ABC, Sunday Supplement
July 22, 2001

Leonard Cohen:
"We are instruments of a will
that is not our own."

Jordi Saládrigas

Contributed by Juan Luis Corcobado Cartes
Translated by Marie Mazur (using translation software)
and assisted by Guadalupe Baquero and Jose Tomas Dominguez

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From Cover of Sunday Supplement
Photo by Antón Goiri
It is the voice. It is the silence. It is difficult to know when he speaks and when he is quiet, to distinguish when he has completed his words and when he is in the slow reflection of his thoughts. He ponders at length each phrase, and when he does respond, his voice is confused by nothing, or with everything, as these are both expressions of the absolute. The voice of Leonard Cohen (Montreal, Canada, 1934) escapes time and matter. He is human, but seems divine. He is pain, but also pleasure. He is fault and redemption. Passion and quiet. Fire. Ash.

Cohen and his voice have passed fleetingly through Spain to promote, Ten New Songs, the record that the artist will release in October. It is the first album of new songs that he will release since 1992 and it has been the focus of his life the last two years. Prior to that, he spent six years in a Zen center near Los Angeles. There, under the guidance of his friend and teacher Joshu Sasaki Roshi, a wise man of 94 years, he sought to decipher some of the keys to life. It was not a strict, monastic retirement: Cohen was Roshi's cook and his chauffeur, taking him down to the city. They spent hours talking, meditating over the enigmas of existence between drinks of wine and clouds of whiskey.

Today Cohen is dressed in a suit with few shades of color and holds in his hands what seems to be a small blue rosary. It is a comboloi, a string of Greek glass beads. In English he calls them worry beads, when you are uneasy you count your worries, and your anxiety vanishes.

-- I believe this object is used by practicing Buddhists.

-- No, I am not a Buddhist, but a pseudo-Buddhist.

-- Why a pseudo-Buddhist and not a Buddhist?

-- I began my studies with my old teacher not to find a new religion. He was not looking to convert me to Buddhism. I am happy with my religion, it is the religion of my parents and grandparents. It was something different. Sometime ago I met an old man who was much wiser than I. And I began to study with him.

-- How did your studies affect or enrich your religious beliefs?

-- My work with him was not centered on my beliefs. It had more to do with the mechanics of living with a religious dogma or a certain vision of God. It was a study of friendship.

-- Your Buddhist name is Jikan, the Silent One.

-- Actually, it doesn't mean the Silent One. From what I can understand, since the English of my teacher is very bad, it has to do with the common and current silence, the one that is the center of things.

-- Why do you think he gave you that name?

-- Roshi gave me that name because it is the teacher of his teachers, that is to say, his master grandfather was called Jikari. It was an expression of friendship.

-- What did you learn listening to silence?

-- This learning is the opposite of silence. A Zen monastery is a place with a great deal of movement. True, few words are spoken, but there is much activity. There is a Zen saying: "Like pebbles in a pouch, the monks polish one another." One is closely together with others when there. The life is less solitary than in the city, because you sleep, you work, you meditate with other people.

-- Now you have broken your artistic silence with Ten New Songs. What is unique about these ten new songs?

-- Nothing especially, except that they are new. I thought it was a good title for the record. Ten New Songs seemed simple and clear to me and we tried to create the songs that way, simple and clear.

-- Songs do not change the world. Perhaps the world can change within each one of us. Did you try to change the world?

-- Change takes place constantly. But we cannot control it. One can hope that it happens, pray for it to happen, but one cannot control it.

-- "Looked through the paper. / Makes you want to cry. / Nobody cares if the people / Live or die." Thinking about the world often makes you want to cry?

-- At times tears arise. There are many reasons to cry, in your own life and what one sees in the world. But I am not the sentimental type.

-- Do you view yourself and the world from a distance, with cynicism?

-- I don't know how I look at myself.

-- You say you are not sentimental, but sometimes you cry? What makes you cry?

-- Oh, I don't know. There is a great deal of pain, much suffering. I do not remember when I last cried. I cry at the cinema. Movies make me weep. When one is supposed to cry, I cry. I am very thankful for those films.

-- Do people like your songs because they make them cry?

-- They cry with them and are cheered to have the songs as company.

-- Ten years ago you released The Future. Do you still have the dark vision of the future as depicted on that record?

-- No, I don't believe it was dark. But my predictions were fairly accurate. At the end of the 80's and beginning of the 90's when I wrote some of those songs, the Berlin Wall was falling and the world celebrated, but I had the feeling that something terrible was going to happen. I said then, "Give me back the Berlin Wall / give me Stalin and St. Paul." People thought what I was saying was too pessimistic.

But unfortunately, I think my intuition was right. I try to make my songs as exact as I can. Sometimes I have the feeling that I am painting with an eyelash. I think of myself as a journalist and my job is to report the news. I write the stories I see around me. I do not try to analyze society nor penetrate some geopolitical vision. But I react to things like everyone else and my songs are an expression of my reactions.
Photo by Anton Goiri
Photo by Antón Goiri

-- Instead of the one wall in Berlin, we have all these other walls. Some even higher.

-- They are always rising and falling.

-- What will happen to the millions locked up, as you sing, "in a prison, that wealth has set apart?" ("The Land of Plenty") This is another great wall.

-- It is. And there are more people on both sides every day. I have no idea what will happen, except that things are always changing.

-- What will happen to an earth with such abundance?

-- It is difficult to say. One has some ideas. There are days I think we are on the brink of madness, the apocalypse. It is a feeling that is reinforced when you see the world contaminated, the earthquakes, the fires, the disturbances, the murders. But then another feeling arises, the one which suggests that it has always been this way and we cannot understand or control the course of things.

-- A while back you wrote (in "Everybody Knows") that the "dice are loaded" and the "fight was fixed." Is there hope?

-- Is there hope? The song itself is hope, in spite of the painful and terrible things that are reported in the news. The fact that not only I, but others, raise our voices in these situations... But I don't believe that one must have hope or that one must be pessimistic. Nor do I believe that one has to have a concrete position. In fact, not to have a position is a kind of freedom. I would say this is exactly the reason that I am distrustful of the political animal.

-- With or without hope, how do you explain the future to your children, Adam, 29, and Lorca, 27?

-- They explain it to me. They have a better sense of the future because it is theirs and no longer ours. One trusts and prays that our children are healthy enough and strong enough to face what life has in store for them.

-- What do they tell you about the future?

-- They say to ignore it. They simply live their lives with a feeling of urgency that young people have which consists mainly of earning a living and finding a lover. To observe how they live clarifies things for me.

-- If you were their age, would you be throwing stones in Prague or Seattle?

-- No, I would be polishing pebbles. (Laughs)

-- In this sorrowful landscape that you describe, what is the proper place and role for a human being?

-- Our role consists of looking for our place and our role. But ultimately we all must face the feeling of defeat.

-- Defeat of what or opposed by whom?

-- Defeat of your aspirations, your intentions.

-- What intentions fall to defeat?

-- All.

-- Is this truly what you believe?

-- Yes, although I sing in the song ("A Thousand Kisses Deep"): "And summoned now to deal / With your invincible defeat." We live our lives as if they are real, although we know they are not. We live our lives (as it says in the title) a thousand kisses deep, that is, with an essential intuitive knowledge. But that knowledge sometimes evaporates. When that happens and one lives life thinking it is real, it is painful. But if one lives as if it is real, it is not easy, but simple and clear.

-- What should be our objective then, to live a simple life?

-- I would not dare say what should be the objective of a human being because it is not revealed to us. To know our purpose or the significance of our existence is not within our reach. Our objective, if there is one, is to relax our search for meaning, because it is not attainable.

-- We must accept that it is not revealed to us.

-- We have nothing to do.

-- "It is in love that we are made; / In love we disappear." Love is our essence?

-- Yes, but it is not personal love.

-- What is it then?

-- It is impersonal. It is not ours. We are the expression of love. Our birth is an expression of impersonal love. And our death is a return to that impersonal love.

-- Why do you say it is impersonal? It unites people.

-- Because it is not romantic. Nor possessive. It is a general love, in the sense that it is extended to all. It is absolute.

-- Then why are we walking around so mistaken in our belief that love is romantic?

-- Because we are made to think this, to think that it is real, that it is ours, that we have it, that we direct it and that we control it.

-- In another song you sing, "That I am not the one who loves - / It's love that seizes me." ("You Have Loved Enough") We are the instruments of love in this life?

-- Yes. It is very complex and beautifully designed, but we are instruments of a will that is not our own. However, the intention and the purpose of that will, we cannot know.

-- Speaking of love, some people consider you a ladies man. Do you think your relationship with women has been misunderstood?

-- The entire world is misunderstood. That is our greatest defense. But I question that description of me. I don't think my interest in women is more intense than any other man's interest. Women are the only diversion that exists when you are young.

-- What have women given you?

-- Everything. I cannot think of anything that a woman has not given me.

-- Can you be more specific?

-- Everything. From the deepest happiness to the greatest discomfort.

-- You said in a verse, "Everybody wants a box of chocolates / And a long stem rose." Have you received these?

-- No one receives the box of chocolates that they want. For me, I like milk chocolate and they always give me bitter.

-- So they are close, but you still have not gotten it.

-- When one does not exist then one can enjoy what is received. For example, when you embrace your children or your beloved, or when you drink a cold glass of water when you are thirsty, you dissolve in the cold water, in the lips of your beloved, in the sweet hug of your child. When you dissolve, that is what brings you pleasure. But as I say in the song "Boogie Street": "You kiss my lips, and then it's done: / I'm back on Boogie Street." As my teacher says, you cannot live in paradise, because there are no restaurants or washrooms there. Boogie Street is the place of restaurants and washrooms.

-- It is a mythical street.

-- I use it to speak of a place where life is occurring and most common. In reality, Boogie Street exists in Singapore. I do not know how it is today, but when I was there years ago, during the day it was a place of intense commercial activity and at night it became a place of intense sexual exchange. Male and female prostitutes, beautiful creatures, all within reach. So when I speak of Boogie Street I refer to the street where we work, where we express our desire, the street on which we live.

-- Your voice is dark and deep. What is the reason?

-- Tobacco.

-- Didn't you quit smoking for three years?

-- Yes, but I have fallen. I know that it is not good for me, but I can't stop. I can't control it. I must try again.

-- Your voice, aside from the tobacco, what else do you use?

-- Whiskey. It is good for the voice.

-- You continue to drink?

-- Not to excess but I receive much pleasure from red wine and whiskey. My teacher and I drank much more when we were younger. Now we are more controlled.

-- Your voice has changed over the years?

-- Yes, to begin with it is deeper and almost an octave more serious.

-- Is there a technical explanation for this change? Have you changed the way you use it?

-- At the time I was in New York, I believe I was recording Various Position, and my teacher was with me to study. At the time they were saying, "Cohen is depressing and pessimistic, they should sell razor blades with his records so people can cut their veins." That was how they always described my work. One day I asked my teacher: "Roshi, what do you think." He said to me: "Leonard, you should sing sadder." It was an invitation that I understood, to deepen the emotion, to make my voice real. It has changed in that direction.

-- You have sung for years (in "Bird On The Wire"): "Like a bird on a wire, I have tried in my way to be free." Have you achieved it?

-- More or less.

-- Do you continue to try?

-- Everybody tries. But I have been lucky. Tennessee Williams said that life lived well is rather like a good play, except for the third act.

-- That is the last one.

-- Yes, the last. I am at the beginning of the third act. And the end of the third act is generally not written very well.

-- How is the principle of the third act?

-- Good. I feel well. Still.

-- You have spoken a great deal about your teacher. Can you end by telling us some words from this wise man?

-- He says: "The older you get, the lonelier you become and the deeper the love you need."

-- Does solitude cause uneasiness?

-- No, you can compensate for it with a deeper love. A love a thousand kisses deep.

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