...Where are the poems
that led me away
from everything I loved
to stand here
naked with the thought of finding thee
"I'd Like to Read"
|The following article appeared in
Petticoat in December 30, 1972.
The Strange, Sad and Beautiful World of Leonard Cohen
By Andrew Furnival
Melancholy, perhaps depressing, the gentle, poetic appeal of Leonard Cohen's songs haunts the most insensitive of critics. But is the singer really as sad as his songs? Andrew Furnival chose a sunny day in Soho to find out.
Leonard Cohen has for long been associated with the depressing side of life. His haunted face stares at your appealingly, despairingly, from album covers and book jackets and his voice and poetry gently but persistently wind their way into the days when moods are blackest and hope is at its lowest ebb.
Yet when I met him one sunny day in Soho recently his manner matched the weather. He was quiet without being withdrawn, serious without being morbid and in fact showed quite a sense of humour, an aspect of his personality which, it turns out, is much more in evidence than you might imagine.
He is also extremely polite and goes out of his way to make one comfortable, running off to get chairs to sit on and making a point of saying thank you to anybody who lifts so much as a a finger to help him.
Nevertheless, politeness or not, Leonard is definitely worried at the moment because he thinks that he has lost the creative spark that touched off the production of so many of his songs. When I asked him what was the secret of his ability to create, he told me with a frown that the question was at the moment theoretical as he had been unable to write anything for some time and didn't really have a grasp of the process!
"There is a certain amount of conscious effort that is necessary otherwise everything would just leak away into intention and expectation," he said. "Good songs arose spontaneously so it's a matter of keeping your tools sharpened and keeping yourself ready for when they come.
"Different writers would have different techniques, different disciplinary methods, different formulae to keep them alive and receptive because there is a great drift into sleep that all of us experience as we get older. I mean life is abrasive," he adds, his eyes looking tired for a second.
"It has come down to something as mundane as writing every day, though. My experiences have been that the only way that you can write is to blacken pages, there is no other way."
"It's something that you can't talk about outside the moment, how it comes and when, how it's done exactly."
We returned to the problem in hand. "It's nothing to lament or regret," he said ruefully. "Songs are a gift and I have had my share -- if there are no more than there are no more. If there are more then I will be grateful, but it's nothing that you can speak about because these are curious events that you can't command."
For a moment we both stared at the expanse of blotting paper that lay between us on the office desk. Perhaps I suggested, it was his success that had contributed to his inability to write songs? Did he now no longer feel the need to prove himself?
"My standard of living deteriorated considerably as I made money," he admitted, "and that was a kind of trap for me because I noticed that before I had any money I was really much better."
"I was in Greece," he went on, the brown eyes staring into the middle distance.
"I had a very nice white house and a very good life, orderly and productive. Then, after I made some money I started finding myself in hotel rooms of different degrees of luxury and somehow always having to explain my activities to one person or another."
I asked him whether success had made any other difference to him.
"One necessarily feels different now and then," he replied, raising an eyebrow quizzically, "but success is an idea that is very elusive and I don't think people go around congratulating themselves on their success. At least I never have."
"Success is generally an exterior description other people have of you. When you're struggling with your own work and the struggle for it is at hand, then you don't really think too much about it except in a negative kind of way.
"You want to be at least as good as you are," he concluded.
Cohen has been criticised for putting the same kind of chords and melodies to a lot of different words. I asked him whether certain harmonies, music progressions prompted him to produce or whether he didn't find, the music that important, just the words.
"Well, I only know three or four chords," he said, trying to pass it off as a joke, but realizing he couldn't he became serious.
"I'm very interested in the music, I love the music and most of the tunes, a lot of them have more than three or four chords."
"I know a lot of them have a certain similarity but my talent is very limited," he said, frowning at the blotting paper.
"You can only work within your own limitations and I've done that. I can certainly understand it if people get a touch of monotony.
"I think that if people are interested in certain kinds of musical experience they are eventually going to be disappointed, disappointed because they need other kinds of nourishment. I don't see my music as a steady diet for anyone." Of the songs he had written, which was his favourite?
"I don't think I have a favourite but there are some I don't like," he replied.
"Sometimes the song itself is innocent but the performance I find difficult to take. I mean it will be a perfectly respectable song that I might have been able to perform in a more honest way."
I asked him about Suzanne, one of his better known songs, it seemed I said, to say most while saying least.
"It's very difficult to talk about it. It's strange how that song provokes discussion, it wasn't really the intention, it's just a song. I don't mean the song to be anything but a song.
"I don't mind that they are discussed," he smiled, "it's nice to know your songs are being discussed as long as I don't have to discuss them. My discussion of the song took place within the song and my discussion with the subject or the emotion resulted in the song. Anything I have to say about it is just superfluous to me."
Besides being very polite Cohen is also a fastidious dresser. This day he was wearing perfectly pressed cavalry twill trousers and a brushed nylon bush shirt with well-polished brown shoes.
He is at pains to point out that his singing is only one result of his life. "I always liked singing but I do a number of other things just like anybody else.
"But there's a whole life you know. This is just the evidence of the life that is led. Just like the ash of a fire; if the fire burns well it is a clean white ash, if it doesn't there are a lot of clinkers."
In fact, Leonard's other activities have him occupied twenty-four hours a day. In October he had a new book of poems published, titled Energy of Slaves which he describes as "a book of writing that was designed for the page, it wasn't designed to be sung. It has its own looks and likes to stay on the page.
"They call it poetry because the lines don't come to the end of the page," he added modestly.
In effect Energy of Slaves reflects Leonard's acquaintance with grandeur and wealth, how it has touched him and his reaction to it. It is a more self-confident book, he tries to disguise that part and the insults cut deeper than perhaps they did in the early days when one could have been forgiven for deriding his sarcasm as the product of insecurity.
Also, he is setting about editing and putting together sixty-odd hours of film that were shot earlier this year during this European concert tour so that a Cohen in Concert film can be made. He is a little discouraged at the work involved but undaunted.
And films, books and songs apart, Leonard has just finished helping to build his own house near Montreal.
Yet going home to Canada has meant forsaking the Greek island where he spent several years and where some of his best work was written. What had made him leave?
"It's hard to say why something comes to an end, you know," he tried to explain. "It just seemed to come to the end. It was clear to everyone concerned that the end had been reached so there was nothing to do but split."
"I miss Greece and I miss my house and my life there," he told me smiling happily. "I like to be in the sun and I like the sea there too, if you can arrange that."
I wondered whether becoming a commercial proposition had caused him any regrets. "There have been moments when I've felt that I've betrayed myself but I think I would have felt that from the other side too if I hadn't reach a wide audience," he said candidly. "I would then have felt that I should have put more effort into reaching people.
"And sometimes," he added seriously, "I feel I should have put more effort into reaching fewer people."
Leonard, who tells me that he writes depressing songs just because he is a complainer, not necessarily because of experiences, can point out very few likes or dislikes.
"It had never struck me that way," he told me when I asked him what he hated about life. "I'm alarmed about the same things that everybody else is. You know, the general destruction of the environment, but I can't say there's anything that I really dislike or like, it seems to be a kind of luxury."
To him self-reform is the agent of true change. "If there is going to be change that is not superficial, that does not just reflect the dominance of one party or one man, or another man or another party," he said, "it's going to come through self-reform."
However, when I asked him if he had been doing anything to reform himself he replied with a small laugh, "Yes, but not in very many ways -- in fact I'm a dismal failure at that." In the nicest possible manner of course!
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