Leonard Cohen on BBC Radio


Radio show transcribed by Andrew Norman (nja@le.ac.uk)
Formatted for WWW by carter page (cpage@pobox.com)


Transcript of BBC Radio 1 programme about Leonard Cohen, broadcast Sunday 7/8/94. Hesitations, "you know"s and other verbal tics have largely been removed, except where useful to indicate the rhythm of the spoken words (LC becomes particularly hesitant when talking about his time with Phil Spector). Due to the fact that it was (apparently) unscripted, the grammar represents patterns of speech, and may appear odd at first sight. Songs in brackets were played (usually in part) during the programme, and often faded into the background during the following speech.

Leonard Cohen
I guess it's legitimate not to like someone's work, but somehow those descriptions of my work got into the computer, you know, there was "suicide", or "bedsit", or "gloom", "depressive", "melancholy", and every time they'd tap out my name those descriptions would come up. You know, as though seriousness had no place in song. The songs we love best are the sad songs.

[First We Take Manhattan]

Leonard Cohen
And also "Ladies' Man" was another title attached to me, as if I were pre-eminent, you know, I've known ladies' men in my life, and I'm not even in the ball game, to the accomplished ladies' man, as if I were unique in being interested in women. And also these two descriptions together, depressing, gloomy and ladies' man, as if women were really interested in that kind of character.

Jennifer Warnes
What set him apart was his ability to embrace the darkness that we have, all, inside us. America just hides all their darkness in their closets, and we invented that little yellow man with two eyes and a smile, so there is a need to [sings] "keep your sunny side up", and so it always seemed artificial when an artist would not represent the complexity, Leonard comes along and describes the complexity, so he was writing about that, and there was God, and there was a spirituality and joy and laughter, and all in the same song. And so that more reflected daily life for me. So I went to it because it was true. Also, it was great.

Leonard Cohen
This is Leonard Cohen, and for the next hour on BBC Radio 1 I'll be talking about my work, and you've already heard Jennifer Warnes offer a few remarks and we'll hear from her again, and also Suzanne Vega has been very kind to contribute some observations about my songs and what they meant to her.

Suzanne Vega
I was about 17 when I finally went out and bought my first Leonard Cohen album, decided to take the chance and just go out and buy it, and I just loved it. It became one of my favourite albums of my, my whole life in fact. First of all, it's very intimate, and not very pop, you get a feeling of a man sitting in a room playing a guitar, it's a nylon string guitar, singing about what he's thinking of. And so, for a girl who was sitting in her room listening, it was a very intimate sort of experience, and that's, that was one of the things that appealed to me, and there was so much mystery in each of the songs. You'd try to explain it away, or, it didn't seem to be trying to sell anybody anything, but at the same time there was this very small voice that was very reassuring, especially to someone who spent a lot of time in my room, as I did [laughs]. I just found these songs to be very beautiful.

[Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye]

Leonard Cohen
The first guitar I bought, which was from a second-hand pawn shop on Craig St in Montreal for 12 dollars, it was a ferocious instrument, I didn't know anything about guitars except that I wanted to play one, and I didn't know the difference between nylon and steel strings, there was no guitar culture going on at the time, there was no pop culture, there was no pop music culture, there was no television, so all these discoveries were made by oneself, you knew vaguely that the only people that played guitars were communists. And as I kind of penetrated the guitar culture, in my own hesitating way, I found out about nylon strings, and I found out about the flamenco guitar [ The improvisation from Live Songs starts to play in the background ], I happened to bump into a flamenco guitar player, and I found him playing to some young women, he was courting them in a general way, he was a young Spanish immigrant, and he had the look, he was a dark, handsome, passionate young man, and obviously very lonely and using his guitar in some way to penetrate what must have been a very hostile social situation. I thought he played very beautifully, and I asked him to give me lessons, and he taught me some flamenco sequences, and he taught me a tremolo, and he was late for the fourth lesson, very late, when I called his boarding house I was informed that he'd committed suicide. That was his story in America, in Canada, I never knew where he came from, and I never knew what happened to him or what his sad tale was, but I'm very grateful to him because he did teach me something that formed the basis of composition of a lot of my songs, just a certain combination of major and minor chords that form the basis. Now I don't want to give you the impression that I'm a great musicologist, but I'm a lot better than what I was described as for a long, long time, you know, people said I only knew three chords when I knew five.

[Stranger Song]

Leonard Cohen
I put the basic facts down of songs like Suzanne, and That's No Way To Say Goodbye , and The Stranger Song , and I believe The Master Song, perhaps one or two others, under the guidance of John Hammond. John Hammond was particularly generous in the way that he read a newspaper continuously while you were struggling in the studio. A lot of people felt that this was an expression of indifference or even boredom with the whole affair, but I cherished it because he gave you the feeling that you weren't being scrutinised at every moment, I think he'd been in the studio a long time, he'd been there since Billie Holliday, and he had this newspaper laid out, and he seemed to be entirely indifferent to what was going on. I loved the atmosphere he provided, 'cause you could make mistakes, start over, do another take, and it seemed to affect him not at all. There was a remarkable, an unusual generosity that prevailed in the studio, given the fact that people like me didn't know what the hell was going on, I didn't even know where to stand in relation to a microphone, I'd never used one before, so he created a very hospitable atmosphere. For instance, I'd always played in front of a mirror at home, I felt most comfortable looking at myself in a mirror while I played, just some sort of chronic narcissistic enterprise that was the foundation of the whole affair, so he arranged to have a full-length mirror set up, he indulged me completely, he was a very, very generous man.

[So Long, Marianne]

Leonard Cohen
I've always felt that the most important thing in this vale of tears was the relationships. I always thought that this was the real politics and that, you know, I think I wrote in purple prose somewhere that the state rose on a festered kiss, that all these institutions were the desperate and dismal alternatives to a failed embrace, and as Ginsberg observed, "sex is the sport of the young", especially in those days when there were no epidemic inhibitions, so we were all struggling with our own desires, but Marianna consented to live with me, and she brought a tremendous sense of order into my life. She lived in a house very beautifully, it was really a great privilege to live in a house with her, she came from a Norwegian family that had roots in the countryside, and she had been brought up by her grandmother in the war, so she had the education of an older generation. Just the way that she laid a table, or lit candles, or cleaned the house, and she wasn't by any means confined to these kinds of activities that have come under the suspicion of feminists, but the way she inhabited a house was very, very nourishing. So it was a great privilege to be with her. She would put a gardenia on my table in the morning, and I was able to lead a very orderly life. She'd bring a sandwich to me while I was working. Well, these were not exactly, um, they had a real economic function, my work involved the support of our little family. It wasn't just that she was the muse, shining in front of the poet. She understood that it was a good idea to get me to my desk. So it was a very nourishing situation.

[Suzanne]

Leonard Cohen
The song was begun, and the chord pattern was developed, before a woman's name entered the song. And I knew it was a song about Montreal, it seemed to come out of that landscape that I loved very much in Montreal, which was the harbour, and the waterfront, and the sailors' church there, called Notre Dame de Bon Secour, which stood out over the river, and I knew that there're ships going by, I knew that there was a harbour, I knew that there was Our Lady of the Harbour, which was the virgin on the church which stretched out her arms towards the seamen, and you can climb up to the tower and look out over the river, so the song came from that vision, from that view of the river.

[Suzanne fades back up briefly]

Leonard Cohen
At a certain point, I bumped into Suzanne Vaillancourt [?], who was the wife of a friend of mine, they were a stunning couple around Montreal at the time, physically stunning, both of them, a handsome man and woman, everyone was in love with Suzanne Vaillancourt, and every woman was in love with Armand Vaillancourt. But there was no... well, there was thought, but there was no possibility, one would not allow oneself to think of toiling at the seduction of Armand Vaillancourt's wife. First of all he was a friend, and second of all as a couple they were inviolate, you just didn't intrude into that kind of shared glory that they manifested. I bumped into her one evening, and she invited me down to her place near the river. She had a loft, at a time when lofts were... the word wasn't used. She had a space in a warehouse down there, and she invited me down, and I went with her, and she served me Constant Comment tea, which has little bits of oranges in it. And the boats were going by, and I touched her perfect body with my mind, because there was no other opportunity. There was no other way that you could touch her perfect body under those circumstances. So she provided the name in the song.

[Bird on the Wire]

Jennifer Warnes
I wouldn't possibly begin to tell you what I think he wrote, because that changes, so all I will say is that like the Bible or the Talmud, great lines have an endurance, no matter what position you take when you open the book. And I think that he studied that, and he began over time to understand what it was that made a phrase enter this heart. So that's the crucial issue there, the words actually do get under your skin, for very good reason. He's a genius that way. And so, you know, today they mean this, today they look like that, maybe it's that, and that's great. It's like a diamond, it depends on which side you look at it.

Leonard Cohen
That was Jennifer Warnes, and I had the great privilege of touring with her. I can't call her a back-up singer because she was standing right beside me on the stage, and in a sense encouraged me.

Jennifer Warnes
It was extremely fragile. And he had the strength to open to four thousand people, in such a way that was actually more deep and more... full of love, than actually with a lover. Very, very heart open and spirit open. And because he was able to martyr himself in that way in front of people, there was a lot of tears going on in the audience in those days, a lot of people, the reverberation of that, they felt, and I remember there was an awful lot of tears going on in those audiences.

Leonard Cohen
That's true, it may have been the mandrax, I'm not sure, but it's always been a risk. I don't think I've ever gone out there with the sense that I've got this thing cooled out, and that I know exactly what's going to happen. I never thought of it as an act, because there has always been a very committed, a very consecrated, I might say, feeling about the concerts, that is shared by everybody, the musicians and the technicians, and myself. We always eat together, for instance, and drink together after sound check and before the concert, the crew and the band, we always raise our glasses to each other and to the public.

[Joan of Arc, from Cohen Live]

Jennifer Warnes
I like to go see him perform, and I like to see women and the way he interacts with them [laughs]. I think he does have a chemistry with women, on-stage and on his records and off-stage. He's clever about it because it's done him well, and he's a real, he's a terrible flirt [laughs]. Which I know from experience. Well, we're all confirmed heterosexuals, and so it was nice to have a little juice there, it wasn't dead air. The electrical vibe of the opposite sex is necessary, if that's your meaning. And it was ours, and so we needed the presence of one another. Whether or not, you know, that was anything we took past that, it was necessary to have the genders present. I think that that's a miracle in itself, and he was able to go with that. We were glad to have each other there.

Leonard Cohen
I might say that the female presence on stage is very very important for a number of reasons. One is that women are very highly evolved spiritual creatures, and when a lot of us got slack or vulgar or moved into a kind of locker-room mode, many of the women [break in my tape ] they were always there somehow, and not in any Sunday- school mode, not in any schoolmarm attitude, but they were always there to remind us of the high calling that had gathered us there in the first place. So yes, they are a very, very important element. I've always found also that my voice is hopelessly bleak and empty without the admixture of the female voice, and I've needed to hear them. And I've been very very lucky with the women that have come forward.

[End of Famous Blue Raincoat]

Leonard Cohen
The problem with that song is that I've forgotten the actual triangle. Whether it was my own - of course, I always felt that there was an invisible male seducing the woman I was with, now whether this one was incarnate or merely imaginary I don't remember, I've always had the sense that either I've been that figure in relation to another couple or there'd been a figure like that in relation to my marriage. I don't quite remember but I did have this feeling that there was always a third party, sometimes me, sometimes another man, sometimes another woman. It was a song I've never been satisfied with. It's not that I've resisted an impressionistic approach to songwriting, but I've never felt that this one, that I really nailed the lyric. I'm ready to concede something to the mystery, but secretly I've always felt that there was something about the song that was unclear. So I've been very happy with some of the imagery, but a lot of the imagery... The tune I think is good, I remember my mother approving of it, I remember playing the tune for her, in her kitchen, and her perking up her ears while she was doing something else and saying "that's a nice tune".

Suzanne Vega
Some people say he's confessional, but he's not confessional in the way that some people are. In that he's not leaving clues for you to figure out who he's sleeping with, or... A lot of it's autobiographical but I'll bet that a lot of it's borrowed as well. In fact, I asked him that once, I asked him whether he liked confessional songwriting and whether he felt that his songs were confessional, and he said basically you confess, or you lie, or you make it up, or you do whatever you have to do to make the song work, which is what I think he really does. I think sometimes he probably is lying and sometimes he has made it up, and sometimes he's stolen from other places and you just heap it together and it comes out the way it comes out. These are not diary entries, you can tell he's worked really hard on them, so that's, he's got a certain perspective, which is almost mythic. And that seems to be what he's interested in. So he is writing about himself, but he's writing about more than just himself. And that's what makes him intriguing.

Leonard Cohen
This is BBC Radio 1, I'm Leonard Cohen, you're listening to a programme about my songs, with contributions from Suzanne Vega and Jennifer Warnes.

[Chelsea Hotel]

Leonard Cohen
There was the sole indiscretion, in my professional life, that I deeply regret, because I associated a woman's name with a song, and in the song I mentioned, I used the line "giving me head on an unmade bed while the limousines wait in the street", and I've always disliked the locker- room approach to these matters, I've never spoken in any concrete terms of a woman with whom I've had any intimate relationships. And I named Janis Joplin in that song, I don't know when it started, but I connected her name with the song, and I've been feeling very bad about that ever since, it's an indiscretion for which I'm very sorry, and if there is some way of apologising to the ghost, I want to apologise now, for having committed that indiscretion.

[End of Chelsea Hotel, then Don't Go Home With Your Hard- On starts in the background as LC begins to speak]

Leonard Cohen
My first album came out in, I think it was 1967, and I worked with John Hammond Senior and John Simon on that record, subsequently with Bob Johnson. My most bizarre experience with a producer was with Phil Spector, with whom I worked in 1977 or 78, and we produced that grotesque album called Death of a Ladies' Man.

[Don't Go Home With Your Hard-On]

Leonard Cohen
That happened at a very curious time in my life because I was at a very low point, my family was breaking up, I was living in Los Angeles which was a foreign city to me, and I'd lost control, as I say, of my family, of my work, and my life, and it was a very very dark period. And when he got into the studio it was clear that he was an eccentric, but I didn't know that he was mad. He's not mad any longer, I've spoken to him on the phone recently, he's really quite reasonable and calm, but we were, you know, I was flipped out at the time and he certainly was flipped out, my flipped out was, you know, the expression was withdrawal and melancholy, and his was megalomania and insanity, and the kind of devotion to armaments, to weapons, that was really intolerable. With Phil, especially in the state that he found himself, which was post-Wagnerian, I would say Hitlerian, the atmosphere was one of guns, I mean that's really what was going on, was guns. The music was subsidiary an enterprise, you know people were armed to the teeth, all his friends, his bodyguards, and everybody was drunk, or intoxicated on other items, so you were slipping over bullets, and you were biting into revolvers in your hamburger. There were guns everywhere. Phil was beyond control, I remember the violin player, the fiddle player in the song Fingerprints, Phil didn't like the way he was playing, walked out into the studio and pulled a gun on the guy. Now this was, he was a country boy, and he knew a lot about guns, he just put his fiddle in his case and walked out. That was the last we'd seen of him. And at a certain point Phil approached me with a bottle of Manishewitz kosher red wine in one hand and a 45 in the other, put his arm around my shoulder and shoved a revolver into my neck and said, "Leonard, I love you". I said, "I hope you do, Phil".

[Dance Me to the End of Love]

Leonard Cohen
I think I started to be reconsidered as something other than a kind of joke, a kind of Captain of Gloom, with the record called Various Positions. After that, Jennifer, with a great deal of difficulty, I'd always thought that her intention to produce a record of my songs was an expression of friendship, because we were very tight, we'd been working and friends for, maybe back since 72, but she went from office to office, she was laughed out of most of them, she was laughed out of all the major labels, with the intention to do an album of my songs, that was the last thing the marketplace needed in the opinion of record executives. But she did find a small company, and did do it, and that was very, very helpful. Not just from the commercial point of view, but it's an impeccable record.

Jennifer Warnes:
[sighs] It was a record that had to be made, I think because Leonard had had 15 to 20 years prior to that of mixed reviews and pockets of passion, and pockets of criticism. I think he had lost faith for a couple of months there, and I think that was why he said, "oh, it'll never work", because it hadn't worked in some areas for him, and it was just a matter of, I think of that record as just me walking around shining a flashlight, and saying "look over there, isn't that great!". In an attic, you know, going, "hey, we forgot about that, isn't that beautiful!". That's all the record did, it was just to say to people, "have you forgotten what's beautiful? Have you forgotten what's gorgeous? I'll show you - this is what it is, don't forget".

[Ain't No Cure For Love, Jennifer Warnes's version]

Leonard Cohen
That was very helpful, and in that record there were two songs, First We Take Manhattan and Ain't No Cure For Love, that I was writing at the time, she had earlier versions of them, that I later recorded, and I'm Your Man somehow coincided with a change of sensibility in the marketplace also.

Jennifer Warnes
Now in these last records, I think he has found a way to present his music exactly as he would have framed it, I mean he carved the frames as precisely as he wished, where earlier on he let the Nashville cats push that music around, and he let us push it around some, and as an experimentation I think it was interesting, but he was always able to extricate what was "it" about what we were doing that was truly him, and what was not. And I think that these last two records are more accurate to his vision.

Leonard Cohen
I think her take on the change in my writing is true. Writing on a synthesiser, on keyboards, able to set up rhythms now, and arrangements, before I present them to musicians, changed my approach quite a great deal, because at a certain point I couldn't gain the respect of the musicians I was working with, because I couldn't get my ideas across, I didn't know the musical vocabulary. And I somehow couldn't duplicate for them the ideas that I had in my mind, so I was, in a certain sense, at their mercy. With the keyboard, with the drum patterns available to me, with the ability to present the arrangement in almost its completed form, before the rehearsal starts, has enabled me to materialise my ideas much more easily, but I feel I'm just at the beginning of this process now, and yes, musical creation and personal life, I think there is a certain moment when you do have to look into the face of your own activity and discern exactly what you're doing and who you are, and that did begin to happen to me around 83, the beginning of Various Positions, when somehow the seriousness of the enterprise, the... the failure I'd had in the past to really get my ideas across, all those things bothered me very much, and I did apply myself with a... I always thought I worked hard, but I began to apply myself with a very special activity to this dismal activity, called songwriting.

[Take This Waltz]

Leonard Cohen
You've just heard Take This Waltz, which is a translation I did of a very great poem by Federico Garcia Lorca, a poet who touched me very deeply, a poet who provided a landscape which I could inhabit, and people have been kind enough to say that I've done the same for them.

Suzanne Vega
Yes! Seeing him in concert this last year was very much that way, it was like you entered the room, and you walked around in this magical room, and then you left and it was over. But it was much like one's dreams, you know, it was much like the thoughts you have in the dead of night, and that's an artist. An artist is able to pull you in, like Rothko, and you're there, and you're there only when you're standing in front of that painting, and then when you leave it's gone, it's hard to carry that Rothko with you. And I think that Leonard's like that too.

[Waiting for the Miracle]

Leonard Cohen
I've always had the sense of, if you're going to think of yourself in this game, or in this tradition, and you start getting a swelled head about it, or exactly where your place is, then you've really got to think about who you're talking about. You're not just talking about Randy Newman, who's fine, you're not just talking about Bob Dylan, who's sublime, you're talking about King David, you're talking about Homer, you're talking about Dante, you're talking about Milton, you're talking about Wordsworth, you're talking about some spirits who are... we haven't come up for descriptions for their contribution, for their embodiment of our highest possibility. So I don't think it represents a particularly modest or virtuous assessment of one's own work to think of oneself as a minor poet. It's not bad, I've loved the minor poets, I mean Herrick, a poet like Herrick, who's not considered one of the great ornaments of the tradition, but a small gem in the crown, and I really do feel that, I feel that you know, the enormous luck I've had in being able to make a living, and to never have had to have written one word that I didn't want to write, to be able to have satisfied that dictum I set for myself, which was not to work for pay, but to be paid for my work, just to be able to satisfy those standards that I set for myself has been an enormous privilege. But I don't fool myself, I know the game I'm in, and I know the tradition I'm in, I feel very privileged to have been accepted at whatever level, and when I wrote about Hank Williams "a hundred floors above me in the tower of song", I'm not trying to present some kind of inverse modesty, I know where Hank Williams stands in the history of popular song. Your Cheating Heart, songs like that are sublime, in his own tradition, and I feel myself a very minor writer. You know, I've taken a certain territory, and I've occupied it, and I've tried to maintain it and administrate it with the very best of my capacities. And I will continue to administrate this tiny territory until I'm too weak to do it. But I understand where this territory is.

[Tower of Song]


Return to Speaking Cohen Home Page
Return to Carter Tribute Page