Hear Leonard Cohen Talk About Poetry, The Soul, & Book Of Mercy + Recite The Captain: 1984 Interview

In June 1984 I sat with Leonard Cohen in his room at the top of Toronto’s Sutton Place Hotel where we talked about his newest collection Book of Mercy. I confessed an uneasiness about love poems because of how often other kinds of love beyond the romantic are overlooked or are treated in a puerile fashion. Not so one poem coming three months after my son’s birth… Even more interesting is what he had to say about poetry and the shift away from traditional lyric to language poetry.

David Godkin’s YouTube Description

A few key quotes from Leonard Cohen’s interview follow:

  • Book of Mercy can only be conceived as a book of prayer… it is different from my other books
  • I’m comfortable [using] the name of God
  • There are many superstitions afoot; one is that there is no soul.
  • You only address the problem of soul when you feel that you’re losing it
  • [Referring to Snow Is Falling by William Carlos Williams] That kind of accuracy is present on every page of Book of Mercy; it’s just about a landscape that’s unfamiliar



Photo by Daniel Bastida.

“There’s also a joke about country and western [music] in it” Leonard Cohen on The Captain


There’s also a joke about country and western in [The Captain]. The guy who has to be educated – he says, ‘I didn’t risk my life for some country western song.’ But the argument is won by the captain. By the end the kid takes the captain’s bars and accepts the responsibility of leadership. If he is not exactly converted to country music, he is converted to certain values that exist in country music, like the notion of manly self defense.quotedown2

Leonard Cohen


Note: The pertinent lines from The Captain follow (bolding mine):

“I left a wife in Tennessee
And a baby in Saigon —
I risked my life, but not to hear
Some country-western song.”

From Tortoise-Shell by Biba Kopf. New Musical Express, March 2, 1985. Originally posted May 23, 2013 at DrHGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric

How Leonard Cohen’s Song “The Captain” Became A Recitation In 1985


1985 – Leonard Cohen Converts The Captain From Song To Spoken Word

‘The Captain’ took me several years to write. [Cohen recites the lyric] It is good, spoken like that. I wrote it as a song. I generally start off with a phrase or a line of very simple music. I had many phrases for ‘The Captain.’ I worked on it from many approaches.1quotedown2

Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen Recites The Captain While Gnomes Fix Guitar

“The Captain” was released as a song on the Various Positions album in 1984.

I noticed, however, that “The Captain” was performed as a spoken-word piece at the 1985 Philadelphia concert. It turns out that the Philadelphia concert recitation was, as Cohen recounts in the recording that follows, the consequence of a “little disaster” with his guitar, which fell on the ground and was being repaired backstage by “gnomes” and “little fairies descended from the North Pole.”

Leonard Cohen – The Captain
Philadelphia: April 30, 1985
Video by ALB123Videos

Fortuitously, I had on hand a bootleg of the Berklee (Boston) concert which took place May 4, 1985, four days after the April 30, 1985 Philadelphia show2 and one day before the May 5, 1985 Carnegie Hall performance heard on today’s offering. On checking it, I found “The Captain” again presented as a recitation.

And, according to Jim Devlin’s “Is This What You Wanted,” Leonard Cohen is not known to have played “The Captain” at any other concerts in 1985.3

So, “The Captain” has been performed by Leonard Cohen in a spoken-word version on only four occasions (assuming he played it at the second Philadelphia show as well as the first), all of which took place in 1985 and all of which were, presumably, the consequence of an accident to his guitar at that first Philadelphia concert.

Leonard Cohen – The Captain
Carnegie Hall, New York City: May 5, 1985
Video from

Credit Due Department: Photo atop post by Pete Purnell

Originally posted May 26, 2011 at 1HeckOfAGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric


  1. From Leonard Cohen Work Finds A Place by Mary Campbell. AP – Kentucky New Era: June 29, 1985 []
  2. There was also a May 1, 1985 show. []
  3. Caveat: A few 1985 concerts still lack verified set lists. []

“What I’m trying to stress is the inner strength which will enable you to meet the inevitable and impossible moral choices that are going to confront you. What is the inner resource that you have to tap to be able to get through your life?” Leonard Cohen

What I’m trying to stress is the inner strength which will enable you to meet the inevitable and impossible moral choices that are going to confront you. What is the inner resource that you have to tap to be able to get through your life? In ‘The Captain’ song, he says, ‘There is no decent place to stand in a massacre,’ but nevertheless, that does not absolve us from trying to be decent. I think it’s important that we are aware that these choices are difficult, that we are humans and we live in a dualistic world, and we still have to take responsibilities for our decisions. We can’t resign from them.quotedown2

Leonard Cohen


From “Songs and Thoughts of Leonard Cohen” by Robert O’Brian (RockBill, September 1987)