The following transcript is from a radio special produced by Interviews Unlimited for Sony Music, 1992. The transcript was prepared by Judith Fitzgerald.
Leonard Cohen's The Future
Interview by Bob Mackowitz
BM (Bob Mackowitz): Leonard, in my hand there is a copy of your book of poetry, The Energy of Slaves... Actually, I brought this along -- One of the things that surprised me as I picked this up was the fact it was written in 1972, just like this, I think, in a way, signalled what was to come three years later with punk and it's odd that you used the razor blades at the top of every page because the razor blade, in a sense, became a symbol of that particular movement.
LC (Leonard Cohen): These poems were written -- although the book was published in 1972 -- these poems were written a lot earlier. So, don't forget these poems were written in the midst of all this phony talk about brotherhood, new visions, and new possibilities when the hustlers had already moved in and taken over the revolution and you know, this stuff was being sold in head shops and it had pretty well evaporated. But, it was still generally accepted that something was going on and I was able to write lines like, "Welcome to this book of slaves which I wrote during your exile, you lucky son-of-a-bitch, while I had to contend with all the flabby liars of the Aquarian Age." That was going on in the full-blown expression of the Aquarian Age and I think it was kind of prophetic, this book about the way people would begin to look at the sixties and the seventies.
BM: Do you feel that your work often points to the future?
LC: Well, I know I'm in the prophecy business; but, I work so slowly, that the business is almost bankrupt. For instance, I began this song about democracy in '88 and I didn't get it out till '92. Well, by the time I got it out, the song was co-opted as a tool for the Democratic Party. It was played on the radio stations in the week of the election and it seemed to fit in with the President Elect's programme. But, hopefully, my songs will last as long as Volvos -- that's thirty years -- hopefully, my song will outlast this administration if it goes the two terms, by at least twenty-two years. So, I don't really like to attach them to a specific movement; but, maybe, just because you live with your ear to the ground when you're a lyricist. You just do pick up these things that are coming down the road and you see already people reacting to whatever hype develops out of genuine expression because it inevitably goes that way. People stand up and say something with authority and with freshness -- maybe somebody like Sid Vicious, you know, and then, seven years later it's a Coke commerical. You know, there's nothing to lament in this matter. We don't have to wring our hands about the corruption of beauty or the violation of purity. It just is the way things go... (Cue "Democracy").
LC: I have about fifty verses of "Democracy" that I discarded. It examined many many themes; it was occasioned by the collapse of the Berlin Wall. It is a song where there's no inside and no outside; this is just the life of the democracy; it isn't imposed from above; it isn't connected to a Democratic victory nor a Republican victory. It's coming through a hole in the wall, you know, it's coming through a crack. It's coming imperial, mysterious, in amorous array. It is the religion of the West. It's just started. We had this idea that democracy was going to be when the masses would quote Shakespeare and listen to Mozart. That wasn't popular wildly. We know that one's not going to happen. It is the beginning of a culture, a great culture because it will affirm other cultures and a great religion because it affirms other religions. It is part of the appetite for fraternity and for equality that we have that has been animated in our hearts by the whole experiment. We're just at the beginning of it -- just at the edge of it.
BM: A good friend of mine actually said if Leonard Cohen started out today, he would be rapping.
LC: I can't understand half the songs in the centre which is supposed to be the pop world. Either they've moved into a new stage of cryptology that I've been unable to follow and penetrate or it's just lazy or it's gotten slack or people just aren't workin' hard enough on the craft. I don't understand what they're saying most of the time. A lot of the stuff is, I think, just... lazy; but, because of the social urgencies that produce rap -- and because of the demands of rhyme and rhythm -- you get coherent statements and you get the impression of a mind, of a mind that has formed and gathered around a topic and is ready to manifest it. Another thing is that we've had twenty years or so of dance music which I think we deserved because the self-indulgences of the sixties got pretty intense. I mean, there were few geniuses like Dylan or Phil Ochs who are writing great complex songs with lots of words in them. But, lots of people scrambled and scratched up the bandwagon and, you know, we got a kind of language in our popular music that was intolerable after a while. You really couldn't figure out what they were saying. The stuff was so mystical, so obtuse, so arcane, so self-indulgent. People just got weary of listening and I think they wanted to start dancing. Well, we've been dancing for twenty years and I think everybody's tired and they want to sit down again and I think that's the way the pendulum swings. And we really want to figure out, now, what people are thinking about the way things are going.
BM: "The Future," in a way, is a very scary song for the image that kept recurring, to me, was Yeats's line, "the centre cannot hold."
LC: I think that's part of it and I think that Yeats's line, "the centre will not hold," could very well have been the sub-title of the song. I say, you know, "things are going to slide in all directions, nothing will be measured anymore. The blizzard of the world has crossed the threshold, overturned the order of the soul. When they said 'repent,' I wonder what they meant." We're not even able to hold a concept now of a resurrection mechanism; we don't even know what the concept is about, now. We can't even locate it in our mental equipment. And, I do feel that the centrality has dissolved. You know, we used to talk about the broken family. We all have experienced the broken family, now -- us! You know, the people we were talking about -- the sociologists, the acamedicians, the poets, the mental workers -- none of these things we were talking about, from an observational point of view, has stayed as objects of our conversation. They have become the environment that we ourselves are inhabiting. So, we are living a world -- in a daily life -- of such ambiguity -- ambiguity about ourselves, about our wives, our husbands, our loves, our families, our loyalties, our work -- the ambiguities have become intolerable. We are no longer outside the problem. There no longer is a distance. There is no hill to see this from -- you share one body, now, with the serpent you forbid and with the dove that you allow. We're in it. And, The Future comes out of that experience. There is no perspective on the future anymore. It is like -- Look it! -- you'll settle for the Berlin Wall. You'll settle for totalitarianism. You'll settle for the FBI. You'll settle for the ozone layer with the hole in it. You'll settle for the wrecked Amazonian forest. All these things will look good, next to what's coming down. (Cue "The Future").
LC: I mean, if I'd just nailed this lyric ["The Future"] to the Church door, like Martin Luther, it might be a cause for some trembling and menace; but, the fact is, it's married to a hot little dance track. So, you're going to dance your way through "The Future." You're going to dance your way through the whole record because the groove is honoured.
BM: Was Hank Williams an influence on you?
LC: I always loved his songs, although many of his songs I knew, I didn't even know they were written by him. Later, I found out they were written by him. Later, I got interested in his life and found out a little bit about his short life and, you know, I guess he did enter my own personal mythology a long time ago as one of the ways you could go. You know when you're starting off in any kind of profession, any kind of work, you look at the guys that have gone down the line and you see certain kinds of examples, certain models, certain tragedies you want to avoid, certain glories you would like to embrace and Hank Williams always stood there, I guess, a little more real to me than someone like Byron, who maybe had the same kind of life, or Shelley, you know -- they were young guys who produced great stuff and left... Fast!
BM: "Closing Time" -- there's such a kinetic feel to the song, both musically and verbally. In fact, I just jotted down, in some ways, it reminds me of a Bosch painting where it is, perhaps, the final dance: Blouses are coming off; people are changing partners; it's the old closing time in a country bar. It's got that "drinking-doubles-seeing-single" kind of aspect to it; but, the song is just brimming with that kind of kinetic energy.
LC: There's a lot of activity in that song. I think that's the way we experience our freedom today. It looks like freedom but it feels like death, it must be something in-between, I guess, it's closing time. I don't know about you, but I live a life that is totally consumed with ambiguity and conflict. I can't get anything straight. Anything I embrace, you know, immediately the polarity manifests and I can embrace it with the same kind of enthusiasm or shame or indifference or whatever the emotion was that caused me to embrace the former. But, it's this sense of the personal life that I've tried to bring to my songs. I think, for instance, when we hear public utterance today, like, the language of the politician or the leader. Whenever I hear a guy speaking, it's like, hasn't he heard the bad news? You don't feel that anybody's heard the bad news, that they know how people are feeling. I think everybody's experiencing their daily life now as it looks like freedom but it feels like death. Closing time. The landmarks are down. The lights are out. The catastrophe has taken place. Don't wait around for it, you know. So, what is the proper behaviour? What is the appropriate behaviour in a catastrophe when you're holding on to your orange crate and the other guy's floating by and you're holding on to this broken flag staff. What do you do? You say, I'm Conservative? I'm Liberal? I'm pro-abortion? I'm against it? It seems to be completely inappropriate to the gravity of the situation; and, I've tried to create songs, now, that are appropriate to the gravity of the situation... where there's no public utterance without the understanding that it looks like freedom but it feels like death and it's closing time. Something's gone down. You ignore it at the peril of your self-respect or of your possible rescue. (Cue "Closing Time").
BM: Well, let's talk about I'm Your Fan.
LC: Christian Fevret, who is the editor of that rock magazine in Paris (JF: Les Inrockuptibles?). He put it together. He asked me permission to do it; but, I happily gave it to him although he didn't need my permission. He asked my blessing, I should say, rather than my permission. And, of course, I gave him what blessings I could summon. It's music to my ears. First of all, you like to be loved and you like to be loved as often as you can be. In this particular racket, which we're in, we're involved in getting something across the abyss of solitude or whatever you want to call it. When the thing comes back to you, there's always a certain sweetness to it. Long before this tribute album came out, my daughter who's eighteen now -- so, I guess she was thirteen-fourteen at the time -- she was saying, "You know, Dad, a lot of the bands around are playing your stuff." She meant the young bands who didn't have contracts, garage bands. She said, "You know, a lot of them are playing your songs." I first started to hear that I was being resurrected in some tiny way -- it was a real good feeling. And, it's a good feeling, too. Yes, in the individual sense; but, also, when you're eclipsed for a while and you're out of fashion and when you're a kind of joke for a while. Then, the thing comes back. A new generation stands up and says, "Wait a second, this guy isn't a joke." That's always sweet. Of course, they'll say he's a joke again some other time. But, it's pleasant when you're not a joke and when you're touching people, sure.
BM: What do you see as your impact on music through the last thirty years?
LC: Well, I guess I'm the last one to ask about that; but, I always had secret lights in my own mental or emotional development. Like, there was a poet named Humbert Wolfe that nobody had ever heard of -- his books I discovered in a second-hand bookstore -- that I loved through the years. I guess my ambition as a writer was to be one of those writers, to be a minor poet. I don't think I ever had ambition to be a major poet. I thought major poets were people like Homer and Dante and Shakespeare whom I really couldn't get into -- I couldn't embrace their work. It was too grand for me; it didn't seem to invite me into it. I was more comfortable with minor poets, with minor emotions, with failed love affairs, and sweet observations about irrelevancies. Those were the things that I was attracted to and, I guess, I wanted to be that kind of minor poet whose book -- whose song -- would be found by somebody like myself and cherished in some kind of way. And, so, the lineage would continue. The chain that binds the generations one to another would be secure. I would just live through that kind of discovery.
BM: In some ways, the chorus to "Anthem," seems to me, to be -- if I had to go for the one kernel to extract -- the chorus, that sense that we do strive for the perfect offering, but there is a crack in everything, that's how the lights get in, through our imperfections.
LC: Yeah, I don't want to make it into a kind of... Well, it's out there so anybody can do what they want with it. I would say that you are right. That is the background of the whole record. If you had to come up with a philosophical ground, that is it. Ring the bells that still can ring. It's no excuse. The dismal situation and the future, there's no excuse for an abdication of your own personal responsibilities towards your self and your job and your love. Ring the bells that still can ring. They are few and far between. You can find 'em. Forget your perfect offering. That is the hang-up. That you're going to work this thing out. Because we confuse this idea, we've forgotten the central myth of our culture which is the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. This situation does not admit of solution, of perfection. This is not the place where you make things perfect. Neither your marriage nor your work nor anything. Nor your love of G-d nor your love of family or country. The thing is imperfect, and, worse: There is a crack in everything that you can put together -- physical objects, mental objects, constructions of any kind. But, that's where the light gets in; and, that's where the resurrection is; and, that's where the return -- that's where the repentance is. It is with the confrontation with the broken-ness of the thing (Cue "Anthem").
BM: In '67, when you decided to get into music -- for lack of a better phrase -- although, I guess, your involvement musically goes back to the early fifties; but, I wonder, generationally, why our poets became songwriters?
LC: Well, if you want to show off, like I did, you go for the widest audience possible. I'd always played music; I was in a country trio when I was a kid -- called The Buckskin Boys -- and I'd played in dance bands around Montréal and I played clarinet, so. It's not like I embraced music as an alternative. I was always involved in music. When I couldn't make a living was writing books; and, I'd received good reviews but I couldn't sell any books. In hindsight, it seems like the height of folly to address your economic problems by becoming a country singer or a singer. But, that's what I did and it did work (Cue "Always").
BM: And, moving to the other side, the Irving Berlin song, "Always." It's such a spare song. I never realised that lyrically you're talking about probably thirty or forty years here.
LC: Well, there is an introduction, the kind of patter that used to be popular in the songs of the twenties and the thirties where the guy would set up the song in some way and this really is the chorus; although, it became the song and people don't do the patter anymore, don't do that kind of set-up for it. But, there is one. It's very charming. I have a couple of improvised lines in there. I wouldn't have kept the track if it didn't have such exuberance. A number of the musicians told me it was among the happiest sessions they'd ever played. It was a good party, let me tell you.
BM: It sounds like a good one.
LC: A lot of it was occasioned by this cocktail that I mixed.
BM: And, that would be what?
LC: It's called a Red Needle which I invented in 1976 in Needles, California. It consists of cranberry juice, tequila, a little Sprite, and a lot of sliced fruit of any kind.
BM: If the songwriting/poet thing won't work out, I guess you could mix drinks.
LC: Mix drinks?
BM: That would be funny, wouldn't it, Leonard? You come up to bar...What would you like? Since you poured your heart to people for at least thirty years, Leonard, I've got a problem with my girl...
LC: Yeah, I've got just the drink for you (Cue "Tacoma Trailer").
BM: Leonard Cohen with his version of Irving Berlin's classic, "Always." Coming to the last one, "Tacoma Trailer," the instrumental coda.
LC: This was designed for a theatre piece by Ted Allen. It was part of a long suite and I kept playing the music when I was in this trailer in Tacoma. That part of the suite attached itself and started to sound better and better. Then, I thought it would just be a nice moment to unwind from a very dense and literate album.
BM: So, it serves an atmospheric function in the body of the work?
LC: I figure you can unwind before you put the record on again.
BM: My thanks to Leonard Cohen and Sony Music Canada.
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