The following article originally
appeared in the Village Voice, December 28, 1967
and was reprinted in Richard Goldstein's
Goldstein's Greatest Hits: A Book Mostly about Rock 'n' Roll.
By Richard Goldstein
An elevator man with hairy hands grumbles "shit" as he takes me up. It is a massive midtown hotel, in steep decline. The corridors are long and lit occasionally, like a cardboard coal mine. Humid ladies in black lace seem to peer from every transom, and old men with their backs turned lurk in every shadowy corner. There is a smell of stale cigars, or is it piss? I knock politely on a wafer-thin door, and wait.
Finally it opens, and Leonard Cohen, Canada's most acclaimed young poet and novelist, offers a seat and some coffee. He has been listening to a tape of the half-completed album on which he will soon make his debut as a pop star (a year ago that would have given me pause, but not today, when Leonard Bernstein picks the hits and the Partisan Review talks about "Learning from the Beatles"). His verse - collected in slim volumes perfect for pressing roses - is so unabashedly romantic that it sits among my New Directions like some later-day Ossian.
With Annie gone
Whose eyes to compare
With the morning sun?
Not that I did compare,
But I do compare
Now that she's gone.
No wonder Allen Ginsberg huffed out of a meeting with Leonard Cohen muttering, "This place looks like a ballet set." There is a shameless agility to those leaps and conceits, which seems ethereal next to the boog-a-loo of modern verse.
But Leonard Cohen is a Visceral Romantic and he can hit you unawares because his emotions are recollected in anything but tranquility. He suffers gloriously in every couplet. Even his moments of ecstasy seem predicated on hours of refined despair. Leonard does not rant; he whispers hell and you must strain to hear his agony.
Today he faces me across a hotel room with the sun shining second hand in the windows down the block. The drapes are as florid as his verse. In fact, the room could be the set for most of his poems. The bedspread is faded, and you can hear the toilet. Atop the bureau is a seashell ashtray embossed with Miami palm trees. To this pasteboard Chappaqua Leonard Cohen has added only a Madonna decal for the mirror and a terrible cold.
His front pockets bulge with tissues and Sucrets. The cold seems appropriate; his nose aches to be filled anyway. It is a huge nose, etched by some melancholy woodcarver into the hollows of his cheeks. He wipes it and wheezes gently as we hear a tape of his song "Teachers."
Though he claims he has always written with a typewriter for a guitar ("I sometimes see myself in the Court of Ferdinand, singing my songs to girls over a lute"), Leonard Cohen has been spending this past year or so creating lyrics with real melodies. He made his pop debut as Judy Collins' beautiful person. Her choice was inspired; Leonard Cohen has written her best material - songs of love and torment powerful enough to be fairy tales.
"I think my album is going to be spotty and undistinguished," he says in greeting. His eyes sag like two worn breasts. "I blame this on my total unfamiliarity with the recording studio. They tried to make my songs into music. I got put down all the time." He sits back on his bed, folds his hands in his lap, and lets his voice fade into an echo of itself: "It was a continual struggle...continual...they wanted to put me in bags. I thought I was going to crack up."
He is modestly addicted to cracking up. References to breakdowns past and future dot his conversation. He seems to judge periods in his life by his failure to cope with them. His favorite words - or those he uses most frequently - are "wiped out" and "bewildered."
"When you get wiped out - and it does happen in one's life - that's the moment...the REAL moment. Around 30 or 35 is the traditional age for the suicide of the poet, did you know? That's the age when you finally understand that the universe does not succumb to your command."
That moment magnified into theme, is the chief concern of his major novel, Beautiful Losers. It is a multisexual love story, ecstatically lyric like his poems, but deeply committed as prose to expressing its theme through an accumulation of detail. Its protagonist, a petty researcher, is victimized by the love of his wife and of his best friend. They control his life, soothe him, fuck him, teach him, cuckold him, and ultimately destroy him. Their triangle, joined on all sides, is further complicated by Catherine Tekakwitha, an Indian saint who fixes herself in the protagonist's consciousness as an extension of his wife (also an Indian) and his own suffering. Martyred by the suicides of both his lover-tormentors, our hero is left to ponder the moral of Catherine's life: suffering is madness, but it is also the sacred ground where Man encounters God. That we are all fated to walk this ground is Leonard Cohen's message. To embrace that agony of communion is to live with grace.
It begins with your family,
But soon it comes round to your soul.
Well, I've been where hanging
I think I can see where you're pinned
When you're not feeling holy
Your loneliness says that you've sinned
"Sisters of Mercy"
He was born in Montreal to a wealthy Jewish family. "I had a very Messianic childhood," he recalls. "I was told I was a descendant of Aaron, the high priest. My parents actually thought we were Cohen - the real thing. I was expected to grow into manhood leading other men."
He led himself through McGill, where he studied literature with Oxonian aplomb. A professor published a volume of his poetry on the University press, and Leonard Cohen became a writer. It was, he insists, "as accidental as that."
Because with any choice, he would have become a revolutionary. But he approached radicalism with a bad cold, and a thorough knowledge of the Tonette. Though the Montreal Communists fascinated him with their paranoia and their certainty, he was less than embraced by his chosen confreres. "They saw me as a symbol of the decline of the enemy," he recalls. "I never had that heroic revolutionary look. There was a certain openshirted quality I could never duplicate. I always looked different, maybe because my folks owned a clothing factory."
Today he wears poet's gray, and a soft worker's hat hangs on his closet door. He is getting old; the trousers of his cuffs are stapress-rolled. He watches you jot that down in the middle of a point about politics and you wonder if he knows you plan to use it.
"I'm not a writer coming to music in the twilight of his youth," he says suddenly. You look up. He begins to discuss the rock scene, then and now. Once, he thought Elvis Presley the first American singer of genius. Once, he played a Ray Charles record til it warped in the sun. Once, he thought of himself as Bob Dylan's ancestor. "It wasn't his originality which first impressed me, but his familiarity. He was a person out of my books, singing to the real guitar. Dylan was what I'd always meant by the poet - someone about whom the word was never used."
Until a short time ago, Leonard Cohen had never heard Dylan. He has spent much of the past seven years in a cottage on Hydra, Greece. He still returns there regularly for replenishment, the way F. Scott Fitzgerald's heroes go back to the mid-west. It keeps him from making too many scenes outside himself; that seems to be the scene he can make best.
Anyhow you fed her 5 McKewan Ales,
took her to your room, put the right records on,
and in an hour or two it was done.
I know all about passion and honour
but unfortunately, this had really nothing to do with either:
oh there was a passion I'm only too sure
and even a little honour
but the important thing was to cuckold Leonard Cohenů
I like that line because it's got my name in it.
"The Cuckold's Song"
He came to New York instead, thanks to a lady who is now his manager. And here he is - slaving over the songs he calls "Eastern-Country-laments," trying to make them sound the way they read. Things are happening for Leonard Cohen. "Suzanne," his best-known lyric, made the charts on a vacuous version by Noel Harrison. Two recent compositions appear on the latest Judy Collins album. And Buffy Sainte Marie will include the selections from Beautiful Losers on her next LP. Sometimes the two visit Saint Patrick's, where there is a bas-relief of Catherine Tekakwitha on one of the Cathedral doors. Buffy puts daisies in the statue's hair. "She sees the suffering in Catherine," he explains, "She feels the thumping on the sky."
If his forthcoming album is a good one, Leonard Cohen may well become one of history's odder choices for pop stardom. But the men we deem to worship are never ordinary; that is the one passion they must guard against. If the time is ripe for a guru with a cold in the ego, Leonard Cohen's modest agony will stand him in good stead.
"My songs are strangely romantic," he admits, "but so are the kids. I somehow feel that I've always waited for this generation." He pulls out a letter from a young girl who wonders over his unremitting despair. He frightens her because she senses that he has achieved an understanding of life, but he is sad despite it. She prays that the comprehension he seeks will not bring her such misery. She prays for him, and for herself, that he is really blind. And she ends by calling Leonard Cohen a "beautiful creep."
Real tears form in the corners of his eyes, but modestly they do not flow. He sighs for real. "That's what I am - a beautiful creep." He excuses himself and you grab for the letter when he is gone. That too is real.
Beautiful creep! You can't help hearing him in the toilet; he pisses in quick panting spurts. You want to put him to bed with hot milk and butter, turn up the vaporizer, and kiss him good night.
And you want to travel with him
And you want to travel blind
And you think maybe you'll trust him
For he's touched your perfect body with his mind.
Many, many thanks to Michael Prosser for providing
the text of this great and early interview with Leonard.
Both are a treasure.
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