The Leonard Cohen Interview

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


Continued from Part 2…

C: The following list of topics is illustrative only. We would like you to touch on most of the issues so as to provide the content necessary to satisfy the promotional purpose of this piece. However, during the course of your conversation, please fell free to venture in any other areas that may come up.

S: Yes.

C: So, it was not entirely without permission that I was prodding in these areas, even though I understand that your aesthetic determines that, or is a kind of curtain, the kind of curtain you speak about, beyond which the viewer is not invited to look. There is this and this alone and this is the work and it should be judged as the work by itself without any reference to the hand that created it.

S: Yeah, I know that sounds cold.

C: That’s okay. I can take it.

S: It sounds cold, but ut’s the way I like it.

C: You like to write about anything you don’t really have to write about.

S: I like to write about things that are extreme in some form. I like to write about something I feel I have to write about.

C: Do you find it hard to write?

S: Sometimes.

C: What is the hardest song on this album?

S: The hardest song on this album was “99.9F”

C: That was hard to write? And yet, it comes off effortless.

S: That was the most difficult song. That was the song I was sitting there looking in the thesaurus and the rhyming dictionary with. Looking up synonyms and antonyms for hot, cold, fever, romance, anything I could get my hands on.

C: Is this a flirtatious song?

S: Yeah. Couldn’t you tell? You couldn’t tell.

C: Well, I’m immune to these kinds of approaches.

S: Oh, I see.

C: I thought it was very lovely, and to repeat that phrase “ninety-nine point nine” was very fresh. Let’s look at this song.

S: Okay.

C: Why did you call this the title of your album?

S: Because I felt that it described the stance of the album, which is not normal, off the norm, not wildly feverish but off the norm enough to create tension, enough to give you a straight dizzy hallucinatory feeling but not so much that you feel that you’re out of your mind in listening to it. It seemed slightly hotter than maybe some of my other albums. the other albums have a much cooler tone to the whole sound of them.

C: A cautious intoxication.

S: Yeah, I guess so.

C: Do you drink?

S: Yeah.

C: What do you usually like to drink?

S: Well, let’s see, these days I drink gin and tonic. I drink wine or I drink cognac or I drink brandy or I drink sake. I have a bunch of things that I like to drink.

C: Do you find that a lot of people are drinking now, these days?

S: I find that most of the people I hang out with tend to drink but I think that’s also because that’s the kind of crowd I hang out with. I drink Jack Daniels.

C: What are the people like in your crowd?

S: Oh god. It’s a very diverse crowd, I suppose. It’s not even really like a crowd, its more like a thinly, sparsely populated little gathering of forlorn and homeless people.

C: Where do they live? Is it nationwide or is your crowd more or less in one town?

S: My crowd. Some live in New York and some live in California, and some are people I used to know from the folk scene and I’m still friends with them. In the village. And some are new friends I made last year, and there’s been some pretty wild drinking going on there. Drink to six, seven, eight the next morning.

C: Among your new friends?

S: Yeah, among my new friends.

C: Your new friends drink a lot.

S: Yes, yes we do. And I drink with them.

C: Could you let us in on one of these evenings. these drinking evenings. How do they begin? What is the middle like? And what is the ending like?

S: The beginning usually means me going to pick my sister and she comes with me, or my brother, because they all like to hang out. We’re talking about a party now, not talking about an intimate social gathering, this is a party.

C: I’d really like to know what an evening where a lot of liquor is consumed…

S: With me it usually ends up in wild dancing.

C: Yeah? Begins early and ends late?

S: Yes. I really love to dance.

C: What music do you dance to?

S: I used to dance to your music actually, when I was younger, seventeen or so. You’ll laugh at the songs I chose to dance to, they’re not what you’d think of as dancing songs.

C: On the contrary, others may not think so, but you and I know what a dancing song is.

S: So Long Maryann, or The Avalanche Song, or The Master Song.

C: What are you dancing to these days?

S: There’s a band called Les Negresses Vertes, which is a terrible French pronunciation on my part of their title. It’s almost like gypsy music. I’ll dance to that. What else will I dance to? I dance to some of the new U2 albums. Sometimes I’ll dance to … PM Dawn has a song called Paper Doll which I like. Or different things that come up or catch my imagination in some way.

C: And when you go out with friends, when you’re with your crowd, how are people dressing in your crowd?

S: Well, I have a friend of mine who makes dresses, she tends to make these big linen dresses and pants, they’re loose and baggy and usually made out of cotton or linen or something like that… they’re almost peasant-like.

C: Do you wear them too?

S: Yeah, I wear them often.

C: They have pants underneath the skirt?

S: Either pants, which are baggy, they’re like farmers pants. See, I’ll show you the art work of the album cover and I’m wearing some of her clothes.

C: What’s that?

S: That’s the album cover.

C: That’s the vinyl?

S: Yeah, yeah, that is the vinyl. Here, I’ll show you, hold on a second.

C: Okay. Hold on everybody, Suzanne is dancing across the room.

S: These are some of her pants.

C: Oh, that’s a very nice picture.

S: They’re baggy and they’re really cool.

C: Those are your arms.

S: Those are my arms.

C: And what is your expression?

S: This is the expression… I don’t know. What would you describe it as? “What the hell are you looking at?” kind of face?

C: That is the extremely seductive… this combination of austerity and voluptuousness that your songs manage to convey. that is a refined invitation to a cautious intoxication.

S: Well, thank you, Leonard. As opposed to the other. Here, let me show you the other poster that I see lying on the floor.

C: Okay. Suzanne is now going over to get the other poster that is lying on the floor.

S: These are the fishnet stockings from the dancing girl. The dancing girl on the album is wearing fishnet stockings and these are them blown up.

C: I know. This has many resonances of self-abuse.

S: Self-abuse?

C: Yes.

S: I don’t think so.

C: I think you might be making a pass at yourself in this.

S: No, Leonard, you’ve got it all wrong.

C: Oh, I’m sorry.

S: You’ve let your imagination go too far. This is my shoe. This is my shoe. This is my knee.

C: I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m terribly sorry. But, I think that anybody’s imagination is being invited to really careen around the place.

S: Well, we’ll put this one away then.

C: Yeah, please do. A man of my age should not be compelled to look at those kind of photos.

S: So anyway, those are Morgan’s pants. What I started to show you were Morgan’s pants, what they look like.

C: Are you choosing your intimate male partners from among the members of this crowd? Or, do they come drifting in, they belong to other crowds?

S: No.

C: … sometimes no crowd at all.

S: I would say no crowd at all, really.

C: Guys stumble into your life from…

S: No, I wouldn’t say they stumble in. You know, you asked me in the beginning if I was a guarded person, and I guess I’m sort of a guarded person.

C: I thought so until I saw those fishnet stockings. That’s changed things a lot. I wish I saw that at the beginning of this interview.

S: But that’s a character.

C: No, I really don’t think you can use that as an alibi.

S: Oh.

C: This is you in fishnet stockings, you cannot sanitize this image.

S: Oh, I didn’t say I was going to sanitize it, I just said I was in character.

C: No, I’m sorry Suzanne.

S: It’s not a very clean character, but…

C: You’re not in character at all. Forst of all, there’s no enough showing to indicate a costume that could even indicate a character.

S: That’s because you saw an isolated detail there. You haven’t seen the whole context of it.

C: You mean that’s just part of the poster?

S: No the actual picture the costume is from is… there’s a real picture.

C: Yes, but when you select your hand and a fishnet stocking and nothing else, people cannot be faulted if they don’t assume you’re in costume.

S: Well, they would if they… Okay, whatever. I could fault them if I want to.

C: You can do anything you want. Would you like to talk about Mitchell Froom?

S: Would I like to talk about Mitchell Froom?

C: Yes, because the production is really extremely competent and beautiful. What was his contribution?

S: Well the reason I wanted to work with him was because I could tell from his other records that he didn’t approach anything in a formulaic way, and that seemed like a good thing to me.

C: Would you like to talk about the other people that worked with you?

S: Yeah, we could do that. I think that the musicians that we used on this album, besides using… on one track we used Mike Visceglia and Marc Shulman who are my long term musicians that I’ve used for a long time. But the newer musicians are Bruce Thomas, who played with Elvis Costello for ten years, he was in The Attractions, the band. Do you like Elvis Costello or do you listen to him?

C: I’ve listened to him a lot. He’s a great singer.

S: So, I’ve always liked the way his band sounded. To me it’s very witty and it’s got a lot of interesting things about it. And Jerry Marotta played percussion and drums.

C: Do you get along well with your musicians?

S: Yeah, I do.

C: And when you tour do you feel part of a family?

S: It has felt that way sometimes, not always, but most of the time, yeah. I do, I like it, I like the atmosphere that develops.

C: You like touring?

S: I like a lot of it. The last one was a little long.

C: How many concerts did you do?

S: I did ten months.

C: Ten months on the road?

S: Ten months on the road, sometimes five shows a week.

C: How many concerts altogether did you do?

S: I don’t remember.

C: Hundreds.

S: Hundreds, yeah. Well, there’s fifty-two weeks in a year, tem months… forty weeks, but it wasn’t really forty weeks, it was more like thirty.

C: Let’s say thirty weeks, let’s say an average of three concerts a week…

S: Ninety?

C: Nine hundred. It’s nine thousand concerts, I think.

S: We can study my itinerary if we want to count them. A lot, a lot, but there’s a lot about it that I love. It is like a family and I get to know…. I’m on the road with seventeen guys that I have to know about in some way or another, and know about their lives, and what’s happening with their lives. Who’s having problems and who’s doing well, and who’s just ahd a baby and who’s mother is sick. I enjoy that kind of feeling, of getting to know people and getting to know their character.

C: And do you feel that you occupy some maternal function on the road, that you kind of hold it together with these concerns that you just mentioned? That you are the center of the family?

S: I’m definitely the center of the family. I suppose that makes it maternal. Sometimes I feel more like the figurehead of the ship, and the engine. Maternal’s not quite the word cause that implies a certain coziness which is not really always there. There’s still always a bit of distance and formality, but I like the atmosphere. I like staying up and drinking and playing poker and tlking and that kind of thing.

C: You like that?

S: I like the feeling of being on adventure, of being on the bus overnight on a ferry and we’re going somewhere, we’re going to Greece or we’re going to Italy and this feeling of a shared adventure.

C: You’re lucky.

S: Why is that?

C: You’re lucky to have this experience.

S: Do you like touring?

C: Yeah, I like it. I kind of feel like part of a motorcycle gang.

S: Yeah, I could see that.

C: What plans do you have to tour?

S: Probably early next year.

C: Do you have your band put together yet?

S: No.

C: Can I play in it?

S: What would you like to play?

C: I don’t know.

S: You could sing, you could be a backup singer.

C: Congas

S: It’s like I always go see you perform, you always have two very beautiful women standing by you.

C: I could be one of the beautiful women standing beside you.

S: I could have you standing behind me singing.

C: Oh, that would be a great honor. What kind of live show can be expected?

S: Well, you’ll come with me and we can sing duets, we can dance.

C: Oh, that would be really nice.

C: Now your expectations and feelings about the album, we’ve looked into that, but I think if you would speak about your expectations… but really honestly about your expectations.

S: What do you mean, “but really honestly” as though I’ve…

C: It’s not that I geel you’ve been dishonest in any sense.

S: Well that’s good because I haven’t.

C: No, I don’t feel you’ve been dishonest.

S: No.

C: But there is this tantalizing and …

S: …irritating?

C: …irritating is not quite the word, let’s say intriguing sense of secrecy that you insist on preserving.

S: I bet.

C: I’d really like to know what you expect from this album, but really deeply. Do you think that this album will bring you the lover?

S: It’s possible.

C: Do you think of it as a mating call? Do you see this album as a mating call?

S: Why? Do you see it that way?

C: Yes, yes I do.

S: Do I see it as a mating call? As a mating call?

C: Yes, I see this album as an exquisite, refined mating call of one of the most delicate and refined and concealed creatures on the scene. This is the mating call of concealment. This is how secrecy woos her lover. So, do you think that this album will bring you the lover which the album calls out to?

S: Yes.

C: I do too. I really do. I think we are at last approaching the truth of the enterprise. This no doubt will not find it’s way into…

S: I think you’re wrong. I think they’ll make a headline out of it in fact. But without saying anymore than that, I would say, “yes”.

C: I think so. I find it irresistable myself.

S: On that cheery note, that’s a cheery note to end on.

C: I think so

End of Interview

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