...There was good light then
oil lamps and candles
and those little flames
that floated on a cork in olive oil
What I loved in my old life
I haven't forgotten
It lives in my spine... 

                         Days of Kindness
                         Stranger Music

...You can read by moonlight...

                 

The following article and photograph appeared in the book
Yakety Yak by Scott Cohen, 1994.



Leonard Cohen

by Scott Cohen

My Old Flame

An olive green Olivetti 22 portable typewriter, with black keys and white letters. I bought it in London for forty pounds in 1959. It's the same typewriter I used for my first book and my best works.

When I Write

Photograph by Raeanne RubensteinI like the room clean, the floors to be washed, my bed to be made, the table to be tidy. I once had drawn a bath and I put pine oil in it and I noticed the pine oil stained the water the same color as my Olivetti. I was in a mood of some extravagance and I put the typewriter in the bathtub and tried to type under water. Then I threw my manuscript for Flowers for Hitler in the bath and tried to scrub it with a nail brush. This was during a particularly tense period one winter in Montreal. Then I took the typewriter out of the bathtub and in a rage over some imagined injustices a woman had done to me, flung it across the room. (It was a small room in a small house I had rented on Pine Avenue.) The Olivetti cracked. I thought it was finished and I just stowed it in a corner of the house. About a year later I went to the Olivetti factory on Nun's Island and brought the thing to the front desk. The man there just looked at it and said "not a chance." Then -- I don't know why -- when the fellow's back was turned I walked in the factory proper, toward a workbench where an elderly man was working on some typewriters. I approached him and I said I really needed this typewriter. He told me to come back in a few weeks, and when I did he had repaired it meticulously.

A Song Written on the Olivetti

"Suzanne." I met a woman, Mary Martin, who knew me as a Canadian poet and she took me down to New York where I met various people associated with the business and they said, "Stand up, kid. Aren't you a little old for this?" Finally, she introduced me to Judy Collins. She was a star then in the circles I respected. A few months later I wrote "Suzanne" and I sang it to her over the phone. She loved it. She recorded it and that gave a certain validity to the work. Then Mary arranged for me to meet John Hammond. He came down to my room at the Chelsea Hotel and he was very sweet. I knew of the people he had brought to Columbia and I was very pleased to be in his company. He said, "What songs do you have?" so I picked up my guitar and sang a song, two songs, five songs, twelve songs, fifteen songs. Then he said he wanted to sign me.

Had I Not Written "Suzanne"

Presumably I would be broke and starving, as I was then. At thirty-two or thirty-four, whichever I was when I wrote it, I couldn't pay my grocery bills, I couldn't pay the rent, and I had a woman and child to support. Writing that song was a sheer act of desperation -- of a desperado.

Why I Write Such Sad Songs

It isn't that I choose to. This is what I am. Seriousness, rather than depression is, I think, the characteristic of my work. I like a good laugh, but I think there's enjoyment that comes through seriousness. We all know when we close the door and come into your room and you're left with your heart and your emotions, it isn't all that funny.

Why I Write the Same Old Song

I think any artist -- writer, singer, or painter -- has only one or two paintings that he does over and over.

Biggest Influence on My Music

The juke box. I lived beside jukeboxes all through the fifties. There was "The Great Pretender," "Cross Over the Road." I never knew who was singing. I never followed things that way. I still don't. I wasn't a student of music; I was a student of the restaurant I was in -- and the waitresses. The music was a part of it. I knew what number the song was.

Biggest Influences on My Typing

Liturgical, country, and folk music. I type very slow at first and work up a head of steam. I type the way I write, one word at a time.

A Couple of Places the Olivetti Has Been

New York. In 1966 I borrowed some money from a friend in Montreal and came down to the great empire, America, to try to make my way. I had written a few books and I couldn't make a living. I played in a country band and I loved country music and I had a few songs I thought were country songs and I was on my way ultimately to Nashville but I got ambushed in New York by the folk renaissance -- and got my first public appearance at the Newport Folk Festival. In New York I found this huge explosion of things and I was interested in this enlightened community being promoted in the east side of New York and I would go down there but I couldn't locate it. I walked into a club called the Dome and I saw someone singing there who looked like she inhabited a Nazi poster; it was Nico, the perfect Aryan ice queen. And there was a very handsome young man playing for her; he turned out to be Jackson Browne. I just stood there and said forget the new society, this is the woman I've been looking for. I followed her all around New York. She led me to Max's Kansas City. I met Lou Reed there and he said something very kind to me which made me feel at home. I had no particular clout in that scene. I was just a guy who was a little older than the other guys, just sniffing around like everybody else. I was very lonely and mostly interested in finding a girl. Lou came over and introduced himself and said, "I love your book." I never knew anybody knew my books because they only sold a few thousand copies in America. We were sitting at a table and some guy was bugging me, in a polite sort of way, and I was responding in a polite sort of way, and Lou Reed said to me, "Hey, man, you don't have to be nice to this guy. You don't have to be nice to anybody. You're the man who wrote 'Beautiful Losers.'" Nico eventually told me, "Look, I like young boys. You're just too old for me."

Hollywood. In 1967 I was invited to score a film. It was the first time anyone paid my way across the continent and put me up in a hotel. They even put my name on the match boxes. Then they showed me the film, but I couldn't relate to it.

Best Advice My Mother Gave Me

Before I had gone down to New York -- I was already a grownup man -- she said, "Now Leonard, you be careful of those people, they're not like we are. They're different from us." I said, "Mother, come on, don't embarrass me by giving me that kind of advice." I hadn't been living at home for about sixteen years. I thought it was very amusing and charming that she said that to me, but it turned out she was right. Some of the renaissance folk singers I met pretended to represent my interest and love my work and eventually pilfered a lot of my work -- stole all my songs -- "Suzanne," "Strangers." They tricked me. I had surrendered half of my publishing on all of the songs and all of the publishing on all of my hits.

A Couple of Places the Olivetti Has Never Been

New Mexico. I went alone and checked into a Zen monastery; there was no time for serious typing. I had met an eighty-year-old Zen master in L.A. at my friend's wedding. One of the marriage vows was not to become intoxicated. Then they broke out the sake, of which the bride and groom had to drink seven glasses in a row. A few months later I got into trouble, the kind of trouble that we all embrace but can't name. I went to the Zen master's retreat and stayed the better part of a month. It was too rigorous for me. The master was Japanese and the abbot was German and I'd find myself walking around in the snow wearing sandals at night as part of the walking meditation and thought this was the revenge of the Second World War. They got all these idealistic American kids and were torturing them. I went over the wall, but a couple of things lingered with me and I went back. It's a deep sense of doubt that drives you into the meditation hall, and often it's a self you discover and can't stand, which is why you drop it.

New York. When I went to see Walter Yetnikoff. After reviewing my dark double-breasted suit, Walter said, "Leonard, we know you're great, but we don't know if you're any good," and he turned down Various Positions for U.S. distribution because it wasn't contemporary.

How I Rate Myself

I always considered myself a minor writer. My province is small and I try to explore it very, very thoroughly. It isn't like I chose this. This is what I am. You know whether you're a high jumper or not. I know in a sense I'm a long-distance runner. I'm not going to win any sprints. I'm not going to win any high jumps or anything spectacular. I may hang in there if my health remains good and I will explore this tiny vision.

A Subject I'm Often Mistaken to Be an Expert On

Love. People in Europe and even here think, because I've written a lot of songs to women, like I was the first guy to do it, I've been pinned with the label of lover, but what they really want me to do is discuss the thing on a level that is deeper or beyond the ordinary realm of the love song, but they aren't. It puts me in the precarious position of being an authority about something that nobody is an authority on. No one masters the heart. That's why we got a million songs about this particular human activity, and in a certain way they're all fresh, whether it's a country-western wine-drinker's song or a Haydn leider about love. That's what we're all interested in . The interest persists because nobody has a real take on it. It's just a matter of longing, holding, and losing. So to enter into this realm with any sense of authority is inviting humiliation, and quite deservedly so. It's like walking on the stage naked. You got to be in pretty good shape to do that. And it takes a kind of training to speak about these very dangerous kinds of terrain. Unless I really respond authentically to the questions, which would be more or less scratching my head, I don't have any sense of ease about this subject. I don't even know what it means, "a great lover." Is it Casanova? Don Juan? Is it this guy I know who has remarkable success with women, or is it the married man? The monk? I know a man who spent twenty years in a mental hospital because a college love rejected him. Probably the greatest lover I know has never touched a woman, is a virgin at fifty.

Why I'm Not a Great Lover

There's something about the description that I find very distasteful and which I would never want applied to me. There's something in it that indicates that the man never loved anybody. Anybody who achieves that title, somehow. I wouldn't want to be on the list. I imagine the guy with the title Great Lover is in the same boat as the guy with the title Poet; he can't get a date.

Someone Else Who Can't Get a Date

Folk singers. Like many other descriptions that once had an aura of glory or honor, such as poet and warrior and priest, folk singers have fallen into complete disgrace. The archetypes are undergoing serious re-evaluation. Folk singers have been in disgrace for so long that some people are actually using it in defiance now, and it has a kind of chic that it didn't have maybe ten years ago. Sometimes I describe myself as a folk singer when I want to present myself as a daring chap. It's much less daring than saying you're a great lover.

What to Tell a Woman after Sex

Thank you.

About the Author

Scott Cohen was one of the original editors of Spin,
and former sports editor of Interview.
His works have appeared in the "Style" section of the
The New York Times, Details, Elle, Allure,
and Playboy,
and numerous other magazines. He is the author of three books:
Meet Your Maker; Jocks;
and Zap: The Rise and Fall of Atari.

Many of the interviews in this book have appeared
in a related form in Spin, Details, Egg, and Circus.



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