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Ladies and Gents, Leonard Cohen

An interview with the "beautiful creep" who never does interviews

February 4, 1971
leonard cohen
Leonard Cohen
GAB Archive/Redferns

San Francisco – Leonard Cohen's fans are word people. They believe a song's lyrics are more important than its instrumentation, packaging, or the lead singer's crotch. It could even be that for most of them, words have become the first-aid station in the preventive detention camp of their feelings. Certainly they are all helpless romantics, trapped by rage in the age of efficiency.

Cohen, of course, is crazy, but he is cunning enough to keep on the loose. A mystery man with a big nose, he is a "beautiful creep." He wants to be handsome, but settles for looking better than he expected. And wishing to be slick, he succeeds just enough to keep on wishing. He has no desire to be a pop star, yet he wants to sell records.

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Over the house phone at Berkeley's stately old Claremont Hotel, he agrees to a few questions only after I assure him that we will meet on equal terms. "I never do interviews," he says, "I prefer an interviewer to take the same risks that I do. In other words, not to make a question and answer kind of scene, because I'm interested in ...  like a description from your side ... to practice the novelist's rather than the interviewer's art. Say, like what was the feeling of the interviewer and how does that relate to the work we all know. Rather than like ... put me on the line for this or that type of question ... "

Cohen ordered a scotch and soda for me from room service – at the time it seemed like the perfect drink. He introduced me to Charlie Daniels, a member of his touring band, the Army. Once an 80 cigarette-a-day addict, Charlie is now down to five sticks of gum at once.

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As I set up the tape recorder, Cohen turned down the sound from the TV. He left the picture turned to Lassie. A definite feeling of uncertainty settled around us, the intruders. Cohen carefully scrutinized us. He repeated his insistance that our meeting be held on common ground. "I had to be reminded of other things I've said. It's just sheer fatigue which has allowed me to conduct this whole scene. I don't believe in it, you know.

"One of the reasons I'm on tour is to meet people. I consider it a reconaissance. You know, I consider myself, like in a military operation. I don't feel like a citizen. I feel like I know exactly what I have to do. Part of it is familiarizing myself with what people are thinking and doing. The kind of shape people are in is what I am interested in determining ...  because I want to lay out any information I have and I want to make it appropriate. So if I can find where people are at any particular moment, it makes it easier for me to discover if I have anything to say that is relevant to the situation."

A refugee from the men's garment industry (he pushed clothes racks for a time), he has arrived at 36 years of age. He is tastefully dressed in conservatively flared tan pants, black shirt, and bush jacket, but he carefully denies affluence by keeping himself particularly emaciated. He firmly believes that women are gaining control of the world, and that it is just. He empathizes, "Women are really strong. You notice how strong they are? Well, let them take over. Let us be what we're supposed to be – gossips, musicians, wrestlers. The premise being, there can be no free men unless there are free women."

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