The Romantic in a Ragpicker's Trade
by Paul Williams
"I think marriage is the hottest furnace of the spirit today," Leonard
Cohen said on the phone from Mexico. "Much more difficult than solitude,
much more challenging for people who want to work on themselves. It's a situation
in which there are no alibis, excruciating most of the time...but it's only
in this situation that any kind of work can be done. Naturally I feel ambiguous
The phone call, Leonard watching children running in and out of a telephone
company office in Acapulco (once he saw a butterfly), me in a 12th floor
record company cubicle in New York, was part two of a conversation that began
in Leonard Cohen's lawyer's office, high above 42nd Street in Manhattan maybe
three week earlier.
Leonard had just returned from a tour of Europe, thirty-eight concerts
in forty-five days, including an outdoor performance in Paris in front of
130,000 people. He's a superstar in France ("If a girl in Paris has only
one record, it's a Leonard Cohen album" my traveling friend informs me) and
all over the continent. His latest album, New Skin For The Old Ceremony,
sold 250,000 copies in Europe in its first six weeks.
In the U.S. and in his native Canada, Cohen has not achieved the same
kind of acceptance as a performer and recording artist. He is best known
as a songwriter ("Suzanne," "Bird On a Wire"), poet and novelist. Beautiful
Losers, his second novel, is a steady seller on college campuses and
is even taught in modern literature courses...though ten years ago it was
considered almost too filthy to publish.
Talking with Leonard Cohen is like touching the earth unexpectedly after
months of subway stations and supermarkets. There's a resiliency in the man
and his sense of himself; he seems to know what he's doing. Most contemporary
singer-songwriters are not mature artists: they're too young, or they tasted
success too young and never got past its confusions. Cohen is an exception.
He's forty years old. When you meet him, whether or not you know his writing,
you can't help but recognize immediately that he is his own creation. "I've
been lucky," he says, in regard to his relationship with the music industry.
"Nobody's ever twisted my arm. Perhaps because nobody ever saw any great
profits to be made from my work." Perhaps. But more likely they saw right
away that there is no way to push Leonard Cohen to release more product (he's
made five albums in eight years) or tour more often (his recent appearances
are his first in America in four years) or commercialize his sound. It's
not that he resists--it's just that he's not malleable. He has to be bought
and sold as what he is.
He is a son of wealthy Jewish parents in Montreal, Duddy Kravitz-era--"I
had a very Messianic childhood," he told Richard Goldstein in 1967, "I was
told I was a descendant of Aaron, the high priest." He was a published poet
at age 20, lived on an island in Greece for eight years, published a couple
of novels, came to New York in 1966 and captured the attention of the pop
music world with a song called "Suzanne," recorded by Judy Collins and Joshua
Rifkin on their brilliant breakthrough album In My Life.
John Hammond signed him to Columbia records, over the protests of many
who thought it was the silliest thing he'd done since signing Bob Dylan.
Cohen cut his first record in 1967. "Of course, it was terribly difficult,"
Hammond said in an interview in 1971. "You couldn't get Leonard to work with
other musicians because he felt they were all laughing at him. And they mostly
were." That album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, was followed by Songs
From A Room in 1969, Songs Of Love And Hate in 1971. Live
Songs in 1972, and New Skin in 1974. His books of poems, already
popular in Canada, were released here starting in 1967, and the attention
he got as a songwriter also helped promote his novels into paperback form
and popular acceptance.
He performed a few concerts--the Isle of Wright, Forest Hills in New
York--three European tours in seven years, no tours at all in America until
early 1975. He lived mostly in Montreal and on Hydra Island in Greece; spent
a year in New York around 1969, spent almost two years living in a farm outside
Franklin, Tennessee in 1971-1972. (His cabin the former home of Boudelaux
Bryant, author of "Bye Bye Love.")
Sometime well after writing the song "Suzanne" he met his wife Suzanne;
they have two children, Adam and Lorca (the boy is 2 1/2 years, the girl
about six months old). "I live here with a woman and a child," he sings on
his most recent album, "The situation makes me kind of nervous. Yes, I rise
up from her arms, she says, 'I guess you call this love, I call it service'
Why don't you come on back to the war..."
Leonard Cohen is still as romantic--it's romantic (and accurate) to see
the relationship between the sexes as a war--as he was when he first appeared
on the American musical scene. But his romanticism has matured. It will be
interesting to read his next novel.
Robert Altman made a movie, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, based (Altman
has told Cohen) on songs from Leonard Cohen's first two albums. Sitting in
Cohen's lawyer's office (plush and posh, it takes two elevators to get there;
he was wearing a well-tailored suit, but he still stays in the historic,
run-down Chelsea Hotel), I asked Leonard if he had considered writing scores
for other films...
"It's something that is in the mind from time to time," he told me, "but
when it really comes down to it, the thing I like best is the song that stands
by itself, that you can walk around, that just has its own life." He's
soft-spoken but friendly, conscientious about answering questions, a warm
person in a cool situation. "If people can use the material in other areas,
I'm very happy."
He has a terrific face, a sure sign of maturity. "Were you consulted about
the songs in McCabe?" I asked.
"I was living in Franklin, in Tennessee, and I'd come into Nashville just
to see a movie--we'd been living out in the sticks for a long time. And I
saw this movie called Brewster McCloud. Have you seen it? It's a very,
very beautiful and I would say brilliant film. I sat through it twice. Maybe
I just hadn't seen a movie in a long time, but it was really fine. "I was
in the studio that night, in Nashville, and I got this call from a chap called
Robert Altman. And he says, 'Listen, you know, I love those songs, I've built
a film around them, can I use them?' I said, 'Who are you?' He said, 'Well
I, I did M*A*S*H, that's my film.'
"I said, 'I know it was enormously successful, but I haven't seen it.
Is there anything else that you've done that I might know?' 'Well, I did
a picture that's been completely buried, that you wouldn't know about, it
was called Brewster McCloud.'
"I said, 'Listen, I just came out of the theatre, I saw it twice, you
can have anything of mine you want!'
"I did do some additional music--only one thing that was used, I did a
guitar background for a little soliloquy by Warren Beatty; it's just barely
perceptible but that is one of the nicest things I ever did, I love that
"Then I saw the picture, the finished picture without the music, the
soundtrack hadn't been completed. And I said, 'Listen, man, I've got to tell
you--if we ever work together again I want you to know you can get an honest
opinion from me--I don't like it.' He was quite hurt, as I would be too,
"Then I went to the theater in Montreal, and I saw the picture with the
music and everything, and it was great! I called Altman in London, it took
me two days to track him down, and told him, 'Forget everything I said, it's
Cohen's life and his art seem to fit together very nicely. A sense of
who and where he's been and what he's been doing began to emerge for me as
our conversation ranged across different subjects:
About being a Canadian:
"The Canadians are like the Jews, they're continually examining their
identity. We're on the edge of a great empire, and this throws the whole
thing into a very special kind of relief. Canadians have always understood
that we have to go along with the United States to a certain extent. But
even though article after article (in the Canadian press) threatens us with
the extinction of our identity, I don't think anybody in Canada seriously
believes that we're going to become Americans. It's a curious kind of
"I live in Montreal, which is a French city, in Quebec, which is a French
country--especially now, it is a country. I live as a minority writer, almost
in exile, because there is no English writing community where I live. These
are very special Canadian problems which to me form the Canadian character,
because we're very much involved in this notion of what is minority and what
is majority; and yet while these questions are in the air, it seems that
everybody has space. Because we don't have the melting pot notion at all
in Canada, we have a federal system that runs right down into the psyche
of the country.
"So in a sense I live like a foreigner in my own city, cut off by the
fact that I don't speak French that well. I can get by, but it's not a tongue
I could ever move around in in a way that would satisfy the appetites of
the mind or the heart.
"And because I live in French Canada, we're estranged from the writers
who live in Toronto and Winnipeg and Vancouver. So all these things are curious
walls that either insulate or protect or exclude, depending on how you look
"I don't think anybody knows me as a writer or as a singer in Montreal.
Quebec has its own movie industry, its own music, its own theater; it's much
more lively than Canada. And of course the language my books are translated
into is not Quebecois, it's French, and the Quebecois have a certain superiority
that their language is a little more vital. In any case it is different,
certainly the rhythms are different. Michel Garnot, who lives up the street
from me, has always said my stuff--my colloquial and often experimental
English--should be translated into Quebecois, not into French.
"Montreal is a good base for me, my center in the world. We have a very
little house, two or three rooms, in an immigrant section of town. It's mostly
Portuguese and Greek immigrant workers, right in the middle of the city,
the English to the west of us and the French to the east. Several friends
of mine that I grew up with also live on that street, we bought a couple
of houses that stand together.
"I spend time in Greece, in Tennessee, in Mexico, but I always go back
About the subject matter of the songs:
"A lot of people wonder if you are as depressed as your songs sound; and
if so, why?" It is the popular image. "Where do these depths of despair come
"I can't really answer that. I think that when people hear a song, they
hear it in a realm where these questions are irrelevant. It's only after
they stop listening that the questions arise. The songs themselves don't
partake of a description like elation or depression. It's like a sexual
embrace--there are no questions until you step outside of the embrace, separate
yourself from it."
I have to agree. I don't find Cohen's songs depressing. I once lived with
a lady who played his songs (on the guitar) all the time when she was depressed,
she could relate to them, but I assume she liked them because they gave her
comfort; I don't think they depressed her further. The blues as an art form
didn't come from the black man being more miserable than the white man, but
rather from his being more honest with himself about it. I changed my
"There's a real quality of intimacy, it seems to me," I began, "in everything
you've written that I'm aware of--intimacy in terms of what you're saying
about yourself or just in the nature of the situation you're describing.
Is this something you feel art or writing should do, or something you find
you have to do, or...?"
"Of course, one is aware that there are different degrees, different styles
of approaching, in other men and other works, but I've never had an aesthetic
that commanded me to approach my material in a certain way. It is
my style, it's the only way I know how to talk; it's not something I've planned
or that I thought was better than a more general or more withdrawn or more
"I always thought I was being objective, I always thought I was being
clear. I always thought I was being factual. It's just a relative sense that
it's intimate. In my own interior landscape it's not intimate enough, it's
still much too far from the interior reality. That's what I'm working on.
"I have some songs now in the works that I think are intimate.
I feel that these are getting there, but they still aren't... In a sense,
intimacy has not been one of the qualities that I have consciously taken
as a goal, or even as a guideline; it's more accuracy, and authenticity
"I've always tried to make a documentary of the interior landscape. I
say to myself, 'What really happened? What is really happening
now, that you are thinking of this woman?' That's what I've tried
to do, is make it authentic and accurate. And precise.
"That's where the language comes, of course--one word leads to the next,
and as you know, when words happen to be your medium they have their own
contagion and their own susceptibility and their own invitations and their
own hospitality to other words. You move into the world of language, and
it has its own rules and laws.
"But in terms of the subject matter and the approach, it's always been
a documentary approach, an attempt to establish the authentic events."
About his early days:
"Before coming to New York, I'd performed now and then, in a very limited
way; I'd gone around Canada, read and sang. My own early manhood, my early
20's, late teens, were all spent in song. There was no recording or anything
like that going on, but that was the style of an evening, they were always
musical. We would sit around and we would sing.
"There was also a very fine group of poets in the city, where I got my
training. We'd put out our own books, our own magazines, there was no contract
or deals made with any other part of the world, we did consider ourselves
self-sufficient, and the training was quite rigorous."
"This was in Montreal?" I asked. "Did you travel to speak of in those
"I always thought that Montreal was one of the sacred cities of the mind,
and I never felt any desire at all to travel out of Montreal. It was not
until I was 24, which is quite late in terms of traveling, that I left the
city. I went to Europe. I'd gotten an award for a book I had written, Let
Us Compare Mythologies, a very early book of poems.
"I went to London and then, I'm not a very good traveler, I went to Greece
and I stayed there for the next eight years. I'd never been in a sunny place
and I'd never known what the sun was; so I fell in love with the sun, and
a blonde girl, and a white house."
"Were the novels written during that period?"
"Yeah, most of the work was written there; and even now, though the new
songs were at least three or four or even five years in the making, it was
in Greece last summer that those ten or twelve golden days came when I was
able to see the end of the songs, see them to completion. My house in Greece,
which I still have--I've heard it described in the European press as a 'villa,'
which always amuses me, this little house up on a hill--it's always been
a good place to work in."
"It's not difficult to maintain a house in Greece," I asked, "either
politically or economically?"
"A lot of people criticized me, although I moved out of my house at the
time of the coup in Greece and I stopped living there then--I can't acquire
any virtue or merit from this act, because it wasn't political. There was
something in the country that changed, and in myself, and I rarely went to
Greece after that.
"But it had nothing to do with politics; I think the Greek people are
in a sense above their own politics--that's a supercilious thing to say,
but... The average guy there, he'll turn the picture over to the next leader,
go down and wave his flag for the next governor, with a sense of, I think,
profound contempt and sophistication about the whole process. Because they're
very much in touch with their own existence."
"You never felt you were treated bad, as an American/Canadian?"
"No, I got there with the very first wave of foreigners, when there were
only five or six of us, and we were a novelty, we were their entertainment,
you know, our goings on with drinking and girls, we were their theater. They
gave us credit and they were very nice to us, very helpful...
"I had a little record player that ran on batteries. I would work outside
on my terrace, and if I would forget how fast the sun was moving and forget
to move, the record would melt, right over the turntable. I used to play
Ray Charles all the time and I lost a couple of Ray Charles records, I still
have them, they're just like Dali watches, just dripped over the side of
About being a novelist:
"To what extent," I wondered, "are you conscious of yourself as a
"Well, I've never been intimidated by form... What we call a novel, that
is, a book of prose where there are characters and developments and changes
and situations, that's always attracted me, because in a sense it is the
heavyweight arena. I like it--it frightens me, from that point of view--because
of the regime that is involved in novel-writing. I can't be on the move,
it needs a desk, it needs a room and a typewriter, a regime. And I like that
"You haven't published a work of this sort since Beautiful
"No, I haven't, this will be the first book of prose since then. The book
is called A Woman Being Born--that's mostly what I'm working on now.
I thought it was done but...it keeps suggesting a more and more massive form,
so I go along with it. A lot of it is by dictation--I found that the early
parts all start, 'Whatever you say...'"
About being more popular in Europe than America:
I mentioned a novelist friend who was experiencing the same thing, and
Cohen responded: "I think this is the traditional path of gifted people in
America. It's obvious, this is what happened to Faulkner, to Frost, to Miller,
to a lot of jazz musicians--Americans are very, very provincial. They really
are reluctant to accept new things. They are totally ignorant about what
is going on in other countries. These countries in Europe are old, old cultures,
with a tremendous sense of tolerance and curiosity built into them. So they're
very interested in new American products. We're not at all interested in
theirs, or in our own."
"I seem to be caught in the critical establishment between two critical
houses. On one side, the literary people are very resentful that I have made
money in the rock world. This suggests to them somehow that I have sold
"And on the other side, a lot of people in the rock establishment, in
their articles I notice that they always suggest that I don't know anything
about music, that my tunes are very limited, as if I couldn't work in an
augmented chord if I really thought it was needed. And that my voice is very
thin, as if we were still in the days of Caruso or something. They apply
standards to me that they've never applied to other singers in the field.
"Whereas in Europe this doesn't exist, there's no energy wasted on placing
me, because the culture is wide enough to include a figure like myself, without
any sense of abrasion."
"Is what's written about you," I wondered, "does it have any kind of effect
on you or, do you think, on the musician in general?"
"At this point, yes I am interested in, uh, the market journey of the
product; but I'm very, very interested also in the mind of the reviewers,
how they change over the decades, and how a man approaches new work. Whether
he approaches it in a spirit of curiosity, charity, interest, or as a vehicle
for his own self-aggrandizement, his own career. Whether he uses it as an
opportunity to display humanism, or cruelty... I mean to me, the critic is
on trial at this point."
[On Cohen's recent album he himself is put on trial in at least two songs;
and he is judged harshly, in one case by the world--"The judge has no choice:
A singer must die for the lie in his voice" ("A Singer Must Die")--and in
the other case by himself--"I never asked but I heard you cast your lot along
with the poor. How come I overheard your prayer that you be this and nothing
more than just some grateful, faithful woman's favorite singing millionaire,
the patron saint of envy and the grocer of despair, working for the Yankee
dollar" ("Field Commander Cohen"). Clearly his own judgment is the harsher,
albeit less permanent, of the two. Delightful threads of self-mockery and
self-awareness run through the new songs, which are still primarily concerned
with the theme of the intense active interrelatedness of male and female
About the singer's sensibility, 1966, 1975:
"I was unaware of rock music when I first came with my songs to New York,
I didn't really know what was happening. I was on my way to Nashville, which
I knew a lot more about, because in Canada we listened to a lot of country
& western music, and I used to be in a country & western group when
I was quite young.
"So I thought I would head down to Nashville, I thought I could write
some songs in that area. This was mostly an economic consideration; I'd published
a lot of books but I'd never sold very many. Well, I hit New York and I found
myself in the middle of this, what they called 'folk song' scene... It was
about 1966. There was Judy Collins, Phil Ochs--I met Mary Martin, a girl
from Toronto, who knew me as a writer, and she was working at the Grossman
office and trying to get started on her own. She knew Judy Collins as a friend
and I sang some songs for her...
"But I was really very moved when I came to New York by what was going
on. There was a sensibility--not in any way new to me, because I was already
32 or 33 years old--but a sensibility that I thought I was quite alone in.
It wasn't quite Kerouac, it wasn't quite Ginsberg, it was something after
that. I had written books that I felt had that kind of sensibility. And I
came to New York and there, five or ten years later, I found that or a compatible
sensibility flourishing! So I was very happy, I felt very much at home.
"I felt the exhilaration of the moment, and I suppose I succumbed to the
expectations of the moment, and subsequently to the disappointments of the
moment. But I think those are things also that have to do with just the age
of the man involved. You do learn a little bit about the world from 25 to
35, it is the real educational period I think, when you do enter into manhood
and you do see that things tend to come and go, ideas, spiritual invitations,
self-improvement rackets...and that there is another strain of human existence
that continues, that is not to be despised, I mean just birth, marriage,
death. And that these larger movements seem to be the sounds that really
do orchestrate humanity.
"So at the same time where you indulge yourself with certain feelings
of paranoia, disappointment, disillusion, on the other hand another kind
of information establishes itself in the heart and the mind and you feel
that this is the world and you're happy to know it.
"And then you maybe throw your weight behind other kinds of possibilities,
you can begin to understand other kinds of human institutions--like marriage,
like work, like order. You begin to withdraw...although part of the emotion
will always be attached to anarchy, to chaos, to wild creativity, to notions
like that, you begin to balance those concepts against other ones, like law
and order. And I mean it in the real sense, not just a political slogan but
the real law and the real order that seems to govern our existence."
About songs and poems and performing:
"Do the songs and poems," I asked, "clearly differentiate themselves for
"Very rarely one crosses into the other realm. But the songs are by and
large designed as songs, and the poems designed as poems." (Leonard gave
me a hardcover copy of his recent--and largely ignored--book of poems, The
Energy of Slaves. "Would you mind throwing the cover away?" he asked.
I did so, and read the book with pleasure and much shock of recognition.
The trouble with the cover was it made it look like a book by Leonard Nimoy.)
"It could be read as one poem, one long poem, this book."
"Do you prefer to write songs or poems?"
"It depends on what part of the being is operative. Of course it's wonderful
to write a song, I mean there is nothing like a song, and you sing it to
your woman, or to your friend, people come to your house, and then you sing
it in front of an audience and you record it. I mean it has an amazing thrust.
And a poem, it waits on the page, and it moves in a much more secret way
through the world. And that also is... Well, they each have their own way
"Is performing a natural extension of writing for you?"
"In a sense it's natural, but like every other thing that we call natural
it takes a lot of work and practice."
"But what I mean is," I rephrased, "it's not a separate category of
"No, it has the same terrors and pitfalls and possibilities for humiliation.
For me, personally, it's a kind of dangerous work, but so is writing if you're
really going to lay your life out."
"But performing has a more immediate danger?"
"Yeah, performing. I mean you can really be humiliated. There are other
rewards and prizes that go with it--you can come out with a sense of glory,
girls might fall in love with you, they might be paying you very well, all
the possibilities of corruption and material gain and self-congratulation
are present--but also at the same time there is this continual threat and
presence of your own disgrace."
"You felt quite able to project the very personal, interior vision of
your songs in front of 130,000 people?"
"When you're singing for that many people," Cohen explained, "it becomes
private again. This last concert I gave in Paris, the stage was high, like
the side of a building, and the audience was way, way, way down there, so
you're really only dealing with the microphone. They're at an event, they're
outside, the wind is howling, it's an event on a different order and you
take your place in the moment.
"But an audience of two or three or four thousand is the real test, because
you can really do all the wrong things, you can play to the crowd, you can
play for laughs, you can play for self-pity, you can play for heroic aspect;
there are so many ways of selling out in front of an audience. There's no
such thing as a casual performance; one has an exact notion of what one is
going to do out there."
"Forgive me for asking..." it may have seemed a significant question made
banal, but it needed an answer, "what are you trying to achieve in your songs;
what is your ambition?"
"To create a vapor and a mist," Cohen responded, "to make oneself attractive,
to master it, to keep busy and avoid the poolroom and try to get good at
what you're doing. Really, it's all an alibi for something nobody's ever
been able to talk about.
"Mostly my idea of a song is, when you feel like singing and this is your
song. It's not what songs should be, not choosing; this is the song
you make because it's the only one you can make, this is the one that
is yours. The fact is that you feel like singing, and this is the song that
"As a rule," I asked, "does the music come first, or the words?"
"Well," he said, "most of the time you're just scraping the bottom of
the barrel to find any kind of voice at all. It could be a few words, a tone
of voice, two chords together--it's a ragpicker's trade as I practice it;
I don't stand on the mountain and received tablets."
Leonard Cohen, when I met him in his lawyer's office, was unsure of his
American audience, wondering if they still existed. He was about to do three
nights, six shows, at the Bottom Line in New York. "I'll be interested in
seeing what happens in America. I haven't played any concerts here really
for four years. You can completely die out..."
The third night at the Bottom Line was a cold, wet, nasty New York City
day. I arrived shortly before the show was to start, wondering if anyone
would be there. It was standing room only. There was a line of people a
city-block long, huddling against the side of the building, fooling with
broken umbrellas, waiting for a chance to buy tickets to get into the second
The crowd inside was terrific. So was Leonard and his group of musicians.
The new stuff, arranged by Leonard's new producer and piano-player ("John
Lissauer is fantastic, people are going to know about him way beyond the
contribution he makes to my scene"), is the best stuff musically that Cohen
has ever done. Lyrically, it doesn't measure up to the astonishing, penetrating
cleverness and word-trickiness of Cohen's earliest songs, but it appeals
to me on a different level--the maturity of the vision, the appropriateness
of the imagery and irony for our newly non-apocalyptic (but still
My favorite song on the new album, and they all run through my head, is
"I Tried to Leave You," a disarmingly simply love song, chanson, that
cuts to the heart of Cohen's Dilemma: how to be a mature human male, with
wife and children, and still stay alive. He pretends at irony: "Goodnight
my darling. I hope you're satisfied," he sings with a twist in his voice.
But the twist is that he really means it. He does so hope. "The years go
by. You lose your pride. The baby's crying so you do not go outside." The
melody is perfect. The empathy of the song bites the heart. The singer never
drops either his own dignity or his lady's, not for the slightest moment.
The pain and beauty of Cohen's vision is the perfect rejoinder to the pain
and ugliness of Joseph Heller's portrait of the married North American career
man. God bless our romantics; they give us strength to go on.
Leonard Cohen, reached after many complications (all lines to Mexico were
busy and something about his lady taking the car keys) by phone in Acapulco,
was very pleased and encouraged by the enthusiastic reception he got at the
Bottom Line, and at the Troubador in Los Angeles. He was with his family,
in a cottage outside the city, writing, relaxing, getting ready for several
months of American concerts. At 40, he is the first of the rock generation
of songwriters to reach maturity with his consciousness and courage and sense
of humor intact.