1988 Video – Leonard Cohen On Romance, Poetry, Suicide, Music, Sergio Leone, and Cigarettes

The Leonard Cohen BBC Interview With John Archer

Uploaded to YouTube late yesterday (there were fewer than 30 viewings when I began this post), this 12 minute feature, broadcast on BBC in early 1988 during Leonard Cohen’s tour promoting the I’m Your Man album,1  was previously unknown (at least to me). While Cohen fans will be familiar with most of the material presented (many such interviews are combinations and permutations of often repeated anecdotes, sentiments, and reflections), it  is worthwhile viewing and does have a nugget or two of little known information to be mined.

Viewers should be aware that the first 90 seconds and the last minute of the video are devoted primarily to the interviewer, John Archer.

Highlights

  • Leonard Cohen opens the interview by singing lines from “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” the song originally recorded by Elvis Presley.
  • When asked about his voice deepening, Cohen replies that it’s “100,000 cigarettes deeper.”
  • He then adds that he read in the International Herald Tribune, which he names as “the ultimate source of all my information,” that “as you  grow older, the brain cells associated with anxiety begin to die,” causing one to feel better, which leads to relaxation, which, in turn, leads to a deeper voice.
  • When asked what made him think he could sing, Cohen explains that he “never thought [he] could sing,” going on to note that “I didn’t think singing had anything to do with it.” He then delivers one of his favorite stories about telling his lawyer, in  a state of panic, about his concern that “I can’t sing,” only to have his lawyer retort, “None of you guys can sing. When I want to hear singers, I go the Metropolitan Opera.”
  •  Cohen then segues into “I certainly never  had any musical standard to tyrannize me  I  thought it was something to do with the truth. that if you told your story, that’s what the song was about.”
  • The interviewer then notes that Leonard Cohen was first featured on an album of Canadian poetry in the mid-sixties.

The album he is holding, however, is actually the second album in which Leonard Cohen appears, a volume called “Canadian Poets 1″ issued in 1966.

Cohen’s first album inclusion was “Six Montreal Poets,” which was published in 1957 by Folkways Records and featured  A.J.M. Smith, Irving Layton, Louis Dudek, F.R. Scott, A.M. Klein, and Leonard Cohen reading their own poetry.

  • Archer also reads from the album’s liner notes  that Cohen has been “writing songs for the rock group, the Stormy Clovers.”2
  • Cohen talks about being part of a self-important group of poets in Montreal.
  • Leonard Cohen tells of his  first discovery of the poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca when at 15 he read “”I want to pass through the arches of Elvira, to see your thighs and begin weeping,” an introduction to a world that, Cohen posits, “destroyed any possibility of [him] going into the clothing business.”  Cohen mentions that the English translation he read was done by two men, one of whom was Stephen Spender.”  That book is “Poems By García Lorca,” translated by Stephen Spender and J. L. Gili (Oxford University Press, 1939)

“Selected Poems Of Federico Garcia Lorca” translated by the same team was published by The Hogarth Library in 1943.

  • Cohen explains his concept as a youth that “poetry seemed to be the natural language of women.”
  • Asked about “romance,” Cohen responds that he “never knew what people meant when they said romance. I always thought of romance as the ideal smeared with possibility.”

Chelsea Hotel room

  • In discussing Janis Joplin and the Chelsea Hotel, Cohen sums her up in this line:

She really had that classic pop star’s life where she would sing for 20,000 people and go home alone – and go home deeply lonely

  • Re the I’m Your Man album, Cohen says that he sought a “flatter language” for these songs to render them “simple,” “limpid,” and “lucid.”
  • He characterizes the music he wrote for  “First We Take Manhattan” as a “kind of Sergio Leone Clint Eastwood soundtrack.”
  • When asked about his reputation as a “misery monger,” Cohen replies that there is an

assumption that the world is really very gay and jovial, and nothing terrible ever happens. I think [his] songs are true and they’re not for everybody.  … Their effect on people whose nature can respond to them is far from depressing.

  • He accounts his religious training as protection from considering suicide.
  • He tells the story, familiar to those who have heard his Prince Of Asturias Awards speech, of learning guitar from a young Spanish man he met in the  park behind mother’s house. In this instance, however, he reports “He must have been 16 or 17. I must have been 13 or 14.”3
Leonard Cohen – BBC Interview 1988

  1. I’m Your Man was released February, 1988. []
  2. Serendipitously, a soon to be published Heck Of A Guy post will focus on the Stormy Clovers and Cohen’s association with them.. []
  3. In the Prince Of Asturias Awards speech, Cohen said the events took place in the “early sixties,” which would have made him no younger than in his late twenties. []

3 Responses to 1988 Video – Leonard Cohen On Romance, Poetry, Suicide, Music, Sergio Leone, and Cigarettes

  1. Life's Elsewhere

    Were the Eastwood soundtracks scored by Sergio Leone? He was the director, the scores were by the legendary Ennio Morricone

    • You are, of course, correct. I’ve revised that line to “He characterizes the music he wrote for ‘First We Take Manhattan’ as a ‘kind of Sergio Leone Clint Eastwood soundtrack.’” Thanks for the correction.

  2. One of the best interviews I’ve seen; thanks Allan.