|...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
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."
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
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?
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?
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
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.
You've mentioned your son and daughter, but I've
never gotten the sense that your songs were written in a home with
You're not generally recognized as having a sense
of humor, but many of your songs are very dry and very funny.
Do you agonize over lines, go over and over songs
for months on end?
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?
Wouldn't you like to be admired without having
to do all this work?
One of your strategies seems to be to lead with
your vulnerabilities showing.
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
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
Can we go into a few specific songs? I've always
liked "Chelsea Hotel."
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
What about "Famous Blue Raincoat"?
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."
Has it been strange to get so much respect in Europe
and so much less here at home?
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."
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?
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?
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