Leonard Cohen reads his surreal poem “Two Went to Sleep” and recounts the profound origins of his 1967 classic “Sisters of Mercy” in a 1974 interview newly animated for PBS’ “Blank on Blank” series. The chat, which originally aired on WBAI 99.5 FM in New York City, is available via the Pacifica Radio archives.
Upon the request of interviewer Kathleen Kendel, Cohen delivers “Two Went to Sleep” (from his first poetry book, 1956’s Let Us Compare Mythologies) in tranquil, dulcet tones.
“Two went to sleep almost every night,” he reads. “One dreamed of mud, One dreamed of Asia. Visiting the Zeppelin. Visiting Nijinsky. Two went to sleep. One dreamed of ribs. One dreamed of senators. Two went to sleep. Two travelers. A long marriage in the dark. The sleep was old. The travelers were old. One dreamed of oranges. One dreamed of Carthage. Two friends asleep. Years locked in travel. Good night, my darling, as the dreams wave goodbye.”
He later recalls the bizarre inspiration of “Sisters of Mercy,” a folk ballad from his debut LP, Songs of Leonard Cohen.
“I was in Edmonton during a tour by myself of Canada,” he says. “I guess this was around ’67, and I was walking along one of the main streets of Edmonton. It was bitter cold, and I knew no one, and I passed these two girls in a doorway, and they invited me to stand in the doorway with them. Of course I did. And some time later, we found ourselves in my little hotel room in Edmonton, and the three of us are going to go to sleep together. Of course I had all kinds of erotic fantasies of what the evening might bring.
“We went to bed together, and I think we all jammed into this one small couch in this little hotel, and it became clear that wasn’t the purpose of the evening at all,” he continues. “At one point in the night, I found myself unable to sleep. I got up and by the moonlight – it was very very bright, the moon was being reflected off the snow, and I wrote that poem by the ice-reflected moonlight while these women were sleeping, and it was one of the few songs that I ever wrote from top to bottom without a line of revision. The words flowed, and the melody flowed. And by the time they woke up the next morning, it was dawn, [and] I had this completed song to sing for them.”
“As I write this I’m thinking of my father’s unique blend of self-deprecation and dignity, his approachable elegance, his charisma without audacity, his old-world gentlemanliness and the hand-forged tower of his work,” he wrote.