This is Part 2 of the Q&A With Harvey Kubernik, Author Of Leonard Cohen: Everybody Knows. Part 1 includes an introduction to Harvey Kubernik as well as the initial portion of the Q&A. A review of the book can be found at Leonard Cohen: Everybody Knows by Harvey Kubernik – A Delight For Cohen Fans.
Harvey Kubernik Q&A (Part 2)
Q: Of all the stories you’ve heard through the years about Leonard Cohen, which strikes you as the most moving? funniest?
A: To this day I still find it strange and funny, and still can’t comprehend on some level that in 1967 Leonard Cohen had a full length mirror in the Columbia recording studio so he could watch himself play and sing during his initial LP sessions. If he got lost in the creative process he could employ the mirror to keep him on track or remember lyrics or chords.
I also found the quotes from Nick Cave on Leonard very moving. In the mid-eighties I produced a Nick Cave spoken word reading at the Lhasa Club in Hollywood and we talked about Leonard Cohen around settlement. We were all in same frame game together. The impact an early Cohen LP had on him four decades ago was immense.
Q: You wrote that “this book is neither definitive nor encyclopedic.” How did you decide which content made it into Everybody Knows and which didn’t make the cut?
A: Many of the choices were influenced by the supportive working relationship that developed among myself, publisher Colin Webb, and UK editor James Hodgson. After I put together a formal proposal with areas of interest and interview subjects, we had many discussions. Both Colin and James were easy to work with. They were pleased to see names that had never been in a Cohen book and often emailed me about getting a photo to accompany a given quote or section of text. Sometime a photo would trigger a text to be written or a pull quote or a sidebar I would want inserted. Or they would ask if I was interviewing someone and I’d respond, ‘just ran tape on them.’
I also made the musicians a top priority way over the women or lovers in Leonard’s life, none of whom I even spoke to. It wasn’t that sort of biographical examination. If organically something is revealed, fine. But on this Cohen book I felt Leonard’s creative life needed to be re-defined partially by my own hand-picked west coast team of friends and musical associates as well as worldwide interview quotes I gathered to inform the text and enhance the visuals. “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile.”
After my brother Kenneth, my regional editor, reviewed the initial large sections, he made some first look observations, namely that my manuscript had to be condensed from 100,000 words to 60,000. That was a stressful and exhausting process for me. You edit alone.
Authors, including Andrew Loog Oldham, gave me some important interior editing tips. Poets and writers Harry E. Northup and Jimm Cushing provided especially helpful feedback, reinforcing that the new data and photos were as potent as I hoped.
I wouldn’t have bled for this book if its pages didn’t contain extraordinary, important insights and observations.
Any major Leonard Cohen project demands certain essential voices and interview subjects. There are, as well, specific subjects and a biographical chronology the reader has to know. That being acknowledged, it was my responsibility to incorporate these obligatory elements with new material to create a portrait of the man from a unique perspective.
There is a bit of redundancy, such as citations and quotes from other publications, but as UCLA basketball coach John R. Wooden once explained to me, life, like hoops, is a game of repetition – as long as it moves the ball to the basket it’s OK.
Q: I found the timeline that begins each chapter of insightful as well as helpful in tracking the important events in Cohen’s life and career. The timelines also made me more aware of the 40+ year span from Cohen’s first album to the most recent tour and his forthcoming CD. From your perspective, which aspects of Cohen’s singing and songwriting have persisted and which have changed the most?
A: The Leonard Cohen I first met and interviewed in 1974 was exceptionally confident, sly, and assured, both on stage and in conversation.
I do think most of us who are longtime fans and record buyers cling to the narrative aspect of his vocal delivery and appreciate his singing voice that really kicked into gear after his vinyl debut.
Leonard has changed his vocal delivery many times over the decades. Most recently, his trademark sound has been grounded in a lower register growl or a slower, seductive whisper on some recordings. He has attributed changes in timbre to early cigarette smoking or to his cessation of smoking.
Leonard still sometimes employs narrative, as is obvious in his stage banter, which is not exclusively dictated by the traditional verse and chorus.
There seems to be a bit more political commentary in his lyrics the last few decades. This shift from the personal to the political is a welcome addition to his lyrical arsenal.
I think his vocals over the last 20 or 30 years on record are mixed upfront a tad more. Of course, that may result from listening to Leonard on CD instead of the cheap record player with tiny speakers that was central to my teenage and college years. Incidentally, putting on one of Leonard’s first few LP’s in my college dorm room dependably led to the immediate departure of my pals. At least some girls hung around for a while to salivate over his album jackets.
Q: What do you see in the near future for Leonard Cohen’s career – more albums, tours, another retirement …?
A: There will always be more product from Leonard. I just heard that his Sony catalog was re-mastered for iTunes or some other retailer. And a new album [Popular Problems] and a live DVD are scheduled for release. I just heard a new track and it seems to be in the “I’m Your Man” sound playbook. Is Patrick Leonard the producer? [Yep]
Leonard Cohen likes to perform in front of people. He enjoys the adulation. He is very grateful and respectful of his audience, who lay out some big bucks to experience his three hours soul-search laid out in front of them. I suspect he enjoys the increasingly lucrative fees from touring and music publishing as well as from disc and digital sales. His well-deserved tour pay checks of the last decade were certainly not in his game plan.
Going back on the road after age 70, whether by choice or economic necessity, is a challenge. While I’m sure there are or were insurance clauses and agent and promoter concerns around live performance bookings, the promoters believed that, even after his long hiatus from performing, ducats could be sold and were willing to take the financial risk. Leonard’s “people,” his already established, passionate fan base came through for him, creating more foot traffic and ticket sales than anyone could expect. And that’s great – I’ve always been rooting for him.
I like when Leonard reads at his shows. The audience is silent, absorbing every nuance. He might drop in a poem or two at his shows, but I relish the recital element of his repertoire and wish he’d make a spoken word or poetry album already. I’ve suggested it before. I’ve produced a couple of dozen of them, including live recording sessions with Allen Ginsberg, and I was Project Coordinator of The Jack Kerouac Box Set Collection. I’ve pitched this idea to just about every manager and/or lawyer Leonard has employed. I know he’s read on various album compilations and on screen, but it’s time for a complete album.
I recall a 1974 show in Los Angeles I attended at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion or UCLA. Leonard took a book out during that ’74 concert and started reading passages. We hung on every word.
That reading segment reminded me of a Doors concert I caught in 1968 at the Forum in Inglewood. Jim Morrison told the audience ‘I’m gonna read some poetry to you.’ When he finished the poem it went into ‘Celebration of the Lizard.’ It was scary and mesmerizing. I was a teenager. I think poetry and spoken word can work in the big halls and arenas. I’ve done local events of this sort around my book ‘Turn Up The Radio!
So I’m sending out a smoke signal. I can expose Leonard’s literary recordings to an audience that only know him through hearing renditions of his ‘Hallelujah’ (or Jeff Buckley’s cover version) on radio, TV, and the movies.
Leonard: I’m ready to nosh with you at Canter’s delicatessen to discuss this long overdue collaboration.
As for touring it’s not like Leonard is changing the show repertoire dramatically every performance. I suspect he’ll do very short tours or isolated venue stops in a few selected cities, probably in Europe in 2015. He’s considered an Alta cocker now, (Yiddish term for old guy) if age 80 is even your tipping point. But he always seems to answer the bell.
Q: How will he be remembered, if at all, fifty years from now?
A: He will be remembered - way more in Europe and the rest of the world than in America, especially Hollywood and Los Angeles, where he lives. Planet Los Angeles is celebrity obsessed and media-controlled, a place that forgets your artistic existence and contributions, especially after you’re over 40. My city has a history of disliking and ignoring many native artists and the traditional media, the local L.A. newspapers, have the same mindset in terms of reviewing local poets and native writers. But at the same time it’s a fertile place for creating work, witness Leonard’s output since the late seventies.
Think about 40 years ago when Columbia Records in the U.S. had objections to the front cover artwork to Leonard’s New Skin for the Old Ceremony and finally changed the cover for a time.1 And recall that the album that included ‘Hallelujah’ was rejected by Columbia/Sony, and had to first be issued on a smaller independent label, before the discovery, or re-discovering of ‘Hallelujah’ in Europe led to Various Positions being reissued by Sony Music.
Q: What will be Leonard Cohen’s legacy?
A: Let the retrospectives begin and continue. Cohen’s songs live on and his books are constantly being read and re-published. His legacy is also re-positioned by the number of his recordings in TV and music soundtracks. What Leonard has accomplished is terrific. I really think, going back to his own teenage years in Montreal that he always wanted to be a writer and poet. He did it. The recording platform further developed along with new media exposures, and Leonard, with his audience took his trip to places and spaces neither he nor we never imagined. Mazel Tov to him.
Credit Due Department: Photo atop this post taken at Leonard Cohen’s L.A. home by Henry Diltz in 1993. The graphic in the middle of the page is an excerpt from Leonard Cohen: Everybody Knows.