Hear 1985 Interview: Leonard Cohen Gives Occupation As “Sinner,”Talks About Songwriting, Cantor’s Singing, Aging, Wine … Performs Night Comes On & In The Eyes Of Men

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Leonard Cohen Interview: April 28, 1985
Mixed Bag with Pete Fornatale (WNEW-FM, NYC)

Part 1 – Selected Contents

  • Leonard Cohen’s persona as a stranger.
  • Leonard Cohen on Songwriting: “I never operated from a very deluxe position. I never thought of myself standing in front of a buffet table, choosing between the caviar or the herring. I feel more like a rat in the bottom of the barrel, trying to sink his teeth into something, and whatever yields, that I follow.”
  • The early influence of a Cantor in synagogue listing ways to sin and die
  • Leonard Cohen on wine: “The red wine has been good to us”
  • Asked to name his occupation, Leonard Cohen replies “sinner”

Part 2

  • In-studio acoustic performance of Night Comes On by Leonard Cohen and “three-fifths” of his band

Part 3 – Selected Contents

  • Discussion of Cohen’s “Marita Please find me I am almost 30″ and the graffiti he found in the CBC men’s room: “Marita Please find me I am almost 50″
  • Irving Layton’s take on aging: “The inescapable lousiness of growing old”
  • Book of Mercy written with author’s “back against the wall”
  • Leonard Cohen on artistic skills: “If the gift is there, it reveals itself very early”
  • Recitation: In The Eyes Of Men
    In the eyes of men he falls, and in his own eyes too. He falls from his high place, he trips on his achievement. He falls to you, he falls to know you. It is sad, they say. See his disgrace, say the ones at his heel. But he falls radiantly toward the light to which he falls. They cannot see who lifts him as he falls, or how his falling changes, and he himself bewildered till his heart cries out to bless the one who holds him in his falling. And in his fall he hears his heart cry out, his heart explains why he is falling, why he had to fall, and he gives over to the fall. Blessed are you, clasp of the falling. He falls into the sky, he falls into the light, none can hurt him as he falls. Blessed are you, shield of the falling. Wrapped in his fall, concealed within his fall, he finds the place, he is gathered in. While his hair streams back and his clothes tear in the wind, He is held up, comforted, he enters into the place of his fall. Blessed are you, embrace of the falling, foundation of the light, master of the human accident.

Leonard Cohen On The “Third Act” Of Life

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I don’t think much about [death], but in a certain stage in your life it becomes very clear that your time is not unlimited. Tennessee Williams said: ‘Life is a fairly well-written play, except for the third act.’ I’m maybe at the third act, where you have the benefit of the experience of the first two acts. But how it ends is nobody’s business and is generally accompanied by some disagreeable circumstances.quotedown2

Leonard Cohen

 

From ‘I never discuss my mistresses or my tailors’ by Nick Paton Walsh (The Observer: Oct 13, 2001)

The posting of Leonard Cohen’s Third Act – The Must-Read You Want It Darker Album Review brought to mind the “third act” quotation featured above in this entry first published Apr 24, 2013 at 1HeckOfAGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric.  But, there is more to the story.

 

I thought this an appropriately pithy expression to warrant its publication as a “Words By Leonard Cohen” post, and as I am wont to do, checked the source of Tennessee Williams quote.

And I indeed found several references to  that Tennessee Williams quote, but, oddly, every example save one mentioned not only the epigram itself and Tennessee Williams, but also Leonard Cohen offering the quote.

It turns out that the quote is actually worded a bit differently:

Life is a moderately good play with a badly written third act.

It also turns out that the source of the quote is significantly different; it was produced by Truman Capote rather than Tennessee Williams.

But pointing out a  mistake made by Leonard Cohen – while great fun – is not my primary mission.

Even at my most pedantic, I find it difficult to view attributing a clever remark made by Truman Capote to Tennessee Williams a signal of the end of civilization as we know it. 1

The remarkable thing, it seems to me, is that none of the interviewers or their publications checked the source of the quote.

Cohen, who is known for repeating successful phrases and anecdotes in interviews, has, true to form, used the third act line with other interviewers:

A Happy Man by Mireille Silcott. Saturday Night, Canada: September 15, 2001

“Tennessee Williams had this famous quote: ‘Life is a fairly well-written play except for the third act,'” says Cohen, flicking an ash off the table. “And I’m at the beginning of the third act. The end of the third act — nobody has a handle on that one. But the beginning — there is a certain relief for me here. It is palpable.”

Leonard Cohen returns to music by Robert Hilburn. Chicago Tribune: October 18, 2001

I remember something Tennessee Williams said about life being a fairly well-written play except for the third act. By this point in my life, we have the experience of the first two acts, but we haven’t really encountered what is in store in the third.

Even worse, this has become a popular quote writers have recycled, misattribution intact, into articles about the Canadian singer-songwriter.

The godfather of gloom lightens up for third act by Barry Egan. Independent.ie: March 23, 2008

Asked about death a few years old, Bono’s favourite poet answered with a wisdom that suggested that perhaps he was descended from the Kohanim after all. “I don’t think much about [death],” Laughing Lenny said, ” but, in a certain stage in your life, it becomes very clear that your time is not unlimited. Tennessee Williams said: ‘Life is a fairly well-written play, except for the third act.’ I’m maybe at the third act, where you have the benefit of the experience of the first two acts. But how it ends is nobody’s business and is generally accompanied by some disagreeable circumstances.”

‘I’m blessed with a certain amnesia’ by Jian Ghomeshi. The Guardian: 9 July 2009

In 2001, you said to the Observer that you were at a stage of your life you refer to as the third act. You quoted Tennessee Williams saying: “Life is a fairly well-written play except for the third act.” You were 67 when you said that, you’re 74 now – does that ring more or less true for you still?

The same line is also quoted in, among many others, the following pieces:

Still worse, the exact line as misquoted by Leonard Cohen and credited to Tennessee Williams, has almost certainly been lifted from a Cohen interview and been used in an article about Michael Jackson.2

So, now you know Truman Capote is responsible for “Life is a moderately good play with a badly written third act,”  that, as far as I can determine, Tennessee Williams did not come up with his famous quote “Life is a fairly well-written play except for the third act,'” that Leonard Cohen makes the occasional error, and, that, apparently, one can’t rely on interviewers and publications to check the information they receive before presenting it to the reader.

_________________________

  1. For one thing, the two are easy to confuse. Capote and Williams not only shared many qualities but also knew each other and occasionally hung out together. []
  2. The boy in the bubble, the man in the mirror by Peter Murphy. Hot Press: July 3, 2009 []

Leonard Cohen’s Status Report (Sept 2016): “A little too weak to get out there and boogie, and a little too healthy to die. Work is not always sweet, but it’s always sustaining.”

dakeerphotoFrom Leonard Cohen’s Third Act by Brian D. Johnson (Maclean’s: Sept 21, 2016). Photo by Adam Cohen.

“To keep our hearts open is probably the most urgent responsibility you have as you get older” Leonard Cohen

openheart-1From Leonard Cohen Interviewed by Anjelica Huston. Interview magazine: November, 1995. This interview is now online at Remembering Leonard Cohen by Anjelica Huston (Interview: Nov 11, 2016). Originally posted May 17, 2014 at DrHGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric

“As you get older, I think you get less willing to buy the latest version of reality” Leonard Cohen

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Someone observed that whoever marries the spirit of their generation will be a widow in the next. I never married the spirit of my generation because it wasn’t that attractive to me. And I’ve since moved further and further from any possible matrimonial commitment. As you get older, I think you get less willing to buy the latest version of reality. Mostly, I’m on the front line of my own tiny life.quotedown2

Leonard Cohen

 

Leonard Cohen’s Nervous Breakthrough by Mark Rowland. Musician: July 1988. Photo by Anjani Thomas. Originally posted December 4, 2014 at DrHGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric