Jazzer, drop your axe...

...Let me be somebody I admire
Let me be that muscle down the street
Stick another turtle on the fire
Guys like me are mad for turtle meat
Jazz police I hear you calling
Jazz police I feel so blue
Jazz police I think I'm falling,
I'm falling for you

                          Jazz Police
                               I'm Your Man

The following interview is from the book
Stolen Moments by Tom Schnabel,
published by Acrobat Books, 1988.
The photographs are by Sharon Weisz.



Stolen Moments: Leonard Cohen
by Tom Schnabel



I stayed up late the night before preparing for my conversation with the gravelly-voiced poet who always seemed to keep his knife sharpened in his lyrics. I hoped he wouldn't turn the knife on me.

When he walked in I was struck by how good-looking he was. My anxiety was disarmed somewhat by his gentle handshake and the kindness in his eyes. I had no doubt, after repeated listenings, that his new LP,
I'm Your Man, was a masterpiece, dramatic, caustic, comic. Thirty minutes was little time to explore twenty years of work, but I jumped at the chance to talk with this gracious and fascinating man.


Tom Schnabel: Did it surprise you that this new album has been so successful?

Leonard Cohen: Well, you hope but you never expect.

TS: Do you take it as a compliment that you're more popular in Europe than in America?

LC: I'm grateful to have an audience anywhere. The audience in Europe is wide. I seem to have struck deep into some of the countries. I have small pockets of listeners in America. I like singing in the United States because my language comes out of this language and people can follow the real meaning of the songs. I use the cadences and rhythms of the American language. I know that in Norway, for instance, or in Scandinavia where English is a second language, there still is some kind of translation process going on.

TS: Do you identify more with a European cultural tradition of songwriters -- Jacques Brel, Mikos Theodorakis, Georges Moustaki, Brassens?

LC: Of course those singers and songwriters have meant a good deal to me. But so does Chuck Berry.

TS: Did growing up as a Jew in Montreal during World War II affect your songwriting?

LC: I suppose everything is part of the composite. It was a very privileged position that I grew up in, so it was only toward the end of the war that I really understood what was going on during it. The only deprivations we suffered was that we couldn't get American bubble gum, and the comics weren't in color. We were very protected from the reality.

TS: Were you brought up in a traditional Jewish home?

LC: Yes, and a family very involved in the community, in establishing hospitals and synagogues, a free loan association. My grandfather founded the first Anglo-Jewish newspaper in North America.

TS: I was wondering how your songs reflect your own view of yourself, as a songwriter and a musician.

Photos by Sharon Weisz LC: It's very hard for me to locate a view of myself. It's one of the things I'm least interested in. I'm reminded of that story I read in Dalva, a novel by Jim Harrison, who is speaking of certain tribes where the white man tried to introduce the mirror, and certain native American tribes refused to accept the mirror. The reason was, they said, that your face is for others to look at.

TS: Is songwriting for you a lonely craft?

LC: That hardly begins to describe it. It's a desperate kind of activity. I don't know why it should be that way, but it is. It seems to take an enormous effort to bring work to completion.

TS: Do the words come first, or do you hear the music?

LC: It's generally some uneasy marriage of those two elements. A phrase will come, or a chord change. Then you'll get maybe a first verse with music and words, but then as the words change the musical form has to change. It usually takes a couple of years to bring a song to completion.

TS: Do you get tired of hearing "Suzanne?" Would you listen to it if it came on the radio when you were driving your car?

LC: I think that would be the only occasion that I'd listen to it. Well, I don't listen to any of my work. I don't even have a player. I have a little Walkman. I usually have to buy them every couple of months. I leave them in hotel rooms.

TS: Is it more important for you to be recognized as a poet or as a musician?

LC: Well, depending on how isolated you feel, any kind of recognition is welcome.

TS: In reading your bio, I was wondering what motivated you to leave your Greek island of Hydra and head for Nashville, Tennessee. Was it to gain wider exposure of your poetry, or just to make money?

LC: There was certainly an economic aspect. I'd been living on an island on the Mediterranean for some time -- never completely, I'd always have to come back to Canada to put some money together -- but I was living for a thousand dollars a year there. I'd come back to make a thousand dollars and my boat or plane fare then go back for as long as that would last. I wrote a lot of books there and a lot of songs. At a certain point I just felt like changing. When I moved back to Canada I published a novel, Beautiful Losers, which got a lot of stunning reviews, but I couldn't even pay the rent. In hindsight it seems like the height of folly -- you know, I'll take care of my financial problem by becoming a singer. But I got ambushed in New York by the so-called folk song renaissance that was going on there. It did take care of the financial problem, actually.

TS: How did John Hammond [renowned record producer] hear about you?

LC: John Hammond was an extremely gracious man. Someone arranged an introduction. I was living at the Chelsea [Hotel] and he said, "Would you like to play me some songs?" We went back to my room and I played him seven or eight songs and he said, "You got it."

TS: People have been talking about your voice ever since your early songs. Is it the voice that God gave you or did you work in a certain way to develop your...golden voice?

LC: I think in my first record I had a voice that was appropriate to the songs. Then I think I got lost for a long time. I think that now in the last two records I've begun to find the voice that represents me. But it's not a strategy. I think it's a cigarettes and whiskey.

TS: I remember reading in an interview that you said that rather than having a dark cast of mind you were merely realistic. Do you think reality is dark?

LC: I think it participates in all the shades. But I think that people have an appetite for seriousness. And seriousness is neither light nor dark. It's just the way it is, and there's a great nourishment when you just name the thing as it is. I think there are certain occasions where cynicism is appropriate. One should be cautious.

TS: Has you view of romance changed over the past twenty years, since you embarked on your songwriting career?

LC: Well, I think that it changes naturally, but I think that the position I took in some of those early songs is not so far from the position I take now.

TS: Which is?

LC: That the kind of surrender that is involved with love means that you have to take a wound also.

TS: Do you think that it's a typical growth process, or that it's more your own?

LC: I can't believe that my predicament is unique.



The following interview is a transcript of a
television program entitled
"Leonard Cohen: A Portrait in First Person"
broadcast by the CBC in 1988.
The photograph is by Alfred Steffen taken April, 1988.



Leonard Cohen: A Portrait in First Person
(a transcript of a television program)

(The setting: It would seem this program was filmed in a house, maybe in Montreal. L.C. is standing with his back to a large window. The sun is streaming in. L.C. wears his standard uniform, dark suit and shirt. His comments are obviously made in response to questions, but these questions have been edited out of the program. Moses Znaimer's introduction and conclusion appear to have been filmed in a studio.)

Moses Znaimer:

When I first became aware of Leonard Cohen, it was the late 50s. In those days the few artists around had good reason to complain about Canadian philistinism. In Montreal, the struggle was being loudly lead by a lusty and charismatic poet, my teacher, Irving Layton. In his circle, and by his side, there appeared suddenly a new wunderkind from Westmount. But as compared to his pugnacious mentor, the thing that was most noticeable about Leonard was a gift for compassion that made even me forget his well-to-do antecedents, and a talent for intimacy that charmed men as well as women.

Photograph by Alfred Steffen Leonard Cohen:

We're drawn to the truth. We're drawn to the truth when we hear it and when we see it. We're hungry for the truth. We're always surprised because the truth manifests itself in so many different ways and in so many different forms. You can hear it for a moment from your friend, you can hear it from your wife, you can hear it from your children. You can hear it for a moment in a song on the radio. It is so precious when you hear it that you are immediately drawn to it. So I tend to be wary of confining this expression of truth to one kind of activity, one kind of artistic activity.

Moses Znaimer:

A little more than 20 years ago, Leonard Cohen was living on the Greek island of Hydra contemplating his options. He was the bright, new hope of Canadian literature with two novels to his credit that had received glorious reviews, but he couldn't quite pay his bills. At the same time there was a new music scene booming in America and through, as he puts it, a combination of arrogance and inexperience, he decided to go to Nashville and support his writing by becoming a singer. Today he has just released his tenth album. It's called I'm Your Man. His songs have been recorded by such diverse artists as Neil Diamond and Joe Cocker, Judy Collins and Jennifer Warnes, while his poems and novels are studied at the Ph.D. level and have been translated into many languages. His music and wry observations have been embraced by millions the world over, particularly in Europe where his clever passion and ironic lyrics are heard as part of an honored tradition.

Leonard Cohen:

I have been told that I'm in the old troubadour, trouvere tradition. All those things are interesting when you have the time to look at them, or if you have a moment to lean on a tradition. I've never felt that kind of luxury. I feel I'm on the front line of my own life and I don't really have time to develop a description of what I'm doing or where I fit in. I think there are people much more skillful than I am in establishing the place anybody might have in a tradition or what tradition they find themselves in. I never really made much sense out of anything people said about me or what tradition I was in. I recognize I go around from place to place with a guitar and there have been guys doing this for a long, long time. But exactly how you fit into that, I don't know because you got to get up there and do it. It seems these descriptions don't make it any easier. So when you are up against it, you are only interested in things that make it easier. You are not interested in things that complicate the activity. So I tend to resist these kinds of descriptions. There are times when  I like to read criticism because it is one of the few things I know anything about. So I can read a critic and often find it interesting.

I think our content is women and we are women's content. I know that my mind, my emotions are involved with a woman. Sometimes when I'm feeling strong, which is rare, I can get beyond that concern. But most of the time, what I care most about is whether or not I'm being welcomed by her and I think a lot of the time she worries about whether she is being welcomed by me. So we are each other's content and we exist in that condition, which goes all the way from grave discomfort to absolute peace and everything in between. That seems to be what the activity between a man and a woman is.

One of the things about getting older is that you stop whining. One of the reasons you stop whining is because your experience conveys to you that your trouble is tiny compared to lots of trouble around. Once you feel that clearly, that your trouble is tiny and that there are people at this moment really being tortured, really being strapped to chairs, really having electrodes pasted on their bodies, that there are situations which are truly hellish that thousands, maybe millions of people are in at this moment, then even though you do not wish to deny the truth of your own feelings, once you put your own feelings in perspective, then there is an invitation never again to whine about your own situation. So yeah, I've known a little bit of trouble. I've experienced the break up of a family. I've experienced a few things here and there but that's nothing, nothing to what's really going down in this world.

I've been very lucky because I've been able to make a living doing what I do. Although there have been periods that are leaner than others, I've been able to make a decent living writing, making records, and publishing books. It was never really abrasive. I never really came across mean-spirited people for some odd reason. I've toured all over the place, practically every country in the world. Yeah, you do meet some S.O.B.s, some mean people, but by and large, I haven't come across that kind of real abrasive experience.

I'm not astounded at the various forms of aberrated behaviour that are reported or seen. I'm surprised there isn't more considering what people are up against today. As I see it, just walking the streets of the various cities I visit, I'm surprised that people are so kind and so compassionate and still so considerate, considering the kinds of conditions that we're living in today. I mean they aren't that bad, I guess. When I pull up at a stop sign in the middle of the winter or a bus stop and there are 20 people waiting out there in the cold to get their bus at 5 or 6 in the morning, I'm surprised that the social fabric is still holding, that they don't pull me out of my car. I'm surprised that the thing holds together.

I think there is a tremendous amount of goodwill in the United States. I am always surprised as I say, that the thing holds together, that people are really as good to one another as they are. Of course, you can find cases, many cases of ugliness in a society with that range of activity, but I think it is in a certain way still man's best hope in terms of the organization of society. Somehow their constitution, as clumsy as it is, and as awkward as their electoral system seems, and they are always criticizing it themselves, somehow it has released tremendous energy and activity in society. Their form of government, and it is a very particular form that they have, somehow it has produced an invitation for real activity. I don't know how that is. Ours in Canada, our parliamentary system, which on paper seems better than theirs and which I am not even suggesting we overthrow, but it doesn't seem to invite the population to the same kind of expression of energy. It seems to invite us to a somewhat more restrained response.

You have television pouring in this message of abundance into the poorest areas in the country. They are getting this message every day about this world that they can't get their hands on. It must be infuriating. It must be a society that is really interested in taking chances with itself, to pour this kind of temptation into the living rooms and bedrooms of the poor. People must really be looking for it, this society really sticking its neck out. It's got to be one of the most revolutionary conditions that any society has ever gotten itself into. That's why I say, I don't know why people stand for it.

I was thinking about this war on drugs and how my heart moves to a real reactionary position about drugs. I think that if we have an army and a navy and an air force, I'm talk about North America, Canada isn't threatened to the same extent yet, but there is no reason why it won't be because the Canadian market is just as fertile for drug sales as any other market, but I think if I were an American, I'd go extremely right in this matter. I think there should be real war against the countries that are supplying dope to America. Unless there is some really sinister conspiracy in high places in America which I doubt, that is that they want to destroy the black youth or the poor white youth, I don't think such a conspiracy exists. But unless there is such a conspiracy, then what is happening is a real assault and a real attack on the future of the United States. I think it's much more tangible than any other kind of attack that is being described in any political circles. I think this is a real attack and I think it should be met with real force, with the full force of the American armed community. So I would really go in and bomb the countries that are supplying drugs to America.

We are in the mist of a vast and varied expression of music. I think there is always good music. There is good wine in every generation, as the Talmud says. There is no way that you can keep up with everything that is going on even if you wanted to. I don't even particularly want to because I don't have any sense that it's important to me to know what's happening. "What's happening, man?" "Well, I don't know, search me." I don't care what's happening because the demands from one moment to the next are such that I don't really have too much time to try to develop a strategy or a large perspective about what's happening. I know that I am embraced by the absolute. I don't have to take care of that part of things. I don't have to develop a vision of the Almighty. I don't have to develop an articulated position on politics, Canadian or universal. I am already embraced by the Almighty. I am already embraced by cultures, many cultures. My work is to stay alive and raw to the kinds of voices that are speaking to me continually and to turn them into a voice that I can understand, that I can cling to, and that I can stand behind. So various visions and perspectives, strategies, they seem to escape me. It is not a matter of this being a virtue or an obsession or an aberration. That's just the way it is.

When the level of suffering in any individual reaches a certain point and he can't deal with his own discomfort, then he is going to look for some kind of solution. I don't think any religious quest is begun with a sense of luxury. I don't think any serious study is undertaken unless the being is broken with some kind of suffering, either physical or psychic. I don't think anybody undertakes a serious religious examination unless they've been creamed somehow by the world. And once that happens, once the heart is broken and once you recognize that the heart is broken, then various paths open to individuals. And there are very many different paths. That's why we should never take a position from one path or another on the other paths, because the broken heart illuminates a path and it is a different path for each broken heart. I understand that when you say the words "broken heart," lots of people just turn off. But the truth is, this is the beginning of wisdom, to understand that you are deeply uncomfortable here. That discomfort illuminates its own solution and it is often years before you take that solution. So you poke around at the different solutions that are available. Maybe you come to the ones that are most familiarly articulated, your own religion. Most of the religions around are pretty good for that. It may be a political solution. It may be an ascetic solution. It may be a hedonistic solution. None of us has the right to judge other people's solutions to suffering.

I know that there are millions and millions of people in this world that go to church in the evenings and in the mornings and receive real sustenance from the liturgy, from the religious situation in their communities. I don't think it serves anything to diminish human effort in any category. So I could never take a position about where the truth is manifesting more clearly, more beautifully. The fact is that we are all embraced by the truth continually and sometimes we know it and sometimes we don't.

I don't really know what vice is. I guess vice is the activity that you can't handle. We call that vice. Most of the things we call vice are just those activities that people, according to the conventional wisdom, should stay away from because they really do destroy you. Some people have to go into those realms, a lot of them are artists, a lot of them are not artists. A lot of them are just regular people that want to bring an edge into their life, that want to attack boredom, that want to feel something a little deeper than the feelings that seem to be available through normal activity. So a lot of people go out on the limb. Some people send messages from there. Most of the news is bad that we get from that place, but occasionally somebody can use that precarious and dangerous situation to illuminate their own predicament and the predicament of others. Those gifted individuals and those courageous individuals and in a certain sense those doomed individuals, because you're going to fall off somewhere down the line, they send back messages according to their own gifts and talents and skills. These messages often help us; they touch us for a lot of reasons, really touch us. And in a way, we all want our artists to go that far and we want our athletes to go that far and we want our soldiers to go that far. We want everybody that represents us, that protects us, that defends us, that champions the best in ourselves, we send the message to them, that we want them to go out farther and farther and farther until they can't go any farther and we want to know what it's like out there. That's what makes a society great. That's what makes a society brave and courageous. People hear the will of others and they hear that invitation to push farther and farther and they go out and they tell us what it's like. Some of us even try to join them and that's what the whole game seems to be about. You've got to have both kinds. You've got to have the people projecting that will and you've got to have this tiny minority that will hear it, that will hear the invitation and go out there and realize the world that other people cannot realize themselves and show it to them.

Moses Znaimer:

For a man who early in his career aspired only to be a minor poet, Leonard Cohen has a body of work in poetry and novels, his singing and songwriting, that will, in my opinion, stand up to serious scrutiny with the passage of time.

About the Photographer
Alfred Steffen's work is displayed in the Agfa Photo Gallery.  
He states:
"A picture's directness and honesty are most important to me.
I try and learn as much as possible about the people I portray.
It's best to meet the person first, so we get to know each other.
But in fact international stars want on-the-spot
speed and improvisation. Sometimes you've only got 15 to 30
minutes for your photo. Building up closeness and confidence
is the main thing in this brief space of time."

Photographs from the gallery are free for downloading

as long as they are used for non-commercial use.



A big thank you to Adi Heindl for providing the photograph and
Dick Straub for assisting in the presentation of this interview.



Back Go Back to Home Page

Archives

Visit the ARCHIVES for
an Index of all
articles and a Search Engine.