Give me crack and anal sex
Take the only tree that's left
and stuff it up the hole
in your culture
The following interview appeared in B-Side Magazine,
August/September 1993. The photographs are by Bobby Talamine.
Maverick Spirit: Leonard Cohen
By Jim O'Brien
For all their excess, beatniks are good survivors, much better than hippies when you get down to the hard figures. While friends like Janis Joplin collapsed along with their hopes and dreams, Leonard Cohen, the Canadian poet-cum-folk musician, was somewhat quietly voicing his word in songs like "Suzanne," "Chelsea Hotel," and "Sister of Mercy." (So that's where they got the name!)
His somewhat flat delivery and ironic tone made Leonard a romantic oddity from the start; his acoustic circumlocution practically devoid of the beat for which rock and roll was notorious. Plenty of musicians fancied themselves poets back then, but few sang lyrics of poetry, and fewer sang of romance and foretold loss without introducing an element of celebrity. While never asking in the limelight like some of his peers, Leonard was certainly well-known among his generation, first as a writer with the 1966 novel Beautiful Losers and later with his eponymous debut album.
However, Leonard's legacy is much more difficult to chart than the self-immolation of super stars like Jim Morrison and the reign of bad boys of the day like the Who and the Rolling Stones, altogether stranger than the immensity of the Beatles. Leonard has flitted across important eras, reaping revelation along the way but never embodying any one time himself.
An enigma, he sang throughout the '70s, long past the Simon & Garfunkel New York folk revival ("My first instinct was to go to Nashville, but as a city boy with a Jewish name, I probably would never have penetrated the scene"), purveying his own brand of solitude and making many people happy. Leonard Cohen stirred up few critical waves by the end of that decade, though he paused along the way for disjointed experiments like his venture with an inebriated and somewhat emotionally unsteady Phil Spector on Death of a Ladies Man in 1977.
Since Various Positions and I'm Your Man in the mid-'80s, he has resurfaced every few years to great critical acclaim in the pages of traditional rock and roll stalwarts like Rolling Stone, earning his four-star ratings like clockwork.
The embrace of Leonard Cohen's songs by a generation of young electric musicians raised on punk and nihilism, exemplified clearly in 1991's I'm Your Fan album, is seconded only by the enthusiasm with which young people still respond to fellow '60s survivor Neil Young. leaving aside traditional audience concerns over "selling out," Leonard speaks freely of tradition and progression, blending popular culture with oral history:
"You know, to be part of that chain that binds the generations one to another is an agreeable feeling. But of course, I myself experienced the same phenomenon with artists of the previous generation.
"The kind of training I had as a young writer, a young composer, made me very much aware of where I stood in a long line of singers or poets: musicians from the Troubadours; even before that, from Homer; and even before that, from Isaiah and King David; coming all the way down through the various strains into English literature; into poetry; into folk poetry like Robbie Burns; into folk singers like Pete Seger, Allan Lomax, and Woodie Guthrie; and down to my own generation. I've always been aware of that tradition, and to be one of the figures that allows the tradition to continue is very gratifying. That's a long-winded answer, but I think you know what I mean."
Leonard's aptitude for telling a good yarn as if he is passing it on for posterity enlivens his dialogue, and it informs the alternatively dark and expectant verses of his latest Columbia release, The Future.
As he has often done in the past, Leonard takes the role of a religious figure, denouncing the present while withholding moral judgement of individuals. In the title song, he rolls out a litany of sings over a wash of guitar and minimalist electronic elements. "Give me crack and anal sex / Take the only tree that's left / and stuff it up the hole / in your culture," he croons, "Give me back the Berlin Wall / give me Stalin and St. Paul / I've seen the future, brother / it is murder."
On "Democracy," as conviction overpowers the irony of the lyrics, Leonard's voice resonates with the cry of Johnny Rotten's fumbled rhyme in "Anarchy in the UK" a decade and a half earlier. "Anarchy" may still be one of the most powerful pop songs ever written (if you agree with Greil Marcus). Regardless, its fire is certainly embraced by the crop of musicians who contributed to I'm Your Fan. Even today, "Anarchy" sounds as if Rotten lost his composure in the second verse. "Anarchy in the UK / It's coming some time," he leaves you hanging, finishing with an anticlimactic, "maybe!"
Maybe? Yet the lyrics remain memorable precisely because the anguish of such unrefined bursts throbs in our minds. Leonard would heal the psychic wound those words inflicted, or at least give it a respite. "I'm junk but I'm still holding up / this little wild bouquet / Democracy is coming to the USA." The wiser, older man gently picks the flowers out of the dustbin, but he doesn't say the outside world is necessarily going to be pretty.
Recognizing that the "iconoclast" (as he refers to the spirit of punk rock) is "nourishing for young writers and singers," Leonard goes on to point out that he finds himself "often embracing that position where I feel I want to annihilate the entire cultural landscape. When I hear the word 'grunge,' I want to reach for my revolver, for example. Because 'grunge' was already there before the term arose.
"In fact, that's what a poem does at all times. It dissolves all poetry before it and after it. It is also solidly linked in an unbroken chain with all that has come before it and all that is to come after." To the young musicians and listeners of I'm Your Fan, Leonard is equally generous: "Even if the young iconoclasts have to discover the work of the iconoclasts of the past to support their own position, they still represent a tradition."
Denying the popular myth that rockers burn out young while those in the fine arts age to great wisdom, Leonard says of the plight of the aging rock star. "Browning expressed it in that line, 'First fine careless frenzy,' when he heard the birds sing. But," he quickly adds, "When he repeats that cadence again, Browning knows that it was not just the 'fine, careless frenzy:' that this can be perfected, that this can be controlled and summoned.
"I remember going to the Village to listen to Alberta Hunter when she was 83. (She was a blues singer.) She'd quit working for 40 years to be a nurse in Harlem. She cam back to singing at the age of 80. I went down to every set she sung in this particular place where she was playing for a week. And when she said, 'G-d bless you' at the end, you felt deeply nourished and protect against the vicissitudes.
"Yes, it is true that a lot of people burn themselves out. A lot of people die, especially in rock and roll. But on the other hand, there are people who continue to perfect their art. Curiously enough--and this is probably a very unpopular example--I think the last album by Mick Jagger, who is a figure who is not really taken seriously..." Leonard hesitates a bit cautiously.
"That's a guy who is somehow not considered to be at the cutting edge of his own spirit any longer. Somehow, he has dissolved into the celebrity that he so ferociously courted. But you know, I had occasion to look carefully at the lyrics of his last album [Wandering Spirit]. They're really quite surprising. They're pretty good. It's been a long time since I've turned to Mick Jagger for spiritual information! I wanted to see what Mick Jagger was doing these days, 'cause all you hear of him is he shows up with a beautiful woman here or there, or he's having marital problems, or he's signing a $60 million contract. It seems not to have anything to do with what we're interest in. But when I looked at that album, he says, 'I've seen a whole lot of shit,'" Leonard laughs as he paraphrases Jagger in early-Jagger style. "I've seen more than most guys.' He's speaking the truth.
"He says, 'I really have been on those mountains. I really have had dinner with those kings and princes and slept with those beautiful women. And now, from the point of view of this experience. I'm asking you: Is there nothing beyond the kisses? Is there anything better than fucking? I'd like to know because it isn't very good.'
"He's saying something that is heavy and beautiful, and he's saying it beautifully. And then," Leonard pauses enough to allow a heavy silence to vacuum up the atmosphere. "Nobody listening. You know it's just like another little Mick Jagger record. And it's cool. It's OK. We don't have to worry about the guy, either. We know he's a billionaire, and we know he has these women.
"Putting all these things aside, which is difficult to do in a case like Mick Jagger, you see that this guy's still on this trip at the age of 40 odd."
Leonard becomes wrapped up in Jagger's lyrics as if they're his own. He's right about suspending your disbelief. It's hard to do when you're suddenly speaking voluminously about a guy who, in his heyday, used to sing, "I know that you're only 16 years old, but I don't want your ID."
"A lot of people go unnoticed is what I mean to say," Leonard clarifies. "The cultural construction is so sturdy, about the thing you were speaking of: the early demise. Almost none of us can penetrate it, though I think it's happening more often than not. For one thing, the young don't really want to hear from anyone else but their own. That's completely legitimate. I think it's remarkable generosity when a generation like the present comes along and does want to look into the work of the '60s and the '70s I think it's unusually generous."
Leonard has always had a diligent approach to writing lyrics, but his espousal of work is as applicable to everyday subsistence as it is to artistic ideals. "I'm not speaking as an interviewee now, but as an older guy," Leonard laughs. "I came from a tradition in which family is very important, and I try to be the best father I can. It wasn't merely a philosophical choice that I go to work every day: I had to make a buck over the years. The background from which I come doesn't let family slide no matter how flipped out you are.
"I always thought I worked hard, always thought that I had a worker's attitude toward my writing, composing, and singing. But around the early '80s I really began to work hard with a degree of intensity and commitment and passion that I don't think I had before."
"In the early days, with the various substances that were available, I thought I was quite flipped out," starts Leonard, "You know, since about '82 or '83, I have understood I am deeply flipped out," he concludes.
Supporting others and making art are similar acts of giving. "My Whole life has taken on a grave indifference to my condition. A personal indifference to my own condition, to my own opinions, to my own activities has liberated me to say what I want to say."
To Leonard Cohen, writing music has everything to do with the survival and self respect of the artist, but music's relevance goes beyond the individual, meshing with his religious sensibilities. "You know, if you read the book of Isaiah -- I'm not suggesting anyone read it -- you see this guy standing up there at a time when the nation was in pretty good shape. Thee were fat sheep in the pastures, and the rituals were unfolding as they should, and the women were perfumed. He said, 'Your cities are burning It all stinks to me.'
"Yeah, well, this is a rap I've been producing for a long time, and all I can say is the eyebrows used to go way up when I first started, and they don't go up so high any more. It dawned on me at a certain point when I wrote that line -- and I wrote it in the 60s--'All the flabby liars of the Aquarian Age.'
"It was clear to me I couldn't buy this at a certain point. Then I started just investigating myself and the people around me, and it became clear that the landmarks were down. The lights were out. The previously serviceable cultural artifacts were crumbling. We're quite far into it now. We begin to see the outward symptoms of it like AIDS, which is the destruction of the autoimmune system. Well, the cultural autoimmune system went down first."
Making political statements in song is not necessarily the way to put things back in order, however. In fact, according to Leonard, music asks how open you are, not whether you agree with the "boredom of opinion and slogans" expressed in lyrics.
Most of the songs on The Future bear some kind of political metaphor. Leonard's message ranges from the doomsday speaking of "Closing Time," in which all the men and women change partners in drunken revelry until a final call ends their bliss, to the thematic context he builds around Frederick Knights' plaintive lovers' hymn, "Be for Real," one track earlier. By emphasizing the possibilities rather than the nitty gritty of what people should or shouldn't think, Leonard delicately shirts moralism.
Speaking of "Democracy," Leonard offers his own take on political solutions. "People ask what's your advice on the future, and I say, 'Duck!'" He pauses to laugh. "On the other hand, it's, 'Make yourself strong and cheerful.' To me, the irony of democracy is coming to the uSA, and still, the irony of that line is transcended by the work on the song.
"Democracy is beyond hope, a manly spirit, a Whitmansesque spirit. 'Sail on,' you know. I think that Frost said, 'Everything I ever learned about life can be summed up in three words: It goes on.'"
The rift between individual experience and transcendental "truths" widens on many levels. "We tend to think our generation is the pivotal generation. The experience of the generations is that it isn't so. Of course, if you're dragged from your house at 3:00 in the morning, and you're sent to a concentration camp, you may feel times are really bad!" Leonard's laughter occasionally moves towards the darker side of mirth.
"It's true. A guy who gets hit by a car didn't think that the whole automotive industry and the innovation of the West isn't worth a piece of shit. Once you get hit by a car, however, you definitely have reservations about technology. To dissolve the individual point of view, things are as they always were.
"But the information and the invitation to make oneself strong and cheerful is not as easily available as it once was because we don't have the kind of spiritual cheerleaders that we've had in the past. They've fallen into disrepute: the church, the university, the army. The institutions are not able to present their cheerleaders in the way they used to, so we have to rely on maverick spirits here and there to present a picture of health.
"Democracy doesn't come through legislation. It doesn't come from above: we are creating it," insists Leonard. Defying distinct cultural experiences and ethnic barriers that seem so great today, Leonard professes that democracy "is something to do with, as Ginsberg said, 'The secret love that whites have for blacks and blacks have for whites.'
"Mysterious, amorous flood tides are operating," he says, braving old beat turf. In Leonard's experience, the structure of love may have died, but the feelings themselves are still operating. Just when we think that democracy is a corrupt ideal, human beings stand in front of tanks in Tianemen Square (a favorite metaphor Leonard bring sup time and time again in interviews).
"I use unpopular words," he pushes on. "Brotherhood: an appetite for fraternity, equality, liberty. All those old ideals are operating. I'm never surprised that things are as bad as they are. I'm only surprised they're not worse: that they haven't completely eliminated the Bible; that they haven't excised the Sermon the Mount and created an expurgated edition. Powerful ideas that mysteriously transform all those who come into contact with them are the value of poetry. They represent the value of a glance across the subway car -- a possibility."
Leonard may have watched the LA riots from the safety of his window, but he recognizes the ability to speak across experience. "Yes, you can battle what is right. You can be a worker in the vineyards of the L-ord. Nevertheless, you cannot define the spirit with a dogmatic position. The great leader is the one -- the great culture is the one -- that affirms all cultures. The great nation is the one that affirms all nations, and the great leader is the leader that affirms all aspirations.
"It is genius for the political right to come up with the term 'political correctness,' but a lot of the people who've gotten the short end of the stick in the past are really shoving it up your asshole now. That's not very pleasant, either."
In all this, the artist "has no position other than the one that gets him through the day. As a coathanger. Yeats had that. He had a mad, metaphysical philosophy. He heard voices and took them down. He hung his coat on them. Then he took out the hanger. He hung his coat on them, but the coat stands there. That cape shines by itself. It doesn't need the support of some cranky lego construction."
As a result, a song that implores humanity to "save the forests" is indisputable in concept but ultimately empty. "You know, nobody wants to destroy all the forests. There's been a million -- well, not a million, but a number of extremely boring artistic creations dealing with saving the forest. That creates a kind of totalitarian situation.
"You can't live in those songs. You can't really make love in those songs, or if you do there's going to be something that is dangerously absent. If you want to write about the forest, say what I said: 'Take the only tree that's left and stuff it up the hole in your culture,'" Leonard finishes, quoting himself without breaking his vocal stride. Somehow, he manages to say, "That's a good line about saving the forest. I haven't read a better line than that," without arrogance.
Ultimately, freedom in politics will come the same way it does through music: suddenly, much crazier than you expected, and beyond your individual experience. "You think it's a good idea that blacks and whites should live together," Leonard says, bring up LA. "But that's not going to get you through the crisis that you are going to face daily going downtown. You've got to come up with a new position. If you're going to heal this thing between blacks and whites, leaders must experience themselves as neither black nor white. If we are going to heal what is going down between men and women, we are going to have to produce spokesmen that are neither man nor woman, then come back to being a man or woman."
While the artist is not all that exalted in this scheme, neither is the listener. In Leonard's words, "It's a question of how wide is your embrace. I can't deal with the shackles of loneliness any longer. And it's only when I break something, when I flee from something, when I locate something that is wilder, freer, deeper and crazier, can I survive from one moment to the next.
"I just can't buy the bullshit," continues Leonard, displaying the first touch of anger in his voice. "I can't buy the bullshit of who's right and who's wrong. I don't care who wins the war."
"Remember what I say: 'Duck!'" Then, chuckling like one who's just cast his recently retrieved flowers back into the dust bin only to remember who he is, Leonard adds, "I don't know if you know that remark -- I think it was Samuel Johnson.
"He said, 'I've studied all the philosophies and all the theologies, but cheerfulness keeps breaking through!'" We laugh, because it's probably true. Democracy is coming. Maybe.
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