Leonard Cohen On Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters (Musicians in Their Own Words)
The Basic Points
1. This is a collection of 50+ Leonard Cohen interviews, the earliest of which is a transcript of the 1966 Take 30 CBC TV session with Adrienne Clarkson and the most recent a 2012 piece by Dorian Lynskey for the Guardian (London). Fans are likely to be familiar with many of these but a number were previously unavailable (see Q&A Question #3 below). The interviews are supplemented with a foreword by Suzanne Vega, a preface, including a brief biography of Cohen, by the editor, Jeff Burger, and introductions to each of the interviews, many of which include comments from the interviewers. The book also contains eight pages of photos (not included in the galley proof used for this review).
2. As noted repeatedly in posts on this site, Leonard Cohen gives good interview – sometimes in spite of egregiously narcissistic, overtly antagonistic, or embarrassingly incompetent interviewers. He is articulate, gracious, clever, and revealing.
3. If you have any interest in Leonard Cohen, this volume offers not only insights into the Canadian singer-songwriter and his work but also a delightfully entertaining read.
Leonard Cohen On Leonard Cohen Now Available
Leonard Cohen On Leonard Cohen has an official release date of April 1, 2014, but on checking this morning I discover that date is apparently an April Fools joke since Amazon lists the book as being in stock, at least in hardcover.
Note: The following biographic material and the above photo are from byjeffburger.com, a site which also provides more information about Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen and Burger’s other works.
Burger has been a writer and editor for more than four decades and has covered popular music throughout his journalism career. His reviews, essays and reportage on that and many other subjects have appeared in more than 75 magazines, newspapers and books, including Barron’s, The Los Angeles Times, Family Circle, Melody Maker, High Fidelity, Creem, Circus, Reader’s Digest, Gentlemen’s Quarterly, All Music Guide, the Berkeley Barb, The Morton Report and No Depression. He has published interviews with many leading figures from the music world, including Bruce Springsteen, Roger McGuinn, Wolfman Jack, Tom Waits, Foreigner’s Mick Jones, Billy Joel, Tommy James, the Righteous Brothers, Deep Purple’s Tommy Bolin, and members of Steely Dan and the Marshall Tucker Band. He has also interviewed many other public figures, such as Suze Orman, Daymond John, James Carville, Donald Trump, Sir Richard Branson, F. Lee Bailey, Sydney Pollack and Cliff Robertson.
Burger has been editor of several periodicals, including Phoenix magazine in Arizona, and he spent 14 years in senior positions at Medical Economics magazine, the country’s largest business magazine for doctors. A former consulting editor at Time Inc., he currently serves as editor of Business Jet Traveler.
Q&A: Jeff Burger
1. You are the editor of a collection of interviews with Leonard Cohen. Who are the readers you had in mind when you put together Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen?
Serious fans who want to know more about the man behind the music will likely constitute the primary audience for Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen; I don’t expect that someone with just a passing interest will be likely to spend 600+ pages with his thoughts. But more people are becoming devoted fans every day and for them, this chronologically arranged collection should offer lots of insights and surprises and a chance to examine Cohen’s entire adult life as it unfolds through his own words.
2. How did you choose the specific interviews that comprise the book? Did you have any formal criteria? Do the articles that ended up in the book have any common characteristics?
While I had no formal criteria, I did make an effort to include material from as many years as possible. I also looked for interviews that shed new light; some repetition was inevitable—people tend to repeat stories, jokes and observations—but I tried to include conversations that showed some aspect of Cohen you couldn’t quite find elsewhere. I should add that I had no shortage of material to choose from. I passed on using dozens of Q&As and I was being approached about including interviews even after I’d finished the book.
3. The description of the book on your web site has it that “Approximately 25 percent of the material has not previously been printed anywhere. A few of the print pieces have not previously been published in English and some of the material has not previously been available in any format, including the many reflections and reminiscences that contributors supplied specifically for this project.” I know that previously unavailable content will be of special interest to fans who may have already read many interviews with and articles about Cohen. Can you tell us about this material that is available for the first time in English and, especially, the material that is available for the first time in any format in Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen?
Among the most important “first time” pieces are the many radio and TV interviews from the CBC, Vin Scelsa and other sources that have never previously been printed. The Paris interview with Stina Lundberg Dabrowski was aired in part and a partial transcript appeared online but Stina sent me the raw footage, which included much more. Also, singer/songwriter Suzanne Vega contributed a memorable foreword to the book and, as noted above, many of the interviews are preceded with fresh insights and recollections that the interviewers supplied specifically for this project.
4. What are the important themes that recur in these pieces? Did you detect any concepts or beliefs espoused by Leonard Cohen in the interviews that changed over time? Are there instances in which he contradicted himself? Are there issues that he consistently tried to avoid?
There are many important recurring themes. To cite just one: Cohen’s sense that everything is falling apart. Much does change through time, including his willingness to talk about his bouts with depression, which is one of several subjects he avoids early on. Contradictions abound: he discusses his romantic involvements with assorted movie and pop stars but repeatedly emphasizes that he is not the ladies’ man he’s often said to be; he insists he’s not depressed but eventually talks in detail about his depression and lists all the antidepressants he’s tried; and while he takes obvious and well-deserved pride in his poetry and lyrics, he claims that he’s a minor poet and suggests that his poems are mere “jokes.” As I point out in the preface, there’s also the fact that he once said he dislikes talking but seems in many of these interviews to thrive on conversation.
5. You interviewed many of the interviewers. What insights did you gather from them?
Many of the interviewers are seasoned journalists who have talked with countless celebrities over a period of decades. As such, I was struck by how many of them remembered their conversations with Cohen as the most memorable they’d ever done or as a pivotal moment in their own careers. Many recalled that Cohen was the most gentlemanly person they’d ever met and Stina Dabrowski—who has interviewed everyone from Nelson Mandela to Norman Mailer to Mikhail Gorbachev—told me that while she has a rule against interviewing anyone more than once, she made an exception for Cohen because “he was so uniquely interesting.”
6. My standard line for years has been “Leonard Cohen gives good interview” – and often, especially in the video interviews, it appears he does so regardless of the skills of the person asking the question. How important is the interviewer to a Leonard Cohen interview?
I agree that he gives consistently good interviews. But I think his most illuminating ones are with people to whom he feels some connection—people who ask the most perceptive questions and with whom he establishes a true dialogue. It also helps if he’s interested in the interviewer’s life. Occasionally in such cases, he turns things around and starts interviewing the interviewer.
7. From your own reading of these interviews, which is your favorite? Why?
I have several favorites, including the ones with Paul Zollo (more substantive talk about Cohen’s songwriting than you’ll find just about anywhere else), the ones with Stina Lundberg Dabrowski (they have an obvious rapport and the conversations are revealing) and Jian Ghomeshi (ditto).
8. Of all those Leonard Cohen quotes, which did you find the
A. Most surprising?
Probably the ones in his conversation with Richard Guilliatt, where an apparently inebriated and unhappy Cohen seems to be looking for a one-night stand.
There are no knee-slappers here, but Cohen’s dry sense of humor, which is greatly underappreciated, permeates many of these interviews. That said, Cohen is at heart a pretty serious guy and it’d be difficult to label anything here the “funniest.”
C. Most moving?
Perhaps when he tells Dabrowski that while women have loved him over the years, he was “unable to reply to their love…I couldn’t reach across the table for it. I couldn’t reach across the bed.” Judging by his failure to establish a relationship that has stood the test of time, this is apparently true. And sad.
D. Most perceptive?
There are quite a few candidates for this title. To pick one, almost at random, there’s his explanation to Paul Zollo of the line, “The maestro says it’s Mozart but it sounds like bubblegum.” He understands that “every generation revises the game and decides on what is poetry,” so there are no absolutes, and that has helped to open him to everything from rock to rap.
9. How would you characterize Leonard Cohen’s interview style(s) and what he was trying to accomplish in interviews? Did his style and intent change from interview to interview or over the years?
As I point out in the preface, his style does indeed appear to change over the years. Early on, he is often sarcastic, cynical or playful—and certainly less than fully candid. He talks a lot about religion, politics, philosophy and the world condition but says relatively little about his personal life or failings. That comes later, when he discards what he himself refers to as his “cover story” and opens up about his depression and other subjects.