“I was running from the cops and the robbers too” Leonard Cohen Talks About Never Any Good To Illustrate Use Of Detail In Songwriting

Paul Zollo: It’s one of the great things about your work, your rich use of details. So many songs we hear are empty, and have no details at all.

Leonard Cohen: I love to hear the details. I was just working on a line this morning for a song called ‘I Was Never Any Good at Loving You.’ And the line was — I don’t think I’ve nailed it yet — ‘I was running from the law, I thought you knew, forgiveness was the way it felt with you’ or ‘forgiven was the way I felt with you.’ Then I got a metaphysical line, about the old law and the new law, the Old Testament and the New Testament: ‘I was running from the law, the old and the new, forgiven was the way I felt with you.’ No, I thought, it’s too intellectual. Then I thought I got it: ‘I was running from the cops and the robbers too, forgiven was the way I felt with you.’ You got cops and robbers, it dignifies the line by making it available, making it commonplace.

Paul Zollo: Each of those three versions work well. And so many of your lines, though I understand how hard you work on them and revise them, have the feeling of being inevitable. They don’t feel forced; they just feel like the perfect line.

Leonard Cohen: I appreciate that. Somebody said that art is the concealment of art.

DrHGuy Notes:

Re Leonard’s comment. “Somebody said that art is the concealment of art,”

The quotation …. exists in many forms, and dates at least as far back as Roman times. The rhetorician Quintilian (35 CE – 100 CE) said, “The perfection of art is to conceal art.” Another quotation — unattributed, but probably contemporary — says, ars est celare artem (“True art is to conceal art.”) Centuries later, Oscar Wilde said, “To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim.”1

The “I was running from …” lines discussed by Leonard: None of the variations made it into the final lyrics of the song. See lyrics at Never Any Good

More about using detail in songwriting can be found at Leonard Cohen on “the details that delight us” in songwriting.

The featured excerpt is from Songwriters On Songwriting by Paul Zollo (Da Capo Press June 19, 2003).

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  1. Source: Rule 22: The Art is to Conceal the Art by Paul (The First 10,000: November 21, 2011) []

“[Singing] is just the evidence of the life that is led. Just like the ash of a fire; if the fire burns well it is a clean white ash, if it doesn’t there are a lot of clinkers.” Leonard Cohen

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I always liked singing but I do a number of other things just like anybody else. But there’s a whole life you know. This is just the evidence of the life that is led. Just like the ash of a fire; if the fire burns well it is a clean white ash, if it doesn’t there are a lot of clinkers.quotedown2

Leonard Cohen

The “ash of a fire” is a recurrent Leonard Cohen metaphor for music and poetry; see

Note: A “clinker” is “the stony residue from burned coal or from a furnace.” (Oxford Dictionary)

From The Strange, Sad and Beautiful World of Leonard Cohen By Andrew Furnival. Petticoat: December 30, 1972. Photo from York University Libraries, Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections, Toronto Telegram fonds, F0433, Photographer: John Sharp, ASC01709.

Leonard Cohen On “The Themes Of My Songs”


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Establishing a theme in a song comes later. I don’t really know what it is any more than I know what the theme of my life is, or anybody else’s is. I don’t know what the themes of my songs are.quotedown2

Leonard Cohen

From Behind The Enigma By Tony Wilson. New Musical Express: March 25, 1972. Photo taken at 1972 Stockholm concert by Lars Sandblom.

Leonard Cohen On Joan Of Arc: “A song about the total gift of total giving & the total consummation of the spirit”

Interviewer: I had an impassioned argument with a woman who said that Joan Of Arc was a sexist song.

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It might be but I think it is on the side of women. But more accurately I think it is just a song about the total gift of total giving and the total consummation of the spirit in that kind of experience. It takes in the whole shot to be man and woman.quotedown2

Leonard Cohen

From Pacifica Interview with Kathleen Kendall. WBAI Radio, New York City: December 4, 1974. Note: Originally posted Dec 15, 2014 at DrHGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric

“I listened to a lot of country music because I felt that that’s where the emotion was, that’s where the lyric was, & that’s where real problems were being addressed.” Leonard Cohen

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I’ve always loved country music. I lived in Nashville for a couple of years. Even in the dark periods of the seventies and the early eighties, I listened to a lot of country music because I felt that that’s where the emotion was, that’s where the lyric was, and that’s where real problems were being addressed. Country singers tend to be a little older. The audience tends to be a lot more loyal. So the singers and the writers can reveal themselves over a long period of time. You know that Johnny Cash is not going to be singing about anything frivolous, and you know that George Jones is not going to be presenting himself with any kind of bravado; you know that he is going to be telling the truth about himself in his song. When you have pop groups coming and going with tremendous rapidity, you can’t get the feel of the artist. quotedown2

Leonard Cohen

 

From Aurora Online With Leonard Cohen by Marco Adria. Aurora: July, 1990. Originally posted Mar 27, 2014 at DrHGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric