Songs and Thoughts of
By Robert O'Brian
Leonard Cohen, Montreal-born poet, novelist, and songwriter became something of a cult figure when his novel, Beautiful Losers, appeared in the mid-60s. The content was heady and dynamic, absorbed as it was in sexuality and salvation. In 1968, at the tender age of thirty-four, Cohen released his first album, simply titled Songs of Leonard Cohen. This album is an indisputable classic among purveyors of the acoustic song form. Cohen's "singing" voice, a deep, solemn monotone, nearly devoid of melody, has become his trademark.
When asked about his future plans, Cohen repeats the Middle Eastern saying: "The devil laughs when we speak of tomorrow."
Q: You have a reputation for being a devout, yet sensual man. There are those who believe that spirituality involves the renunciation of sex.
A: I don't have that view. I don't think it's appropriate for our western culture. Perhaps, at a certain point, it was appropriate to eastern cultures, but even now the Roman Catholic church is experiencing great revision on the celibacy of priests. I don't think it's essential for salvation, for the mercy and grace of God, to shun those activities. In the Jewish tradition, of course, one is encouraged to be fruitful and multiply and both the procreational and recreational aspects of sexual activity are affirmed.
Q: "The Captain" (from Various Positions -- 1984) you sing, "complain, complain that's all you do, ever since we lost. If it's not the crucifixion, then it's the holocaust."
A: What I mean to say is that there are many things about Christianity that attract me. The figure of Jesus is extremely attractive. It's difficult not to fall in love with that person. The notion of self-sacrifice, the notion that one has to be resurrected in oneself is a powerful idea that exists in most religions. There has to be an idea of rebirth, of being able to be born again. I think humanity needs that because you feel the sense of pain and moral destruction all the time. When we have this notion that there is no mechanism for resurrection, there is no redemption from sin, then we are forced to embrace evil and we get the kind of activity like genocide.
Q: But isn't resurrection written all over the Old Testament?
A: The idea of redemption, of course, is in the Jewish tradition. But, religion, when it becomes defensive and organized, gives its truth a sense of exclusivity. We find that in many religions: "We've got it and you don't." For many centuries, the Catholics had that papal doctrine, you know -- "Outside the church, there is no salvation." If Jesus was and is truly the Messiah and did die for our sins, as Christians often say, we are all saved. I think it's very inappropriate for one religious organization to exclude the rest of humanity from this aspect of redemption.
Q: What about the other extreme? Someone like Tolstoy who divided his land up among the peasants. You couldn't really do that here.
A: Well, he (Tolstoy) couldn't do it, either. It leads you to some very absurd, although poignant and touching, situations. For instance, in his rather large house -- I think it was in the living room with a salon -- he set up a little shoemaking shop. His wife and daughter were wearing gowns from Paris, they were completely involved in opera and anything else they could manage at the time, and he was wearing peasant clothing and making sandals. So, it leads you to some very conflicting stances. I mean, we don't love Tolstoy for his solutions, we love him for his appetite for justice.
Q: The best of art, even painting, has qualities that the eyes don't immediately apprehend. Like Chagall -- peeking into heaven.
A: I think -- I can only speak of my own work -- any great art has many harmonics, many resonances. The division of color art touches so wide a realm of the inner landscape. In my own work, I don't think I've ever suggested that the world isn't good, that a Messianic age should be brought about or that we should all live in peace and harmony. What I'm trying to stress is the inner strength which will enable you to meet the inevitable and impossible moral choices that are going to confront you. What is the inner resource that you have to tap to be able to get through your life? In "The Captain" song, he says, "There is no decent place to stand in a massacre," but nevertheless, that does not absolve us from trying to be decent. I think it's important that we are aware that these choices are difficult, that we are humans and we live in a dualistic world, and we still have to take responsibilities for our decisions. We can't resign from them.
Q: So, a thousand years from now, everything will be pretty much the same.
A: From what I gather in reading ancient texts, right up to the present, human beings have always been confronted by the same kinds of problems. I think that this world is not a realm that admits to a solution. That isn't what this world is about. It's a different kind of activity that we have here. We have to deal with good and evil continually. With joy and despair, with all the antinomies, all the opposites and contraries. That's what our life is about. We can't abdicate that. I, myself, am not attracted to the easy solution, the dogmatic solution. I think that when you have large numbers of people attracted to the dogmatic solution, you get a very static, solid kind of society that is quite unpleasant to live in. That's why I like our society. Nobody can quite dominate it.
Q: Your songs are so complete and mature. Not even Dylan maintains that continuity.
A: A couple of years ago, Dylan and I met in a cafe in Paris to compare lyrics. Let me preface what I'm going to say by saying that there's no guarantee of anything, but my songs take a really long time. They come one word at a time. It's real sweat. Dylan and I were exchanging lyrics that day. I admired a lyric from Slow Train Coming. I said, "that's really beautiful," and he said, "yeh and I wrote it in fifteen minutes." He was admiring "Hallelujah" and I told him, "It took me a year to do that!" Some people write lyrics in the back of a taxicab. For me, it's always been one word at a time.
Q: How do you find women friends who can tolerate your roaming ways?
A: It depends on what the commitment is. If the commitment is fragile, then people cannot surround each other with freedom. If the commitment is profound, then other solutions are set up and that becomes the activity of the marriage or the relationship. In other words, there's nothing fixed. It has to be explored day by day, but the exploration takes place on the foundation of the commitment. It's only when we hold onto this fixed idea of the self, that we get into trouble. But when you relinquish the fixed idea of the self, and lean on the commitment, then at least you have a chance to move around and explore.
Q: "Story of Isaac" and "The Night Comes On" hint at the Middle East.
A: Well, I'm gonna tell you a little story I just heard. There was this scorpion that was trying to get across the stream. He was too small to get across and he came to a camel and said, "Will you carry me across the stream?" The camel said, "Of course I'm not going to carry you across the stream. You're a scorpion and you're gonna sting me." Well, after many hours of persuasion, the camel was finally convinced to take the scorpion across the stream. Midway across the stream, the scorpion stung the camel. They're both going down. They're both being swept away and the camel says, "Why did you sting me?" and the scorpion says, "Because this is the Middle East."