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From the archives: Famous last words from Leonard Cohen

In this profile from 1972, Maclean’s finds Leonard Cohen grappling with the implications of his rising fame


 

We are remembering Leonard Cohen—a Canadian artist, poet and visionary we have written about many times in the pages of our century-old magazine—with stories from the Maclean’s Archives. Here, Paul Saltzman on Cohen in the 70s, wishing this was his final interview.
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Last fall I’d heard from a friend that Leonard was passing through Toronto. Which is generally the way people who know Leonard hear about him. A friend will whisper to another: “Leonard’s in town y’know” or “Did you hear Leonard was in town last week?” and, as often as not, by the time you’d hear about it Leonard Cohen would be far away.

This time the rumour’s true, he’s still in town, and we meet in an elegant French restaurant where he and a writer friend are joyously immersed in a rare seafood celebration. When I arrive they have just had their way with wonderfully rich dishes of oysters and clams and shrimps and are elated by the discovery of a lobster pie on the dessert menu. Leonard looks healthier than ever. There was a time when he could describe himself as “a fat, slobby kid of 25” but he is 37 now and in fine shape, having discovered yoga, meditation, fasting and the general effects of eating with consideration for the body.

He was here this time because the University of Toronto had just bought his papers and he was spending each day sifting through the material to see what kind of man he’d been in the early days. He was about to hit the road again, he said, leave for Winnipeg to pick up his Toyota jeep and drive to the mountains near Los Angeles and spend a month in a Japanese monastery.

After that he’s heading for Nashville, he adds, to rehearse with a new band for a concert tour of Europe. He’s obliged to deliver two more albums to Columbia Records and has decided the best way to honor the contract is with two live albums produced on tour. I tell him that I’m trying to write about him and could I come down to see him. He pauses, peers over the lobster pie and says, “Okay, why not?” So it’s arranged. We’ll get in touch and I’ll go down to Nashville during the rehearsals.

I first met Leonard Cohen just before Christmas in 1970. He was doing a concert tour in the United States and I’d been asked to produce the four concerts here: Massey Hall in Toronto, Carleton University in Ottawa, Place des Arts in Montreal and a free concert in a Montreal mental hospital. Leonard likes to play to mental patients, I was told, he admires the honesty of the audience. “If they don’t like you they just get up and leave.” By this time I was already haunted by him. Three years ago, I’d been touched, like so many others, by his music.

Later I’d read his poetry and the insane novel Beautiful Losers and had heard him say something on CBC-TV that comes to mind now whenever the temptation to make judgments about others arises. He said, “There’s no story so fantastic that I cannot imagine myself the hero. And there’s no story so evil that I cannot imagine myself the villain.”

Just who was this obviously lost, half-crazy poet anyway? Who was he? I wanted to know. Such sensibilities were rare, to be sought out, to be near for a while.

We met at the Windsor Arms Hotel just off Bloor Street (the kind of place where Gloria Swanson stays when she’s in town) and Leonard seemed more rested and healthier than he did on TV. He was trim and carried his body with a kind of refreshing precision and talked the way he walked; aware of his own speed. He was staying there with his group (two female singers, four musicians, a roadie, recording engineer and equipment man).

The next day, after a very successful Massey Hall concert, we all flew off to Ottawa. The band had the kind of weariness which comes from six electrically intense weeks on the road. I was feeling very good and waiting anxiously for time to share with Leonard, when the moments weren’t so frantic. There were so many things I wanted to find out.

In Ottawa the night was magical. During the second half of the concert, the roadie Billy Donovan and I moved from the dark side of the stage to the light near the piano. The space transformation, from dark to light, was shocking; like opposite electrical charges. The audience disappeared into an awesome black void in front of the stage. And a powerful tension was growing between Leonard and the darkness. Immediately I felt terrified for him; in front, the black entity, like some sort of energy monster, was sucking him in. I wanted to turn up the lights and release him. The hunger of the audience was frightening. There were signs of struggle on his face, fighting to keep control. Then suddenly he made an emotional connection with something out there and the night became his. Aldous Huxley’s vision for mankind is to wake up, and Leonard woke the blackness up that night. The concert was over and the audience leaped to its feet, responding loudly and ecstatically. Leonard slipped the guitar strap from his shoulders, stood silent for a time and said: “It’s good to be back in Canada. This is coming home and I want to thank you for sharing this occasion.”

Twenty minutes later, after the sound equipment was cleared and the gym empty, a girl approached us nervously and asked us to take her to Leonard’s dressing room. She was reverential, entirely respectful. She followed quietly as we made our way outside to the dressing-room stairs. There, in front of us, were Leonard and the band laughing joyfully and throwing snowballs at each other. She was stunned. The girl obviously couldn’t reconcile this scene with her fan’s worship.

Later that night Freddy of the sound crew and I were talking very confused, about the girl and the magic and the demanding quality of the audience, that strange energy, and I wondered how or why Leonard put up with this kind of exhausting tour. It was scary. We decided to go and talk to him about it. We knew he wouldn’t be confused. It was 3 a.m. when we knocked on his hotel door. A weary voice asked who it was.

“It’s Paul and Freddy . . . can we talk with you?” “Can it wait until morning, man?

Leonard Cohen in front of Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge in Nashville, Tennessee: ”I have tried, in my way, to be free.”

We thought for a moment.

“No, not really . . .”

The door opened and we all sat down at the open doorway on the rug and talked until dawn. Leonard explained that touring was “like an Italian wedding. You kind of know the bride and maybe you’ve met the groom once or twice, but you’ve never met anyone else that’s there. And everyone gets too drunk and eats too much. The morning after you don’t remember much about the wedding. As far as I can see this is my last tour. But the will is frail and I may fall back and it might take 10 more tours to finally quit, or this might be it.”

Freddy and I were being familiar and intimate with Leonard, it was natural for both of us, and I’ll never forget when he turned to us and said: “Listen, I like you boys, but don’t think that because we’re sitting here having a talk like this that we’re close friends. When the ancient Japanese would meet they’d bow to each other for as much as half an hour speaking words of greeting, gradually moving closer together, understanding the necessity of entering another’s consciousness carefully.”

He held his hands up, palms outward, and he pushed his hands toward us gently. He wanted us to be more aware of the distance between us.

Days later when the tour was over and Leonard gone, I realized the significance of what he was saying. Friendships have been deeper for me since. I wanted to see him again.

It was 10 below zero and Toronto was white when I left. The Delta jet is now dropping through pink cumulus clouds over Nashville and I can see the ripening greens and browns of the Tennessee countryside below. It is early March.

Billy and Ron, Leonard’s lead guitarist, are waiting and it’s good to see them again. We haven’t seen each other since the Canadian tour. We all happily pile into a rented Capri and drive past the nearby palatial southern estates surrounded by manicured acres that could only be kept up with “the right help,” each property enclosed by similar stone walls built in the early days by black slaves. Later we pass through the section of town where the blacks live. The streets haven’t been paved yet.

Studio A of Columbia Studios is a high room with sophisticated sound baffles, mixers, synthesizers, amplifiers and all the hardware that’s been good enough to create the sounds of Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, Pete Seeger, Mike Murphey; the list is legion. Inside Leonard’s rehearsing with his band: Peter, from San Francisco, on acoustic and electric bass, David, from California, on acoustic guitar, and two lady singers, Lee from Toronto and Stephanie from England. Leonard turns to me and says casually, “Hi, man.” Ron takes his place on a stool with the rest of the group, puts his electric Gretch between his thighs and off they go into Joan Of A rc. The rehearsal would go badly that afternoon, the voices of the girls were beautiful but they just didn’t mesh with Leonard’s. Eventually the girls would be told that it just wasn’t working, that the chemistry hadn’t happened, that they’d have to go home. They would be disappointed but relieved that the tension was over. Now you could see that Leonard and Bob Johnson, his record producer and organ player, were tired and frustrated. On his way out Leonard said he’d see me later at the YMCA where he goes for a workout every day. Twice a day if his body is feeling stiff and tense.

Physically relaxed after a workout at the Y, Leonard and I go over to his hotel for food and we settle down for our first talk. Leonard needs drawing out, he seems to be holding back, and finally he tells me about the Japanese monastery where he has just spent five weeks. The monastery was sparse but beautiful, high in the California mountains above the tree line, cold and exquisite. Remarkable vegetarian cuisine was prepared by a young monk. Leonard was up at four each morning and each day was spent in meditation and work. The experience had given him strength, he said, not aggressive physical strength, but a kind of power that comes from feeling directly connected inside. Now the tour, which is to take in 23 European cities in 40 days, is a drag on his head, an unbelievable drain he must endure. He’s tired of singing love songs that are seven years old and fed up with the music business. “I’ve been trying to get out of Nashville for three years,” he says, “and now I must prepare to embrace 100,000 people on this tour.” Later up in his room with his lady, Suzanne, and Ron, I notice again this reluctance to initiate conversation. Mostly he listened, his attention happily on Suzanne’s hand caressing his foot. They’re so fine together. Warm and calm and loving. She’s a lovely woman who, like Leonard, doesn’t talk much. But when she does it’s clear and rings true. She says to Leonard, “You’ve taught me most everything I know,” and Ron adds, “He taught me more about how to take care of my guts than anyone.”

During the next few days I slip easily into Leonard’s ritual of workouts in the morning and rehearsals in the afternoon. Leonard and I would occasionally take a drive in -his Toyota jeep, fine times in the warm afternoon sun, but there was a tension growing between us. A number of times we made appointments to set up an interview for this article but he’d always put it off at the last minute.

On Sunday Suzanne left for Miami for a couple of days. Leonard came into the control room after the afternoon rehearsal and finally suggested we get the interview out of the way. Loading his guitar and my saddlebags into the back of his Toyota we headed for his hotel. I could see that the talk would be a chore for him.

We got to his room, both of us feeling pressured by the other and tense about talking. He didn’t want to speak, to be asked questions about himself. And I didn’t want to jeopardize our still fledgling friendship by being the instrument of his discomfort. The moment was far too tense and I went out on the balcony.

The night air slowed me down and being alone in his room gradually made Leonard feel more at ease. When I went back in he was sitting on his double bed and I sat down on the spare one.

It was about seven-thirty by now and we decided to set a time limit of one hour for the conversation. We ordered a cheese sandwich and milk for him and a tomato juice for me and while we waited I set up the cassette tape recorder I’d brought.

The food came and we continued to talk easily as I turned on the tape recorder:

“I ... I lived a lot better when I had less money. A lot more luxuriously, and so it’s very confusing, as you might imagine. My standard of living went down as my income increased.” Leonard shifted onto his side, propping his head up with one hand and starting to eat his sandwich with the other: “Believe me, it’s just the nature of money. Money in the hands of some people can only decrease their standard of living. I mean I lived a lot better when I had no money. I was living in a beautiful big house on a Greek Island. I was swimming every day; writing, working, meeting people from over the whole world and moving around with tremendous mobility. You know, I can’t imagine anyone living any better and I was living on about $1,000 a year. Now that I spend many times that I find myself living in hotel rooms, breathing bad air, and very constrained as to movement.” He reached over the end of the bed, picked up his glass and drank some milk as I asked him how he felt about Canada these days.

“It’s my native land, my homeland, all the feelings one feels for one’s homeland . . . very tender feelings about it. I don’t like hearing it being criticized. I like to hear it praised. I return often and I live there part of every year. It’s the last home I’ve had.”

For several years Leonard had been without a real home, constantly on the move but now he’d just bought a house in Montreal for himself and Suzanne and his friend Mort; he was attempting to come home.

“And the next home, too. I think we’re very lucky it’s not a first-rate power and that it’s ... I don’t know, it’s my homeland, what can I say? And it’s not even Canada, it’s Montreal. Not even Montreal, it’s a few streets: Belmont and Vendôme. It was wonderful.” He looked warm and happy remembering his childhood and it brought to mind his saying, a few days earlier, that his only friends besides the people connected with his music were his childhood friends Mort, Henry Zemel, Henry Moskowitz. Earlier in the evening, coming out of the bathroom, he’d stopped in front of the mirror. He looked at himself, running his fingers through his hair, a smile growing on his face, and said with a little bounce of energy: “I feel very boyish these days. Very boyish.”

Now, sitting there seeing the traces of youthful joy on his face as he talked about Montreal I remembered that his mother still keeps his room much as he left it. Leonard’s father died when he was young, leaving him with a poet’s sensitivity but with the premature burden of being the man of the house. He grew up with a certain fear of settling down, but also with the strength that comes from fulfilling such immediate and harsh demands.

I wondered if he was feeling as healthy as he seemed. He answered: “I’m just reeling, man. I’m just reeling. Sometimes in the midst of the thing I don’t know how I do it, you know. Like I manage to get my daily life together to get this tour together. But most of the time I’m staggering under the blows. It’s no doubt that I contrive these blows for myself. I think everyone is responsible for their own condition. But I don’t intend to stay here, you know; I’ve run through a lot of programs to get myself out of here and this is one that I’m ending because it didn’t work. And it’s not a question of putting myself down. It’s a question of being as accurate as possible.

“You know,” he went on, “that’s why I wouldn’t like to intrude on anybody’s life by trying to advise them. I mean the real truth about my visions is that I don’t have any special secret. I said it in a song. * ‘Please understand I never had a secret chart to get me to the heart of this or any other matter. ’”

Leonard finished his sandwich and I dug into some cookies and the tomato juice. We were quiet for several minutes feeling quite relaxed with the silence and with each other.

“Do you have a particular concept of what friendship is?”

“Well, not examining my friends’ behavior but only examining my behavior in terms of my friends, I would say that your friends are among your worst enemies. I don’t think I’ve been able to render my friends the kind of services that . . . you know, my intent isn’t pure enough; I wouldn’t say I’m a good friend.”

“Are there any people who are good friends to you?”

“Yes, I have good friends, but I think they’re among my worst enemies; they help me when they harm me, and they harm me when they help me. I mean a friendship is often a condition of mutual sympathy which reinforces weakness and does not do anybody any good.” “But is there a friendship that is not a mutual awakening process?” I ask.

“That’s honesty.”

“Well, then isn’t that friendship?” “Not for long, because it’s hard to sustain. That’s what I was trying to do with this conversation, you know. If I would have been stronger, I would have said, ‘Paul, the last thing you need is to sit around talking about these matters. Never mind the things I need, it’s beyond the last thing I need, but the last thing that you need is to talk about high things. In another context at another age talking about it can have some value.’ ”

I wondered what Leonard felt his needs were and when I asked he said: “I like that line from the Hebrew liturgy for the dead which is: ‘our needs are so manifold we dare not declare them.’ Why do we dare not declare them? We all have a sinister preoccupation with descriptions of our discomfort and it’s endless. It’s endless. And it doesn’t get you up. That’s what’s wrong with it, that’s the only thing wrong with it. It doesn’t get you to where you want to go. Period.”

He tipped his glass, finishing the milk. “That’s one of the reasons I don’t like speaking about myself, because you forget what you really think. You begin to mistake the description for the feelings.

“But though I dislike talking, I’m still talking. It takes a tremendous effort of will not to. Information is one thing and the application is another. Also it’s a matter of putting yourself into an environment where you are aided in doing the things you want to do and not tempted by the things you do not want to do. That’s why cloistered societies are established, not because the cloister is in itself an end. But just because in a period of training you want to give yourself a chance. If I want to give myself a chance to develop certain strengths I don’t put myself on a tour, or maybe I do to get the full negative imprint so that I don’t have to do it again. Like this tour is the last time I will do this sort of thing.”

He looked at the tape recorder, and then at me, and shifted to a more comfortable position lying on his bed:

“And this is the last time I’d do this sort of an interview. I mean this doesn’t work for me as a viable way of self-improvement. It is forbidden ... it is forbidden to talk about ways of getting high because we know that it is contrary to the goal. There is a Sufi story about a young man going on a journey to see a famous wise man and on his return his fellow student asked him: ‘And what did he say about transmigration of the soul?’ and his friend answered: ‘I don’t know. I didn’t hear what he said.’ ‘And what did he say about transubstantiation of matter?’ T don’t know,’ his friend answered. And his fellow student asked slightly annoyed, ‘Well then why did you go?’ and his friend answered: ‘To see how he ties his shoelace.’ ”

Leonard paused a moment and then continued: “Now that is like a real guide to good journalism. The essence of the man never comes out of this kind of conversation. Just because the density of the printed page does not transmit these essences.”

Leonard had mentioned he was finishing a new book and when I noticed what looked like a manuscript, I asked him about it.

“I’ve just written a book called The Energy Of Slaves, and in there I say that I’m in pain. I don’t say it in those words because I don’t like those words. They don’t represent the real situation. It took 80 poems to represent the situation of where I am right now. That to me totally acquits me of any responsibility I have of keeping a record public. I put it in the book. It’s carefully worked on, you know. It’s taken many years to write and it’s there. It’ll be between hard covers and it’ll be there for as long as people want to keep it in circulation. It’s careful and controlled and it’s what we call art.”

“Why have you put it out?” I asked.

“It’s my work, that’s all. And part of the nature of my work is to reach people. I mean I’m not very interested in playing to empty halls. My work is to make songs and poems and I use whatever material I have at hand. I don’t have the luxury of a vast range of material. I’m not entirely happy with the subject matter. I’d like to broaden my subject matter but as it is right now I only work with what is given.”

He stood up and went over to the desk, picked up his brown leather pouch that held the thick sheaf of papers each containing carefully handwritten poems, put them down on his bed and started looking through them. I remembered another time in Montreal when he had read some poems to me and had said that for years he had developed his craft so that he could write beautifully, but that now he was not interested in writing for beauty but only for truth.

“I am interested,” he went on, “in this book’s reception. I’m interested in how it will be received almost more than any other book, because I have the feeling that by making it public I may be making a mistake. I hope that I will find that this gnawing feeling is wrong or that I have misread it.”

“Don’t you think your work might bring people to a greater awareness?”

He thought about it for a moment, and looking at me spoke with sincere warmth: “Perhaps, but I don’t think so. I mean the most important thing I can say to you really is that you don’t learn by talking. Those who know don’t talk and those who talk don’t know. There’s some truth to that you know. You don’t find any of the great enlightened masters sitting around rapping. You just don’t learn that way.”

At that moment I went to turn off the tape machine and noticed that it had stopped, new batteries and all. We laughed about it and Leonard rolled onto his back saying, “It’s very significant that probably the most important thing that we have said between us tonight was not recorded.”

About ten-thirty Suzanne phones from Miami. Although Leonard says love is for the birds his face sure lit up when Suzanne was on the other end of the phone. He said, “Hello, Little One” with such intimacy that I felt drawn directly out of the room onto the balcony.

It’s all coming down to the wire now. Home to roost. It’s Tuesday night and this is the first rehearsal with Jenny and Donna, the two new singers, who’ve just got in from LA. The excitement is so strong in here you can touch it. The tour begins in two days. The lights are low and the garbage can is stuffed with ice, wine and champagne. These girls have got to work.

Jenny is tall, with straight blond hair down to her shoulders. She stands holding her body straight but easy, a feeling of calm to her. She came from playing the lead in Hair in Los Angeles. Donna is a bit shorter, with a fuller more sexual body, long light blond hair falling in natural curls over her shoulders. She’s less calm than Jenny, more in need of reassurance.

The singing is going well. The first song. If it’s going to come together, it’s got to be now. Leonard is looking truly adolescent. Worn brown sneakers, favorite black slacks, old favorite grey sweater hanging loosely from his shoulders. He’s listening to the girls and smiling as he sings. Standing at the mike, shoulders in their slight hunch, feet together, tapping, swaying slowly from side to side. *Oh you are really such a pretty .little one / I see you’ve gone and changed your name again. Peter, on electric bass, is tapping away smiling, David looks happy, too. Just as I’ve climbed this whole mountainside / To wash my eyelids in the rain. The music takes off. Ron starts smiling, Bob too, *Oh so long Marianne / It’s time that we began / To laugh / and cry / and cry / and laugh /about it all again.

The new girls respond beautifully and they sing the last refrain again. The song finished, Leonard turns to the girls, he’s smiling, delighted. “Fabulous . . . fabulous . . . just fabulous,” he can’t get over how well the song went. He’s shaking the girls’ hands saying, “Congratulations.” He’s just like a kid, he’s so happy. People break to get some drink, but Leonard is too excited. Com’on, let’s keep going. Hey seriously that was fabulous. I’m so excited I’ve lost the capo from my guitar.” He is stumbling around through the mike booms and chairs looking on the floor and table and chairs for his capo. “Hey, anyone seen my capo . . .?” The girls are giggling they’re so happy it’s come together. Leonard is still stumbling around: “Those sounds were so beautiful I couldn’t sing, like music to my ears . . . I’m so happy there are voices out there, the voices came.” He’s standing still now, overcome.

They get back together, Leonard saying, “Let’s do Thin Green Candle . . . no, no, let’s do Joan Of Arc.” They begin and suddenly in mid-verse Leonard stops: “I’m sorry we might as well cool this right now, I can’t sing. It’s too beautiful.” They look at each other. “The reason I need girls to sing with me is that my voice depresses me.” Donna protests, “No . .. no,” but Leonard goes on, “No, seriously, that’s the truth. I need your voices to sweeten mine. No really, that’s the truth. So please try to sing something simple in harmony with my voice.” And they swing back into another song . . . and it works.

It’s around midnight the next day and we’re all packing up to leave the studio for the last time. What I’ve realized after this time with Leonard is that he’s searching for the matter of which he is made. And I don’t mean that in any scifi sense. It simply means that there are many parts of Leonard Cohen that Leonard doesn’t like, even hates. Once when we were talking I asked him if he liked himself. He thought for a moment and said: “I like my true self.” I took that to mean that like most of us he had made for himself a number of selves, public facades, heroic images, romantic possibilities but was now in the process of stripping them away to become his true self. Somewhere back there, perhaps in his twenties when he began replacing the slobby body with this one, he began a long uphill battle to bring himself together. Quieting the internal strife frees the spirit; Leonard is constantly refining his techniques for getting high. Drugs don’t work anymore. Neither does public acclaim, or the music industry, or scientology (which he once was into), but yoga, fasting and his writing help. So does Suzanne. The process is ongoing and more profound as the years pass. You can see it on his face. Refining. Always refining. And that’s why I search out Leonard. Why I love the man. Leonard knows a lot about searching, and I’m trying to become better at it myself. He turned me onto it. My brother crystalized it when he took me aside one day and said: “You don’t like yourself very much. That’s why you run around, you’re afraid if you slow down you’ll find out there’s nothing to you ... but there is.”

I say so long to everyone in the studio and walk over to Leonard. We shake hands and say a cool good-bye. Like the first time we ever said hello. Just recognition. Another encounter. Moments shared. Nothing promised.

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