From Cohen's home in Montreal, Jian Ghomeshi, host of the CBC's Q, interviewed the venerable singer-poet - Cohen's only Canadian interview before his ongoing North American tour.
The one-hour interview aired Thursday, April 16, on CBC Radio One and will be re-broadcasted April 23, at 1700 ET on CBC Radio 2.
Leonard Cohen on Q TV (CBC exclusive) - "Leonard Cohen in Three Acts"
Field Notes by Lani Selick, Producer of "Leonard Cohen in Three Acts"
CBC - April 14, 2009
"Please come in, friends” he says, opening the door to his home in Montreal. “How do you do? I’m Leonard.”
There are six of us altogether, a combined CBC production crew from “The National” and radio program “Q”, here for an exclusive Canadian interview with the famously media-shy Leonard Cohen. We introduce ourselves individually and he shakes hands with each one of us in turn, repeating “How do you do? I’m Leonard”. Then, “Would anyone like a coffee? I’ve just made a fresh pot.”
We hadn’t known what to expect of the man. Negotiating the interview with Cohen’s concert promoter had been extremely tough – often unpleasant. This “handler” had given us a time, date, place and city but was vague on details. What was the specific address? How much prep time would we get before “roll”? What sort of room was on offer, and was it large or small? When we emailed a list of basic questions and mentioned what conditions would work best for optimum quality broadcast – all standard stuff - he phoned and screamed at us, then dictated a bunch of rules ranging from a nearly-impossible-to-achieve time “window” for set-up (cut corners!) to technical constraints (not a lot of cables!) to crew conduct (don’t talk to Cohen!).
So what did it mean? Was Leonard Cohen, a man who represents himself to the world as a humble Buddhist monk, really a prima “don” who demands to be treated like celebrity-royalty?
As it turns out, definitely not! Leonard Cohen is unpretentious, accommodating, and gracious before, during and after the interview.
He has owned the same house in Montreal for some 35 years, located in the old Jewish neighborhood where he grew up. It is a modest, “just folks” kind of place, the opposite of upscale and trendy. The furniture looks unremarkable and from an earlier time. There are no fancy electronics. Kitchen cupboards may well be original. The living-room door-handle needs repair. The washing machine is well used: The entire street does their laundry at his place, he says. I ask Cohen about not being here much: he owns another house in Los Angeles, where he spends much if not most of the year, plus he travels a lot, especially lately with his concert schedule. He tells me he considers this place his true home, a place that connects him to his roots and to his family. “Who takes care of it when you aren’t here?” I ask him. “My neighbours”.
Cohen’s dining room table holds two candles and a cloth with the words “Shabbat Shalom”, meaning good Sabbath, suggesting rituals for a Jewish meal on Friday evening. I ask him about this. (From my research, I know that he does not see any conflict between practicing Zen Buddhism, which he considers to be a method of inquiry, a way of investigating the “self”, and practicing Judaism, which he considers to be his religion.) He tells me that this is a tradition he likes to keep.
Overall, Leonard Cohen treats us more like guests he has invited over for an afternoon of socializing than a group of strangers who have invaded his private domain, here to do a job. After the interview is over, he offers us more coffee, olives and “hamentashen”, a Jewish pastry traditionally served at this time of year during the holiday of “Purim”. Several people have brought digital cameras. He poses for picture after picture without complaint.
I have brought a copy of “The Book of Longing” with me. I ask him if he would mind signing it. He writes: “To Lani, thank you for coming over, warm regards, Leonard Cohen, Montreal 2009.”
Leonard Cohen's victory march: but please, no more Hallelujahs
He'll tell the truth, he didn't come to fool you.
It's a rare treat to hear Canadian musical icon Leonard Cohen reflect on aging, mortality, love and financial loss. From Cohen's home in Montreal, Jian Ghomeshi, host of the CBC's Q, recently interviewed the venerable singer-poet - Cohen's only Canadian interview before his ongoing North American tour.
The one-hour interview airs Thursday, April 16, at 10 ET on CBC Radio One and will be re-broadcasted April 23, at 1700 ET on CBC Radio 2.
Below are some excerpts from their discussion:
Q: You said to the Observer newspaper that at this stage of your life you refer to as the third act. And you quoted Tennessee Williams saying `Life is a fairly well written play except for the third act.'... You were 67 when you said that, you're 74 now. Does that ring more or less true for you still?
A: Well it's well written, the beginning of the third act is... seems to be very, very well written. But the end of the third act (is) of course when the hero dies... each person considering himself the central figure of his own drama My friend, my friend Irving Layton said, he said about death, he says: It's not death that he's worried about, it's the preliminaries.''
Q: Are you worried about the preliminaries?
A:Sure, every person ought to be.
Q: But this was a brand new career for you that you were starting in your 30s. How fearful were you of starting a second career at that point?
A:Well I've been generally fearful about everything, so this just fits in with the general sense of anxiety that I always experienced in my early life... When you say I had a career as a writer or a poet, that hardly begins to describe the modesty of the enterprise in Canada at that time. You know, we often printed our books we often mimeographed our books. An edition of 200 was considered a bestseller in poems.
Q: Some people would think it's ironic to go into music to make money, given that it's not necessarily the most lucrative of professions for most artists either?
A:Yeah, I know. No, in hindsight it seems to be the height of folly. You had to resolve your economic crisis by becoming a folksinger. I don't know and I had not much of a voice either. I didn't play that great guitar either. So I don't know how these things happen in life luck has so much to do with with success and failure... I always had the notion that I had, you know, a tiny garden to cultivate. I never thought I was really one of the big guys. And so my work, the work that was in front of me was just to cultivate this tiny corner of the field that I thought I knew something about, which was something to do with self-investigation without self-indulgence. Also my own voice sounded so disagreeable to me when I listened to it that I really needed the sweetening of women's voices behind me.
Q: Let me ask you about Hallelujah for a moment because it's been an interesting year for Hallelujah. If it hadn't been a song Canadians and people around the world have been singing versions by Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright, k.d. lang, it took on a whole new energy - a song that you wrote in 1984. This past Christmas it appeared, number one and number two on the U.K. bestseller charts... These were cover versions and your own version was also on the top 40 from 1984. What did you make of that?
A: Well I was happy that the song was being used of course. There were certain ironic and amusing side bars, you know, because the record that it came from which was called Various Positions - that record Sony didn't wouldn't put out. They didn't think it was good enough... It had songs like Dancing to the End of Love, Hallelujah, If it be Your Will. But it wasn't considered good enough for the American market and it wasn't put out. So there was a certain sense of a mild sense of revenge that arose in my heart. But I don't, you know, I was happy about it but it's I was just reading a review of a movie called Watchmen that uses it and the reviewer said - ``Can we please have a moratorium on Hallelujah in movies and television shows?'' And I kind of feel the same way.
© Copyright (c) Canwest News Service
Leonard Cohen talks women, age and Hallelujah
The National Post (Canada) - March 20, 2009 by Jian Ghomeshi (Photo: Leonard Cohen at Beincassim 2008. Credit: Diego Tuson/AFP/Getty Images)
Leonard Cohen is an eternal paradox, which is to say that he is paradoxically eternal. Questions abound: Is the spry septuagenarian finally now old? Was the sage poet ever really young? How has he remained ceaselessly hip? Was there a time when his famous baritone exhibited impermanence? Does it matter? The mystery comes with the man. There is little new in suggesting Cohen is ageless, but it’s nevertheless quite something to be confronted with this actuality in person. To spend time with him is to realize that he is reassuringly human. To spend time with him asking questions is also to be reminded that he is enigmatic. He has made a career of contradiction. So at this stage, it follows that his prospective swan song also feels like a new beginning.
I’m standing outside of Cohen’s house in downtown Montreal on a sunny and crisp morning. There is little to indicate this is the long-time home of a national hero. It’s a startling insight into the proletarian nature of Canadian celebrity: No gate or security checkpoint. There’s barely a path separating the sidewalk from the front door. It is a modest old building that is comfortably integrated, like Cohen himself, into this east-end neighbourhood where he spends part of the year. I check with my crew to make sure we have arrived at the right residence. I’ve seen this place in photographs, but it looks even smaller now. And yet, as with much of Cohen’s circumstance, it very much makes sense.
How I got here is something out of Frost/Nixon. Cohen has agreed to do only one broadcast interview in North America during his world tour that began last May (it continues into the late spring of this year). The CBC has secured the exclusive chat for radio and TV and I have been chosen to do the interview to be used for my program Q on Radio One, for a special on Radio One and for The National. There have been weeks of high-level negotiations about everything from who and how many will be in the room when the cameras are rolling to the exact number of minutes that I will have with him (20, sharp). We are originally slated for Los Angeles, then Austin and then confirmed with two day’s notice to record at his home of 35 years in Montreal. That’s what Leonard wants, we’re told. I am feeling a weight of responsibility. In the preceding days I have watched and read almost every available interview that Cohen has done since his emergence as a celebrated poet before he began singing in the 1960s. I know what I want to ask, but I cannot control circumstances. What if we have no chemistry? Will the infamous Ladies’ Man be disappointed with a male interrogator? Will he be tired or unreceptive? Will he take umbrage at queries around mortality?
My mind summons up a vivid memory of watching Cohen on stage last June. It is a tour that some suggest may be his final bow. As every professional or anecdotal review from around world will tell you, it is one of the most impressive musical experiences in years. Cohen is using the occasion of his first dates in 15 years — instigated partly by financial necessities — to enrapture audiences with selections from four decades of creative wisdom. When he performs A Thousand Kisses Deep, there are tears in the eyes of punters seated near me. When he delivers Hallelujah there is collective catharsis and supplication in the hall. Suzanne brings squeals of delight at the sound of his earliest hit. Fans from various generations come to pay homage, but leave with more: the satisfaction of having experienced Cohen’s trademark sepulchral tones their finest form. This is more than nostalgia. He brought the same program to the Beacon Theatre in New York a fortnight ago. He performed for over three hours each night and his onstage mix of humility and dominion appears to come effortlessly. But is this magical persona simply the construct of a deft and experienced performer?
Back in front of the house in Montreal, we knock on the door at the agreed-upon moment (also negotiated). Then, the clouds immediately lift. There is no handler or publicist to greet us. Cohen answers himself. It is clear he wants it this way. Within 30 seconds I know that everything that has ever been said about the grace and generosity of Leonard Cohen is true. The aforementioned concerns disintegrate in the face of his largesse. The negotiated rules are immediately a memory. He gently welcomes us into his tiny home and we end up staying there for over two hours. The interview itself runs for almost 45 minutes.
The first impression is that The Man is more senior than his 74 years. He appears frail and gaunt. He moves slowly and deliberately, and he speaks with a quiet rasp. Leonard Cohen is old. The second impression (hard on the heels of the first) is that he is far more youthful than his age would suggest. Toujours jeune. His initial words to me after I introduce myself are warm and insider, “How you doin’, man? Good to see ya. C’mon, follow me, let’s get some strong coffee.” He’s all beatnik and bohemian and I suddenly feel like the square wearing a “visitor” badge at the commune. He leads me to his kitchen and then I realize that, for a moment, I’m cooler than I’ve ever been through proximity alone. Still, how is it that this spindly man in a cap, almost twice my age, is making me feel like a old stodge? Leonard Cohen is young.
If he is youthful now, Cohen was beyond his years as a songwriter in the early years. As part of his age-defying journey, it is becoming a cliché to suggest that Cohen has grown into his lyrics. The truth is that much of the material he was penning in his thirties or forties seems more appropriate for a man in his seventies to be singing. Even the nods to ageing that appear in Tower of Song (“My friends are gone, my hair is grey, I ache in places where I used to play”) are more germane to Cohen’s current place in the life trajectory than they would be when he wrote them a the age of 52.
As the crew sets up the lights and cameras, Cohen (“call me Leonard, please”) makes some fresh coffee and serves sweets neatly laid out on his square kitchen table. He is neither morose nor withdrawn in the least. The “Godfather of miserablism” (as The Independent recently deemed him) appears to be quite the opposite these days. But his affirmative spirit does mark a contrast to the desolation of much of his canon. He is forthcoming and engaged, if not a chatterbox. He is economical with his words and seems entirely preoccupied with making sure I am well fed and happy. He’s already my kindest uncle and my hippest friend. But we’ve only just met. It’s all a bit embarrassing.
When we begin the interview, Cohen is open but not transparent. He is artful at revealing enough without giving too much. Still, as we tread through territory ranging from creativity to liquidity to fidelity to mortality, his answers are refreshingly candid. He makes admissions he has not made before. It never feels like he is on message.
Early on I ask him about the tremendous success of his global tour at a time when some in the live music business are struggling; he seems genuinely grateful, but unable to accept victory as a given. “I’m just happy that it’s going well because, as you know, as a musician yourself, you never know what’s going to happen when you step on the stage. You never really know whether you’re going to be able to be the person you want to be or that the audience is going to be hospitable to the person that they perceive. So there’s so many unknowns and so many mysteries connected.”
His unwillingness to feel entitled to the success he is enjoying is a match for his characteristic modesty about his own abilities. He tells me that he used background voices on many of his recordings because he found his own voice “disagreeable” to the ear. And herein lies another Cohen contradiction. After all, this would be the same voice that is as rich and sexual as it has ever been. “Are you over the idea of your voice being disagreeable?” I ask. “No.” “Not yet?” “Not at all. Maybe sometime later in my career.” He grins. When we talk about his trepidation about getting on stage, he responds, “Well I’ve been generally fearful about everything, so this just fits in with the general sense of anxiety that I always experienced in my early life.”
A few minutes later, his modesty extends to the dramatic success of his classic composition Hallelujah, which seems to gain popularity with each passing year and took the unprecedented Nos. 1 and 2 spots on the U.K. charts simultaneously last year when it was covered by a Pop Idol winner. On Hallelujah, Cohen smiles and says, “I like the song. I think it’s a good song, but I mean, I think too many people sing it … I think people have to stop singing it for a little while.”
At one point we discuss Cohen’s long-established tendency to write poetry and songs inspired by his awe and reverence for the beauty of women. I ask whether he believes women have been a source of empowerment or weakness in his life. He answers both (of course): “We’re invited into this arena, which is a very dangerous arena, where the possibilities of humiliation and failure are ample. So there’s no fixed lesson that one can learn about the thing because the heart is always opening and closing, it’s always softening and hardening. We’re always experiencing joy or sadness.” When I follow with a query about whether, despite his famous relationships with various women, he regrets not having one single lifelong partner, he responds by singing to me, “Je ne regrette rien...”
We cover depression, posthumous advice for Kurt Cobain, his interest in rebuilding his financial affairs juxtaposed against his apparent spartan lifestyle and modest means. We talk about his favourite songs, and then, in the last third of the interview, we chat for some length about mortality. I ask him how much time he spends these days reflecting upon his mortality. He pauses. “You get a sense of it you know, the body sends a number of messages to you as you … as you get older. So I don’t know if it’s a matter of reflection, I don’t know that implies a kind of peaceful recognition of the situation. You know, occasionally there’s a stab of pain or an ache, you know, and you remember that this is not going to go on forever.”
I bring up a quotation from a previous Cohen interview, about seven years back. He had been reflecting upon seeing Alberta Hunter perform at age 82 and had said, “I love to hear an old singer lay it out and I’d love to be one of them.” I ask him if he still aspires to that. He chuckles and immediately says, “Yes! I would love to hear me at 82.”
The interview ends. We shake hands and take photos. Leonard Cohen leans over and asks if I would like to do more. “Did you get what you needed? Anything good there? I’m not sure if my mind is at its best.” I assure him we have what we need. One of our greatest wordsmiths is wondering whether he has been eloquent enough. The young man need not worry.
• Jian Ghomeshi’s feature interview with Leonard Cohen airs on CBC’s The National on April 14, Radio One’s Q on April 16 and on Radio Two April 23.
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