Leonard Cohen at the Albert Hall 1993:
A Personal Account
A Transcription of a TV Interview with Jools Holland
By Richard Cooper
The television interview transcribed below took place the day after the second of Leonard Cohen's two 1993 concerts at London's Royal Albert Hall, one of which I attended. The interview is short but sweet, so I thought a little first-hand background to the Cohen of that time might be of additional interest.
The concert was one of the highlights of my life, but I nearly missed it. To hair-tearing frustration I'd missed the press adverts for the shows, and by the time I found out about them it was a week before the gigs and they were both sold out, so I had to pay well over the odds for a seat through a London ticket agency. I was really only interested in a ticket for myself but the agency wouldn't split the only pair they had left; I was ripped off, but as far as I was concerned the concert was priceless anyway. I was 22 at the time, in love with a slightly older woman I worked with, and somehow I managed to rope her into coming with me. The woman in question was actually my second or third choice of a concert companion I invited my best friend, who when I first met him was of the "that's just music to slash your wrists to" Cohen school of appreciation, but by now was a firm devotee of I'm Your Man and The Future, but he declined on the basis that he couldn't afford the £30 that the ticket agency had charged me for the seat. In the end it was probably more appropriate that I went with a woman I was in love with, even if this relationship was an emotional one-way street. I later discovered she was having a secret affair with her boss, whom I didn't like anyway and disliked even more when I found out, but that's another story. Without wishing to be unkind, maybe her decision to accept my invitation to the concert was partly a way of playing down the rumours after all, I was no serious competition, but of course, I was secretly praying that the spirit of Leonard's song would rectify this situation.
My companion was to be great company and ended up loving the show, but the look on her face when she saw me arrive to collect her indicated that the evening might fall at yet another hurdle. With or without her by my side, as far as I was concerned, I was really attending the concert in my capacity as a pilgrim paying my respects to a great man, and albeit with my tongue halfway into my cheek accordingly I dressed for the occasion entirely in black: my best dark grey double-breasted pinstriped suit, a black shirt and a black tie I'd borrowed from my Dad. On my way in to the office to meet her from work, one of my colleagues said to me, "Are you going to a funeral?" She gaped a little when she saw me, but maybe it was only because wearing a less dramatic casual skirt and top she felt a little underdressed, an effect I certainly hadn't intended my formal attire to have. She indulged me with great sympathy though as a harmless eccentric, and we travelled along the underground through a warm May evening.
When we arrived at South Kensington station we were late and had to run through a very long and booming underground pedestrian tunnel past the resident buskers who choose it for its superb acoustics. Finally we arrived, puffed out and hot the suit and tie were suddenly less than practical and just made it into the auditorium where the band had already begun the opening song, "Dance Me to the End of Love". Our seats were in the "west choir" almost behind the stage, but on the lip of a balcony which I could lean on and get a full aerial view of the band. I was entranced by the intoxicating performance, but relaxed a little when Cohen made pungent announcements and told funny stories between the songs. There were many, but I remember two: before "Anthem", he spoke the chorus lines ("There is a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in..."), which alone got a round of applause, and preceding "Take This Waltz" Cohen told us how he named his daughter Lorca after the great poet, only for her to ironically repay him as she grew older with fittingly surreal gestures such as having her tongue pierced. At one point the voice of a middle-aged London lady cut in from the upper balconies to remonstrate with "Leonard Norman Cohen" (as she called him) about the sound, saying something incoherent about the acoustics not being very good "around the upper circle". Cohen responded, to much laughter, "I couldn't quite hear what you said, madam, but it sounded like a very intriguing proposal."
The band played so many songs that I lost count they must have played three or four separate sets over more than three hours, so it felt more like a huge feast than a concert: there was no chance of leaving this table hungry. "First We Take Manhattan" was played twice, and Cohen played a twenty-minute solo set in the middle which included "Tower of Song", whose famous line "I was born like this, I had no choice, I was born with the gift of a golden voice" was followed by a clutch of whoops to which I gladly (if uncharacteristically) contributed. In the interval I noticed in a corridor one of England's leading Bob Dylan experts, John Bauldie, who was tragically to die in a helicopter crash not long afterwards. And I overheard a gaggle of Cohen enthusiasts arranging to get together at a future date for a Cohen evening, or a "Len-in" as one of them phrased it.
Cohen closed the show saying he had no idea when he would be back again, but as he tended to tour only once about every five years he said "See you in another five years." My companion for the evening thankfully loved the show, although it must go on record that I completely failed to get off with her. It hardly mattered though, as we joined in spirit for those three hours and I did perhaps introduce her to some fine music and a great man she may never have discovered otherwise. "See you in another five years," she said to me as a parting shot that night. In fact I did of course see her the next day at work, but she left the company shortly afterwards along with her creepy boss, and I've never seen her since. I saw him though one time, and he was with someone else. So, Sally, if you're reading this and lonesome, and you fancy reminiscing over a bottle of something and a little Leonard oozing in the background, I'm a little older now than I was then. I promise I won't wear black again. Unless you want me to, that is...
This is a fairly literal transcription of an interview with Jools Holland that Leonard Cohen gave in 1993 on Holland's sublime BBC TV music show, "Later With Jools Holland", during The Future tour. In addition to Cohen, the show features Shara Nelson, Roddy Frame & Aztec Camera, and Jellyfish. The theme music of the show is less a set piece than all the artists jamming on a funky theme suggested by Holland's piano, and as the programme opens Cohen is seen grooving in a pair of shades with his singers Perla Batalla and Julie Christensen; it's as close as he probably ever gets to dancing (at least publicly). After announcing the list of artists on the show, Holland introduces Cohen and his band (the full eight-piece line-up of The Future tour) thus: "Over the last 30 years this artist has produced eight volumes of poetry, two novels and eleven records..." At these statistics, Perla Batalla casts Cohen an inscrutable look. All the band are dressed in black and Cohen's shock of cropped white hair is offset by a dark grey pinstriped suit, grey shirt and dark spotted tie: this may have been nearly ten years ago but he looks timeless, his clothes and demeanour as ever announcing dignity and class. "Democracy" begins with the girls singing the refrain "Sail on, sail on..." unaccompanied, and the band goes into a surging version heartily applauded by the audience. After a few songs from the other artists, Holland and Cohen share Holland's piano stool, and the following interview takes place.
Jools Holland: We're very fortunate enough to have Leonard Cohen with us. You've just played two nights at the Albert Hall?
Leonard Cohen: That's right.
JH: Was that good?
LC: Oh, very very, ah... yeah, it was good.
JH: Your unusual thing in music in that you are a genuine poet, and a songwriter. What was the first thing that influenced you? Was it literature, or was it music?
LC: Country music. I used to listen to this radio station, Wheeling, West Virginia. You know, under the covers when your parents couldn't hear you, you could get those stations late at night, those country stations.
JH: What sort of artists would you listen to?
LC: Oh, Merle Haggard, Hank Snow, Roy Acuff, all the old country stars.
JH: And then what got you into poetry?
LC: Well, I don't know. I thought that was the way to kind of win women's hearts.
JH: Did it work?
LC: Yes it did.
(pause; single male laugh from audience)
JH: Ah. I must try that.
LC: You must, yes.
JH: You've written many, you've written two very successful novels and I think eight volumes of poetry.
LC: Something like that, yeah.
JH: But you haven't written any books for a long time.
LC: Well I just have a book coming out called Stranger Music which is an anthology of a whole lotta stuff, you know, going from the age of fifteen to fifty-eight, a kind of compilation.
JH: Do you veer into the Roy Acuff and Hank Snow and those people?
LC: Well, I strive to achieve their simplicity and sincerity of thought.
JH: Is that what is the job of a poet? Is that what it is?
LC: Ah, search me.
JH: Okay. Good to know. (pause, low chuckles in audience) Now I think we've got a clip of you in 1967, neither of us have seen it yet, with Julie Felix, in 1967.
LC: (impressed) No kidding!
(Runs clip of the TV show featuring Cohen, wearing a grey jacket and a white roll-neck jumper, with Julie Felix, who wears a very short blue dress, playing the last verse of "Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye". Cohen is looking down as he plays and Felix is looking at his face as if trying to meet his eyes. Her voice almost drowns his out, although his Spanish guitar is louder than her steel-stringed instrument. It's a beautiful version. The camera cuts back to Cohen in the studio watching the clip obviously with some affection and pleasure, almost imperceptibly mouthing the words to the song. The clip over, the audience applauds.)
JH: That was a fantastic song. Have you seen that recently?
LC: I haven't I never saw it, you know. I remember the evening, it was the first television show that I ever did in England, and one of the first I ever did anywhere. And Julie Felix invited me over to do it. So I have never seen that clip.
JH: Interesting. You were saying your "chops"? What did you mean? (JH evidently referring to something LC said to him while the clip was running)
LC: I have like one or two things I can you know there's an expression of "chops", which musicians have to designate their excellence, their skill, and you say, like, "a musician has great chops". Well, I have one "chop". So you know, er, I'm demonstrating my "chop" there.
JH: (looking again at image of LC and Felix on video monitor) Beautifully demonstrated there, beautifully demonstrated.
LC: That's the only one I got.
JH: (trying to start another question) Now, you've lived... (Audience's mirthful response to LC's comment forces JH to readdress the "chops" issue) But you only need one beautiful chop surely, and then lots of poetry.
LC: Yeah, that's it. It's served me well.
JH: Now you've lived all over the world as well, I believe. You even lived in London, I think at the Albert Hall you were talking about when you lived in London.
LC: Well, I lived in London, and my delightful landlady was at the concert last night, her name is Stella Pullman, and she gave me a couch in her sitting room when I first got to London in '59, and she said, you know, "What are you supposed to be here for?" I said "A writer." She said, "If you write your three pages a day you can stay." So she supervised, tyrannically, the production of those three pages, and er... (smiling to himself but going quiet) It's not very interesting but...
JH: Well it is to me! Was it good what you wrote, were you pleased with what you wrote?
LC: Well, er uh ah, it's not what I wrote, it was that Stella Pullman had this wonderful and nourishing influence and trained me to be a disciplined worker.
JH: Why, what did she do?
LC: She...she said she was going to throw me out on the street if I didn't do those three pages every day!
JH: Oh that's good, there you are you see. What sort of places did you like living in most of all? You lived in Greece as well, I believe.
LC: I lived in Greece for many years, and Montreal. I love Montreal, and I love, er, Los Angeles.
JH: Is America a good place for poets?
LC: Los Angeles is a terrific place to live, you know. Because uh, well it's, it's right on the edge of destruction, you know. The ground itself is trembling, you know. The landscape is about to blow apart, you know. The social fabric is about to tear, and er, many novelists have documented the fragmentation of the psyche. So it's a place right at the edge of things where everything is about to fall apart, and it's a very nourishing place for that reason.
JH: But now, most of us...if you were an estate agent and you said those things, they'd think, now, that's not such a good place to live. But you like that about a place?
LC: I like that about that place, yeah.
JH: Are you an optimistic person do you think?
LC: (sighs) Well, you know, I think those descriptions are kind of obsolete these days you know...er, everybody's kind of hanging onto their broken orange crate in the flood, and when you pass someone else, you know to declare yourself an optimist or a pessimist, or pro-abortion or against abortion, or a conservative or a liberal, you know... these descriptions are obsolete in the face of the catastrophe that everybody's really dealing with.
JH: I think all we can say is - you're going to do I think sixty shows now or something.
LC: That's right, yeah.
JH: Enormous world tour, we just all wish you much luck on your world tour, and we hope that Los Angeles stays safe for you for your return.
LC: Thank you so much.
Holland mentions that Cohen will be performing again later, and after a few more (excellent) numbers from the other artists, Holland reintroduces Cohen and the band: "So now with the title song from his latest album, The Future, please welcome Leonard Cohen." Cohen begins the song by saying unaccompanied, "I've seen the future, brother; it is murder." It's a very understated, cool and funky version. In the song he replaces the line "Give me crack and anal sex" with "Give me crack and careless sex", presumably at the behest of the BBC. When he sings the line "Love's the only engine of survival", Perla Batalla gives him a very slinky look.
When the song's finished Holland reappears to say "Great poet, songwriter Leonard Cohen", and closes the show by thanking all the artists one by one, during audience applause for whom Cohen can be heard to add gravelly cheers, especially for Aztec Camera, and "Ian", Jools Holland's piano. Holland says goodnight and pays tribute to "the very brave" Roddy Frame for his recent stint supporting Bob Dylan "with only an acoustic guitar", ruminating unwisely on the possibility that Dylan may appear on next week's show, and ultimately forced to backtrack: "No, no, he won't."
Finally Holland introduces Cohen once more for the show's closing song, "Dance Me to the End of Love", which Cohen opens with a sombre keyboard motif. For the second verse Cohen duets with Julie Christensen, and with Perla Batalla for the third. JC and LC look into each other's eyes for their duet, but LC and PB both close their eyes for theirs. As they sing the middle and final choruses of the song, Batalla and Cohen look out into the studio with wide, warm smiles.
TV programme © BBC Television 1993
Song quotes © Leonard Cohen/Stranger Music
All other text © Richard Cooper 2000