Let me see your beauty
when the witnesses are gone
Let me feel you moving
like they do in Babylon
Show me slowly what I only
know the limits of
Dance me to the end of love
"Dance Me To The End Of Love"
The following article and
photograph appeared in
Another Room Magazine, Spring 1985.
By Kristine McKenna
Leonard Cohen was born in Montreal, Canada on September 21, 1934. When he was 17 he joined his first band, a country music group called the Buckskin Boys. In 1946 he published his first volume of poetry, and his first novel, The Favorite Game, followed in 1963. In 1966 he scored a bestseller with his second novel, Beautiful Losers, and two years later he released his self titled debut album. Songs of Leonard Cohen included a number of songs that have become folk rock standards, "Suzanne" and "Bird On The Wire" being the most widely known. Cohen claims to be a slow and plodding worker, but in fact, he's been quite prolific. His new LP, Various Positions is his eighth album, and his current book, Book of Mercy is his twelfth published work.
Cohen's artistic profile is at once stormy and genteel. The F. Scott Fitzgerald of popular song, Cohen is a supremely elegant romantic existentialist. A consumate gentleman well aware that good manners are often the only thing that prevent life from erupting into chaos and bloodshed, Cohen makes the holy war of the sexes his central theme. His songs are shot through with religious imagery, suicides, martyrs, and jealousy, and Cohen seems to perceive romance as a form of sacred exile, in a sense, a kind of execution.
Incorporating folk, art rock and pop, Cohen speaks more than sings his songs in a dusky, deadpan drawl ideally suited to his austere laments. Cohen has wonderfully dry sense of humor, nonetheless; his music tends to be unrelentingly dark, and the current of eroticism that runs through his work lends it a tone of mannered vulgarity.
Cohen has fathered two children by his common law wife and considers Montreal his home despite the fact that he spends the majority of his time in hotels scattered around the world. Cohen's largest audience is in France and Paris, along with London and New York, are favored ports of call.
Cohen's new album was released in January of this year on CBS Records' European label, and though Cohen is presently without a recording contract in America, Various Positions is available in the U.S. as an import. Spin-offs from the album include a single "Dance Me To The End Of Love," and an accompanying video shot by fashion photographer Dominique Issermann. Cohen is currently touring Europe with a five piece band which he describes as "having a country flavour, with the sound weighted on the side of the vocals" (four of the five group members contribute backing vocals). The tour will make its way across Canada and down the west coast this spring, concluding in New York in May.
I interviewed Cohen in January while he was in New York rehearsing his band, and found him to be a warm and cooperative interview subject. Anyone familiar with his work will no doubt testify that he is a man of uncommon wisdom and compassion as well.
Kristine McKenna: Do you prefer calm or chaos?
Leonard Cohen: I like the appropriate mixture. I prefer calm, but it's not for human beings to have it that way. As to which is better for me creatively, I never have a sense of any deluxe position as an artist. I always feel I'm operating with very little and never feel I'm standing in front of a banquet table from which I can choose calm or chaos or one subject or another. Things seem to present themselves urgently and I don't really have much choice in the matter. I write very slowly, one word at a time, so I don't have any sense of a grand operation.
KM: Are you an easily enchanted person?
LC: I'm always being swept away. I've found that as you become older you become crazier and more careful at the same time. It's like the base of a pyramid widening. Your range becomes very, very wide.
KM: What qualities do you find consistently compelling in people and art?
LC: I don't have a list. I find that depending on myself, if I'm feeling open and good about things, then people can get through to me. If I'm not then everybody remains embedded in ice.
KM: What's the most significant change you've observed in yourself in the past year?
LC: I don't know...gray hair. I prefer questions along the lines of what's your favorite color.
KM: O.K. Did you make a New Year's resolution?
LC: No, I make them every morning.
KM: Are you superstitious?
LC: Not overly, no.
KM: Do you consider yourself a lucky person?
LC: I think I've been enormously lucky considering the things that can happen to a person, the sickness, the despair, and the unpleasant circumstances that many people must deal with.
KM: How do you write? Do you have structured work habits?
LC: Yes, I'm very structured and I generally stay in one place to do whatever work I'm doing. But even when you're traveling and doing tours, the life is very structured. It's the only time when a writer doesn't have to improvise. You know where you're going to be every evening.
KM: In tracking you down to do this interview I discovered that you lead a very peripatetic life. Is that always the case?
LC: Yes. It's terribly tiring and I don't know why I live this way. You know, they say that in rock n' roll they don't pay you to sing, they pay you to travel. Performing is really agreeable, but checking in and out of hotels and getting to the airport in the morning is extremely rigorous.
KM: You've been a prominent contributor to popular culture for over two decades. What are the most significant changes you've observed in that arena?
LC: I don't see anything terribly different. Looking at it from a personal point of view, the degree of hospitality to my kind of work changes from country to country and from year to year. Various things or moods periodically overtake the commercial institution that distributes pop culture. Sometimes they're hospitable to innovation and excellence and sometimes they're not. The music business is not terribly hospitable to innovation and excellence at the moment. It's the icy grip of the dollar right now.
KM: Is music video creating an audience that won't listen with as much patience?
LC: I don't know. I think that the basic function of popular music is to create an environment for courting, lovemaking, and doing the dishes. It's useful because it addresses the heart in the midst of all these activities and I think it will always be useful in this very important way. The video is just a reflection of the extra time people have and I think there will be more and more things like this.
KM: You've always had a larger audience in Europe than you've had in America. Why do you think that is?
LC: I don't think I have ANY audience in America. As to why I have a larger audience in Europe, I don't know why that is. Maybe it's because they don't understand the words over there. Whatever the reason, the songs and the writing seem to have struck home over there.
KM: What do you see as being your image?
LC: I do get certain kinds of echoes back from different countries. It seems to be a kind of loner telling the truth or something like that. As to how accurate that is, it's hard for me to say. Ultimately, one is simply happy that one's work is present enough for people even to come up with an image. I'm happy to be someone who can make a living at what I'm doing.
KM: How do you feel about yourself as a vocalist?
LC: I don't have much of a voice, but I have a certain way of delivering a song. In Europe they call me a stylist. In America they say I don't know how to sing.
KM: What are the recurring themes in your music?
LC: It's more appropriate for someone else to discern what they are. It's hard from the inside to say what something's about. I think you write it to find out what it's about. In terms of song, popular song has to move quickly from one lip to the next or it isn't popular song, and popular songs are usually about love and loss.
KM: Why is popular music so obsessed with the theme of romantic love?
LC: Because the heart is a complex shishkabob in everybody's breast and nobody can tame it or discipline it. We do live passionate, emotional lives somewhere inside and that's really the most important thing to us. So nobody fools around with music because music is for the heart.
KM: Can passion be a function of the rational mind?
LC: Yes. Passion is a quality of activity so it can modify any kind of activity. One can bring a cold, passionate light to something.
KM: Did you go in to record your new album with a specific goal in mind?
LC: My goals are very modest and the thing I most wanted to accomplish was to finish it. I asked myself; do I really have ten new songs and can I really get them down? I work very hard on my songs and it takes me a long time to finish a batch of them.
KM: Do you enjoy writing?
LC: I'm very happy to finish something but the actual process is a bit tricky. Sometimes you feel that you're never going to come to the end of a lyric.
KM: Are there art forms that interest you that you've yet to explore?
LC: I never thought I was exploring any art forms. I've always had a compulsion to show off and I always had the notion of speaking simply about the things closest to me. I never thought of this as art but I did want to learn the rules so I could do it better.
KM: Are you surprised at what you've achieved in life or did you always feel that you were destined to make yourself heard?
LC: I thought I could do one or two things in writing. I always had the idea of being a kind of minor poet. It was the minor poets I really liked, the writers who put one or two little poems in the anthologies. Those are the people who really touched me rather than the great writers like Shakespeare or Goethe. It's a good thing I had that view because I'm not one of those writers like Shakespeare or Goethe.
KM: What do you feel to be your chief strength as an artist?
LC: With any artist who survives past his lyrical twenties, a central quality is perseverance. A lot of people decide not to go on when they realize exactly what is involved in the life of a writer. Many people, very legitimately, decide they don't want to lead this kind of life, so people drop away. And the people that remain, remain with their eyes wide open realizing that it is a very specialized kind of existence that has enormous rewards but involves you in a kind of daily life that leaves much to be desired.
KM: What's the biggest obstacle you've had to overcome in your life?
LC: They keep changing. The whole thing seems like an obstacle! Whether you're preparing dinner or trying to get across town, there seems to be a long line of insurmountable problems that you just have to squarely face. I find the whole production to be an ordeal and I don't know how other people do it. I ask myself; do people line up like this to get the bus every morning!? In New York one is really assaulted by that kind of ordeal.
KM: When you find your will and inspiration flagging are there specific things you can do to revive them?
LC: That's a good question. You should try to keep yourself cheerful. Gossip, a good comedy, a joke, a glass of wine with a friend -- all the conventional escapes are to be recommended.
KM: Isn't cheerfulness sometimes a mask that allows one to remain asleep?
LC: Depression and melancholy are the worst kind of sleep and although we have to have experience with these kinds of emotions, they do cripple if they become chronic. So it's our responsibility to ease ourselves out of those conditions and the conventional methods are indicated. Conversation, wine, entertainment, a friend who flatters you -- anything to break the gloom is valuable.
KM: What would you like to change about your life at this point?
LC: It's too late to make those considerations. There's a million things I would like to change and though I can't think of any of them offhand, I'm sure there must be some.
KM: What's the bitterest pill you've had to swallow in life?
LC: They've all seemed bitter and yet I don't feel bad. I think that things are tough but I don't feel defeated.
KM: Would you like to change the game or are you intrigued with the rules as they are?
LC: I think that things are as they should be and that it's never been any different. The fact that they're not putting us in concentration camps, that we can vote every four years -- these things are to be celebrated. We have a certain modest liberty in this country, compared to the rest of the world, an extravagant liberty, which I think we should continually affirm. Outside of that, how to deal with one's own life and keep oneself straight with the people one knows and loves, and maintain some self-respect while looking at work that you know is deeply imperfect --- these are the things people are confronting all the time.
KM: It's a popular theory that an artist must be in conflict and turmoil in order to do good work. Do you think there's any truth to that?
LC: I think everyone is in conflict and turmoil and I'm suspicious of the tendency to isolate the artist from the rest of the world. I'm not quite sure why they've been separated out but it seems that they have been. The artists probably want it that way. It gets them off the hook with their wives.
KM: Can one develop methods or protective devices that prevent us from repeatedly making the same mistakes, or can life always throw you back to point zero?
LC: I think that the nature of writing is being thrown back to point zero. You look at the blank page in the morning and what next? And I think that in maintaining our associations with people, we have to have a sense of that point zero because we're all very fragile and the back log that we depend on can evaporate. Two or three bad moments with a friend and the whole backlog of experience can be annihilated. So we must be careful in our associations and continually review them. It's been my experience that things can be destroyed quite easily. It's like with a virtue. You can work on a virtue and it's like carrying a heavy stone to the top of a hill. You can roll it down in a second but it takes a lot of work to get it up there.
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