Leonard Cohen: 1988 Interview & New Biography

Written by
To be released April, 2014 (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

I interviewed Leonard Cohen in 1988, shortly after his reappearance–he had retired both from music and from the world. He had a best-selling album called I’m Your Man. This interview appeared in my first book, Stolen Moments: Conversations with Contemporary Musicians (Acrobat Books, 1988).

A 2013 biography of Leonard Cohen by Sylvie Simmons is now a best-seller: I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen. Now, a second book containing interviews with Leonard Cohen will be published by the Chicago Review Press in April 2014. It’s written by Jeff Burger and it’s titled, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters. This work will tell Cohen’s story “in his own words, via more than 50 interviews conducted worldwide between 1966 and 2012.” I’m honored that my interview will be included.

Update:  The book has just been published.

Here is my interview which offers a glimpse into this interesting and revealing book about this fascinating artist.

Radio Interview: July 13, 1988

Morning Becomes Eclectic,  KCRW-FM 

Tom Schnabel interviewed Cohen live on the radio. “I stayed up late the night before,” he later wrote, “preparing for my conversation with the gravelly voiced poet who always seemed to keep his knife sharpened in his lyrics. I hoped he wouldn’t turn that knife on me.

When he walked in, I was struck by how good-looking he was. My anxiety was disarmed somewhat by his gentle handshake and the kindness in his eyes. I had no doubt, after repeated listenings, that his new LP, I’m Your Man, was a masterpiece: dramatic, caustic, comic. Thirty minutes was little time to explore twenty years of work, but I jumped at the chance to talk with this gracious and fascinating man.” —Ed.

Tom Schnabel: Did it surprise you that this new album (I’m Your Man) has been so successful?

Leonard Cohen: Well, you hope but you never expect.

TS: Do you take it as a compliment that you’re more popular in Europe than in America?

LC: I’m grateful to have an audience anywhere. The audience in Europe is wide. I seem to have struck deep into some of the countries. I have small pockets of listeners in America. I like singing in the United States because my language comes out of this language and people can follow the real meaning of the songs. I use the cadences and rhythms of the American language. I know that in Norway, for instance, or in Scandinavia where English is a second language, there still is some kind of translation process going on.

TS: Do you identify more with a European cultural tradition of songwriters—Jacques Brel, Mikis Theodorakis, Georges Moustaki, [Georges] Brassens?

LC: Of course these singers and songwriters have meant a good deal to me. But so does Chuck Berry.

TS: Did growing up as a Jew in Montreal during World War II affect your songwriting?

LC: I suppose everything is part of the composite. It was a very privileged position that I grew up in, so it was only toward the end of the war that I really understood what was going on during it. The only deprivations we suffered was that we couldn’t get American bubble gum, and the comics weren’t in color. We were very protected from the reality.

TS: You were brought up in a traditional Jewish home?

LC: Yes, and a family very involved in the community, in establishing hospitals and synagogues, a free loan association. My grandfather founded the first Anglo-Jewish newspaper in North America.

TS: I was wondering how your songs reflect your own view of yourself, as a songwriter and a musician.

LC: It’s very hard for me to locate a view of myself. It’s one of the things I’m least interested in. I’m reminded of that story I read in Dalva, a novel by Jim Harrison, who is speaking of certain tribes where the white man tried to introduce the mirror, and certain native American tribes refused to accept the mirror. The reason was, they said, that your face is for others to look at.

TS: Is songwriting for you a lonely craft?

LC: That hardly begins to describe it. It’s a desperate kind of activity. I don’t know why it should be that way, but it is. It seems to take an enormous effort to bring work to completion.

TS: Do the words come first, or do you hear the music?

LC: It’s generally some uneasy marriage of those two elements. A phrase will come, or a chord change. Then you’ll get maybe the first verse with music and words, but then as the words change the musical form has to change. It usually takes a couple of years to bring a song to completion.

TS: Do you get tired of hearing “Suzanne”? Would you listen to it if it came on the radio when you were driving your car?

LC: I think that would be the only occasion that I’d listen to it. Well, I don’t listen to any of my work. I don’t even have a player. I have a little Walkman. I usually have to buy them every couple of months. I leave them in hotel rooms.

TS: Is it more important for you to be recognized as a poet or as a musician?

LC: Well, depending on how isolated you feel, any kind of recognition is welcome.

TS: In reading your bio, I was wondering what motivated you to leave your Greek island of Hydra and head for Nashville, Tennessee. Was it to gain wider exposure of your poetry, or just to make money?

LC: There was certainly an economic aspect. I’d been living on an island in the Mediterranean for some time. Never completely—I’d always have to come back to Canada to put money together—but I was living for a thousand dollars a year there. I’d come back to make a thousand dollars and my boat or plane fare then go back for as long as that would last. I wrote a lot of books there and a lot of songs. At a certain point I just felt like changing. When I moved back to Canada, I published a novel, Beautiful Losers, which got a lot of stunning reviews, but I couldn’t even pay the rent. In hindsight, it seems like the height of folly—I’ll take care of my financial problems by becoming a singer. But I got ambushed in New York by the so-called folksong renaissance that was going on there. It did take care of the financial problem, actually.

TS: How did [record producer] John Hammond hear about you?

LC: John Hammond was an extremely gracious man. Someone arranged an introduction. I was living at the Chelsea [Hotel] and he said, “Would you like to play me some songs?” We went back to my room and I played him seven or eight songs and he said, “You got it.”

TS: People have been talking about your voice ever since your early songs.Is it the voice that God gave you or did you work in a certain way to develop your . . . golden voice?

LC: I think in my first record I had a voice that was appropriate to the songs. Then I think I got lost for a long time. I think that now in the last two records I’ve begun to find the voice that represents me. But it’s not a strategy. I think it’s cigarettes and whiskey.

TS: I remember reading in an interview that you said that rather than having a dark cast of mind you were merely realistic. Do you think reality is dark?

LC: I think it participates in all the shades. But I think that people have an appetite for seriousness. And seriousness is neither light nor dark. It’s just the way it is, and there’s a great nourishment when you just name the thing as it is. I think there are certain occasions where cynicism is appropriate. One should be cautious.

TS: Has your view of romance changed over the past twenty years, since you embarked on your songwriting career?

LC: Well, I think that it changes naturally, but I think that the position I took in some of those early songs is not so far from the position I take now.

TS: Which is?

LC: That the kind of surrender that is involved with love means that you have to take a wound also.

TS: Do you think that it’s a typical growth process, or that it’s more your own?

LC: I can’t believe that my predicament is unique.