The Leonard Cohen Interview

Suzanne Vega Interviews Leonard Cohen
October 1992
(Part 1 of 3)

Leonard Cohen: Alone at last. This is the first time we’ve ever been alone in a room together.

Suzanne Vega: Is that really true? Yeah, I guess it is true.

C: I met you first at the photographers.

S: Right, so it was you and me and that woman.

C: And assistants.

S: … and assistants …

C: … and well wishers, and onlookers.

S: Right. Then we went for a drink.

C: But, that was a public place.

S: … that was a public place.

C: And what was the next time we met?

S: At the Juno Awards.

C: You were very kind to come to the Juno Awards and sing a fragment of my song.

S: I was very happy to come and sing a fragment of your song.

C: That was very, very kind of you. But, you could hardly say that was a private occasion.

S: Right. No, it wasn’t a private occasion.

C: Our circumstances were different also. Your life has changed radically since then.

S: Well, I guess it has. I suspect yours has, although I don’t know how, you know. Oh, you know because I wrote to you and told you, that’s why.

C: Yes. I consider the letter very sweet, and I was touched by the fact that you would inform me about your situation. May I apologize for not responding?

S: Oh, no problem.

C: I myself have been in the midst of a creative struggle of some dimension. But, our lives have changed radically since that last hurried meeting in many crowded places in Vancouver.

S: Yes, I guess it was Vancouver.

C: Now we find ourselves…

S: But I did receive your Christmas present.

C: Oh good, what was it?

S: It was the dates that you sent through the mail.

C: I’m so glad that you got those. Did you not get a little gift from me after the Juno?

S: Of course I did and I thanked you for it too.

C: Oh, good. I’m glad you thanked me for it. And did you like the dates?

S: Yeah, I liked the dates. I liked them the year before that too.

C: I hope I’ll be able to send you a box of dates every year at Christmas, until circumstances really change and that extravagance can no longer be supported.

S: So, about your new album… no, I was kidding.

C: I’ve been reading the lyrics of your new album, which your management has kindly furnished me. I’ve been listening to the album under many circumstances. I’ve been listening to it in the car, with the sunroof open and closed. It sounds very, very different. The bass disappears when you open the sunroof.

S: Oh, really?

C: …in the sound system in my car, no flaw in your record. In fact, if I may say so, the low notes, not that you sing but that are played…

S: …yes…

C: …are very, very beautiful.

S: and low, and…

C: There’s a wonderful lowness. There’s a wonderful lowness about your record.

S: I feel this too, actually. We got very low to do this record.

C: I don’t think you ever had anything quite this low in your previous work, the sounds … bass sounds…

S: It’s the bass sounds, but also in the attitude I think in keeping what might normally be discarded. Keeping all of it, the distorted parts and the noise that someone else might throw away. We kept it.

C: Why?

S: There’s a low sort of attitude.

C: Were you feeling reckless?

S: Yeah, I suppose I was feeling rather reckless. I was feeling like… I mean, I have no complaints with any of my previous records, but I felt that it was all very clean and some of the things I write about are not especially clean. Art is kind of low and dark and so I felt that it was time to incorporate some of that into the music. I think that’s probably why I picked Mitchell Froom to make the album. He has a taste for those kind of things.

C: It’s very, very successful, and your voice against some of those moments are very beautiful, very pure. But are you as pure in your own life, in your own views as the singer presents herself? There’s an austerity and a kind of unstrident idealism about the record, that is if somebody has kept something, kept some flame alight, kept something unsullied. That’s a feeling that runs through the record. Is that so in your life? Do you lead a life that is guarded?

S: I might say I lead a guarded life, yeah. I mean it’s not as pure as it might look, but it’s not… it’s pretty guarded. I think it’s guarded because it’s had to have been guarded. It’s because I came from places that were not very pure and I suppose that’s why I felt I needed to keep certain things clear and straight. But still I feel myself to be of the world and looking at things that are real and things that are not pure. I don’t feel that I judge other people, but I judge myself very strictly.

C: You are a strict person, and other too I imagine you judge quite strictly. Except the people you happen to fall in love with. Then I imagine you make, as you say in one of your songs, in your song In My Movie …

S: If You Were In My Movie

C: If You Were In My Movie , in that song you seem to indicate that you would give wide allowance to anyone you fall in love with.

S: I don’t know if that’s true, maybe, probably. I don’t know.

C: Is that what the song is about?

S: The song is about flirting. It’s a flirting kind of song. It’s a song looking at another person and saying these are qualities that you could be, that you could have within you. These are the things that I see.

C: You could realize these things with me.

S: Yeah, if you wanted to. It’s putting a glamorous light on someone’s character. Saying these are the things that, when I look at you, these are the things I see. It’s like taking someone’s basic nature and making it more than it actually is.

C: You have managed to make austerity extremely seductive. There is a very seductive quality about your record, although nothing is given away, nothing is thrown away, nothing is revealed.

S: Except in the art work where you can see my legs.

C: I haven’t seen, … nobody showed me any artwork.

S: Well, I’ll have to show… when we’re done with the interview, I’ll show you the artwork. But, in that one I’m dressed as on of the characters on the album, the character of the dancing girl, and so, I’m wearing a dancing girl outfit and you can see my legs. But, I’m still wearing men’s shoes and I’m wearing a cardigan sweater. So, I suppose you’re right because there isn’t anything being revealed, although it’s hinted at.

C: It’s into,… I mean there is nothing in the record that rejects anything that is going on in this world. It casts quite a cold eye on the things around you, but there is a flirtatious, …no flirtatious, I wouldn’t use that word. There’s a very seductive quality to all your attitudes, especially the most restrained of them. I think that’s the genius of the album, behind the very careful construction of the songs and the very sparse lyrics there is some kind of raging appetite. I heard you once on the Howard Stern Show.

S: Oh, you did?

C: Yes, it was one morning a few months ago.

S: Oh really. Do you happen to remember what he was discussing specifically?

C: Well, I think he was discussing your breasts.

S: Yeah, I remember that day.

C: And, he seemed to be pleased.

S: He did seem to be pleased, I remember that.

C: He seemed to be pleased for one reason or another.

S: Right.

C: But the thing that pleased me about the interview, of course next to the astounding information that Howard Stern imparted to us all…

S: Right.

C: … About your anatomy, was just the sound of your speaking voice…

C: … were you surprised at the fact that many people love you?

S: I’m surprised at it, yeah, if you put it like that. It makes me feel shy.

C: Did you not expect to be loved so widely?

S: I don’t think I expected to be understood. Whether I expected to be loved…

C: I don’t understand you. What kind of understanding have you…

S: I’m surprised when people understand as much as they do of the songs, because I guess I don’t reveal a lot about the specific topics. You know when people say, “Well what’s your message?” I never feel that I’m just revealing a message. I guess I felt if I was going to do that I could write out a message on a pamphlet or something and pass it around, and that would be a message of a kind, but it doesn’t seem to be the way to do it that makes the most sense to me.

C: Well, I think that you are revealing something. There’s something in the most refined and abstracted way flirtatious about the way that you refuse to reveal anything.

S: Well, I think it’s because the things that attract me in real life are the things that are not obvious and the things that are not simple.

C: But do you have a kind of passion for this thing that cannot be said? May I ask you to read, would you mind reading?

S: No, I wouldn’t mind.

C: For instance, the lyric of the “…Dancing Girl”

S: Okay. This song is called Fat Man and Dancing Girl and it goes:

I stand in a wide flat land
No shadow or shade of a doubt where the megaphone man
met the girl with her hand that’s
covering most of her mouth

Fall in love with a bright idea and the way a world is revealed to you
Fat man and dancing girl
and most of the show is concealed from view

Monkey in the middle keeps singing that tune
I don’t want to hear it
Get rid of it soon

MC on the stage tonight
Is a man named Billy Purl
He’s The International Fun Boy
And he knows the worth of beautiful girl

Stand on the tightrope
Never dreamed I would fall

Monkey in the middle
Keeps doing that trick
It’s making me nervous
Get rid of it quick

I stand in a wide flat land
No shadow or shade of a doubt
Where the megaphone man
Met the girl with her hand
That’s covering most of her mouth

Does she tell the truth?
Does she hide the lie?
Does she say it so no one can know?
Fat man and the dancing girl
And it’s all part of the show

Stand on the tightrope
Never dreamed I could fall

Monkey in the middle
Keeps singing that tune
I don’t want to hear it
Get rid of it soon

Monkey in the middle
Keeps doing that trick
It’s making me nervous
Get rid of it quick

C: Oh, I thank you so much for reading that. I think that it has, … I think that we should study it, a little.

S: Oh yeah?

C: …carefully. I did study this song with my son, and we went through the lyric line by line.

S: Your son, Adam?

C: My son, Adam. I would love to have the opportunity to study it with you. Because, well for one thing, I think it’s very, very beautiful, beautifully executed song on the album. I think that there are lines in it that get right to the heart of your operating mode, and I’d really like to see what I could uncover for myself and for the listener. So, let’s begin at the beginning and please forgive me if I question you in what seems to be insane detail.

S: Well, I might just say, “Well, I just can’t tell you that”.

C: That’s fine. I think that our friendship will survive this examination.

S: Okay.

C: The first line that I really would like to ask you about is this line, “and most of the show is concealed from view.” What is the show that is concealed from view?

S: The way I was thinking of it was almost like a shadow puppet; the thing that is really causing the shadow is the thing that’s behind the screen. But, that’s not really answering your question. “Most of the show is concealed from view,” meaning the real life no one sees. It’s the thing that happens when I go home, or when I think about my own life or when I think about other people’s lives. The thing that is the most interesting about people is the way they are when no one is looking at them or the way they are when they’re in private.

C: Well, what do you see in this world?

S: And to me that is the kind of show that I give. I don’t give a glamorous show. I don’t come on stage in costumes or outfits.

C: Oh, I see what you mean.

S: Although, in this particular song, I’m playing at being the dancing girl. But, when I say, “most of the show is concealed from view,” the real heart of the whole show is the thing that I don’t do on stage. It’s the private part.

C: So the resonance in your voice, the activity that your lyrics point at is the real song?

S: Yes.

C: And it’s a kind of brush painting, where a line or two will indicate a horizon, or a sky, or a sea, or a mountain, and it’s just done with one or two strokes. I accept that as a partial explanation, but it’s too insistent this record, the lyric is too insistent. Song after song you seem to indicate there’s something going on behind the curtain in “As Girls Go.” You say that if you could just run that number yourself and you could see behind the other side of the curtain you’d understand the situation. But, there is something that is whispering to you and something whispering to the listener all through the record. You don’t have to hear it this way, you could just tap your foot to the record. It’s a great record. But, for those of us that like to torture ourselves in other realms,…

S: Yes.

C: … and those of use who are compelled to do interviews with imperial intentions in the middle of an afternoon these are the thoughts that assail us, there is something whispering to you, and it’s something menacing. It’s something…

S: …dark

C: …something fertile, it’s something wet. It’s something sexual, it’s something violent. What is it really?

S: Well, it’s different things in each of the songs. It’s different things in each of the songs, in the place that you mentioned about what goes on behind the curtain. In that song it’s wondering how far did this person take their own wish to be somebody else. You know, that’s a song about a woman, by all appearances she’s a woman except that you know she’s a man. So you see someone like this who seems very rare. This one particular person had a very rare quality which you could kind of understand after you realized what her situation was. But, it didn’t explain everything. It just made her extremely attractive and so you felt yourself drawn into her because of this rare quality and then you start to wonder how far did the whole thing go. How much pain does this person put themselves through in order to present this extremely attractive appearance, this extremely graceful and beautiful appearance. So that was my question. I mean, I never found out the answer. I didn’t need to know the answer. It was more just the way this person was alluring.

C: How much pain do you go through to present this extremely attractive, modest and refined appearance?

S: I think I’ve experienced a fair amount of pain in my life, but I don’t feel that that’s a part of the show really.

C: You have a clear idea of what the show is?

S: Yeah, I know myself pretty well. I know what my own history as been. But, I don’t feel that I need to,.. you know I take parts of it and make things out of it. And mix it with other things that I know and things that I see. How much pain do I put myself through? I don’t know. I mean, I have to say that at this point in my life I’m happier than I’ve ever been,

C: How come?

S: Cause I feel really free, I think, for the first time in my whole life. I think I feel very much like myself and not concerned with proving something to someone or… I feel like some of those more idiosyncratic parts are starting to come out now in a way that I would not have allowed before.

C: You have money, fame, youth, beauty, talent. That’s a good start… for feeling good.

S: Yeah, but you know that doesn’t mean that people are happy if they have those things. I stick to my original theory.

C: Which is?

S: Which is that I feel very free right now. I feel very happy with myself, with my own character as it is. And those other things are good, and … I’m not working a day job. I’m really happy about that. But I don’t feel that it’s these other things that have made me feel the way I’ve been feeling.

C: Do you have many admirers?

S: I have some.

C: I image they are legion. Would you please tell me what this means, “monkey in the middle keeps singing that tune, I don’t want to hear it, get rid of it soon.”

S: Well, the “monkey in the middle,” – first of all, in order to describe a song like this you have to describe the landscape it’s taking place in.

C: Well, we have all the time in the world.

S: Okay. The “wide flat land” is obviously not a real land. It’s a land in someone’s mind or it’s a land you might see in one of Picasso’s paintings. You know, like the Harlequin series. It’s a circus atmosphere, but it’s like a bad dream or like a nightmare.

C: It’s too real?

S: Too real? No, I said surreal. So in this landscape you have, … what “monkey in the middle’ meant to me was that there was a person in my life who was telling me something over and over again that I didn’t want to hear. I kept trying to get rid of the thing this person was saying, cause I felt this person wasn’t understanding.

C: A real person in your life you mean?

S: Yeah, it was a real person in my life. But, within this landscape she became the monkey in the middle and I kept trying to get rid of it…

C: She’s a voice in your mind and she belongs to a real person and the things she said disturbed you deeply or inhibited you or prevented you from acting freely?

S: The thing that this woman said was.. she was warning me of something, to be careful of something. I didn’t feel like being careful, and in the end she was right and I was wrong. The monkey, the tune was the one I finally heard.

C: That’s a warning voice.

S: Yeah, yeah.

C: And you found that her warnings were well…

S: Accurate.

C: … well conceived.

End of part 1

Continue with part two of three

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