Famous Last Words from Leonard Cohen
(The poet's final interview, he hopes.)
by Paul Saltzman
Last fall I'd heard from a friend that Leonard was passing through Toronto.
Which is generally the way people who know Leonard hear about him. A friend
will whisper to another: "Leonard's in town y'know" or "Did you hear Leonard
was in town last week?" and, as often as not, by the time you'd hear about
it Leonard Cohen would be far away.
This time the rumor's true, he's still in town, and we meet in an elegant
French restaurant where he and a writer friend are joyously immersed in a
rare seafood celebration. When I arrive they have just had their way with
wonderfully rich dishes of oysters and clams and shrimps and are elated by
the discovery of a lobster pie on the dessert menu. Leonard looks healthier
than ever. There was a time when he could describe himself as "a fat, slobby
kid of 25" but he is 37 now and in fine shape, having discovered yoga,
meditation, fasting and the general effects of eating with consideration
for the body.
He was here this time because the University of Toronto had just bought
his papers and he was spending each day sifting through the material to see
what kind of man he'd been in the early days. He was about to hit the road
again, he said, leave for Winnipeg to pick up his Toyota jeep and drive to
the mountains near Los Angeles and spend a month in a Japanese monastery.
After that he's heading for Nashville, he adds, to rehearse with a new
band for a concert tour of Europe. He's obliged to deliver two more albums
to Columbia Records and has decided the best way to honor the contract is
with two live albums produced on tour. I tell him that I'm trying to write
about him and could I come down to see him. He pauses, peers over the lobster
pie and says, "Okay, why not?" So, it's arranged. We'll get in touch and
I'll go down to Nashville during the rehearsals.
I first met Leonard Cohen just before Christmas in 1970. He was doing
a concert tour in the United States and I'd been asked to produce the four
concerts here: Massey Hall in Toronto, Carleton University in Ottawa, Place
des Arts in Montreal and a free concert in a Montreal mental hospital. Leonard
likes to play to mental patients, I was told, he admires the honesty of the
audience. "If they don't like you they just get up and leave." By this time
I was already haunted by him. Three years ago, I'd been touched, like so many others, by his music:
Suzanne takes you down
to her place by the river
and she feeds you tea and oranges
that come all the way from China
and just when you want to tell her
that you've got no love to give her
she takes you on her wavelength
and she lets the river answer
that you've always been her lover.
Later I'd read his poetry and the insane novel Beautiful Losers
and had heard him say something on CBC-TV that comes to mind now whenever
the temptation to make judgments about others arises. He said, "There's no
story so fantastic that I cannot imagine myself the hero. And there's no
story so evil that I cannot imagine myself the villain."
Just who was this obviously lost, half-crazy poet anyway? Who was he?
I wanted to know. Such sensibilities were rare, to be sought out, to be near
for a while.
We met at the Windsor Arms Hotel just off Bloor Street (the kind of place
where Gloria Swanson stays when she's in town) and Leonard seemed more rested
and healthier than he did on TV. He was trim and carried his body with a
kind of refreshing precision and talked the way he walked; aware of his own
speed. He was staying there with his group (two female singers, four musicians,
a roadie, recording engineer and equipment man).
The next day, after a very successful Massey Hall concert, we all flew
off to Ottawa. The band had the kind of weariness which comes from six
electrically intense weeks on the road. I was feeling very good and waiting
anxiously for time to share with Leonard, when the moments weren't so frantic.
There were so many things I wanted to find out.
In Ottawa the night was magical. During the second half of the concert,
the roadie Billy Donovan and I moved from the dark side of the stage to the
light near the piano. The space transformation, from dark to light, was shocking;
like opposite electrical charges. The audience disappeared into an awesome
black void in front of the stage. And powerful tension was growing between
Leonard and the darkness. Immediately, I felt terrified for him; in front,
the black entity, like some sort of energy monster, was sucking him in. I
wanted to turn up the lights and release him. The hunger of the audience
was frightening. There were signs of struggle on his face, fighting to keep
control. Then suddenly he made an emotional connection with something out
there and the night became his. Aldous Huxley's vision for mankind is to
wake up, and Leonard woke the blackness up that night. The concert was over
and the audience leaped to its feet, responding loudly and ecstatically.
Leonard slipped the guitar strap from his shoulders, stood silent for a time
and said: "It's good to be back in Canada. This is coming home and I want
to thank you for sharing this occasion."
Twenty minutes later, after the sound equipment was cleared and the gym
empty, a girl approached us nervously and asked us to take her to Leonard's
dressing room. She was reverential, entirely respectful. She followed quietly
as we made our way outside to the dressing-room stairs. There, in front of
us, were Leonard and the band laughing joyfully and throwing snowballs at
each other. She was stunned. The girl obviously couldn't reconcile this scene
with her fan's worship.
Later that night Freddy of the sound crew and I were talking very confused,
about the girl and the magic and the demanding quality of the audience, that
strange energy, and I wondered how or why Leonard put up with this kind of
exhausting tour. It was scary. We decided to go and talk to him about it.
We knew he wouldn't be confused. It was 3 a.m. when we knocked on his hotel
door. A weary voice asked who it was.
"It's Paul and Freddy...can we talk with you?"
"Can it wait until morning, man?"
We thought for a moment.
"No, not really..."
The door opened and we all sat down at the open doorway on the rug and
talked until dawn. Leonard explained that touring was "like an Italian wedding.
You kind of know the bride and maybe you've met the groom once or twice,
but you've never met anyone else that's there. And everyone gets too drunk
and eats too much. The morning after you don't remember much about the wedding.
As far as I can see this is my last tour. But the will is frail and I may
fall back and it might take 10 more tours to finally quit, or this might
Freddy and I were being familiar and intimate with Leonard, it was natural
for both of us, and I'll never forget when he turned to us and said: "Listen,
I like you boys, but don't think that because we're sitting here having a
talk like this that we're close friends. When the ancient Japanese would
meet they'd bow to each other for as much as half an hour speaking words
of greeting, gradually moving closer together, understanding the necessity
of entering another's consciousness carefully."
He held his hands up, palms outward, and he pushed his hands toward us
gently. He wanted us to be more aware of the distance between us.
Days later when the tour was over and Leonard gone, I realized the
significance of what he was saying. Friendships have been deeper for me since.
I wanted to see him again.
It was 10 below zero and Toronto was white when I left. The Delta jet
is now dropping through pink cumulus clouds over Nashville and I can see
the ripening greens and browns of the Tennessee countryside below. It is
Billy and Ron, Leonard's lead guitarist, are waiting and it's good to
see them again. We haven't seen each other since the Canadian tour. We all
happily pile into a rented Capri and drive past the nearby palatial southern
estates surrounded by manicured acres that could only be kept up with "the
right help," each property enclosed by similar stone walls built in the early
days by black slaves. Later we pass through the section of town where the
blacks live. The streets haven't been paved yet.
Studio A of Columbia Studios is a high room with sophisticated sound baffles,
mixers, synthesizers, amplifiers and all the hardware that's been good enough
to create the sounds of Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, Pete Seeger, Mike
Murphey; the list is legion. Inside Leonard's rehearsing with his band: Peter,
from San Francisco, on acoustic and electric bass, David, from California,
on acoustic guitar, and two lady singers, Lee from Toronto and Stephanie
from England. Leonard turns to me and says casually, "Hi, man." Ron takes
his place on a stool with the rest of the group, puts his electric Gretch
between his thighs and off they go into Joan of Arc. The rehearsal
would go badly that afternoon, the voices of the girls were beautiful but
they just didn't mesh with Leonard's. Eventually the girls would be told
that it just wasn't working, that the chemistry hadn't happened, that they'd
have to go home. They would be disappointed but relieved that the tension
was over. Now you could see that Leonard and Bob Johnson, his record producer
and organ player, were tired and frustrated. On his way out Leonard said
he'd see me later at the YMCA where he goes for a workout every day. Twice
a day if his body is feeling stiff and tense.
Physically relaxed after a workout at the Y, Leonard and I go over to
his hotel for food and we settle down for our first talk. Leonard needs drawing
out, he seems to be holding back, and finally he tells me about the Japanese
monastery where he has just spent five weeks. The monastery was sparse but
beautiful, high in the California mountains above the tree line, cold and
exquisite. Remarkable vegetarian cuisine was prepared by a young monk. Leonard
was up at four each morning and each day was spent in meditation and work.
The experience had given him strength, he said, not aggressive physical strength,
but a kind of power that comes from feeling directly connected inside. Now
the tour, which is to take in 23 European cities in 40 days, is a drag on
his head, an unbelievable drain he must endure. He's tired of singing love
songs that are seven years old and fed up with the music business. "I've
been trying to get out of Nashville for three years," he says, "and now I
must prepare to embrace 100,000 people on tour." Later up in his room with
his lady, Suzanne, and Ron, I notice again this reluctance to initiate
conversation. Mostly he listened, his attention happily on Suzanne's hand
caressing his foot. They're so fine together. Warm and calm and loving. She's
a lovely woman who, like Leonard, doesn't talk much. But when she does it's
clear and rings true. She says to Leonard, "You've taught me most everything
I know," and Ron adds, "He taught me more about how to take care of my guts
During the next few days I slip easily into Leonard's ritual of workouts
in the morning and rehearsals in the afternoon. Leonard and I would occasionally
take a drive in his Toyota jeep, fine times in the warm afternoon sun, but
there was a tension growing between us. A number of times we made appointments
to set up an interview for this article but he'd always put it off at the
On Sunday Suzanne left for Miami for a couple of days. Leonard came into
the control room after the afternoon rehearsal and finally suggested we get
the interview out of the way. Loading his guitar and my saddlebags into the
back of his Toyota we headed for his hotel. I could see that the talk would
be a chore for him.
We got to his room, both of us feeling pressured by the other and tense
about talking. He didn't want to speak, to be asked questions about himself.
And I didn't want to jeopardize our still fledgling friendship by being the
instrument of his discomfort. The moment was far too tense and I went out
on the balcony.
The night air slowed me down and being alone in his room gradually made
Leonard feel more at ease. When I went back in he was sitting on his double
bed and I sat down on the spare one.
It was about seven-thirty by now and we decided to set a time limit of
one hour for the conversation. We ordered a cheese sandwich and milk for
him and a tomato juice for me and while we waited I set up the cassette tape
recorder I'd brought.
The food came and we continued to talk easily as I turned on the tape
"I...I lived a lot better when I had less money. A lot more luxuriously,
and so it's very confusing, as you might imagine. My standard of living went
down as my income increased." Leonard shifted onto his side, propping his
head up with one hand and starting to eat his sandwich with the other. "Believe
me, it's just the nature of money. Money in the hands of some people can
only decrease their standard of living. I mean I lived a lot better when
I had no money. I was living in a beautiful big house on a Greek Island.
I was swimming every day; writing, working, meeting people from over the
whole world and moving around with tremendous mobility. You know, I can't
imagine anyone living any better and I was living on about $1,000 a year.
Now that I spend many times that I find myself living in hotel rooms, breathing
bad air, and very constrained as to movement."
He reached over the end of the bed, picked up his glass and drank some
milk as I asked him how he felt about Canada these days.
"It's my native land, my homeland, all the feelings one feels for one's
homeland...very tender feelings about it. I don't like hearing it being
criticized. I like to hear it praised. I return often and I live there part
of every year. It's the last home I've had."
For several years Leonard had been without a real home, constantly on
the move but now he'd just bought a house in Montreal for himself and Suzanne
and his friend Mort; he was attempting to come home.
"And the next home, too. I think we're very lucky it's not a first-rate
power and that it's...I don't know, it's my homeland, what can I say? And
it's not even Canada, it's Montreal. Not even Montreal, it's a few streets:
Belmont and Vendome. It was wonderful."
He looked warm and happy remembering his childhood and it brought to mind
his saying, a few days earlier, that his only friends besides the people
connected with his music were his childhood friends, Mort, Henry Zemel, Henry
Moskowitz. Earlier in the evening, coming out of the bathroom, he'd stopped
in front of the mirror. He looked at himself, running his fingers through
his hair, a smile growing on this face, and said with a little bounce of
energy: "I feel very boyish these days. Very boyish."
Now, sitting there seeing the traces of youthful joy on his face as he
talked about Montreal I remembered that his mother still keeps his room much
as he left it. Leonard's father died when he was young, leaving him with
a poet's sensitivity but with the premature burden of being the man of the
house. He grew up with a certain fear of settling down, but also with the
strength that comes from fulfilling such immediate and harsh demands.
I wondered if he was feeling as healthy as he seemed. He answered: "I'm
just reeling, man. I'm just reeling. Sometimes in the midst of the thing
I don't know how I do it, you know. Like I manage to get my daily life together
to get this tour together. But most of the time I'm staggering under the
blows. It's no doubt that I contrive these blows for myself. I think everyone
is responsible for their own condition. But I don't intend to stay here,
you know; I've run through a lot of programs to get myself out of here and
this is one that I'm ending because it didn't work. And it's not a question
of putting myself down. It's a question of being as accurate as possible."
"You know," he went on, "that's why I wouldn't like to intrude on anybody's
life by trying to advise them. I mean the real truth about my visions is
that I don't have any special secret. I said it in a song. 'Please understand
I never had a secret chart to get me to the heart of this or any other
Leonard finished his sandwich and I dug into some cookies and the tomato
juice. We were quiet for several minutes feeling quite relaxed with the silence
and with each other.
"Do you have a particular concept of what friendship is?"
"Well, not examining my friends' behavior but only examining my behavior
in terms of my friends. I would say that your friends are among your worst
enemies. I don't think I've been able to render my friends the kind of services
that...you know, my intent isn't pure enough; I wouldn't say I'm a good
"Are there any people who are good friends to you?"
"Yes, I have good friends, but I think they're among my worst enemies;
they help me when they harm me, and they harm me when they help me. I mean
a friendship is often a condition of mutual sympathy which reinforces weakness
and does not do anybody any good."
"But is there a friendship that is not a mutual awakening process?" I
"Well, then isn't that friendship?"
"Not for long, because it's hard to sustain. That's what I was trying
to do with this conversation, you know. If I would have been stronger, I
would have said, 'Paul, the last thing you need is to sit around talking
about these matters. Never mind the things I need, it's beyond the last thing
I need, but the last thing that you need is to talk about high things. In
another context at another age talking about it can have some value.'"
I wondered what Leonard felt his needs were and when I asked he said:
"I like that line from the Hebrew liturgy for the dead which is: 'our needs
are so manifold we dare not declare them.' Why do we dare not declare them?
We all have a sinister preoccupation with descriptions of our discomfort
and it's endless. It's endless. And it doesn't get you up. That's what's
wrong with it, that's the only thing wrong with it. It doesn't get you to
where you want to go. Period."
He tipped his glass, finishing the milk. "That's one of the reasons I
don't like speaking about myself, because you forget what you really think.
You begin to mistake the description for the feelings."
"But though I dislike talking, I'm still talking. It takes tremendous
effort of will not to. Information is one thing and the application is another.
Also it's a matter of putting yourself into an environment where you are
aided in doing the things you want to do and not tempted by the things you
do not want to do. That's why cloistered societies are established, not because
the cloister is in itself an end. But just because in a period of training
you want to give yourself a chance. If I want to give myself a chance to
develop certain strengths I don't put myself on a tour, or maybe I do to
get the full negative imprint so that I don't have to do it again. Like this
tour is the last time I will do this sort of thing."
He looked at the tape recorder, and then at me, and shifted to a more
comfortable position lying on his bed:
"And this is the last time I'd do this sort of interview. I mean this
doesn't work for me as a viable way of self-improvement. It is forbidden...it
is forbidden to talk about ways of getting high because we know that it is
contrary to the goal. There is a Sufi story about a young man going on a
journey to see a famous wise man and on his return his fellow student asked
him: 'And what did he say about transmigration of the soul?' and his friend
answered: 'I don't know. I didn't hear what he said.' 'And what did he say
about transubstantiation of matter?' 'I don't know,' his friend answered.
And his fellow student asked slightly annoyed, 'Well then why did you go?'
and his friend answered: 'To see how he ties his shoelace.'"
Leonard paused a moment and then continued: "Now that is like a real guide
to good journalism. The essence of the man never comes out of this kind of
conversation. Just because the density of the printed page does not transmit
Leonard had mentioned he was finishing a new book and when I noticed what
looked like a manuscript, I asked him about it.
"I've just written a book called The Energy Of Slaves, and in there
I say that I'm in pain. I don't say it in those words because I don't like
those words. They don't represent the real situation. It took 80 poems to
represent the situation of where I am right now. That to me totally acquits
me of any responsibility I have of keeping a record public. I put it in the
book. It's carefully worked on, you know. It's taken many years to write
and it's there. It'll be between hard covers and it'll be there for as long
as people want to keep it in circulation. It's careful and controlled and
it's what we call art."
"Why have you put it out?" I asked.
"It's my work, that's all. And part of the nature of my work is to reach
people. I mean I'm not very interested in playing to empty halls. My work
is to make songs and poems and I use whatever material I have at hand. I
don't have the luxury of a vast range of material. I'm not entirely happy
with the subject matter. I'd like to broaden my subject matter but as it
is right now I only work with what is given."
He stood up and went over to the desk, picked up his brown leather pouch
and held the thick sheaf of papers each containing carefully handwritten
poems, put them down on his bed and started looking through them. I remembered
another time in Montreal when he had read some poems to me and had said that
for years he had developed his craft so that he could write beautifully,
but that now he was not interested in writing for beauty but only for
"I am interested," he went on, "in this book's reception. I'm interested
in how it will be received almost more than any other book, because I have
the feeling that by making it public I may be making a mistake. I hope that
I will find that this gnawing feeling is wrong or that I have misread it."
"Don't you think your work might bring people to a greater awareness?"
He thought about it for a moment, and looking at me spoke with sincere
warmth: "Perhaps, but I don't think so. I mean the most important thing I
can say to you really is that you don't learn by talking. Those who know
don't talk and those who talk don't know. There's some truth to that you
know. You don't find any of the great enlightened masters sitting around
rapping. You just don't learn that way."
At that moment I went to turn off the tape machine and noticed that it
had stopped, new batteries and all. We laughed about it and Leonard rolled
onto his back saying, "It's very significant that probably the most important
thing that we have said between us tonight was not recorded."
About ten-thirty Suzanne phones from Miami. Although Leonard says love
is for the birds his face sure lit up when Suzanne was on the other end of
the phone. He said, "Hello, Little One" with such intimacy that I felt drawn
directly out of the room onto the balcony.
It's all coming down to the wire now. Home to roost. It's Tuesday night
and this is the first rehearsal with Jenny and Donna, the two new signers,
who've just got in from L.A. The excitement is so strong in here you can
touch it. The tour begins in two days. The lights are low and the garbage
can is stuffed with ice, wine and champagne. These girls have got to
Jenny is tall, with straight blond hair down to her shoulders. She stands
holding her body straight but easy, a feeling of calm to her. She came from
playing the lead in Hair in Los Angeles. Donna is a bit shorter, with
a fuller more sexual body, long light blond hair falling in natural curls
over her shoulders. She's less calm than Jenny, more in need of
The singing is going well. The first song. If it's going to come together,
it's got to be now. Leonard is looking truly adolescent. Worn brown sneakers,
favorite black slacks, old favorite grey sweater hanging loosely from his
shoulders. He's listening to the girls and smiling as he sings. Standing
at the mike, shoulders in their slight hunch, feet together, tapping, swaying
slowly from side to side. Oh you are really such a pretty little one /
I see you've gone and changed your name again. Peter, on electric bass,
is tapping away smiling, David looks happy, too. Just as I've climbed
this whole mountainside / To wash my eyelids in the rain. The music takes
off. Ron starts smiling, Bob too. Oh so long Marianne / It's time that
we began / To laugh / and cry / and cry / and laugh / about it all again.
The new girls respond beautifully and they sing the last refrain again.
The song finished, Leonard turns to the girls, he's smiling, delighted.
"Fabulous...fabulous...just fabulous," he can't get over how well the song
went. He's shaking the girls' hands saying, "Congratulations." He's just
like a kid, he's so happy. People break to get some drink, but Leonard is
too excited. "Com'on, let's keep going. Hey seriously that was fabulous.
I'm so excited I've lost the capo from my guitar." He is stumbling around
through the mike booms and chairs looking on the floor and table and chairs
for his capo. "Hey, anyone seen my capo...?" The girls are giggling they're
so happy it's come together. Leonard is still stumbling around: "Those sounds
were so beautiful I couldn't sing, like music to my ears...I'm so happy there
are voices out there, the voices came." He's standing still now, overcome.
They get back together, Leonard saying, "Let's do Thin Green
Candle...no, no, let's do Joan of Arc." They begin and suddenly
in mid-verse Leonard stops: "I'm sorry we might as well cool this right now,
I can't sing. It's too beautiful." They look at each other. "The reason I
need girls to sing with me is that my voice depresses me." Donna protests.
"No...no," but Leonard goes on, "No, seriously, that's the truth. I need
your voices to sweeten mine. No really, that's the truth. So please try to
sing something simple in harmony with my voice." And they swing back into
another song...and it works.
It's around midnight the next day and we're all packing up to leave the
studio for the last time. What I've realized after this time with Leonard
is that he's searching for the matter of which he is made. And I don't mean
that in any sci-fi sense. It simply means that there are many parts of Leonard
Cohen that Leonard doesn't like, even hates. Once when we were talking I
asked him if he liked himself. He thought for a moment and said: "I like
my true self." I took that to mean that like most of us he had made for himself
a number of selves, public facades, heroic images, romantic possibilities
but was now in the process of stripping them away to become his true self.
Somewhere back there, perhaps in his twenties when he began replacing the
slobby body with this one, he began a long uphill battle to bring himself
together. Quieting the internal strife frees the spirit; Leonard is constantly
refining his techniques for getting high. Drugs don't work anymore. Neither
does public acclaim, or the music industry, or scientology (which he once
was into), but yoga, fasting and his writing help. So does Suzanne. The process
is ongoing and more profound as the years pass. You can see it on his face.
Refining. Always refining. And that's why I search out Leonard. Why I love
the man. Leonard knows a lot about searching, and I'm trying to become better
at it myself. He turned me onto it. My brother crystallized it when he took
me aside one day and said: "You don't like yourself very much. That's why
you run around, you're afraid if you slow down you'll find out there's nothing
to you...but there is."
I say so long to everyone in the studio and walk over to Leonard. We shake
hands and say a cool good-bye. Like the first time we ever said hello. Just
recognition. Another encounter. Moments shared. Nothing promised.