grammy for You Want It Darker in the Best Rock Performance category is something along the lines of “Leonard Cohen was a great musician, but he wasn’t a rock musician.”1 As we shall see, this is not a issue that arose with the 2018 Grammys.

First, one should note that it’s not unusual for journalists, committees conferring honors, and ranking systems to include Leonard Cohen under the heading of Rock. Consider these example culled from Cohencentric:

As always, however, Leonard’s own thoughts on the subject are the most elegant and insightful (if not always perfectly congruent).

What’s your relationship to rock music?

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I’ve always felt a kind of kinship with rock. Personally, I’ve lived that life more than any other, so my friends are in it. I’m probably more of a classical musician, but rock ‘n roll has been my cultural avenue.3quotedown2

Leonard Cohen

 

fedoradivider

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I have never belonged to rock’n’roll, but I enjoyed its hospitality. I grew up with folk music and blues. I always hoped that one day I would be able to accomplish the feat of the simplicity of great songs like Blueberry Hill by Fats Domino. I was very moved at that. This is the great modern writing. I started to play guitar to it.4quotedown2

Leonard Cohen

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  1. Interestingly, none of the articles and comments criticizing You Want It Darker being labeled a rock performance have suggested a more appropriate Grammy category. []
  2. Leonard Cohen: the world’s last rock star?, Brad Wheeler’s review of The Holy or the Broken – Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley & the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah,” by Alan Light (The Globe And Mail: Dec 5, 2012) []
  3. From Rebirth Of A Ladies’ Man by Steven Blush. Seconds No 22: June/July 1993. []
  4. From Leonard Cohen et la mesure du temps [via Google Translate] by Jean-François Nadeau. Le Devoir: June 21, 2008. []

“At a place like [Mt Baldy Zen Center] mostly one has responsibilities and duties…” Leonard Cohen

What structured your life at Mount Baldy? Did you read or write poetry?

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There was very little reading. I did have time to scratch away, to scribble away now and then. But at a place like that mostly one has responsibilities and duties… It is a converted boy scout camp. It’s on a mountain 6500 feet up, so you take care of yourself, shovel snow in winter. There is cooking for the monks, there is painting, repairing, plumbing, carpentry, candle making, sweeping, cleaning. To keep the place going involves everyone’s efforts, and everyone has an assigned duty. I ended up as Roshi’s cook and personal attendant, cooking three meals a day and looking after him.quotedown2

Leonard Cohen

Excerpted from Gerrit Terstiege’s interview with Leonard Cohen (July 2001). Photo by LinSu Hill from Whittier, California – Flickr, CC BY 2.0, Wikipedia Commons

Leonard Cohen Announces “I intend to go back to [smoking] shortly” – In 1974

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You know why I really stopped smoking? I had a rival – not a rival for anyone’s hand or anyone’s love. It was just someone who saw me in a comparative way and forced me to look at him that way. And he didn’t smoke. And I said to myself, ‘If he can do it, then you can do it.’ But I think it’s [smoking is] wonderful… I love the smell of it – the associations of the stylistic possibilities. I intend to go back to it shortly.quotedown2

Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen & Smoking

Smoking was a long term issue with Leonard Cohen. The above excerpt from Leonard Cohen Looks at Himself by Danny Field (Soho Weekly News, Vol. 1, #9. Dec 5, 1974) is only the latest addition to Cohencentric’s category. Current fans may be familiar with Leonard’s more recent version of the “go[ing] back to smoking” declaration: his “start smoking again at 80” stage shtick, which itself led to the below photo and its caption, “Leonard Cohen enjoying his first (and last) cigarette on the occasion of his 80th birthday,” from the booklet accompanying the Leonard Cohen Can’t Forget album.

"Leonard Cohen enjoying his first (and last) cigarette on the occasion of his 80th birthday" from the Can't Forget album booklet

And there’s more. For example, Everybody Knows, a Leonard Cohen song1 delivered in his famously deep, raspy voice, the final result, as Cohen himself puts it, of “about 500 tons of whiskey and millions of cigarettes,” was chosen as the music for a major anti-smoking ad. Cigarettes, once an obligatory accoutrement for Cohen, were apparently vanquished in 2003 when he quit smoking on doctor’s advice.2 And, of course, several records feature cover art with Leonard smoking.


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  1. Authorship of Everybody Knows, first released in 1988 on Cohen’s I’m Your Man album, is co-credited to Leonard Cohen and Sharon Robinson []
  2. He Has Tried in His Way to Be Free by Sarah Hampson. Shambhala Sun: Nov 2007 []

Leonard Cohen, On Being Asked Why He Used Shaar Hashomayim Choir On You Want It Darker – The Long Question & The Short Answer

In one sense, the sound of the Shaar Hashomayim choir on the record is that, a turning the corner: picking up a thread stretching back to your childhood. I wonder why human beings spend so much energy fighting the links and chains and threads, and instead constantly quest for renewal, change, answers. We live, and we die. The links and chains and threads are life, and they are not rendered any less precious or meaningful by death. Were you consciously aware of the pull of the past when you thought of using the choir? Or did it simply suggest itself?

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It was just an answer to the needs of the songquotedown2

Leonard Cohen

 

Note: Leonard Cohen was asked why he chose the choir of the Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue of Montreal for the You Want It Darker recording in another interview. Read his more thorough answer here.

From the Dan Cairns – Sunday Times Culture questionnaire Leonard Cohen sent me Oct 17, 2016. While portions of that questionnaire were incorporated into Leonard Cohen: Hey, that’s some way to say goodbye by Dan Cairns (The Sunday Times: October 23 2016), this specific response was not used.

“I have never belonged to rock’n’roll, but I enjoyed its hospitality” (2008) Leonard Cohen, Winner Of 2018 Grammy For Best Rock Performance

quoteup2
I have never belonged to rock’n’roll, but I enjoyed its hospitality. I grew up with folk music and blues. I always hoped that one day I would be able to accomplish the feat of the simplicity of great songs like Blueberry Hill by Fats Domino. I was very moved at that. This is the great modern writing. I started to play guitar to it.quotedown2

Leonard Cohen

 

From Leonard Cohen et la mesure du temps [via Google Translate] by Jean-François Nadeau. Le Devoir: June 21, 2008. Photo by Eugene McLaughlin.

“[Art is] the only kind of expression that can heal: the real and authentic expression of a man’s loyalty to his experience, however he sees it.” Leonard Cohen


Leonard Cohen: Thoughts Of A Ladies’ Man by Elizabeth M. Thomson. 1979 interview reposted to FolkTracks: Jan 12, 2017.