Leonard Cohen and the Death of Cool
By David Sprague
He was the first next Bob Dylan, the first to bring to "rock" the idea that impressionable young girls will flock to a dumpy, middle-aged shlub, providing he's got a good enough line in smooth talk, the man who made monotone semi-marketable (thereby setting the stage for lessers from Bob Smith to Barry White). Yep. Leonard Cohen's cut quite a swath through rock's rich tapestry for a guy who's released just eight albums over the course of the past quarter century.
As a depressive poet, Cohen is still peerless, as proven by the lyrics he recites from a due-in-'90, but still forthcoming, LP. His work even holds up in the hands of the new wave losers that burdened I'm Your Fan, last year's Cohen entry in the tribute alb stakes. Okay, folks like John Cale, Nick Cave and, oddly enough, Kiwi loungesters Dead Famous People seemed to "get it," but for the most part, the musos in question had little clue as to the formality, dignity and self-surrender that makes a Cohen tick: Then again, asking 'em to do so is like asking a prep schooler to "interpret" Bukowski.
From his days as a Montreal Beat poet (his first book, Let Us Compare Mythologies was issued in 1956) with a country music fetish until the 1967 release of The Songs of Leonard Cohen, he wandered across Europe, returning from his travels with (for better or worse) the concept of the beautiful loser -- which became the title of his best-selling crank epic. The past two-and-a-half decades have seen him alternate periods of total isolation with periods of, well, moderate isolation. Highlighted by a collaboration with Phil Spector--who kidnapped the tapes of 1977's Death Of A Ladies' Man at gunpoint--and a religious awakening that, like few others in popular music, produced works (like Various Positions) that might actually win a few converts, it's been a career that Cohen characterizes as "modest." Don't believe it for a minute.
Your Flesh: How did the tribute project come about?
Leonard Cohen: I had nothing at all to do with it. I didn't know when it began and I didn't know when it ended. It was the brainchild of Christian Fevrier, who is the editor of a rock magazine in Paris whose name no one can pronounce. It's a magazine that holds up the flaming torch of rock 'n' roll.
YF: Do you find it easy to let go of your songs?
LC: I'm one of those parents that's happy to let go; I'd be happy if it was made into Muzak. I don't have a sense of proprietorship, which probably stems from coming up as a folksinger where it was understood that songs develop a patina through interpretation. I feel that's the mark of excellence. I was stuck with the respect the singers paid to the arrangement or to my own delivery, which was very gratifying.
YF: Do you prefer that people abide by a strict interpretation of your work?
LC: I've never gotten over the pleasure of someone covering one of my songs. My career has really been quite modest in the world and not many people have done so. Somehow my critical faculties go into a state of suspended animation when I hear someone's covered one of my tunes. I'm not there to judge it, just to say thank you.
YF: You're known as a pretty fair interpreter yourself, given your handling of Lorca. Is it difficult for you?
LC: Unfortunately, all my efforts are painstaking. I'd prefer it if I were gifted and spontaneous and swift, but my work requires a great deal of painstaking. That's no guarantee of its quality, but it does. With the Lorca poem, the translation took 150 hours, just to get it into English that resembled--I would never presume to say duplicated--the greatness of Lorca's poem. It was a long, drawn-out affair, and the only reason I would even attempt it is my love for Lorca. I loved him as a kid; I named my daughter Lorca, so you can see this is not a casual figure in my life. She wears the same name beautifully; she is a very strange and eccentric soul...
YF: That same amount of effort must go into your own songs; let's face it, you're not exactly prolific.
LC: I wish I knew. If I knew where good songs came from, I'd go there more often. I have friends...Dylan gave a concert in Paris I happened to be at, and we met the next day and got into a lot of shop talk about writing. He was doing a song of mine called "Hallelujah" and he liked the song and asked how long it took. I was embarrassed to tell him, "I'm lying about this, but I'll say it took two years" 'cos it was more than that. The conversation went on and I praised a song of his called "I and I" and I asked him how long that took and he said "15 minutes" and I believe him. I wish I was in that tribe: Hank Williams could write songs in half an hour, or so the story goes...
YF: Did you benefit from growing up before making your public debut?
LC: I don't know if we ever grow up, but I was trained in a school of writing that no one will remember called the Montreal school of poetry. We were a bunch of poverty-stricken writers who cared a lot about poetry and nothing else since in those days there were no grants or prizes...there weren't even many women. We put out little magazines or books and read to one another and it was probably the most savage and most discerning panel of critics you could ever face. I think that's where most of my notions developed.
YF: Would it have been different if you had been forced to go to the masses from day one?
LC: We were so naive and so out of it and so far from the mainstream that we thought we were writing for the masses. There was never a sense of elitism in the groups I was in. On the contrary, a very radical sensibility informed the whole thing. In effect, we were in revolt against a literary establishment that spoke with an English accent and declared you couldn't really write great poetry unless you came out of Oxford. They didn't think people who spoke like us could write English verse. It was designed to be read by everybody. It wasn't; it was read by about 400 people.
YF: Did your concerns change when it became 400,000?
LC: Well, my bank account changed, but I don't think my concerns did. I had songs like "Suzanne" ripped off, stolen from me, I didn't make as much money as I should have, but it was still a degree I never dreamed of.
YF: The early songs were so unrelievedly sad...
LC: There is a great deal of sadness.
YF: ...Yet over the years you've developed a wonderful sense of humor, mostly about yourself...
LC: It's refreshing to hear you say that. I was reading the reviews of this in England, and there they were calling me Laughing Len and saying they oughta sell razor blades with this record...you get into the computer with this image and whenever they punch up your name, there it is.
YF: Was there a change for the better that affected your writing, making you less desperate?
LC: When things get truly desperate, you start laughing...you experience what it really means to crack up...I remember what Ben Jonson said: "I've studied all the philosophies and all the theologies but cheerfulness keeps breaking through." (Laughs) I've read that as you approach middle age, the brain cells associated with anxiety start to die--so it doesn't matter whether you go to church every Sunday or do your yoga or whatever, you'll start to feel better about yourself.
YF: There's no nastiness; do you see chinks in your armor?
LC: It's not so much armor, as it is threads, band-aids and chicken wire. Some kind of triumphant cheerfulness starts to arise; I dunno where it comes from, maybe up above, but you become able to lean on it and to laugh. Not at others, there's no point.
YF: Do you feel responsible for perpetuating, or even inventing, the myth of the beautiful loser?
LC: I do think there's a difference, but it's hard to judge. There's a blessing in traditional Judaism that I always found quite profound: It's called the blessing on hearing bad news. When you hear bad news, when you see what appears to be a loser, and before you make the determination about whether this is a guy who deserves to lose, its good to remember that blessing. When you deal with suffering, it's appropriate to be reluctant about making a judgement. In the realms of pain, it's best to keep quiet and lend a helping hand. And if you can't lend a helping hand, at least offer a silent blessing. If you can't do that, it's best to do nothing at all.
YF: You don't get hamstrung by nostalgia, do you?
LC: That's a very interesting observation and I appreciate it very much; I'm not nostalgic. There are people I know who have a very finely developed sense of nostalgia and they can draw me into moods where I look at the past in a way that's uncharacteristic. I don't look at the '60s as the good old days; people ask me "isn't it terrible what happened to the ideals of the '60s" and I have to say I don't know. Maybe it is, but during the '60s I never thought it was so great either, with the amount of charlatanism and hustling that went on--there's really nothing to regret about its passing.
When you reach a certain level of disintegration, the degree to which you can put yourself on is greatly diminished. Since you're writing to recover your self-respect in some way, to discover some sort of significance to your own life, then you find you can lie less and less. The style then takes on a certain bluntness, a certain honesty. It's no virtue, it's just that it hurts more to put yourself on.
YF: Does that sense become more acute?
LC: I think so. You get...these paradoxes are popular, but that doesn't mean they're not true: You get more vulnerable and stronger at the same time.
YF: Do you have to detach yourself or not?
LC: To really hone in, you have to detach yourself from your own cowardice, your own laziness, your own doubt. Then you take the plunge into the material and get ready to drown...or swim.
The thing that we're hungry for cannot be described by a political position right now. There is some kind of moral resurrection that people from all positions on the spectrum can participate in. I don't want my songs to be slogans for the Right, Left or middle. I want it to be a cry defined in very concrete images.
YF: That runs contrary to today's sound bite mentality.
LC: I don't have the chops to comment sociologically. Maybe I'm just getting cranky and old, but there's very little in the public realm that's not gibberish to me. There's very little real commitment--the artists are doing exactly what the politicians are doing: Staying right at the surface, not really committing to anything, just taking easy party positions. They may be on the right side, but they're offering slogans, not commitments.
YF: And they elevate "Cool" above everything else.
LC: Cool. The notion of cool has been destroying the heart for years. I remember when I came to New York for the first time in the early '50s, when cool was starting to be developed as an important position. I remember sitting in a coffee shop in the Village, and I'd heard about a new spirit, a sweet spirit and I remember sitting there taking my paper placemat and writing in big letters "KILL COOL!"
Something has crossed the threshold that we never thought would. It's inside, in us. The wind isn't howling out there anymore, it's howling within us, and everyone understands the beast has been unleashed. Extreme caution is advised.