By Pat Harbron
Mr. Cohen's public performances are few and far between. Like his poetry, his music deals with himself on a personal level. His silence and intensity can have a frustrating effect if one is not aware, before hand. Due to the way in which the interview was conducted by both parties, I think it best to present it in its basic manner.
Beetle: How can you best classify your music? Some would have it as folk music.
Cohen: "Let's hope it becomes folk music."
Cohen: "Well, I mean, I hope... It would be nice if it stuck around long enough to become folk music. But, that's as good a term as any."
Beetle: Your music seems sombre and laid back, personality wise. Is there any reason for it?
Cohen: "I don't know the reason for it. I think what you say is true."
Beetle: It is a reflection of your personality?
Cohen: "That's just the way my voice comes out. I don't think too much about the way I do it. That's the way. That's the voice. That's the sound."
Beetle: "So Long, Marianne" came about as a commercial hit, in that it was very popular with a large number of people, who, perhaps, were not aware of the fact that Leonard Cohen did it. It's just a song that they enjoyed. When you wrote that song were you thinking in terms of commerciality?
Cohen: "Well, one hopes that a song will find favour. But it wasn't planned. First of all it's too long to really be considered a commercial song. It was written for the occasion itself, with the length that it ran...not with any plan. I never plan things that way. It's nice when it happens."
Beetle: Is there an aim that you're trying to stress to your audience through your music?
Cohen: "None that I can speak about. You try to make the song as good as you can."
Beetle: Is the music an extension of your mood or a separate part of your thought?
Cohen: "It takes in everything you know. And feel."
Beetle: How much of your music is imagination and how much of it is taken from real life situations?
Cohen: "I'd say it's all from real situations. The experience is real but one tries to treat the experience imaginatively."
Beetle: Does your environment influence your work?
Cohen: "Oh yeah. It influences."
Beetle: In what way, in your case?
Cohen: "It's hard to say exactly but, ah, the places I've lived in generally have a very strong presence and it finds its way into the music."
Beetle: Does the French and English culture difference make a difference to you?
Cohen: "Well, although I've been to Toronto a lot of the time and travelled through Canada, I've never really lived anywhere but French Canada. My experience is quite limited. I know Montreal and that's about all."
Beetle: When you started to write did you have a culture in mind?
Cohen: "No, I don't have any culture in mind."
Beetle: How important is the instrumental part of your music?
Cohen: "I've tried different things, some of them more successful than others. Right now I'm thinking of something very much barer than my last couple of records. Just guitar and voice."
Beetle: On your latest album (Leonard Cohen: Live Songs) the instrumentation is kept simple. Also there is no percussion.
Cohen: "I'd like to try using a drum. No, I haven't used it, except on one or two songs. That's because when I start to play guitar, my rhythm, my time is very loose. And I like to keep it that way. And when you're working with a drummer, generally, you have to have something steady and driving behind you, whereas I want to keep the time very loose."
Beetle: How do you express feeling through a song?
Cohen: "Well it's nothing you can command. You know. You either express it or you don't. If you don't you can throw the song away."
Beetle: Do you know, yourself, you have expressed yourself properly, without an audience?
Cohen: "I can generally tell when it's any good. I like to deceive myself from time to time because one needs to throw away things. But, if I'm in an honest frame of mind I can generally tell."
Beetle: Do you try to reach an audience or let them come to you?
Cohen: "I don't think you can pursue an audience anymore than you can pursue a person."
Beetle: You have a choice of playing for yourself, just the audience or both.
Cohen: "Well I don't like to exclude anyone, including myself or whoever's listening. But that's different from going after them. No, you can't."
Beetle: Do you think there's an age group that goes in for your material?
Cohen: "I am not very aware of who buys the records, but I see at concerts there are people of all ages."
Beetle: Do you try to express more than one emotion in a song?
Cohen: "Those are not really the considerations that you have when you're working. You know you're trying to manifest an experience. And experience, by its nature, is complex and involves many different kinds of things. So you don't stop with the idea of one or many. You start with the idea of manifesting an experience."
Beetle: Is there a reason for keeping your music as basic as it is?
Cohen: "Well there are lots of reasons. One is that I don't really have the skill to make my music too complex. And two, my tastes are very simple. I like to keep it very elementary."
Beetle: Is music the most important medium you work with?
Cohen: "Well I never think of it that way. I've always played the guitar and sang. It's just natural. I attempt to do the things mostly that only take one man. So I haven't worked in theatre very much because it's a collective effort. I don't work in movies 'cause it's a collective effort. Same with television. The things I do alone, I do. That is writing and music."
Beetle: Is there any particular reason you work alone?
Cohen: "It's just easier for me."
Beetle: Do you write with the intention of being successful?
Cohen: "I think that I'm motivated by the same ambition; greed, as everybody else, and one likes to be successful. But on the other hand that's not the only factor. One likes to get ones' work to the people."
Beetle: Is your idea of success simply financial?
Cohen: "Ah, no. It's good to make a living. It's essential that a man makes a living, and I always like to get paid for what I do, but I don't like to do it for pay."
Beetle: What have you been trying to accomplish through your music?
Cohen: "I'm unaware of any long term goals... From the questions you ask, you feel that the whole activity is much more deliberate than it is for me. It's something I've always done and something that I will always do, as long as I have the capacity to do it. I don't have any places I'm aiming at, or any large long term conspiracy in mind in terms of what to reach, where it's going or what it has to do."
Beetle: But you have ambition?
Cohen: "The only ambition I have is to survive and to keep alive and not to let the spirit die." Cohen was silent for a moment, then added the after thought, "And to make a million dollars."
Beetle: Why do you do so few concerts?
Cohen: "I don't know. It's not really my field, I guess I could put together concerts and things but I don't like to have to go out when I have new songs or new treatments of songs. And I don't like the feeling that I'm on the boards, you know, and that, it's just a career. I do it when I feel I'm ready for the road, I want to meet people and sing new songs. That only happens every couple of years."
Beetle: Do you prefer the music to your poetry?
Cohen: "I don't have too many preferences."
From this point on the conversation strayed to a different topic in the play, which dealt strongly with Cohen's loves, we were allowed to look at Cohen's affairs through Lesser's interpretation. One wondered what love was by Cohen's description.
Cohen: "Wow. I don't know. I don't really have an idea about it."
Beetle: Surely you must have thoughts on it.
Cohen: "I don't think too much. I never think, to tell you the truth. My own personal life is chaotic. Anybody who looks at my own personal life will come to the conclusion, rapidly, that I don't think at all. There's a kind of interior urgency about all things, as I see it. And I respond to it. I generally respond to it, in real life, in exactly the wrong way of doing things. As a friend of mine once said, 'Now Leonard, are you sure you're doing the wrong thing.' I hardly have a thought in my head. Something happens, you know, and I have to answer it with a poem or a song or my own work. I don't know a thing about love."
[A play directed by Gene Lesser based on Leonard's work]
Leonard Cohen is a well renowned Canadian playwright, author, poet and songwriter. Yet his appeal is not limited to those of Canadian culture. His most important, intangible asset is his expresssion of feeling and realistic emotion. Cohen, a man who spends his time exercising, fasting and writing that which inspires him or more often arouses his curiosity, is one who likes to be alone with himself and his questions.
July 4, 1973 marked the opening of "Sisters of Mercy: A musical journey into the words of Leonard Cohen." The music and words are songs that Leonard has done, or in the case of a couple of songs, has freshly contributed to. The play, conceived and directed by Gene Lesser, involved Cohen himself very little. When questioned about his involvement in the play itself, he answered, "As little as I could. I don't like to treat old material. You know I really don't have any understanding of the stage. I had reservations about it, but I like it."
Cohen is depicted as an amourous, if not lustful lover, by one Nicholas Surovy. His equally lustful on-stage lovers are Emily Bindiger, Pamela Paluzzi, Rosemary Radcliffe and Gale Garnett. Each actress/singer assumes the personalities and actions of several lovers, during the course of the revealing stage production.
As the play opens Cohen (Surovy) calls out the faults of society and admits them as his own at the same time. During his expressions of loneliness and happiness with his lovers, the audience often finds humour in Cohen's insights. It is made clear, early in the 90 minute endeavour, that Cohen fancies himself quite a lover. Or at least that is Lesser's observation. What one sees here is the point of view that Lesser has taken on the life of Cohen. They are worth observing for no point made is invalid. Cohen's egotistic values are revealed in several comments made by Cohen and his lovers. "I love my lust", "I've been training with mirrors to make myself perfect", "I thought today was mine. Then I saw it on a public calendar". These comments, brought forth from the memories of those women who first heard them, forced one of them to bitterly recall an egotistic comment of Cohen's, ..."you have the perfect ass. Forgive me if I don't fall in love with your face...or conversation."
His ego is conceived to conceal his loneliness and predominant insecurity. He is afraid of his loneliness, yet he thrives on it, then punishes himself. Of his lovers he asks, "Am I alone in your love?" His lovers adore him, are rejected, return to him, sympathize with him, then pity and feel vengence for him. The presence of Cohen's vocal obscenity does not take away the play's impact.
The music, directed by Zizi Mueller and Michael Calkins, sung by Calkins and the five performers and played by Miss Mueller, Calkins, Miss Bindiger and Dean Kelso, is instrumental in the essential flow and continuity that the play possesses. Each acting sequence led to a Cohen tune coinciding with each sequence. Prior to "So Long Marianne" Cohen speaks of discovery, of ups and downs. He admits "arrogance and self-importance." Prior to and during "Nancy," Miss Paluzzi portrays a wretched, immoral woman in Cohen's life.
Rarely do men become "legends in their own time." The puzzle, pomp and twisted arrogance of Cohen's life are skillfully unravelled before a marvelling and most appreciative audience.
Several bars of "Bird On The Wire" brought an end to the humourous, warming and at times startlingly frank production. The end is a beginning of understanding a man who at times does not understand himself.
The inferences and length of the poems vary. They deal with love, lust, guilt, conquest, and many other personal convictions and ideals. Not all deal with Cohen himself. The most prominent feature of this, his sixth publication of poems, is the female. Of them, he questions, accuses, praises, degrades or simply mentions. Rarely are names or places recalled. Cohen's poetry cannot, for the most part, be taken at face value for it is below the surface that his feelings are revealed. Emotions constantly bubble to the top.
The wordage is uncomplicated as is the poetry's construction. Cohen likes to keep the language as clean as possible.
Cohen has written these poems, as his others in a basic and simple manner. But do not let the poetry's briefness distract you from its definite style. "It's very important. Style is content. It changes."
Preceding every poem is a diagram of a razor blade. Cohen explains. "The major reason for this is that the poems are untitled as I wrote them. We had to have some method of designating the beginning of one poem and designating the end of another. Without too much thought, I thought of the razor blade symbol because it's sharp and clean and cutting."
The poems contained in The Energy of Slaves are personal and thought provoking.
"The need to write is deeper than thought. It's a certain urgency you respond to with everything you've got." Cohen does.
For those of you who didn't see Cohen in London, Berlin, Paris, The Isle of Wight or a room in Tennessee, this is the album for you. Side one was performed in 1972 with four musicians, himself and two female vocalists. The "Minute Prologue" is another song in which Cohen questions himself and that which surrounds him. "Passing Thru," an R. Brakeslee composition is done by Cohen in a very pleasing manner. "You Know Who I Am," "Bird On The Wire" and "Nancy," previously entitled "It Seemed So Long Ago Nancy," are standard Cohen tunes which are to be enjoyed as they have been, or more so than, on previous albums. Prior to "Bird On The Wire" Cohen speaks briefly in French and says that the search for his freedom is instinctive. "Improvisation," the last song on the album is an instrumental and serves as an excuse for the poet/singer being melodic.
Side two contains songs performed in 1970 as well as in 1972. The line up of musicians and vocalists in 1970 differs slightly from 1972. "Story Of Isaac" performed in Berlin in 1972 is about "those who would sacrifice one generation on behalf of another." It is done in superb Cohen style, making it one of the finest cuts on the album. This song and "Tonight Will Be Fine," which is perhaps the liveliest tune on the album, are both from Cohen's second album, Songs From A Room. "Please Don't Pass Me By," the longest cut on the album, and sombre "Queen Victoria" are new compositions.
Musical technicality and brilliance are not in evidence on this album. But one does not listen to Cohen for outstanding musical ability, for he is a poet. He asks and answers questions that many cannot or will not. That is what, probably more than anything, makes him Leonard Cohen.