Leonard Lately – A Leonard Cohen interview-article
by William Conrad (c1976)
The release of Leonard Cohen’s ten-song collection of new compositions, “Old Ideas,” motivated me to relive an afternoon and evening I shared with him in Nashville,Tennessee.
I was recently listening to k d lang’s version of Cohen’s now-classic “Hallelujah,” and thought Leonard must love the irony of this tune’s history. He first released it on his Various Positions album in 1984, after his label advised him it wasn’t worth including. Almost three decades later, it has been recorded by more than 200 singers in multiple languages, and let us not forget its place on soundtracks from Shrek and TV’s Scrubs.It has become the “White Christmas” of dark and moody songs. Even Cohen himself said, “I think it’s a good song, but I think too many people sing it. Some have asked for a moratorium on “Hallelujah.”
Suzanne and Other Confessions
“Civilian life got impossible.” Leonard Cohen, Canada’s answer to Bob Dylan, was announcing in 1976, his return to road shows. His blue folk songs contained in the From A Room and Of Love And Hate albums, and his experimental dark novel Beautiful Losers, added so much gravity to the ponderous seventies decade.
For fifteen years he sailed between his native Montreal and his adopted escape hatch on the Greek isle of Hydra. When he ventured onto American soil, he enjoyed the hard contrast of life in New York City and the highest point in Los Angeles County, Mount Baldy. On the road, boundaries disappear for Leonard. He said, “It’s not the country, but the hotel room.”
When I met Leonard Cohen in that autumn of ’76, he was lounging atop his queen-size bed in Room 418, enjoying the view of east Nashville from the fourth floor of Roger Miller’s King of the Road Inn. A star-struck, up-and-coming singer named Michael Murphey was also in attendance. The clean-shaven, hair trimmed close, Mr. Cohen was in Music City for a two-night stand at the cozy Exit-In, a club with less than 150 seats. That seventies version of Leonard was fashionably lean and cordially introverted—still juxtaposed with the moment.
While Cohen’s shows and recordings kept him a central figure in Europe, Columbia Records stateside, saw him as some sort of rare, sensitive creature that, in spite of his ’67 success with Songs of Leonard Cohen, was a hard sell to the masses. His latest release, New Skin for the Old Ceremony, went gold across the Atlantic, but was hard to find in American shops.
He shouldn’t have been surprised by corporate confusion. Leonard knew he was an odd mix of folk and blues, and blue singers do not sell rock and roll numbers. He accepted the media machine as a necessary distraction and agreed to visit with me, a roving journalist for Buddy Magazine, free music news out of Dallas, Texas.
When asked about another novel, he confessed his latest attempt was a failure. He spent the previous two years, mostly on Hydra, a small Greek island, writing a book that in his opinion “wasn’t any good.” How could this be? He assured me, “It’s true. I’m not being coy; as someone observed, it’s just as hard to write a bad novel as a good one.”
Leonard strongly advised aging the written word: “I think Horatio, the Roman poet, said you should put stuff away for nine years.” After considering this time span, he added, ” I mean, I don’t think it has to be nine, but like three or four years I think is a good idea, especially to take it on the road for a couple of years.” This compressed maturation and life among civilians had him ready to “renew neurotic affiliations.”
No stranger to Nashville and its hillbillies, in ’69-’70 Leonard lived in Franklin, just south of Music City. During our time at the King of the Road, he recalled how much he enjoyed the company of his black neighbor, a whisky-wise elder named Willie York. It was the time of psychedelics and Leonard decided to give Willie some LSD: “So he comes to me the next day, and I said, ‘Willie, what’d you think of that?’ He’s a heavy drinker. He said ‘Leonard, that stuff makes ya awful nervous.'” Cohen loved recalling that moment in time. He concluded, “That’s all he said, y’know; that’s the only remark he cared to make about it.” Leonard flashed a wry grin.
When it came to politics, Leonard said he voted for candidates who “look good and sound good, and who are least likely to embarrass the country.” He had recently discovered a man with great potential: “I was watching television early-on today, and there was uh, one of those founders of the Dining Car Porters and Waiters Union—black guy, around sixty-five. He was talking and he sounded like Moses. I mean, you know, it was something. It wasn’t like hokey. It wasn’t that kind of eloquence. It was classical. Obviously, the guy had been brought up on the Bible. I couldn’t even hope to duplicate it. It was the most… I said, ‘That man should be president!’ You know? This guy was serving tables, eighty-five bucks a week!”
On with the show. His latest collection of players included a four-piece band, mostly acoustic, and a pair of sirens—slinky showgirls with angelic voices. One was brunette; the other blonde. The former exuded a worldliness, while her partner came off as the innocent. Both were dressed in matching black. The blonde wore a floor-length, body-hugging dress, and the brunette, a pantsuit with white shirt and necktie. Were these Cohen’s fabled “sisters of mercy,” the two angels who saved him from an Alberta blizzard and inspired his classic ode from the ’67 album? “Oh I hope you run into them/You who have been travelling so long.”
Leonard’s show was a soft-focus reflection of his somber side. Even his song introductions were sweet prose: “This examines betrayal from a point of view,” and “This is a dialog between you and your perfect lover…a song of unrelenting pessimism.” His tender-cold lament for the late Janis Joplin included her rejection of his advances: “I knew you well in the Chelsea Hotel…You told me again/You prefer handsome men/But for me you’d make an exception.” Cohen’s mastery of the facetious rhyme was woven throughout his melancholy. It was his recurring effort to “kinda wash the place out, change the air.” He mused, “I like a place that serves liquor. Uh, you know, there’s something happens to the audience when they’re drinking.” He really wanted to leave’em laughing, and with lyrics like “You were Marlon Brando/And I was only Steve McQueen/You were that fancy K-Y Jelly/And I was ordinary Vaseline,” he did not fail to please.
Leonard Cohen bowed from the waist—romantic theatrics—and opened his show with “Bird On A Wire,” one of his many dark masterpieces. He told the audience he liked playing clubs because “people can talk to you, praise you, put you down.” The stage became his farthest distance from his island retreat. It’s where “Every night is a problem, a challenge, a test just to get through without humiliating yourself.” Cohen loved enduring, “browbeating an audience, subjecting people to all this intensity. I sometimes feel guilty about it, but you’ve got to make a living.”
With his back to just over a hundred fans who filled Nashville’s Exit-In, Leonard paused for the third time to tune his guitar. A drunken voice blurted from the darkness, “Good enough for folk music!” A few patrons chuckled.
Leonard made a final adjustment, then casually turned to respond, “Yeah, but not good enough for eternity.” He smiled his sardonic best and the adoring crowd filled the small room with laughter. Leonard was back, and we lucky few were there with him.
He left me with a final memory of life in Franklin and why he left Tennessee: “The girl I was with was what destroyed it, because she developed this obsession with Krystal burgers. I mean it got to be a serious problem. She refused to cook, so we’d have to go in every day (20 miles) to eat cheeseburgers, and it just destroyed the whole isolation.” Before speaking her name, he silently reflected in nostalgic warmth. “Suzanne.”
“…takes you down to a place by a river/She feeds you tea and oranges/That come all the way from China.”