In 2008, Brian D.Johnson interviewed Leonard Cohen backstage at Hamilton Place. Watch the video or read the full transcript below.
Q: Tell me about the hat.
A: I’ve been wearing a fedora for a long, long time. This particular hat is from a little hat store just opposite my daughter’s antique store in Los Angeles. They have a very good hat store there.
Q: You never used to perform with a hat.
A: I’ve never performed with a hat. But I always wore a hat. I started wearing the hat more and more, independent of these preparations. I stopped wearing a fedora after 9/11. I didn’t think it was appropriate to wear this kind of hat, and I switched to a cap.
A: I don’t really know. It seemed to be too dressed up for a situation that was closest to mourning than any other situation. So I didn’t feel like getting dressed up. I always wore a suit, but I stopped wearing a fedora after 9/11.
Q: It’s useful onstage. It allows you to pay homage. Doffing it to the audience and the band.
A: I started wearing it a lot around the house. I don’t go out much. But I usually get dressed every day.
Q: Now you’re going out a lot, to say the least.
A: Now I’m being sent like a postcard from place to place. It’s really wonderful. [laughs]
Q: After 14 years off the road, what brought you back?
A: Well, one of the things was that pesky little financial situation, which totally wiped me out. So I’m very grateful that I had a way to make a living, because that was indicated in very powerful terms. It wasn’t the prime motivator. Thanks to the help of Robert Kory, who is unique among lawyers in that he deferred his fees until the situation was resolved, which is not just unusual but unheard of, I would say, for a lawyer in Los Angeles. So he was able to somehow right the shipwreck. As it turned out, I could have gotten by. But all the time, even when I was in the monastery at Mt. Baldy, there were times when I would ask myself, “Are you really never going to get up on a stage again?” It was always unresolved. It would arise. Not daily, not even monthly. But from time to time, I’d see my guitar. I was still writing songs. But the idea of performing was starting to recede further and further back. One of the reasons was that I was so wiped out physically by the end of my last tour because I was drinking heavily. I was drinking about three bottles of wine by the end of the tour.
Q: Three bottles a day?
A: Before every concert. I only drank professionally, I never drank after the concert. I would never drink after intermission. It was a long tour. It must have been 60 to 70 concerts.
Q: Why did you need to drink?
A: I was very nervous. And I liked drinking. And I found this wine, it was Château Latour. Now very expensive. It was even expensive then. It’s curious with wine. The wine experts talk about the flavour and the bouquet and whether it has legs and the tannins and the fruit and the symphonies of tastes. But nobody talks about the high. Bordeaux is a wine that vintners have worked on for about 1,000 years. Each wine has a very specific high, which is never mentioned. Château Latour, I don’t know how I stumbled on it, but it went with the music, and it went with the concert. I tried to drink it after the tour was over, and I could hardly get a glass down. It had no resonance whatsoever. It needed the adrenaline of the concert and the music and the atmosphere, the kind of desperate atmosphere of touring—desperate because I was drinking so much! I had a good time with it for a while, but it did wreck my health, and I put on about 25 pounds.
Q: So now what do you do with the anxiety that you were quelling with drinking before? Were you anxious coming into this tour?
A: I was anxious. But I never really believed that it’s entirely in one’s hands anyway. I do trust in whatever those components are that buoy you up for the occasion. I am anxious. I don’t mean to suggest I’m not at all anxious. But the anxiety is not devastating, as it was before.
Q: How did you prepare for this tour?
A: I hadn’t really picked up a guitar in any serious way for many, many years. I had to restring all my guitars. And then I got my chop back. I only have one chop. Which Roscoe Beck [bass player and musical director] has now been able to duplicate. He’s worked on it for many years.
Q: He copped your chop?
A: He copped my chop . . . So I started practicing guitar. My only regret is that I have a lot of new songs but I didn’t get a chance to rehearse them with this band. We’re going to rehearse in August and September and I’ll be able to include these new tunes. I’ve written most of a new album. I’ve recorded three tracks. But this band is so good that I’ll probably re-record the tracks that I did. It’s such a privilege to play with these guys.
Q: You’ve been working in a room for years; now you’re on a stage. What are the pros and cons?
A: This way, without drinking and smoking, it’s a very, very different situation. Anyone who’s been a heavy drinker and heavy smoker and has the good future to survive that and give it up knows what a very different kind of daily existence one has. I was smoking a couple of packs of cigarettes a day. And I was drinking heavily on these tours.
Q: The smoke has added a lot of character to your voice.
A: I lost a note or two in the base register when I gave up smoking. But I’ve found some higher registers. I can’t go as low, but I can go higher. I’ve never thought of myself as a singer anyway. . . I’ve been free from those considerations because so many people over the years told me I don’t have a voice. I kind of bought that. I never thought that much about it to begin with. I knew I didn’t have one of the great voices. As my Damon Runyanesque lawyer used to say, “none of you guys can sing. If I want to hear singing, I’ll go to the Metropolitan Opera.”
Q: What’s the song that presents the toughest challenge?
A: The tough one for me is Suzanne. My chop has not come back completely. I’m playing an acoustic electric guitar. It’s pitched right. It’s right for my voice. People have asked me what’s it like to sing Suzanne. It’s a question I don’t fully process, because I don’t have the sense that I’m just doing it again. It’s hard to sing it. It’s hard to enter it. Because it’s a serious song. I’m alone singing it. And it brought me. . . in my own curious magical universe it is a kind of doorway. So I have to be very careful with it. I can’t speak too much about it because I can’t put my finger on the reason, except to say it is a doorway, and I have to open it carefully. Otherwise, what is beyond that is not accessible to me.
Q: It’s not special because it’s about one particular woman?
A: It was never about a particular woman. For me it was more about the beginning of a different life for me. My life in Montreal, and my life wandering alone in those parts of Montreal that are now very beautifully done up and in those days, it was the waterfront. I used to wander around down there and I used to go to that church a lot.
Q: So it’s holy ground?
A: It’s holy ground. You don’t want to linger on those matters because they have a significance that could be spoiled by explication.
Q: Going back on the road after 14 years—what else made you do it, aside from financial considerations?
A: I thought it would be now or never. If I didn’t do this year, I’m don’t think I’m going to do when I’m 75, or 77, or 80. It was hard for me to say never. It was like, “Wait a second, this is what you’ve spent you’re whole life doing. And what you’re trained to do.” I’m at that age where “never” had a really strong resonance.
Q: You started this tour in smaller centres in eastern Canada. Was it a warm-up leg?
A: There’s no such thing when you’re appearing in front of an audience. It would be insulting. Our band was warmed up. We had three months of rehearsal. Neil Larsen [the keyboard player] said most bands rehearse for a couple of weeks, and then it usually takes 10 or 20 concerts for the band to jell. We jelled in the rehearsal hall. God forbid that I would walk out onto a stage and think that this is a warm up. So from the first concert which was in Fredericton, maybe the show’s tightened, and the rhythm of the show has been more accurately defined, but it was no warm up.
Q: You and Bob Dylan were in St. John’s at the same time, playing consecutive shows.
A: I went to his concert. It was terrific. I’ve been to many Dylan concerts. This one, there was a walkway from the hotel to the auditorium, so you could enter into this private area, the people who had boxes. We were in one of those boxes. First of all, I’ve never been in a private box in an auditorium. That was fun. And a lot of members of the band came. But it was very loud. Fortunately, Raphael, our drummer, had earplugs, and he distributed them. Because our music is quite soft and that’s what we’ve been listening to for three or four months.
As Sharon Robinson said, Bob Dylan has a secret code with his audience. If someone came from the moon and watched it they might wonder what was going on. In this particular case he had his back to one half of the audience and was playing the organ, beautifully I might say, and just running through the songs. Some were hard to recognize. But nobody cared. That’s not what they were there for and not what I was there for. Something else was going on, which was a celebration of some kind of genius that is so apparent and so clear and has touched people so deeply that all they need is some kind of symbolic unfolding of the event. It doesn’t have to be the songs. All it has to be is: remember that song and what it did to you. It’s a very strange event.
Q: Back in the ’60s, there was talk of you being a Canadian Bob Dylan. Didn’t you make that analogy yourself at the time?
A: No. That got into the press. I’d never say that any more than I’d say I want to be the next William Yeats or the next Bliss Carman. You know how that arose? There was a party at Frank Scott’s house. I had a record of Bob Dylan, and I brought it to this party. There were all these poets, Layton, and Dudek and maybe Phyllis Webb. It was probably Bringing it All Back Home. It was one of his early records I said, fellas, listen to this. This guy’s a real poet. I put the record on, and it was greeted with yawns. They said, ‘That’s not a poet.’ I said, ‘No, I insist, let me play it again.’ They said, ‘Do you want to be that?’ That’s how it arose. But it’s not my syntax. Anyway, they didn’t like it. But I put it on a few more times, and by the end of evening they were dancing.
Q: You said that an audience brings a lot to someone like Bob Dylan. They bring a lot to you as well.
A: Yes they do. As I said in the concert, this is every musician’s dream, to stand in front of an audience and not have to prove your credentials, to come into that warmth. Of course, it creates other anxieties, because you really want to deliver. There’s a lot to live up to. But it is quite a rare thing.
Q: Are you still un-depressed?
A: Yes, it’s held.
Q: Do you need anti-depressants?
A: No. I find I can’t even drink a glass of wine. It interferes with my mood. On Friday night I’ll have a glass of wine with my family when we celebrate the Sabbath. A sip or two. I don’t know what has happened. Occasionally I’ll take hard liquor. I can take a whiskey or a vodka. But I can’t drink wine the way I used to. I regret it in some ways. Bob Metzger and I used to drink a lot together on tour. I don’t know why that is. It just doesn’t go down well any more.
Q: How did you stop drinking? Did you go into a program?
A: I lost my taste for it. Just like cigarettes. I lost my taste.
Q: Did you do anything physically to prepare for this tour?
A: I have a half-assed routine that I try to go to. I miss it every other day. But I try to keep in shape.
Q: What’s your daily ritual on the road?
A: The thing I’m most worried about is losing my voice. So I tend not to talk between concerts. I never did like going out much. So I really love that moment when I close the door of the hotel room.
Q: So it’s not the old sex drugs and rock’n’roll lifestyle, with young girls throwing themselves at you?
A: But there are lovely communications…what you see behind you [notes and flowers from fans]. Many gifts come. It’s very touching.
Q: It’s an ascetic life?
A: Yes it is.
Q: No temptations?
A: The Devil laughs if you say there’s no temptations. I do cherish those moments when I can just relax in the hotel room. Because there are a lot of details that have to be taken care of aside from just getting up onstage. You’re dealing with a number of human beings whose well-being and safety you’re concerned about. There are people I like to meet and talk to in the crew and the band.
Q: You’re moving a lot more on stage.
A: One of the surprises was getting to know these songs again. I hadn’t really looked at them for a long, long time. The songs are good. They hold up and you can get into them. I’ve never really thought of touring as a musical event. It was life on the road. It was temptation. It was drinking, camaraderie, it was the feeling of being in a motorcycle gang. There was that aspect to it which simply doesn’t figure now. The music became really important on this tour. I was able to see that these songs really do move, and you can enter them, and there really is a place to live in them, and a place to move in them. And with musicians like I have, and the kind of rhythm section I have, it invites you to move. There is one dancer in our group, Sharon Robinson. She used to dance for Ann Margaret.
Q: You once told me you’ve got to beat the band back. That seems no longer the case.
A: I was drunk a lot of the time. The thing I was worried about was the drum and the bass would turn up. It was very hard to keep the band quiet. Occasionally like racehorses on the homeward track, I never used to blame them, but it was the nature of the beast that the guys want to open up. And because I hadn’t rehearsed with this kind of precision and for this duration, I was always worried about them overtaking me. Also it’s a different atmosphere. The precision is cherished by these musicians. No one is galloping.
Q: What’s your relationship status these days?
A: With Anjani?
A: It’s a good relationship. I’ve known her for a long, long time. She’s just finished six songs of her own for a new album. She went to a little cabin in Wyoming for the last month and has written this album. So I’m very anxious to hear it.
Q: How did your art exhibit do?
A: It did very well. And continues to do well. It was one of the reasons that I didn’t have to go on tour. I was able to pay a lot of lawyers. Not Robert Kory [who’s fees are deferred]. I had detectives, forensic accountants, tax specialists.
Q: If all of that hadn’t happened…would you be doing this?
A: Probably not.
Q: It put a fire in your belly?
A: Yes. It got me out into the world. I was retreating. It wasn’t a retreat from creative activity. It was certainly a retreat from public life.
Q: Was that a good thing?
A: Sure. We’re not running the show. I don’t recommend losing everything as a spiritual discipline. But if it happens to you there are some features that are quite surprising and quite nourishing.
Q: Do you still see Roshi? [his Zen teacher from Mt. Baldy]
A: I celebrated his birthday, his 101st birthday April 1. He’s in New Mexico but he’ll be back in Mt. Baldy shortly. He gave me some advice years and years ago which I didn’t heed. I believe it was the ’79 tour. He was in the dressing room with me drinking cognac. He taught me to drink cognac. But I was drinking a tumbler of cognac like it was water. He hit my thigh very hard and said, “Body important.” [laughs]