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Ladies and Gents, Leonard Cohen

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His stories, poems and songs are all quite personal, written to and about himself and the lifetimes he has drifted through. Sometimes nakedly, but just as often humorously, he looks down from the cross and decides that crucifixtion may as well be holy. He answers cautiously, but once begun, his conversation glides easily from the writing of his books to the writing of his songs. "As I've said before, just because the lines don't come to the end of the page doesn't necessarily qualify it as poetry. Just because they do doesn't make it prose. Oh, I'm continually blackening pages ...

"I've always played and sung. Ever since I was 15. I was in a barn dance group called the Buckskin Boys when I was about 18 .. 17. It was just at a certain moment that I felt that songs of a certain quality came to me that somehow demanded ... or somehow engage a larger audience. Like when you write a good song, you feel like you can sing it to other people. When you write other songs that are not so good you just sing them to yourself. I don't know ... I think ... I guess greed had something to do with it.

"And I forget, a lot had to do with poverty. I mean I was writing books (two novels and four volumes of poetry) and they were being very well received ...  and that sort of thing, but I found it was very difficult to pay my grocery bill. I said, like it's really happening. I'm starving. I've got beautiful reviews for all my books, and you know, I'm very well thought of in the tiny circles that know me, but like ...  I'm really starving. So then I started bringing some songs together. And it really changed my whole scene."

Bob Johnston, friend, producer, and keyboards, and Ron Cornelius, guitar and moustache for the Army, wandered in to tell of the arrival of the limousines. I asked about the picture on the jacket of his first LP, Leonard Cohen.

"The picture on the back is a Mexican religious picture called "Anima Sola," the lonely spirit or the lonely soul. It is the triumph of the spirit over matter. The spirit being that beautiful woman breaking out of the chains and the fire and prison.

"When the record came out ... there was some difficulty between the producer (John Simon) and myself. I don't mean there was any malice. It was really like a misunderstanding. And I wasn't well enough versed in ... just the whole recording procedure to be able to translate the ideas I had to him. So that he, naturally, took over and filled in the vacuum that was caused by my own ignorance and incompetence. You know ...  it was a record that has, I think ...  oh, I like it now. I think a lot of people have listened to it ...

"The second one [Songs From a Room] was largely unloved as I can see it ...  from people's reactions. It was very bleak and wiped out. The voice in it has much despair and pain in the sound of the thing. And I think it's an accurate reflection of where the singer was ... at the time. I mean very, very accurate. Too accurate for most people's taste. But as I believe that a general wipe-out is imminent and that many people will be undergoing the same kind of breakdown that the singer underwent, the record will become more meaningful as more people crack up.

"The third one (just released) is the way out. It is a return ... or maybe not even a return – a claim, another kind of strength ... "

Isn't that a kind of heavy responsibility? Aren't you making a claim to be some sort of guide or prophet? It seems that by releasing records you are making that sort of claim.

"Very true, very true," he said. "Look, I think the times are tough ... these are hard times. I don't want in any way to set myself up as Timothy Leary or Abbie Hoffman. I mean, I'm not one of those guys. I have my feelings about how to move myself into areas which are not completely bordered with pain. And I've tried to lay out my chart as carefully as I can. I have come through something. I don't want to boast about it. I don't even want to talk about it. Look ... you know, the songs are inspired. I don't pretend to be a guide. I do pretend to be an instrument for certain kinds of information at certain moments. Not all moments, and it has nothing to do with me as a guy. I may be a perfect scoundrel ...  As a matter of fact, I am ...  just like the guy on the scene. But there are moments when I am the instrument for certain kinds of information."

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Song Stories

“Bird on a Wire”

Leonard Cohen | 1969

While living on the Greek island of Hydra, Cohen was battling a lingering depression when his girlfriend handed him a guitar and suggested he play something. After spotting a bird on a telephone wire, Cohen wrote this prayer-like song of guilt. First recorded by Judy Collins, it would be performed numerous times by artists incuding Johnny Cash, Joe Cocker and Rita Coolidge. "I'm always knocked out when I hear my songs covered or used in some situation," Cohen told Rolling Stone. "I've never gotten over the fact that people out there like my music."

More Song Stories entries »
 
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