I buy what I'm told:
From the latest hit,
To the wisdom of old.
But I'm always alone.
And my heart is like ice.
And it's crowded and cold
In My Secret Life.
"In My Secret Life"
The following transcript is the product of the diligent and devoted efforts of a Cohen loyalist who wishes to remain anonymous. Thank you, friend, for sharing with us this most important and memorable glimpse of Leonard. Thanks also to Jarkko for what is mentioned herein and what isn't.
Stina Lundberg: Why do you think women have been so kind to you? Why do you think they want to show themselves naked?
"I failed as a monk, thank God..."
Stina Lundberg Interviews Leonard Cohen
Leonard Cohen: Well, I'm not the only guy who has this experience. This is what goes on between men and women. I don't want to break this news to you, Stina.
SL: ...but it is not news either that you have a special gift, that you have an abundance of women that will happily do that for you...
LC: Where are they now that we need them?
SL: Well I have lots of friends at home...
(An extract of "Tower of Song" plays over a previous film of Stina with Leonard at Mt. Baldy when Leonard was still an active monk there; he has shaven head and dark robes. Stina narrates over this extract in Finnish. Leonard is seen in his monk's quarters offering Stina a drink.)
LC: I've got whisky.
SL: Whisky, please.
LC: Yeah, now you're talking.
(They clink glasses three times.)
LC: Now, let's get down to business, kid.
(Stina continues her narration over film of Leonard as a monk putting his trousers on. This cuts to the present film featuring Leonard and Stina walking at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris as an extract from "Here It Is" plays. Then we're back to the current interview, which appears to take place in a hotel lobby. Leonard has cropped silver hair and wears a dark pin-striped double-breasted suit, dark blue shirt and striped grey tie. Throughout, he drinks water from a large wine glass and smokes what appear to be Marlboro Menthols.)
LC: One of the wonderful things that happened to me up on Mount Baldy is that I discovered that I had no religious aptitude, you know, that I wasn't really a religious man; that I didn't have that gift, that I really didn't have the gift for that kind of life. Although I love it in many ways.
SL: So in a way you can say that you failed as a monk.
LC: Yeah - thank God...
LC: Well, I think one of the qualities of that kind of life is to recognise that you fail. You know, young monks, young students come with very sublime religious aspirations, and those are quickly overthrown. I think everybody has that experience, both young and old, of an uncomfortable quality to one's life, a sense of defeat, and that can either embitter you, as it does to some, or it can open your heart as it does to other more fortunate people. I'm lucky to be one of those people.
SL: So being back on Boogie Street - ?
LC: It's very nice here. It's very nice on Boogie Street. But up there is Boogie Street too. It's - er... you know, a monastery, the kind that Roshi runs in any case, it's more like a hospital.
SL: And he's the doctor.
LC: And he's the doctor, yeah.
SL: And what does he cure?
LC: (thinks) He cures the illusion that you're sick. (profound pause) And he was successful in my case. He cured the illusion that I needed his teachings.
SL: What were the sicknesses that you thought you had?
LC: I guess the same sicknesses everybody has - that you don't get what you want, and if you do get it, it isn't what you wanted. The objects of your desire continually escape you. There's some wisdom, some path that if you could only embrace it, you could extract yourself from distress and suffering. All these aspirations that all of us nourish. That there's another life that would be better, that another way would be better, another lover would be better, another métier would be better... this idea that there is something to grasp.
SL: And you were a victim of that illusionment?
LC: I was a specialist.
SL: A specialist! Even better...
SL: ...than most of us. Because, you had more of it, you had more of the fame and the money and the women...
LC: Maybe that's so. That's so. I think everybody experiences the same kind of longing, and dissatisfaction, I think it's -
SL: No matter how much you have?
LC: No matter how much you have. I don't know if it's any more bitter when you have a lot than when you have a little. I don't think we have the standard to be able to judge who's suffering more, but I think we can take it for granted that everybody suffers a sense of something left undone, unfelt, unexperienced. And mostly it's in the West, where we don't experience famine, and other kinds of natural disasters as often, it usually is on the level of the heart. We don't feel we love enough, or have enough love.
(An extract from the "First We Take Manhattan" video plays.)
SL: How do you cope with that discipline - the rules and the regulations at the monastery?
LC: Well, it's lovely to sleep in past three o'clock in the morning, it's a delicious feeling. Although I often get up at three just out of habit. But, that kind of discipline I never lacked; I was always disciplined in regard to my work. It was the wider sense of a life. And I put on a pretty good show, I mean my cover story was pretty good, it looked like my life was orderly, because it revolved around writing and recording, but the interior sense I had was of deep disorder. I'd been drinking a lot - on tour I tend to drink and sing, which is a nice part of the whole process but I'd gone overboard a bit. And I was at loose ends and I needed some kind of form. And they [Mt. Baldy] got that in spades. (laughs)
(Another extract from the previous Stina/Leonard film at Mt. Baldy plays. Leonard is sitting in a hall in his robes.)
LC [in previous film]: First time I came here, I was in real trouble. The head monk was German. They'd be waking me up very, very early in the morning. We were building this dining hall over there, or repairing it, and there were no windows, and the snow would come in over your rice, and you'd be walking through the ice in sandals, and they'd be beating you in the zendo, and I thought...
SL: Why beating you?
LC: Well it appeared to be beating me at that time - when you fall asleep or you doze or your posture would decay, they'd come over with a stick - I'll show you that stick - and they'd strike you very sharply twice on either shoulder, and it felt like getting beaten to me... Anyways, it all seemed like the revenge of World War II. They had a bunch of American kids up here and they were torturing them to death....
LC: ...and I didn't want any part of it, so...
(The original recording of "Suzanne" plays over another extract from this film, with Leonard walking around Mt. Baldy in the rain with Stina, holding an umbrella over her head, and taking her into a hall where he serves her some soup and bread. Then we cut back to the current interview again.)
LC: My association with the community of course doesn't end. I see Roshi a lot. Like, he was down in Los Angeles, he wasn't feeling well, so I made him the chicken soup that he likes...
SL: A Jewish kind of chicken soup?
LC: Yeah, my mother's recipe. I guess the only difference is that I skin the chicken first before I boil it, to remove a bit of the fat, but more or less the same. And Roshi doesn't really like garlic...
LC: No, he doesn't like garlic.
SL: What a pity.
LC: Nobody's perfect.
SL: Were you afraid to tell Roshi that you were going to leave the monastery?
LC: I wasn't afraid, but I was concerned.
SL: Did you think he was going to get disappointed?
LC: Well he granted me permission very reluctantly. We had dinner, a formal dinner, all the monks, all the senior monks were there. After they left he said to me, "Jikan, after you left, half of me died."
SL: But you have a very, very deep and close relation[ship]?
LC: I love him.
SL: Is there anyone that you love more than him?
LC: (pause) It's easier to love having had that relationship with Roshi, because that's what he's all about. It's not a sentimental love, it's a kind of impersonal love. What Roshi loves in you is not necessarily who you think you are, but what you really are; he loves that and allows you through that love to locate it. I think that's the most selfless kind of love. He loves what you really are.
SL: Can you love somebody for who he or she really is?
LC: It's not really in your hands...that understanding deepens slowly, I think, as you get older...
SL: You're still young in these matters.
LC: Yeah, and I think love is all overlooking. I think to love you have to overlook everything. You have to forget about most things.
SL: And forgive.
LC: And forgive, yeah.
(An extract from the "Dance Me To The End Of Love" video plays.)
SL: You've written some poems in the monastery. One of my favourites is very short... I don't know if you'd like to read it… (proffers manuscript of "The Sweetest Little Song"; like the other poems read out in this interview it appears to be printed directly from The Leonard Cohen Files website, and Leonard puts on a pair of unfashionable prescription sunglasses to read.)
LC: Oh, er...
SL: I think you probably...
LC: "The Sweetest Little Song"... but I like the drawing though [Leonard's own illustration, a naked woman in a bathtub]. (reads)
You go your way
I'll go your way too
Yeah, I think that is the kernel of a love poem. That is the sweetest thing you can hear from someone. The Japanese - Roshi told me, I don't know if it's a Japanese thing, but he has a saying: "Husband and wife drinking tea. Your smile, my smile. Your tears, my tears." I guess it's the description of a real union.
SL: But are you a better lover today?
LC: I'm very grateful because some kind of relaxation overtook me when I realised I was no longer a religious seeker. It's not so much that I got what I was looking for but the search itself dissolved. And with that came this sense of relaxation, and when one is - I don't mean I don't get bummed out and frustrated, but the background is somehow relaxed now.
SL: I think your sense of humour has developed a lot. A lot of the new poems are very...
LC: Some of them are funny.
SL: Very funny!
LC: My friends always thought I had a sense of humour. You know, I got the reputation - and I think it's not altogether illegitimate, because my songs were about stressful conditions, sometimes with no resolution - I think a lot of them had a dark feeling. I hoped that the writing of the song penetrated the darkness somehow, but for a lot of people it didn't. So I understand that I got labelled as a depressed, pessimistic sort of guy.
SL: But you were not.
LC: Ah, no, I wasn't.
SL: I think you said somewhere that you wanted to kind of keep a diary of your life, you wanted to report...
LC: It seems to be the nature of the work, as a kind of diary keeper, a kind of journal keeper.
SL: But aren't you too shy to keep an honest diary?
LC: I may be too dishonest to keep an honest diary, but I'm not too shy! (laughs)
SL: Are you dishonest?
LC: (pause) One is struggling with that all the time, especially in this kind of work, because there's - every writer learns certain tricks, so that's okay, there's certain techniques and tricks that you have, but... and maybe you can fool others but there's a certain, there's a certain... you can't fool yourself in these matters, and you don't want to fool yourself, so you keep digging for the authentic tone. But "liar", of course, you can't - it's unfair to present yourself socially with brutal honesty. It's like if someone asks you "How are you?" - and you tell them! You know, they don't - it's unfair to tell people how you are!
(Extract of "My Secret Life" video plays.)
LC: It's called "The Correct Attitude." (reads)
Except for a couple of hours
in the morning
which I passed in the company
of a sage
I stayed in bed
only a few mouthfuls of water
"you are a fine looking old man"
I said to myself in the mirror
"and what is more
you have the correct attitude
You don't care if it ends
or if it goes on
And as for the women
and the music
there will be plenty of that
Then I went to the Mosque
to express my gratitude
Haven't read that since I wrote it!
SL: Is that true, or is it - ?
LC: It's just a joke, you know. It's all just a joke.
SL: But do you have the correct attitude? Do you care if it ends or if it goes on?
LC: (long pause) Not really. (longer pause, gazing at Stina) Do you?
SL: Sometimes I don't, sometimes I do.
LC: Yeah, well, that's it. I think your answer is better.
SL: But it's not interesting.
LC: Yeah, it is.
SL: So when you were a little kid...
LC: It takes two people to answer that question.
SL: So when you were little, were you more known as a funny little bloke or were you this serious little chap?
LC: I don't know... the epoch, the era, the time that I grew up, psychological profiles were not fashionable. You just followed orders, more or less, and whatever you could do on the sly you did. But it was a pretty disciplined kind of existence when I was a kid. There wasn't the kind of youth rebellion that we see today, and authority and parental control were very strong, and nobody cared what your inner condition was as long as your shoes were underneath your bed in the right way... yeah. No, we weren't close to our parents, we didn't really discuss our inner condition with our parents. It was a very wise kind of upbringing, it didn't invite self-indulgence.
SL: But you learned discipline?
LC: Er - you learned good manners, you know, which is better than discipline.
SL: And your dog?
LC: My dog? Oh, uh, I'm very happy these days because my daughter, who lives in the same house as I do, she has two dogs. And I love dogs and she's brought two dogs into my life, it's really wonderful, and I play with them every day and teach them tricks.
SL: What kind of dogs?
LC: Mutts. Just street dogs. She got them from the pound.
SL: Did you have a dog when you were little?
LC: Yes, I had a Scottie, Scottish terrier. His name was, my mother named him, Tovarich, "comrad". We called him Tinky. And yes, a very - I guess the closest being to me during my childhood. The dog would sleep under my bed and follow me to school, and wait for me. So that was a great sense of companionship.
SL: Because you sometimes write about the dog.
LC: Well I have his picture on my dresser in Los Angeles. We loved that dog. My sister gave me his picture framed as a present.
SL: And what happened when he died?
LC: He died when he was about 13 years old, which is quite old for a dog. And he just asked to go out one night - you know how a dog will just go and stand beside the door? - so we opened the door, it was a winter night, and he walked out, and we never saw him again. And it was very distressing. I put ads in the newspaper, and people would say, "Yes, we have found a Scottie," and you'd drive 50 miles and it wouldn't be your Scottie. And we only found him in the springtime when the snow melted, and the smell came from under the neighbour's porch. He'd just gone outside, and gone under the neighbour's porch to die. It was some kind of charity to his owners.
(A cute photo of Leonard as a toddler with "Tinky" is displayed.)
"Sorrows of the Elderly"
The old are kind
but the young are hot.
Love may be blind
but Desire is not.
"Sorrows of the Elderly" (chuckles)
SL: Can you explain it?
LC: Oh, it's just a joke. On us.
SL: On the elderly?
LC: On the elderly.
SL: I asked a couple of my female friends to help me with questions to you, and they all had the same question. (pause)
LC: What is the question?
SL: "Ask him if he wants to make love to me."
LC: (chuckles) Ah, I'm not so active in this front anymore. But I suppose I could make an exception.
SL: So I'll tell them that. I was a bit surprised actually, because I mean, now, for the last, since '93 you've been so much into the spiritual world, but [when] I talked to you last, we talked about some very spiritual matters, but it seems you still come across as the ladies' man.
LC: (chuckles, shakes head) Yeah, it's a curious reputation, very inaccurate. I have, er, there are a lot of women in my life, certainly. Somehow I appreciate the competence of women, I like the way women work, so I find myself working with a woman engineer, a woman co-writer, my manager is a woman...
SL: In what way are they different from men, in their way of working?
LC: Ah, um, more selfless, not so much -
SL: Less ego?
LC: Less ego, not so much on the line. Or a more skilful negotiation with the ego. And also very quick, very very quick, which I appreciate.
SL: But you tried to kill the ladies' man in the '70s already. "Death of a Ladies' Man."
LC: Well, women took care of that.
SL: How do you mean?
LC: (chuckles) I didn't try to kill anyone. I felt I got creamed, in a certain way. But everybody has that feeling of the disaster of the heart, because nobody masters the heart, nobody's a real ladies' man, or a love gangster, nobody really gets a handle on that, your heart just cooks like shish kebab in your breast, sizzling and crackling, and too hot for the body... so those descriptions of course are easy and a kind of joke, a kind of simple description, but I haven't really met... I've known some men who have real reputations as ladies' men and who are real ladykillers, and they don't have a handle on it either. I don't think anybody feels very confident in that realm, whatever level you're operating.
SL: So how did you feel?
LC: Well the reputation was completely undeserved, for one thing. I don't think my concerns about women and about sex were any deeper or more elaborate than any other guy that I met. That seemed to be the content of most people's - you know, women are the content of men, men are the content of women, so everybody's involved in this enterprise with everything they've got, and most hanging on by the skin of their teeth...as I say, nobody masters the situation, especially if it really touches the heart, then one is in a condition of anxiety most of the time. And even the great ladies' men, and I've met some real ones - I'm not in their league. The sense of anxiety about the conquest is still very much there. Because in any case, the woman chooses.
LC: I think the woman - the woman chooses. It's been told to me that the woman chooses, and she decides within seconds of meeting the man whether or not she's going to - give herself to him. In any case I think - in most cases the woman is running the show in these matters, and I'm happy to let them have it.
(Extract of the "Closing Time" video plays.)
SL: In the Book of Longings there is a long poem, and I probably don't remember the lines right, but it is something like "My dick is the horse and my life is the chart..."
LC: Is the cart.
SL: Is the cart, sorry.
LC: Yeah, very vulgar line, I wish I hadn't written it. In fact I changed it.
SL: To what?
LC: I don't remember... what I changed it to now, because, er... I had a growing sense of dissatisfaction with that poem. I must remove it from the site (chuckles) or at least it needs more work. It came out of a time when I'd just come down from Mount Baldy and I was writing very, very quickly and with a great sense of, a kind of wild sense of freedom from the schedule, and I was blackening a lot of pages and sending them off to the website, and that's one I have to look at.
SL: Why? It's very direct.
LC: It's very direct but I think the language - it could be... it could be as direct... a little bit more musical. Try for a different music.
SL: But what did it mean? What is the content?
LC: I think the content is that, you know, that's where a man's brain is. And you know, when I watch the young, as I do because I have two young - they're not children, they're young adults - I remember going to a party that my son invited me to, and I sat there just thanking my lucky stars that I wasn't 25, because I saw this... the level of suffering at one of these events was overwhelming, you know, the mutual displays of attraction, the effort that had gone into each personal presentation, the expectations, the disappointments... it seemed to be one of the circles of hell that I was pleased not to be in.
SL: So where are you now?
LC: Well I'm not in that inner circle in any case. You know, the... nothing's over till it's over but I find myself in a graceful moment, and more or less relaxed.
SL: So you can really experience a big difference in how you tackle things now compared to earlier?
LC: Well you know, I read somewhere that as you get older the brain cells associated with anxiety begin to die.
SL: So that's why I feel so much better.
LC: Of course! I think, if that's true - in any case, in my case it seems to be true - you know you can just take it all a little more lightly.
SL: It's also very common that when you grow a little bit older you start thinking more about your childhood, and a lot of people want to get back to their roots, and you were born a Jew - did you at all experience this?
LC: I don't have those feelings. I think you get very interested in your children as you get older, and very touched by their lives.
SL: So the depressions that you've suffered from much in your earlier days - ?
LC: They've lifted. They've lifted completely.
SL: So aging is quite nice?
LC: In my case it's been a great blessing.
SL: But there must be some part [that's not so good]?
LC: I think the collapse of the body is an aspect to it. I'm not in old age, I think I'm in my good period before the onset of the diseases that eventually kill you. I think it was Tennessee Williams who said, "Life is a fairly well written play, except for the third act." It's a very bad third act. (chuckles)
SL: But for you it was the best so far.
LC: Well just beginning the third act is fine, I don't know how the third act will unfold, but it doesn't unfold very well for anybody. So I'm probably in the most graceful period that I've ever experienced before the onset of these, er, the unpleasant destruction of the body, which is inevitable...
SL: Do you see there is a big difference in aging for a man and for a woman?
LC: Women say it is. Most of the women I talk to about it say, "You're lucky, we're finished at whatever-it-is." But I know a lot of women my age who are also dealing with it very gracefully - and very gratefully. A lot of people, men and women, are just relieved that a certain aspect of the struggle is over.
SL: Which aspect is this?
LC: Um... mating, courting, marriage. Or the ceaseless search for a companion. Finally, one senses that one is alone and that it's not that bad - in fact it even may be sweet.
(An extract from a 1988 concert video plays. LC says "I wrote this song for Janis Joplin at the Chelsea Hotel," and then performs the first verse of "Chelsea Hotel #2.") SL: But don't you miss a companion?
LC: But I have companionship.
SL: But I mean don't you miss a woman in your life?
LC: Oh, there are women in my life, but...
SL: But a woman?
LC: A woman.
SL: The woman?
LC: The woman. I don't as yet. I don't know what it will be like tomorrow or next week, but at the moment I have very close friends but there's not the woman. But it's er... I don't have a sense of unbearable loneliness or any sense of anxiety about it. And sometimes women are kind enough to sleep over in a less intense capacity that I may have chosen before. So it's not as though I don't have the intimacy of women from time to time.
SL: Do you miss those intense experiences?
LC: I was never very good at enjoying it. I was drawn to those intense experiences, and obsessed with those intense experiences for much of my life, but I can't say I really enjoyed them.
SL: How did you feel about them?
LC: Well, I generally gave myself a bad review.
SL: So it was a kind of - you had to perform?
LC: I think there was an aspect of performance and a severe review of the episode. And a sense that the performance had not really been - stunning. More accurately than that, there was a sense of anxiety that was the background of the whole enterprise, and that sense of anxiety seems to have lifted. So I find I can enjoy both men and women, because even when you meet men there is a kind of war-dance going on; there is a kind of sexual dance going on with woman and a kind of war-dance going on with men. And it's very agreeable to have those dances confined to one or two steps rather than the acrobatics that usually attended them.
SL: You were never married?
LC: No, I was never married.
SL: Why not?
LC: (pause) Coward. Cowardice. I had these children, fortunately, but I never... I also grew up in period where there was a great deal of anti-authoritarian feeling, so I never... some of the people of my generation never felt they had to consult an authority or have the affirmation of a church or a state to seal their union. I guess I participated in that kind of...
SL: So you're a child of your time?
LC: Er, er... of course.
SL: You wrote once that a man never gets over the first sight of a naked woman.
LC: I think that's true, and certainly western art confirms that. And I love doing nudes also, drawings, and I marvel at the insistence of that mechanism that is placed in us, because it never disappears, and one is always shocked, stunned, surprised, delighted by that apparition of "the other", especially at the height of her reproductive capacities, that youth, that promise, that vitality - that is the great sustaining energy in the human situation. So no, we're designed not to grow tired. We don't get a chance to see it that often as we get older, but when we do - and of course the culture completely understands that, so it's continually presenting us with pictures, whether they actually occur in the flesh in our lives it's really not important anymore, because there's so many opportunities to see beauty, to see beautiful people. They're on the screen, they're on the billboards, they're everywhere, and that - I don't see that as some sort of indication of the degeneration of our civilisation, I see it as the affirmation of that mechanism that is in all of us.
Because of a few songsI was happy with that little poem.
wherein I spoke of their
women have been
to my old age.
They make a secret place
in their busy lives
and they take me there.
They become naked
in their different ways
and they say,
"Look at me, Leonard
look at me one last time."
Then they bend over the bed
and cover me up
like a baby that is shivering.
LC: I wanted to thank everybody. I wanted to thank the women who had bent over the bed and covered me up like a baby that is shivering.
(An extract from the "Take This Waltz" video plays.)
SL: But why do you think you had such a hard time reaching to the state of mind that you're in now?
LC: I don't think anybody determines it or understands it. I don't think we can really penetrate into these matters.
SL: And you're not so interested in the psychological explanation?
LC: No, I don't trust them. As I say in that song: "I know that I'm forgiven, but I don't know how I know; I don't trust my inner feelings, inner feelings come and go." I think that psychological explanations can be valuable and that psychotherapy can be valuable for some people, but the fundamental question of how and why people are as they are is something that we can't penetrate in this part of the plan, that we simply cannot grasp, and the feelings that arise - we don't determine what we're going to see next, we don't determine what we're going to hear next, taste next, feel next or think next, we don't determine, yet we have the sense that we're running the show. So if anything is relaxed in my mind it's the sense of control, or the quest for meaning. And my experience is that there is no fixed self. There's no-one whom I can locate as the real me, and dissolving the search for the real me is relaxation, is the content of peace. But these recognitions are temporary and fleeting, then we go back to thinking that we really know who we are.
SL: And who are you today?
LC: (laughs, turns up his palm) I'm your guest.
SL: The fact that you are now releasing a new album, is that because you felt the need to publish your new songs and sing your new songs, or have you responded to a demand?
LC: Er… it's my work, it's my job. I've always felt that unemployment is a great distress, both in society and in the individual. So I'm very happy to be totally and fully employed, with the same intensity as the life I lived at Mount Baldy, so this is just the fruits of that work.
SL: So what is most important for you now?
LC: Um... (long pause) It's a good question but it doesn't seem to register on my dial. I don't know what is most important - I guess the health and welfare of one's children is the most important thing. After that comes one's own health and one's own work.
SL: And then maybe to take a break right now...
LC: And then playing with the dogs has a big importance in my life. A break? Okay - you want one?
SL: I think maybe we should go out a little...
LC: I'll follow you!
SL: Okay! I'm a fast walker...
LC: I'll follow you.
(The original recording of "So Long, Marianne" plays over footage of LC and SL walking around the Arc de Triomphe and Champs Elysées, LC fingering his rosary before they cross a road.)
The titles to this programme thank among others Jarkko Arjatsalo.
"A STINA LUNDBERG PRODUKTION"
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