Ladies and Gents, Leonard Cohen

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

leonard cohen
GAB Archive/Redferns
Leonard Cohen
By |

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.

Photos: Leonard Cohen Through the Years

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.

100 Greatest Albums of All Time: Songs of Love and Hate

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."

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."

In the Canadian Film Board movie, Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen, you wrote something on the wall while you were sitting in the bathtub.

"Caveat Emptor, or buyer beware. I I think it's good advice. Especially these days. Not specifically from me, but ...  umm ...  I let anybody judge me by the severest terms they choose ...  I simply think that on both sides of the underground railway there is a lot of occasion to exercise our skepticism."

As Cohen speaks it becomes readily apparent that meeting people is only one reason for the tour. Another, more important reason is that for him "tours are like bull-fighting. They are a test of character every night." And that, as he says, "is something I am interested in examining."

One purposely unpublicized aspect of the current U.S.-Canada tour has been the stops at various mental hospitals. Cohen has initiated these concerts, he insists, not from any sense of charity, but because he enjoys them. There is none of that "sense of work, of show biz, of turning people on." He does it because the people there are really in tune to the songs. "Those people are in the same landscape as the songs come out of. I feel that they understand them."

In his way, Cohen has explored many terrains, physical and psychic. Success as a songwriter and performer has allowed him to wander to many places: from Montreal, his home, to Cuba, Hydra, Paris, Nashville – and back to Montreal. He left Greece, he says because, "I was ready to leave. Whether the regime changed or not. As a matter of fact. Greece is a very peaceful place to be in now."

Carrying visions of the Spanish Civil War in his head, he went to Cuba to defend Havana during the Bay of Pigs. Slowly he came to realize that he "was exactly the kind of enemy the Fidelistos were describing: bourgeois, individualistic, a self-indulgent poet." He began hanging out with people who were out of work and on no side, "procurers, pushers, whores and all night movie operators." Amid the Chinese and Czechoslovakian technicians, he found himself the only tourist in Havana.

In Paris during the O.A.S. riots and in Montreal during the so-called "occupation of the city" he felt the same stirrings. He is bothered by the fact that what he reads in other parts of the world about events he's seen usually has "very little correspondence with the actual ambiance of the place. None of those reports correspond at all to the reality that I perceive."

T

he Berkeley Community Theater was very nearly packed when Cohen came on stage 15 minutes late. The audience was young but mixed. Streeties mingled with Cal frat men and their pin-mates. Only occasionally were they interrupted by a well-experienced face. He started "Suzanne," but stopped and walked offstage accompanied by much good natured applause. The audience was his before he came to the theater. Smiling like an expectant mother, Cohen, the self-proclaimed arch-villain, returned to invite those in the back of the hall to fill up the empty seats and space in front of the stage. Naturally enough, very little encouragement was necessary. A large number of people scrambled forward. He called for the house lights. "We should all be able to see one another."

He began again with "The Stranger Song." His voice was surprisingly well defined and strong. After another song the Army appeared. Two more guitars, bass, keyboards, and two female voices.Elton Fowler, Susan Musmann and, that night, Michelle Hopper, made up the rest of the group. They all started into "Bird on the Wire."

The association of Leonard Cohen with the Army was fortuitously arranged through the good offices of Bob Johnston. They provide just the right musical superstructure for his songs. Expertly but not overpoweringly they give his ideas a range and versatility his previous records have lacked. After the concert they would go back to Nashville with him to lay down the last track for the new album. If tonight's concert is a proper indication, ...several tracks will have a definite country sound.

Meanwhile, having found less space than bodies to fill it, the crowd began settling in the aisles. Aisles-sitting, though – as everyone knows – is illegal. An announcement was necessary. "I've had some crucial news from the authorities," he began facetiously, then broke into a spontaneous song:

"It's forbidden to sit in the aisles
As for me I couldn't give a damn
I don't care where you sit
I don't care where you stand, either
or recline in any position you wish

Nonetheless, I feel it is my civic duty
To tell you to get out of the aisles immediately
So come up on the stage instead
And they came up on the stage
And they won't go back again        

And they came up on my stage
And they won't go back no more
Oh, I promise to do anything
But they won't go back no more.
No, they won't go back anymore."

And, clapping, laughing and singing, the audience once again moved forward. The Army was engulfed. Only Cohen stood out as if people were afraid to get too close. A few murmurs of discontent were heard from the expensive seats, but they were to no avail. Not only was the stage filled, but the aisles remained jammed.

Another announcement of some seriousness was imperative: "It is with no regret that I bear the final tidings in this sordid drama  ... They say we've got just one more song ... If the aisles aren't cleared by then the concert will end." Someone behind Cohen shouted, "Make it a long one." He replied, "I don't think they'll be taken in by our cunning. In a while they'll kill the power and then start on the rest of us ... I don't care what happens myself because I feel really good ... I can't concern myself with these details. I'm not in the business of clearing away people."

As the song began, something truly remarkable happened. Hestitantly, a few people began to filter back to their original seats. Appreciative applause from the seat-bound majority led even more people to reconsider the moral implications of being in the way. A general retreat commenced. And at that very moment, the police, who allegedly had been grouping for action, relented by giving permission for people to sit in the aisles. Cheers filled the house. Leonard Cohen was still grinning when he left the stage for intermission.

Intermission? He and the Army stepped into the wings, looked at one another, and wordlessly returned to the stage. "That was intermission. This is so good, why stop now?" Although the concert was billed as an evening of songs and poetry, only two short poems were recited. Cohen sang several new numbers confidently. He was obviously pleased and his pleasure was returned by the audience.

The band couldn't leave without an encore. Tired, but game, Cohen returned to sing "Seems So Long Ago, Nancy." He explained that he wasn't sure if he could remember the song. Nancy's spirit was clear enough, but they hadn't done it in a long time. For help he invoked her memory by telling her story. They knew one another in Canada, long years ago. In 1961. Before there was a Wood-stock Nation or hip newspapers. When to be strange was to be on your own. Nancy's father was an important judge, but she lived near the street. Her friends told her she was free. "She slept with everyone. Everyone. She had a child, but it was taken away. So she shot herself in the bathroom."

After that, the crowd wanted still more. But Cohen would only come back to bow. The concert was over. Back stage road manager Bill Donovan searched everywhere for Cohen's already missing guitar. Leonard greeted some familiar faces and some he couldn't remember. Gracefully he edged from person to person towards the exit. Clumps of people stood around speaking low with much affirmative nodding of the head. The guitar was found to have been stuck in the wrong case.

B

ack at the hotel, exhausted, champagned, and groupied after (some intelluctually, some in the usual way), Leonard Cohen sank wearily into the soft. A bottle circulated.  "Nancy was with us. Without her we wouldn't have been able to pull it off." 

He slipped off his boots. People began arriving for a party. Partly from fatigue, partly from triumph he spoke freely of the concert and bigger things. "I like that kind of situation where the public is involved. I happen to like it when things are questioned. When the very basis of the community is questioned. I enjoy those moments."

The cheerful detente he had achieved between the crowd and the police reinforced something he had said earlier. "I believe there is a lot of goodwill in society and in men ... and it's just a matter of where you cast your energy. You can in some way place yourself at the disposal of the good will that does exist ... or you can say there is no goodwill in society and what we must do is completely destroy the thing. I believe that in the most corrupt and reactionary circles there is goodwill. I believe that men are mutable and that things can change ... It's a matter of how we want things to change."

More people arrived. Old friends, Ron Cornelius' relatives, and strangers hoping for a chance to talk to Cohen. Despite his exhaustion, Cohen was ready for them. "Man, you know what is best about having a good crowd and giving them everything you've got? The incoherence afterwards. That's what ... Hey, where are the 14-year-old girls? This is California, isn't it? Where are the 14-year-old girls?"

This story is from the February 4th, 1971 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 75: February 4, 1971
x