Leonard Cohen & Guns

Boys like to play with guns. I like them myself.
-Leonard Cohen1

Ready, Aim, …

Indeed, Leonard Cohen has owned a number of guns as well as alluding to guns in his poetry, novels, and songs. As is true with most subjects that arise in Cohen’s interviews, he has been forthcoming about his experience with and thoughts about guns, discussing the matter without braggadocio (no one is likely to confuse his views with those of, say, Ted Nugent2 ) or apology.  This post is a noncomprehensive sampler of connections between Leonard Cohen and pistols, rifles, bullets, small arms, handguns, … .

Note: This entry consolidates material previously posted on this site along with new information. The gun images that populate this post are illustrative only and do not portray any guns actually owned by Leonard Cohen and may not accurately depict the specific gun described in the text. Firearms of the same caliber may be produced by more than one manufacturer and in various formats.

Update: A supplement to Leonard Cohen & Guns has been posted at The (Big) Guns Of Leonard Cohen

Why

When asked about his interest in guns, Cohen responded

I don’t hunt. I like target practice. I kind of fell into it [gun ownership] because I was interested in becoming a cowboy at one time. … When I lived in Nashville I had a lot of admiration for these guys I saw around. They were very attractive. I liked the way they spoke, and I liked their sense of honor that these men had. A lot of them carried gun or had rifles in the back of their trucks. That’s when I started getting interested in firearms.3

Walther PPK

Leonard Cohen’s Walther PPK is mentioned in Ira Nadel’s biography of Cohen, Various Positions (Random House of Canada, 1996), as “the largest weapon he [Leonard Cohen] had at the time [when Cohen lived in Franklin, Tennessee, where he moved in 1968].”  Of course, this declaration implies that Cohen owned other, albeit smaller caliber, guns. Nadel also notes that

One of his [Cohen’s]  favorite places in Nashville was the Woodbine Army Surplus store. A journal from that period contains photographs of various gun counters; he became the poet with a gun.

In his introduction to “Memories” at the June 8, 1985 San Francisco concert, Cohen tells the audience about his Walther, comparing it to Phil Spector’s weapon (more about Phil Spector and guns later):

A song that I wrote with the great R’n’R master by the name of Phil Spector. A delightful chap. You really get to know him, you really did get to know him. And I had a Walther PPK. He had a just an ordinary 45.4

And, a Walther PPK/S5 earns a place in one of the poems from Cohen’s Energy Of Slaves:

Each  day  he  lugged
a hunk of something precious
over to his boredom
and once or twice a week
when he was granted
the tiny grace of distance
he perceived that he laboured
as his fathers did
on someone else’s pyramid

Thoughts of rebellion
Thoughts of injustice
New Year’s resolutions
The seduction of a woman
All these he engraved
numbly letter by letter

Walther PPK-S
Serial No. 115142
stolen from one slave by another

Winchester Centennial ’66 Rifle

I moved there [Franklin Tennessee]. I had a house, a jeep, a carbine, a pair of cowboy boots, a girlfriend. … A typewriter, a guitar. Everything I needed6

The Winchester rifle is discussed in this excerpt from from a 1992 interview7

After New York, Mr. Cohen lived for a year on a 1,500-acre homestead in Franklin, Tenn., rented for $75 a month. “Ah, that was a very pleasant period of my life,” he says wistfully. “There was a shack — a well-equipped shack, but not much more than that — beside a stream. There were peacocks and peahen. They used to come to my cabin every morning. I’d feed them. I had one of those centennial rifles that Remington put out, I think, in ’67.” He pauses. “When was this country founded? ’76?” He seems somewhat dismayed that mathematics could interfere with a colorful detail of his story. “Anyway, I had some kind of centennial rifle. I would amuse myself by shooting icicles on the far side of the creek.” [emphasis mine]

Later, Cohen later elaborates on his expertise:

I was pretty much a bust as a cowboy [laughs] But I did have a rifle. During winter there, there were these icicles that formed on this slate cliff… and I’d stand in the doorway and shoot icicles for a lot of the time so I got quite good.8

Note: While the Bicentennial of the United States, the date of which Mr Cohen was attempting to plug into his formula in order to calculate when he purchased the rifle, was, one supposes, a significant enough event, it was not the occasion the Winchester Repeating Arms Company chose to celebrate with the manufacture of their Centennial Rifle. Chuck Hawks explains:

1966 was the Winchester Repeating Arms Company’s 100th year of operation. To commemorate this occasion, Winchester produced a run of fancy Model 94 rifles. These were based on post 1964 Model 94’s actions with a gold plated receiver and forend cap, brass “rifle” (curved) buttplate, saddle ring, and a heavy octagon barrel with a full length magazine that was nicely polished and deeply blued. The straight hand stock was select walnut. All were in caliber .30-30 Winchester. There were rifle (26″) and carbine (20″) barrel lengths, and sets of rifle and carbine with consecutive serial numbers were also offered. The point to all of the gold and brass was to make the 1966 Centennial reminiscent of the brass framed Winchester 1866 “Yellow Boy” rifle that was Winchester’s first product.9

.45 Caliber Pistol

In 1973, Cohen flew to Jerusalem to sign up on the Israeli side in the Yom Kippur War (“I will go and stop Egypt’s bullet”10 but was instead assigned to entertain front-line troop emplacements in the Sinai Desert. Cohen armed himself by stealing a .45 pistol from a deserted shed at a desert airport.11

The .45 pistol pictured is a Colt M1911 pistol, first adopted by the US military in 1911 and which, despite its age, is still used alongside modern pistols throughout the world today. It may not be the model of .45 Cohen purloined.

.38 Caliber Pistol

Leonard Cohen’s father, Nathan Cohen, served in the Canadian Expeditionary Force during World War I and consequently possessed a gun Nadel (Various Positions) calls “a military souvenir.” In “The Favourite Game” Leonard Cohen describes the weapon the protagonist’s father had received while serving in the military and kept in a bedroom drawer as “a huge .38.” The problem is that the only handguns Canadian forces were issued or allowed to purchase during World War I were .45 caliber pistols.12 Of course, “a military souvenir” could include any handgun Nathan Cohen came to own as a result of the war.

Nathan Cohen’s gun is embedded in the lyrics of “Rainy Night House,” which Joni Mitchell wrote about an outing she and Leonard Cohen took:

It was a rainy night
We took a taxi to your mother’s home
She went to Florida and left you
With your father’s gun alone
Upon her small white bed
I fell into a dream
You sat up all the night and watched me
To see who in the world I might be

The .38 pistol in the image is the Smith & Wesson Military & Police Model initially developed in 1899 and subsequently used by the military and police forces in many countries.

.22 Caliber Pistol

r21

The Chelsea Hotel often served as Cohen’s residence in New York. On at least one stay at the Chelsea, the Canadian singer-songwriter was armed. The following excerpt is from a 1969 interview:13

gun-chelsea

Pellet Guns

triumph_pistol_747

In 1986, Leonard Cohen told Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air

I have some pellet guns now and my children and I set up a little target range in my house in Montreal and we do target practice with that.14

Drawing by Leonard & Lorca Cohen

Drawing by Leonard & Lorca Cohen

What Happened To Leonard Cohen’s Guns

In that same 1986 NPR interview,15 Cohen explained

They [my guns] were taken away from me. My lawyer locked up my Walther PPK automatic. … I didn’t have a license in the state where I happened to be so he didn’t think it was a good idea for me to carry it around. I never carried it around but I had it in my possession.

And, I think my rifles are locked up in somebody’s closet. I haven’t used anything for a long time.

Guns Aimed At Leonard Cohen

No doubt the best known gun pointed toward Leonard Cohen was Phil Spector’s .45. The anecdote has been repeated several times by Cohen. This excerpt, in fact, comes from a 2004 article, the title of which was inspired by the incident – “Who held a gun to Leonard Cohen’s head?”

His album Death of a Ladies’ Man was produced by Phil Spector, the reclusive genius of girl-group pop. “I was flipped out at the time,” Cohen said later, “and he certainly was flipped out. For me, the expression was withdrawal and melancholy, and for him, megalomania and insanity and a devotion to armaments that was really intolerable. In the state that he found himself, which was post-Wagnerian, I would say Hitlerian, the atmosphere was one of guns – the music was a subsidiary enterprise … At a certain point Phil approached me with a bottle of kosher red wine in one hand and a .45 in the other, put his arm around my shoulder and shoved the revolver into my neck and said, ‘Leonard, I love you.’ I said, ‘I hope you do, Phil.'”16

It turns out that the gun Phil Spector held to Leonard Cohen’s head isn’t the only gun in a Cohen-Spector story. The following excerpt is from Leonard Cohen by John Walsh (Mojo, September 1994):

[John Walsh:] But most of the time [Cohen spent with Spector] was spent dodging bullets. Both the clinically paranoid Spector and his bodyguards were packing heat through the recording session. What was Spector shooting at?

[Leonard Cohen:] “Me! He was threatening me and the musicians. On Fingerprints there was a fiddle player, a good old country boy, a big guy. He played a riff, and Phil went up to him, pulled out a .45 and said he didn’t like the way he was playing it. The fiddler was a guy who’d grown up with guns. He just put his fiddle in its case and walked out of the studio, and that was the last we saw of him.”

[Leonard Cohen:] “It was a dark time. My family was breaking up. I thought I’d lost control of the record. All the takes were just scratch vocals – Phil used to confiscate the tapes at the end of each session. And all this madness with guns. … But I did challenge his bodyguard to draw on me. I started insulting him. I said You’re a motherfucking pussycat. You don’t even known how to use that [gun].”

During his expedition to Cuba, Cohen was in the cliched position of bringing a knife to a gun fight:

Wearing his khakis and carrying a hunting knife, he was suddenly surrounded by twelve soldiers with Czech submachine guns. It was late at night and they thought he was the first of an American landing team.17

Happily, Cohen convinced them he was harmless:

They arrested me, and the only words I knew at the time were ‘Amistad de pueblo.’ So I kept saying, ‘Amigo! Amistad de pueblo!’ and finally they started greeting me. And they gave me a necklace of shells and a necklace of bullets and everything was great.18

another-hat-0005-ed-scaled1000

Leonard Cohen (middle) wearing necklace of bullets given him by Cuban soldiers.

Finally, there is Cohen’s report of a possible shooting at the 1970 Aix-en-Provence Festival concert:

I think I was shot at once at a big festival in Aix-en-Provence. That was when the Maoists were very powerful in France and they resented the fact that they actually had to buy a ticket. A lot of them broke down the fence and came into the concert and I did notice one of the lights on the stage go out after a kind of crack that sounded like a gunshot. I don’t know. But they’re tough critics, the Maoists.19

Leonard Cohen Is A Literary Marksman

There are too many allusions, references, and metaphors related to guns in Leonard Cohen’s work to provide an exhaustive list in this post. The following samples are representative.

From “Love Calls You By Your Name:”

Shouldering your loneliness
like a gun that you will not learn to aim,

From “Hallelujah:”

Well, maybe there is a God above,
But all that I’ve ever learned from love
Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew you.

From “Field Commander Cohen:”

Leave it all and like a man,
come back to nothing special,
such as waiting rooms and ticket lines,
silver bullet suicides,
and messianic ocean tides,
and racial roller-coaster rides
and other forms of boredom advertised as poetry.

From “Night Comes On:”

We were fighting in Egypt
When they signed this agreement
That nobody else had to die
There was this terrible sound
And my father went down
With a terrible wound in his side
He said, Try to go on
Take my books, take my gun
Remember, my son, how they lied
And the night comes on

From “The Lists” (Flowers for Hitler and Selected Poems 1956-1968)

Then it began again
the sun stuck a gun in his mouth

From “Why Did You Give My Name To The Police?” (Flowers For Hitler and Selected Poems 1956-1968)

You too must find the moment hopeless
in the Tennyson Hotel.
I
know your stomach.
The brass bed bearing your suitcase
rumbles away like an automatic
promenading target in a shooting gallery

From “I Dream Of Torturing You” (The Energy Of Slaves)

I dream of torturing you
because you are so puffed up with pride
You stand there with a bill of rights
or an automatic rifle
or your new religion

From “Any System You Contrive Without Us” (The Energy Of Slaves)

Any system you contrive without us
will be brought down
You have your drugs
You have your guns
You have your Pyramids your Pentagons
With all your grass and bullets
you cannot hunt us any more

From “Bullets” (Flowers for Hitler and Selected Poems 1956-1968)

Listen all you bullets
that never hit:
a lot of throats are growing
in open collars
like frozen milk bottles
on a 5 a.m. street
throats that are waiting
for bite scars
but will settle
for bullet holes

From Beautiful Losers:

I loved the magic of guns.

I saw a king without dominion. I saw a gun bleeding. I saw the prince of Paradise Forgotten.

… sent you the sub-machine guns which the firecrackers concealed in my brilliant smuggling operation

I wanted to attend cocktail parties wearing a machine gun

… just as a bayonet illumines unmistakenly the use of a rifle.

The mounted pistol pointed at several ranks of movable tin figures.

From The Favourite Game:

The gun proved he was once a warrior

He waited for the blast of a .38 which would clean the house and bring a terrible change. The gun was right beside the bed. He waited for his father to execute his heart.

Guns In Songs Leonard Cohen Didn’t Write

Leonard Cohen May Have Woken Up This Morning & Got Himself A Gun – But He Didn’t Write A Song About It

You woke up this morning
Got yourself a gun,
Mama always said you’d be
The Chosen One.

While a plethora of websites identify Leonard Cohen as the singer-songwriter of “Woke Up This Morning” (Chosen One Mix) aka the opening theme for The Sopranos, that song was written by, remixed and performed by British band Alabama 3.20

References can be found to the notion held by some that “Woke Up This Morning” is influenced by Cohen’s vocal style and by his song, “Democracy.” And Rob Spragg (aka Larry Love), does emulate Cohen’s graciousness in his response to the false rumor that Leonard Cohen wrote the song:

A little bit of mystery in rock ’n’ roll is cool. If people think Leonard Cohen wrote it it’s a compliment to me.21

But that’s it – “Woke Up This Morning” is not a Leonard Cohen song; it is an Alabama 3 song.

Leonard Cohen May Have Taken His Gun & Vanished But He Didn’t Write That Either

When they poured across the border
I was cautioned to surrender,
this I could not do;
I took my gun and vanished.

Those are the opening lines of “The Partisan” on Cohen’s 1969 Songs From A Room album. And Leonard Cohen does sing “The Partisan” movingly. But, as the French Leonard Cohen site points out, “This song is actually an adaptation from ‘La complainte du partisan,’ written in London during 1943, by Emmanuel D’Astier de la Vigerie (called “Bernard” in the French Resistance) and Anna Marly. ” There is a nicely nuanced discussion of the evolution of the song, Cohen’s connection with it, and covers of it by other singers at that link: The French Partisan Song.

Credit Due Department: Photo of Leonard Cohen in Havana is from Various Positions by Ira Nadel. Random House of Canada, 1996

  1. The ‘Serious’ Sounds Of Leonard Cohen – Interview by Terry Gross. NPR Fresh Air: April 29, 1986 []
  2. See Ted Nugent Explains His Love Of Guns []
  3. The ‘Serious’ Sounds Of Leonard Cohen – Interview by Terry Gross. NPR Fresh Air: April 29, 1986 []
  4. Leonard Cohen Prologues []
  5. The details of the PPK/S model  can be found at PPK versus PPK/S []
  6. Various Positions by Ira Nadel. Random House of Canada, 1996 []
  7. Leonard Cohen, The Lord Byron of Rock-and-Roll by Karen Schoemer. New York Times: November 29, 1992. Accessed  Nov 11, 2011 at Speaking Cohen []
  8. Leonard Cohen – I’m Your Man by Sylvie Simmons. Ecco: 2012 []
  9. For firearms aficionados, much more information about this model is available at the link. []
  10. A Poet Goes To War by Neta Bar-Yosef. Israel Hayom: Sept 15, 2013 []
  11. Various Positions by Ira Nadel. Random House of Canada, 1996 []
  12. Canadian Expeditionary Force. Accessed Nov 11, 2011 at Wikipedia []
  13. Leonard Cohen Is A Poet Who Is Trying To Be Free by Marci McDonald. Toronto Daily Star: April 26, 1969. Accessed April 11, 2013 at Speaking Cohen. []
  14. The ‘Serious’ Sounds Of Leonard Cohen – Interview by Terry Gross. NPR Fresh Air: April 29, 1986 []
  15. The ‘Serious’ Sounds Of Leonard Cohen – Interview by Terry Gross. NPR Fresh Air: April 29, 1986 []
  16. Who held a gun to Leonard Cohen’s head? by Tim de Lisle. The Guardian, 16 September 2004. [emphasis mine] []
  17. Various Positions by Ira Nadel. Random House of Canada, 1996 []
  18. Leonard Cohen:  Several Lifetimes Already by Pico Iyer. Shambhala Sun: Sept, 1998 [emphasis mine] []
  19. Leonard Cohen: Various Positions, Transcript of 1984 CBC interview by Robert Sward []
  20. Alabama 3 frontman Rob Spragg wrote the song after hearing about the 1996 murder case of Sara Thornton, who stabbed her husband after 20 years of abuse, mistreatment and neglect. The song is co-written with Jake Black. (Wikipedia) []
  21. Waking Up To The Sound Of Alabama by Róisín Gadelrab New Camden Journal, 6 August 2009 []

One Response to Leonard Cohen & Guns

  1. Karl Lohninger

    The picture of LC’s fathers ‘pistol’ shows a revolver. But then it seems like LC too – for all the love of guns – doesn’t see the difference. Look at his and Lorcas drawing: it’s called the happy pistol but they were drawing a revolver ;)