An Interview with Leonard Cohen by Michael Harris. Duel, Winter 1969.
1988: “There are some songs I just can’t get behind.”
Do you always know what your songs are about?
There’s a lot of songs that lose their meaning, you forget. I’m finding that out now, rehearsing the band. There are some songs I just can’t get behind. Some are surprising me, songs I really thought I could sing, like ‘Bird On a Wire.’ I’m not sure it’s necessary to say, ‘I swear by this song and by all I’ve done wrong that I will make it all up to thee.’ Either I’ve done that, or there’s no point in making that promise again if I haven’t. It’s very hard to get behind certain lines. The new songs I’m not having any trouble with.
Leonard Cohen’s Nervous Breakthrough by Mark Rowland, Musician, July 1988.
2009: “I’m feeling much friendlier to my earliest work than I ever did.”
I find I’m feeling much friendlier to my earliest work than I ever did. There was a certain time when I knew that the audience wanted to hear ‘Suzanne’ and ‘Hey That’s No Way to Say Goodbye,’ but I didn’t want to play [them]. Now I really do.
Leonard Cohen reborn in the U.S.A. by Geoff Boucher at Pop & Hiss, the L.A. Times music blog: February 27, 2009.
Why the hell did you shave off all your hair for the “Live” LP album?
Life just got to be too much for me at that time. I just couldn’t handle anything at all – so I went to a monastery to live. And I guess I just went over the wall.
Life On The Ledge With Leonard Cohen by Jon Marlowe. The Miami News: Nov 9, 1977.
Yesterday’s post, New York Times Rhetorically Asks “Is Leonard Cohen the New Secular Saint of Montreal?”, calls to mind Leonard Cohen’s thoughts on saintliness.
What is a saint? A saint is someone who has achieved a remote human possibility. It is impossible to say what that possibility is. I think it has something to do with the energy of love. Contact with this energy results in the exercise of a kind of balance in the chaos of existence. A saint does not dissolve the chaos; if he did the world would have changed long ago. I do not think that a saint dissolves the chaos even for himself, for there is something arrogant and warlike in the notion of a man setting the universe in order. It is a kind of balance that is his glory. He rides the drifts like an escaped ski. His course is a caress of the hill. His track is a drawing of the snow in a moment of its particular arrangement with wind and rock. Something in him so loves the world that he gives himself to the laws of gravity and chance. Far from flying with the angels, he traces with the fidelity of a seismograph needle the state of the solid bloody landscape.1
Do you consider yourself either religious or mystical?
I think I went through a saintly phase where I was consciously trying to model myself on what I thought a saint was. I made a lot of people very unhappy and I made myself very unhappy.2
When there’s a complete wipe-out, there’s a renewal. In that book [Beautiful Losers] I tried to wrestle with all the deities that are extant now – the idea of saintliness, purity, pop, McLuhanism, evil, the irrational – all the gods we set up for ourselves.3
- Beautiful Losers by Leonard Cohen [↩]
- An Interview with Leonard Cohen conducted by Michael Harris. Duel, Winter 1969. [↩]
- Leonard Cohen quoted in “After the Wipe-Out, A Renewal” by Sandra Diwa, published in The Ubyssey (the student newspaper of the University of British Columbia), February 3, 1967. [↩]
I’ve always had this very scroogie point of view. When people demonstrate against nuclear weapons, I think, ‘These people think that if they eliminate nuclear weapons, they eliminate death.’ It promotes something like ‘eternal peace.’ But we’re not going to live forever; maybe I think, basically, that nothing really changes. I’m not attached to that opinion, though. I don’t even care if it’s true. When you’re banging your head against the dirty carpet of the Royalton Hotel trying to find the rhyme for ‘orange,’ you don’t care about these things.
From Leonard Cohen’s Nervous Breakthrough by Mark Rowland, Musician, July 1988
I understand that somehow during the course of your travels you ended up in Cuba during the Bay of Pigs invasion.
I don’t know why I did any of these things. I do remember that Fidel Castro used to be laughed at in America. He’d make these five-hour speeches – apparently he speaks beautifully – and he’d say, ‘They’re going to invade us,’ and people thought that was a big joke. But I thought they were going to invade them. So I went down there and immediately found myself accurately described as a ‘bourgeois individualist poet.’ I said, ‘That’s right. Suits me to a tee.’ I wrote a poem in one of my early books: ‘The Only Tourist in Havana Turns His Thoughts Homeward.’ I was walking on the beach in the middle of one night and was suddenly surrounded by about 11 guys with Czechoslovakian submachine guns; I was an American who didn’t speak Spanish, and they thought I was the first guy off the landing boat. I was the first guy arrested. It was a bit tricky to sort this thing out. But they happened to be very gracious. Wherever they took me, by the end of the night we were drinking toasts to each other and ‘the friendship of the people’ and they let me go. A little later it hit the newspapers in North America that the airport had been bombed. I’m in this little seedy hotel in Havana and somebody knocks on my;door and says, ‘You have to go down to the Canadian consulate right away.’ They don’t like the look of me there because I really do look like a Cuban revolutionary – I had a beard and wore khakis. Finally I’m brought in to one of the secretaries of the consulate – I’m pretending to be pretty tough. And he says to me, ‘Mr. Cohen. Your mother is very worried about you.’
Leonard Cohen’s Nervous Breakthrough by Mark Rowland, Musician, July 1988
I have just turned down $15,000 worth of concerts because I didn’t want to do them. The presence of the money in the whole enterprise has been having a sinister magical effect on me. It meant doing something false to myself. It’s not that I have anything against prostituting myself. I think prostitutes are important and valuable. But what use is a prostitute if she can’t excite a man? What use am I as a musical prostitute if I can’t get across to an audience? What they’re asking me to do out there is to impersonate myself, night after night. And I’m such a bad actor I’m not really interested in the gig. I’m not a great performer. Right now I feel rather like I did when I finished my novel, as if an episode in my life has finished. At the end of the book, I knew I wouldn’t write another because I’d put everything I had into that one. I’m still writing songs, but if I find I have nothing else to say that’s new I shall probably stop.
From Leonard Cohen: Songwriter Who Got Into Folk By Accident by Karl Dallas, Melody Maker, Feb 17, 1968. Photo from York University Libraries, Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections, Toronto Telegram fonds, F0433, Photographer: John Sharp, ASC01709.