Category Archives: Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen Gives Good Interview – The Book: Review Of Leonard Cohen On Leonard Cohen + Q&A With Editor Jeff Burger

Cohen1b

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.

 Jeff Burger

jeff-burger-author-photo

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.

B. Funniest?

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.

 

Music And The Jews And Leonard Cohen

paper

‘Without Music, Would We Even Be Jewish?’ by Norman Lebrecht

Amid the resurrective clamour, few grasped the leap that Cohen had made into the past. In the depths of despair, he had sought the “secret chord / That David played, and it pleased the Lord” across three millennia of human creation, appealing as one lost Jew to an ancestor for the primal gift of music.

Commissioned by Radio 3 to create a “three-part series about music and the Jews,” Norman Lebrecht has written an introduction published in the  Feb 28, 2014 edition of The Guardian that offers insights into the influence, implications, and  significance of Jewish culture on  Leonard Cohen’s  songs that are far more more nuanced and musicologically specific than one routinely finds in the popular press.1

The following excerpt is representative of the granularity of the information:

… I became aware of the taboos and tensions that prevailed between Jews and music. I learned, for instance, that Jews, mourning the destruction of their temple in 70AD, were forbidden by rabbis to sing or play music, all the way down to Moses Maimonides in the 12th century.

I knew, too, that a woman’s voice was proscribed by the Talmud as “nakedness” and that hearing a woman sing was equivalent to having an illicit sexual liaison. Thrilling as that may have seemed to my boyish mind, women’s singing really was taboo. As was listening to music for seven and a half dark weeks of the year and at times of personal loss. In sorrow, music was the first thing to be switched off.

Yet, amid these constraints, music was everywhere. At any solemnity or celebration, someone would start a tune.

Cohen is by no means the only musician discussed but the discussions enlighten the understanding of his music whether Lebrecht  cites Gershwin’s lyrics,  quotes ex-BBC chair Michael Grade on “why Jews were so big in showbiz,” or analyzes Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

And consider this observation on the Jewish contribution to pop music, the genre in which Leonard Cohen thrives:

Around the same time [the end of the 19th century], on the front stoops of New York brownstones, the sons of Jewish refugees from Russian pogroms and of former African-Caribbean slaves from the deep south found an unsuspected common taste for busy rhythms, minor keys and blue notes. Their conversation signalled the birth of pop music.

This intriguing and interesting article is available at ‘Without Music, Would We Even Be Jewish?’

Note: Music and the Jews begins on Radio 3 on 9 March.

Credit Due Department: Mandy MacLeod alerted me to this piece and provided the scan of the article atop this post.

  1. There are a few other pieces with similar qualities; see, for example, St. Leonard’s Passion by  Liel Leibovitz, Tablet: Jan 31, 2012 []

“Leonard Cohen At The Hop” – Union News Review Of 1970 Leonard Cohen Leeds Concert Now Online

leeds1970

The Oct 3, 2008 Heck Of A Guy post, Leonard Cohen Live At Leeds – Previously Unknown Recording Of 1970 Concert Surfaces, carried the story of a newly available audience recording and a newspaper review of the May 19, 19701  Leonard Cohen concert at Leeds University.

Denis Piggott, who was responsible for offering that recording and review, has now discovered in his files another review of the once obscure 1970 Leeds show.2 This review was published in June 26, 1970 edition of the Leeds University Union News.3

While the review is a bit of a hodgepodge of uncited references to Cohen’s poetry, novels, and quotes, it does provide a sense of era’s perception of the Canadian singer-songwriter.

‘Don’t Pass Me By,” Sings Cohen, But The World Passes Him By by Mike Collins. Union News: 6/26/1970

Click on image to enlarge

leeds-rev-l1600

Credit Due Department: Photo atop this post originally found at Leeds University web site. While I cannot confirm the photographer, John Rettie is known to have taken similar shots of Leonard Cohen at this show.

  1. The exact date of this concert is still disputed.  Cohen Live lists it as taking place “May 19, 1970 (actually between May 15 & 17)” []
  2. This information was originally posted by denispiggott at LeonardCohenForum. []
  3. Denis has made a copy available for download at MediaFire – Cohen 1970. I have discovered a somewhat larger, easier to read version can be had by downloading the entire June 26, 1970 Union News as a PDF from the Union News Digital Library. The Cohen review is atop page 11. []

Listen To, Download Leonard Cohen Book Of Longing NPR Interview – 2006

booklonging

The May 27, 2006 NPR episode of Fresh Air with Terry Gross features an interview with Leonard Cohen, focusing on his “Book Of Longing.” Included in this 45 minute program are Leonard Cohen reading his poems, explaining the significance of Boogie Street, discussing the loss of his retirement fund, describing life at the Mount Baldy Zen Center, distinguishing between poems that “lie gracefully on the page” and poems that are meant to be sung, and, yes, much, much more.

The interview can be heard on the player embedded below or downloaded as an MP3 file at NPR Fresh Air – Book Of Longing.

Hear Leonard Cohen Read His Poems & Sing The Stranger Song At 92nd St Y – 1966

9w2y

Pico Iyer’s Take On The 1966 92nd St Y Reading

The audio recording of Leonard Cohen’s Feb 14, 1996 reading at the 92nd Street Y in New York  was posted yesterday on the event’s anniversary. The bonus in this case was the publication of Pico Iyer’s essay about that presentation. An excerpt follows:

Cohen in his youth, in other words, was already the exact and rhythmical soul who holds the stage in concerts from Oberhausen to Hanging Rock forty-eight years on, unafraid of put-on or proclamation, halfway already to being robed acolyte, swain of movie-stars and inductee into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. He’d found his voice when he was young, and in it his allegorical landscape of goddesses and G-d. Irving Layton, whom Cohen would call “our greatest poet, our greatest champion of poetry,” and for whom Cohen had served as quasi-best man, gets all but forgotten, as does his free verse, once the pages from Cohen’s coming novel are revealed as poetry traveling in mufti, using sound as incantation to pull his audience into the spell of worldly chant.

 

The entire piece, an especially worthwhile read, is available at 75 at 75: Pico Iyer on Leonard Cohen

The Reading

Cohen’s program comprises poems, including “For E.J.P” and “You Have the Lovers,” excerpts from his novel, Beautiful Losers, which would be published a few weeks after this event, and a performance of The Stranger Song.

Credit Due Department: Photo by Jennifer S. Altman

Read, Download Canadian Literature #34 (Autumn 1967): Views of Leonard Cohen

canli

In naming Leonard Cohen a phenomenon, I am motivated by the quantity, quality and variety of his achievement. Still only thirty-three, Cohen has published four books of verse and two novels, and has made a national if not an international reputation by his poetry reading, folk-singing, and skill with the guitar. The best of his poems have lyrical grace and verbal inevitability; his two novels are as perceptive in content and as sophisticated in technique as any that have appeared in English since the Second World War; and his voice has a magic incantatory quality which hypnotizes his audiences, and especially teenage audiences, into a state of bliss if not of grace.

Opening paragraph of The Phenomenon of Leonard Cohen by Desmond Pacey. Canadian Literature #34 (Autumn 1967)

Views Of Leonard Cohen – 1967

In 1967, Canadian Literature featured Leonard Cohen in its 34th issue, labeling the issue “Views of Leonard Cohen” and offering two articles on his work: The Phenomenon of Leonard Cohen by Desmond Pacey (p 5-23) and Leonard Cohen: Black Romantic by Sandra Djwa (p 32-42).

Both articles are valuable, frequently cited discussions of Cohen’s literary efforts, especially because they offer a contemporaneous perspective. Further, while Cohen was clearly considered the golden boy of Canadian poetry, he had, at the time of this publication, yet to be anointed a singer-songwriter icon; consequently, the inevitable filters of hero worship and hero worship backlash apparent in contemporary articles are necessarily (and happily) absent in these pieces.

Now, these difficult to find articles1 are now available as free PDF2 downloads (either individually or as part of the complete 103 page issue)  links below:

  1. The Phenomenon of Leonard Cohen by Desmond Pacey is available online at – no prizes for guessing – the Speaking Cohen site;  I have not been able to discover another online copy of Black Romantic by Sandra Djwa []
  2. The PDF files are text files, not graphic scans, and as such are searchable and text can be copies and pasted []