LEONARD COHEN: “I have always had the feeling,that my songs are empty”
An interview with Leonard Cohen by Roger Squires
Photos by Laurens van Houten
(translation Barend Toet)
OOR: March 29, 1972
Note: Peter Torbijn from the Netherlands recently discovered an interview with Leonard Cohen by Roger Squires that took place in London at the beginning of the 1972 Europe tour. The interview, translated from English into Dutch, was published in the March 29, 1972 edition of OOR, the Dutch music newspaper.1
An internet search and a survey of several knowledgeable Cohen experts disclosed no references to the original Squires interview in English, let alone the article itself. Consequently, in the belief that an English to Dutch to English translation of the article would be better than no English version of the article, Peter, with the help of his wife Marion and his son Lennard, translated the article from Dutch into English to make it accessible for this site’s readers. I provided final editing into vernacular English.
The original English version is still being sought; any assistance in locating that piece would be appreciated.
tells about one and a half year of absence from stage and about the influence of a Swedish whore on his life
As the taxi driver drove away, I watched through the rain speckled rear window of the cab as Leonard Cohen’s short, handsome figure became smaller and smaller. The last thing I saw was him crossing Sloane Square, hands in his pockets, cap on his head.
It was a flat cap – from Greece he told me – that he wore at a rakish angle. Its color matched his black, carelessly cut hair. His face was tanned, and oval, like the roasted peanuts that we had for lunch along with ginger ale, red wine, and cigarettes we chain smoked because there were no matches.
We lingered over coffee, at ease in a comfortable bar, the kind of establishment that is always beige and smells of furniture polish rather than beer. Leonard had a lot to say.
This was less an interview than an astonishingly straight-forward, uncensored conversation. Cohen is one of those individuals who prefer to speak through their songs and poems and who are most effective in an atmosphere of ambiguity, like the monsters that are most frightening when they can’t be seen.
Leonard Cohen & The Boxing Stadium
Cohen has not performed in public for the past one and a half years. Most of that time he was in hiding; you could also use the word “isolation” but hiding seems a more accurate description. Now, within a few days, his European tour starts at the Boxing Stadium in Dublin.2 Our conversation took place in London where Cohen spent the day buying baby’s clothes and taking in a play. “Can you tell me about the Boxing Palace?” Cohen asks me. I describe it to him. He has a smile on his face as he imagines playing music in a boxing arena.
“Maybe they will leave the ropes in place if I ask them. Then I could make an appearance in a robe and wearing boxing gloves.” He clearly thinks this would be very funny. Why not print LEN on the back of that robe? “Great idea, but the robe must be blue. Yes, blue.” His voice is soft and mellow, his words spoken slowly but steadily like water dripping from a tap that is not completely closed.
“It’s been a long time since I sang for someone other than myself. Every time I try to sing at volume I have problems with my voice. I know a lot of people are interested to see me on stage again, but I am the one who is the most interested. I am very curious.”
Nervous? “That’s an appropriate description.” Was it your idea to get back on the road again? “Look, every three months my lawyer as well as my friends tell me that it’s time to get back on the road and right away. And I always say no. He says it every three months so every three months I say no, but the last time I said yes, and it all snowballed. I thought, maybe I should play my songs for someone. No, I want to be honest – what I wanted was to make a tour through the Rockies. Anyway, any tour seemed so far away then that it seemed okay to agree.”
Cohen Moves Himself To Tears
Cohen has written a new collection of poetry.3 “These are not really poems, I think they are more written in some kind of prose. It is different, very different, it is … strange, damn, there are things in there that are really…” He shakes his head and smiles.
How about the songwriting? “The songs I’ve written are also very different. These are the best songs I ever created, but they can’t be put on tape; I can’t play them for anybody. Nevertheless, this is the best work I ever did. Nobody has to believe that, and I can’t prove it. But let me tell you, I moved myself to tears every time I played these songs – they are really very beautiful.”
This is Leonard’s story, that he can play his best songs ever only for himself and they couldn’t be recorded for future generations.
Cohen: “I found myself in a shack in Tennessee singing these incredible songs to myself. I got hold of Bob Johnston and told him I had the best songs, the most beautiful things he would ever hear. And I was all alone in the shack with just a sleeping bag. Bob said if this is really true, we have to do something about it.”
The next day a truck arrived and within an hour Cohen’s shack was transformed into a recording studio. Johnston placed two microphones above Cohen’s sleeping bag.
“There was just one switch I had to turn on to make it all work. Recording could take place while I was lying in my sleeping bag. Bob said to me ‘Look Len, when you want to sing, you just turn that switch.’ I thought this was the solution. I just had to reach out my arm to expose my soul to the people. This was going to be the real Leonard Cohen, this would be the best ever.
I waited for that melancholic mood you get before a song arrives, but nothing happened. The switch was turned on for a couple of days because I thought the songs would come eventually, but nothing happened. I really did play those songs, you have to take my word for it.”
So you yourself are the only one that heard Leonard Cohen in perfect form? “Yes that is the truth. There are things you cannot put on the market, things you cannot sell. That’s the way it is.”
What do you think of your own records? How about the things you do sell? Silence. He is thinking, head in hand. “To be honest, I am embarrassed about it. But that’s not completely accurate. I know what I have produced is far from the kind of songs that can cure the singer.”
“Shall I tell you a story about that situation to make it more clear?”
A Swedish Whore Becomes Leonard Cohen’s Teacher
Leonard tells me that in the early 60’s, he fell for a Swedish girl he met in New York. While riding in an elevator shortly after they met, she announced that she was certain that he was dead, going on to add that she would bring him back to life.
“She had no formal education, but she had a lot of intuitive knowledge. She was a professional whore, and we spent a lot of time together. She practiced a strange kind of therapy. She would sit in a special way, like some sort of yoga. She was a teacher in the true meaning of the word. I was not very rich at that moment, but I gave her all I had. When I had four hundred dollars in my account, she asked for six hundred. So I wrote a check for six hundred. She looked right through me. The things she said, her life lessons were incredible. Once I invited a friend so someone else could hear her. We agreed she had it all. Her way of prophesying –and prophesying it was – was beautiful. She put on a Supremes record and danced in front of the mirror. Sometimes we eavesdropped at the door. She was incredible, she was prophesying behind that door!”
Cohen was so fascinated that he wanted write a book about her. “She did not object but neither did she agree. I told her that the book would be brilliant and its sales would end her poverty.”
Then, Cohen took a tape recorder to her room and turned it on. And guess what? Nothing happened.
“Nothing she said made sense so I wasn’t able to write the book.”
Nonetheless, their relationship continued until the moment Cohen released his first album.
“I remember she had a dog, a Chihuahua. When was I was talking baloney the dog came sniffing at me. But if I was really myself and spoke honestly, the dog jumped on my lap. That dog was an extension of her. I wrote songs and sang them to her. If she did not like them, she told me so. I remember writing a few lines…like…’you stand there so nice, in your something and ice, please let me come into your storm.’ These lines are in one of my songs.4 She heard me sing those lines and said ‘Leonard, that sounds like a goddamned nightmare.’”
She had a significant influence on Cohen, and, according to him, was responsible for putting him back on his feet. And, when he left her, he did something for her that she had always wanted – but that is another story for another day.
A Nasty Old Bastard
Cohen, little by little, ate all the peanuts. “Let’s consider them lunch.” He said he was enjoying the conversation so we kept talking, first about some unimportant issues. Then, the tap opened again, and he once more began talking in that measured rhythm, word by word, drop by drop.
You said earlier a melancholic mood precedes your songs. How often are you seized by such a mood? “Sometimes when I take my guitar, hit a chord – a major A for example – and bang, I’m right into it. I’ve always had the feeling that my songs are empty – it’s the singer who fills them with feeling. I’ve heard other people singing my songs, and they became happy songs.”
But what about Tim Hardin’s cover of Bird On The Wire – wasn’t it even more tragic and melancholic than your own version? “Well, Tim Hardin, that guy is in even deeper misery than I am.
You know, a friend who saw a TV show I made with Julie Felix told me that when I sang on the show one of the people who was watching it with him muttered that I was ‘a pathetic little rascal.'”
Are you unhappy, and do you expect your audience to feel unhappy? “It’s like telling jokes about Jews. If Jews tell them, it’s okay. It’s okay if people like me say they are unhappy. But it is wrong if they are not the same kind of people. That guy who organized the Isle of Wight Festival in ’70, he made a fair comment when he said he found me ‘a nasty old bastard.’ That was an honest reaction.”
I Wish I Could Write Songs About Trees And Birds
How do you position your songs so that people buy them? “There is room for my kind of music, although it will never become mainstream. It is a refuge for myself and for others that can use it that way. That’s how I use my songs. A refuge. But it is not a daily meal.”
For reasons hard to explain you are placed in the rock category. Do you feel that is where you belong? “I would not prefer being placed somewhere else. Just because my music is not someone’s daily portion does not mean that I don’t have the right to my place there. It is food for those who can put their mind and body in it. It is food for those who get their information from rock and roll. Rock is where I feel at home.
Besides, I like disguises.”
What do you mean? “I prefer playing in concert halls rather than playing in a miserable club where I would be very serious”.
Is there anyone in rock music you admire or feel related to? “I think a lot of people are very good singers or musicians. I don’t think of myself being one. I enjoy the hospitality of the rock audience. But I certainly understand the difference between hospitality and being home. Some people belong, I do not.”
Does that audience understand you? “I get letters from people who say my music helped them through the night. It seems to me that is exactly what they were written for. Shit, I wish I could write about trees and birds. They appear in my songs, but not in a nice way. I can only accomplish something within in a specific area – it has to do with restraint and consolidation.”
A smile breaks through on his thoughtful face, and he is lighting another cigarette. We smoke for a while.
A Disaster That Makes You Form Your Character
Cohen is habitually restless. When an airplane leaves in the morning, he is on it. That costs a lot of money. Did he get more freedom through money? “No, on the contrary. Money is a kind of freedom, but not a serving kind … a tyrannizing kind.”
Where would he be if he were poor? “I would stay and live in one place. I would get used to that place and would dedicate good songs to it. Before I got rich, I was happy living at one place.”
Does he agree that money makes you lazy? “Well, in my case not necessarily, since I was already naturally lazy. But money could increase that. Money makes you lazy and stupid. But I was already lazy and stupid before I had any money. It also, however, makes you arrogant and aware of luxury”.
Doesn’t it also produce followers, people who run after the rich and famous? Cohen: “Anyone with a even a bit of influence will – because of the weakness of others – gather people around him who tend to support that influence and to appreciate it.
The only way out is to keep your eyes wide open. You should always remember that the good and the beautiful are interesting. I do not think I have changed as a result of the change in my social and financial situation. However the society I am working in now is quite mean.”
Have you ever been cheated in that way? “I have been cheated. Often enough, it was because I allowed it. But I was not aware of that kind of people and their behaviors. I do not understand their way of behaving. I move too fast. I do not know whether their intentions are honest or not. I experienced the bad side of fame, and I noticed the way fame gets people out of their normal routine and feelings. But it is disaster that makes you form your own character.” Silence. “It also makes a liar out of you … so it would be fitting if I would deny everything I have said so far.”
Cohen ends, explaining that he has relished discussing these topics, “In the studio I am usually restrained. There I never have the feeling I am touched by the best inside myself. I lack the ability to capture the best of myself on a record album. I would prefer keeping my mouth shut – or re-examine my old songs.”
- OOR is the Dutch word for ear. From its origins in 1971 until 1984, the periodical was published as a bi-weekly black and white music newspaper under the name, “Muziekkrant OOR.” “Muziekkrant” was then dropped from the title and OOR gradually transformed into a glossy magazine. Around 2005, the frequency of publication changed from bi-weekly to monthly. Sources: Peter Torbijn & Wikipedia [↩]
- The venue for Leonard Cohen’s March 18, 1972 concert, the first show of the 1972 Tour, was Dublin’s “National Stadium” which was also known as the “National Boxing Stadium.” Opened in 1939, this structure was the world’s first purpose built boxing stadium. Source: Wikipedia [↩]
- The collection of poetry is likely The Energy of Slaves. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1972 [↩]
- And I guess he just never got warm, but you stand there so nice in your blizzard of ice
Oh please let me come into the storm
From One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong [↩]