...So I bid you farewell, I don't know when I'll be back.
They're moving us tomorrow to that tower down the track.
But you'll be hearing from me, baby, long after I'm gone.
I'll be speaking to you sweetly from my window in the tower of song...
                                                                              Tower of Song
                                                                              I'm Your Man

               

The following article and
photograph  by Anton Corbun appeared in the magazine
Details for Men, January, 1993



Sincerely, L. Cohen

by Brian Cullman

Twenty-five years after "Suzanne" made him a hippie icon, Leonard Cohen may be the finest songwriter in America.

"It's terrible," moans a New York record producer. "Whenever I go off to see Leonard in L.A., we wind up at these dark, wood-paneled bars where beautiful women come over and sit down by him, one after another. They don't even know who he is, but somehow they're fascinated. I'm twenty years younger. They'll tell me, 'Hmmm, nice ponytail,' then ignore me the rest of the night. They'll just look at him and ask if they can stay for a while. And he'll smile and say, 'I don't mind, darlin'.' It's terrible."

Details, January, 1993, Anton Corbun

At fifty-eight, Leonard Cohen has slipped into the national consciousness as a secret all over the block, an elder statesman of the bedroom, a one-man museum of dirty postcards, a holy fool, a troubadour with a vocal range slightly more limited than a doorbell, and the best English-speaking songwriter alive. It wasn't always thus.

In 1967, when Cohen recorded his first album (The Songs of Leonard Cohen), he was a successful poet and novelist in his native Canada and was primarily know Stateside for having written "Suzanne," a song that Judy Collins made famous and that, in the summer of '67, was as unavoidable as bell-bottoms.

In the '60s, everybody made an album. Everybody. Tim Leary made an album, Marshall McLuhan made an album, Charles Manson made an album. People assumed that Leonard Cohen was slumming, a cultural playboy cashing in on Dylan's turf, an uptown poet coming downtown to see what was on the jukebox before returning to academia.

But Cohen was well acquainted with the press and the ways of crafting a public image. To the literary world, his status as a folksinger and popular songwriter made him glamorous, dashing; to the music community, the fact that he was a published poet gave him an aura of prestige and dignity. He was feted and fancied, excused from the rules and then given the keys to the game.

The Songs of Leonard Cohen was a mawkishly produced album that was unexpectedly moving, both for the power and vision of the songs and for the sheer bravado of Cohen's delivery. His was a slightly fussy, commanding voice, one that was used to being listened to. At a time when most musicians were cranking up the volume, Cohen was turning it down, making people move closer to listen.

Though his mystique grew, subsequent albums never caught fire or captured people's imagination in the same way as the first. His hypnotic drone and powerful phrasing, giving the space between words equal weight as the words themselves, was a little too dry, and his songs were dismissed as too gloomy, too literary. If Death of a Ladies' Man, his 1977 collaboration with Phil Spector, wasn't perceived as an outright disaster, it was because Cohen had already been written off as a curiosity, a cult hero for Canadian editions of Trivial Pursuit (e.g. "Sixties songwriter, wrote 'Suzanne,' known for religious and sexual imagery").

In Europe it was different. There, Cohen wasn't simply a star, he was an accepted fact of life. At one overseas concert in the early '70s, Cohen walked offstage, embarrassed by his imagined failure to communicate with the audience. An emissary flew backstage bearing flowers, begging him to come back: If he would return, he wouldn't even have to sing--the audience would sing to him.

With nothing to live up to, no reputation to protect at home, yet able to earn a comfortable living abroad, Cohen's work grew more and more daring, the verbal leaps more and more melodramatic. His 1979 release, Recent Songs, raged with visions of sexual and spiritual apocalypse. Nineteen eighty-eight's I'm Your Man thrust the songwriter back into the spotlight; his work had grown stronger and brighter, charged with menace, sexual tension, and the wild orgy of faith.

On his latest record, The Future, Cohen's voice is deep and strained, his Spanish guitar replaced by a host of bubbling synthesizers. He rages like an Old Testament prophet hopped up on tabloids and urban decay, and he crawls deep into the familiar pit of sexual jealousy and urgency. No one is better at uncovering the hidden rage at the back of desire, the slow, inexorable shift of roles between master and servant. When in Irving Berlin's chestnut "Always" he intones the line "I'll be loving you...always," it sounds like a threat.

In person, Cohen is trim, compact, and austere, his gray hair clipped a little too short, like a defrocked monk or an army chaplain. His fingernails are cut perfectly. He is offhand about himself and his accomplishments in the way that only someone who takes himself very seriously indeed can be. He is a good listener.

Living in L.A., ensconced in an unstated but acknowledged relationship with actress Rebecca De Mornay, Cohen seems to thrive on a steady diet of work, travel, Zen meditation, the adulation of beautiful women, and the slow and steady accumulation of luminous songs. It sounds like a very romantic life, I tell him. "It is," he avers. "Very romantic. And very fragile."

What was life like in Montreal when you started?
Being a published poet was then, and is now, like being a professional philosopher. There were no awards, no prizes, no grants, no publishers, no magazines...there weren't even any girls. It was a serious enterprise, and it was solitary, and we were taught that it would be solitary.

Mostly what I was interested in was writing a kind of poetry that has the same lyric limpidness as some of the Scottish Border ballads or Irish songs, and later some of the Spanish Civil War songs. The kind of verse I was writing was like "My lady can sleep upon a handkerchief, or if it be Fall upon a fallen leaf." But it isn't quite accurate to say that I started as a musician and moved over to poetry. They arose at the same time. I was interested in the kind of language that went well with the guitar.

How did you first get your songs heard?
After my novel Beautiful Losers was published, I thought maybe I'd be able to make a living as a writer. The reviews were really encouraging, but I don't think it sold but three thousand copies between the U.S. and Canada, so I had to do something. I felt I could go to Nashville and make a record there. I was familiar with that music and liked it, and I had written some songs--"Love is the Item" and "Tonight Will Be Fine"--and I borrowed money to go there. On my way to Nashville I stopped through New York and heard Judy Collins, Phil Ochs and Tim Buckley, Bob Dylan. I'd never heard these singers before, and of course they spoke to my heart.

I played some songs for Judy Collins. She was interested but said, "These aren't quite what I'm looking for; but if you write anything else, please let me see it." So I went back to Montreal and finished "Suzanne."

With that song, did you feel as if you'd finally found your voice, found a starting point?
I sang it for Judy Collins over the phone from my mother's house, and she said she'd like to record it. It was on the basis of her recording that I was able to meet John Hammond, who gave me a contract with CBS. I played him "Suzanne," "Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye," and "The Stranger Song." He just sat there smiling, and after I finished he said, "You've got it."

My plan was to make a record, make some money, and go back to writing books. I had no idea I'd end up in hotel rooms for the rest of my life, banging my head against the carpet trying to find the right chord.

"Suzanne" is the first song of yours most people heard...
And the last. I'm stuck with it. "Suzanne" is very hard to sing. I can't seem to find the place to sing it from, though the song does have the Montreal landscape in it: the church by the harbor, the place we used to live by the river, and my mother's house that I still go back to. The woman there and that experience were very much a part of the emotional landscape of Montreal. Those encounters were not carnal, they were "touching her perfect body with my mind."

In Beautiful Losers, you concoct an R&B song that Gavin Gate and the Goddesses sing without ever making fun of it, as if you were elevating it to a hymn.
Well, that's the way I feel about things. People often think that I play some kind of conditional kitsch in relation to cultural artifacts, which simply isn't true. When people ask me, 'What's your favorite song?' I say "Blueberry Hill." "I found my thrill on Blueberry Hill / The moon stood still on Blueberry Hill." That's as good as it gets, as far as I know. You know everything about that moment. You know, you're continually see-sawing back and forth between the secular and the spiritual until from time to time you hit it right. It's there on "Blueberry Hill," or "Old Man River" from Ray Charles. And what is that? What is that about? Is it about work? Is it about God? Is it about love? It's impossible to say; it's been transmuted into the world, and the song doesn't invite you to examine your achievements in the realm of piety or religiosity or even love, but the song itself is embracing all those elements! Like in Beautiful Losers, there's certain moments when the lyricism and the spontaneity and the boldness allow the expression to be without self-regard, without self-consciousness, and once that happens, once that moment happens, then the embrace is absolute: Everything is embraced, nothing is left out! It's when you leave things out that you get on the one side pious, on the other side the vulgar or pornographic. If God is left out of sex, it becomes pornographic; if sex is left out of God, it becomes pious and self-righteous.

You've mentioned your son and daughter, but I've never gotten the sense that your songs were written in a home with children.
I've been very reluctant to domesticate myself. I found it very hard, and I don't know if it's a man's real nature. I think once we move into a household, we enter a female universe, and I've had great reluctance to do that. There are people who simply must protect themselves from the implications of that domestic merging.

You're not generally recognized as having a sense of humor, but many of your songs are very dry and very funny.
Yeah, I think that I get put into the computer tagged with melancholy and despair, and then every time a journalist taps up my name, that description comes up on the screen. It's also in the computer that I don't know anything about music.

Do you agonize over lines, go over and over songs for months on end?
Listen, I had this conversation with Dylan after a concert in Paris four years ago. We were in a cafe in the fourteenth arrondissement, and he said, "I want to do the song 'Hallelujah.' How long did it take you to write that?" I said, "I'm really embarrassed to tell you, it took me at least two years." And Dylan says, "I really like the song...two years, right?" And then the conversation went on, and I praised one of his songs, "I and I," and I said, "How long did it take you to write this?" And he said, "Fifteen minutes." And it's true, and they're both really good songs.

And they both take the same amount of time to listen to. Where do your songs come from? Can you go back to the same well you drew from thirty years ago?
If I knew where the songs came from I'd go there more often. It really is a job of uncovering. Unfortunately, you have to write the superficial verses completely and perfectly and flawlessly before you can discard them--because you don't know they're imperfect until you make them perfect. And that's why I wind up writing about fifty or sixty verses to "Democracy" or "Waiting for the Miracle," and ten years of verses to "Anthem"...and none of them are that great. I don't believe that the forty-eight that I discarded have gems amongst them. I don't think they're any good. I think they belong to a more superficial song, an easier song, a duller song.

Wouldn't you like to be admired without having to do all this work?
I would love to be admired without the work. And it's one of the cruel jokes, and I might say one of the comforting jokes, that one also wants to be admired for beauty, for elegance, for graceful limbs, for the music one creates out of just walking from one room to another. I mean one really would like to be loved for one's animal grace. But even if one were, that is always subject to time. So when you're involved with another kind of creation that's not entirely conditional, then there's a certain comfort in that, too. I just know that I've got to work.

One of your strategies seems to be to lead with your vulnerabilities showing.
"There's a crack in everything, that's where the light gets in." That's the closest thing I could describe to a credo. That idea is one of the foundations, one of the fundamental positions behind a lot of the songs.

In mythology, there's the idea that the artist has one image, a poem or memory that is so central to their work they can never reveal it. Do you have a fixed or central image that you draw from?
I asked Suzanne Vega the same thing when I was interviewing her for a promotional record she was putting together, and if you studied the lyrics of her new songs, and her old ones too, you'd find that she's always referring to a secret, to something that can't be said, something that can't be told. I asked her what it was, and she wouldn't tell me.

Now in my case there is no secret. Not only that, but I think that, from a certain point of view, my songs are free from meaning and significance. There's not a secret that is being concealed, there's nothing that I am not yielding. It really doesn't have a meaning any more than a diamond has a meaning. The meaning is that it was cut and polished and it produces light.

Sometimes I feel like my work is like an ice cube...you can put it in a Coke or you can put it in a scotch...it just has an effect, it's hard to say what it's getting at, I'm not sure it's getting at anything but an effect, the effect of cooling your drink, which is an urgent effect, to give comfort.

When you read stories about you, do you recognize yourself, or does it seem like they're talking about somebody else?
It feels very far from the experience of one's own life. There's no way you'd really want to present the naked shivering animal to a perfectly innocent journalist, there's no way to preserve one's dignity and really reveal the shameful and menacing experiences that produce one's own life and work.

Can we go into a few specific songs? I've always liked "Chelsea Hotel."
That was written with Janis Joplin in mind. A couple of years after she died I was in a Polynesian restaurant in Miami and the thought of her was very strong. I started writing that lyric and finished it in a town in the north of Ethiopia. I went there after the Yom Kippur War for some odd reason, and I ended up in the Imperial Hotel finishing that song, getting the last chorus: "I need you, I don't need you, and all that jiving around."

The last line seems like a slap in the face: "I remember you well at the Chelsea Hotel / That's all. I don't think of you that often."
I don't know why the truth compelled me to be so ungraceful or ungracious or even ungrateful in that final moment, but I guess that is the way it came out. I didn't want it to be just one of those elegies; I thought it deserved the truth.

What about "Famous Blue Raincoat"?
That was written on Clinton Street. I never felt I really sealed that song; I never felt the carpentry was finished. That song and "Bird on the Wire" were two songs I never successfully finished, but they were good enough to be used. Also, with the poverty of songs I have for each record, I can't afford to discard one as good as that. It's one of the better tunes I've written, but lyrically it's too mysterious, too unclear.

I like your cover of "Always" on the new record. You once told me that your ambition was to someday wear a tuxedo, stand over by a grand piano, and sing "As Time Goes By."
Did I? (laughs) "Always" is in 3/4 tempo, but every time I played it, it turned into this 4/4 R&B song. When we got into the studio, I was dispensing this drink I invented in Needles, California, called the Red Needle, and I felt we should all drink a lot of this before we recorded. It's composed of tequila and cranberry juice and fresh fruit. It's very colorful and very potent. The version you hear is the shortest version I could find because usually we played it for the entire length of the tape. We couldn't stop playing it.

Has it been strange to get so much respect in Europe and so much less here at home?
Somehow I got tagged as an art-song intellectual, and the record companies are always surprised when my records sell. I mean always surprised. My last record sold well over a million copies! So even from the point of view of greed or avarice, they don't seem to connect with the fact that this actually might sell.

Someone at CBS told me he has a note from you on his wall saying, "I don't really know how to do this, but I hear you'll be working my record, so here's two dollars."
Yeah, written with my Crayola kit. [Fredric Dannen's book] Hit Men came out and justified my joke, but I sent all the field representatives a note like that with two dollars in it, saying if you could make a couple of calls on my behalf I'd appreciate it.

I'm having so much fun now handling my own affairs. I heard that as you approach the end of middle age, the brain cells associated with anxiety begin to die, so that whether or not you become vegetarian or practice meditation or brush your teeth, you're going to start to feel better anyway, whether or not you try to make yourself a holier person. So something has snapped in my mind, and it's enabled me to have a much better time, especially in this commercial world.

Do you see the whole dialogue, the whole way that men and women deal with each other, changing?
It's bewildering. People are baffled about how to make love to one another, if they should make love to one another, if they should think about not making love to one another--the whole question is so overwhelming that many people are paralyzed.

There's a time to keep your own counsel. There's probably too much communication, and I think we've softened the edges. The word "share" is society's wife. When I hear people are willing to share with me, I want to run. Just to lay your casual and spontaneous feelings on the person next to you is not my idea of sharing. I'm trying to keep my relationships as straight as possible. Not because I want to be righteous, but because the suffering involved in misunderstandings right now is of a degree that I've never experienced before.

Within all this, one recognizes that people are really trying to figure out how to do the most essential things. That's why I like to go into a meditation lodge at five o'clock every morning. I think that's the most luxurious moment of the day, even if you're near South Central L.A., where you hear gunshots and you step over syringes to get into the place. To me, it's a voluptuous moment to be there at five in the morning, just beginning to breathe peacefully, to know that you're going to be there for a couple of hours and just sit with yourself. And I think that's as good a beginning as anything.

How can you mend a broken heart?
There ain't no cure for love. I told you that.

               

Brian Cullman's first book, Opportunity House,
will be published by Atlantic Monthly Press in 1993.

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