The Leonard Cohen Interview

Suzanne Vega Interviews Leonard Cohen
October 1992
(Part 2 of 3)

 

Continued from Part 1…

S: Yeah, well conceived. Cause there are certain areas where I’m not cautious, where I just go tumbling headfirst and I think sometimes, in this case her advice was, yeah, well conceived. But, each of these characters is someone in my life ans I wouldn’t feel comfortable telling you who the different people are.

C: No, no, I know.

S: But, there’s a function to each one. The megaphone man is the opposite of the girl with the hand over her mouth. The megaphone man is a person who gives information to the world. The girl who is covering her mouth is the girl with the secret, it’s the same girl that’s in all the songs. It’s the same girl…

C: She has a secret?

S: Yeah.

C: It’s a delicious secret sometimes.

S: Could be.

C: Or a dark secret.

S: It’s a dark one. It’s probably no different than the same secret every woman has. Based on that…

C: What is the secret that everywoman has?

S: Well, I’m sure yo uwould know.

C: I don’t.

S: I’m sure you’ve experienced it several times, over and over again in your life. It’s probably nothing more or less than that, except that sometimes it’s dark, sometimes it’s violent, sometimes it’s stuff that you knew too early that you shouldn’t have known.

C: That’s another theme in this record, or at least in one of the songs, two of the songs, that there is something you find out too early. Now I don’t mean to be tedious with this emphasis on this secrecy bu tnot everybody writes every song about something that happens offstage, about something that is concealed, about a secret that is not told, not whispered.

S: Do you think every song is about this?

C: It appears in a number…

S: In a number.

C: … of the songs. It’s a strong theme in the record, and that’s why I’m just poking around trying to find out what this is. Not what the secret is but what your devotion to the secret is and how it became in a certain sense the aesthetic irritation around which the pearl of the song formed. It’s something that seems to be very present in your psyche, this notion that there’s something to be concealed, something to be discovered, something not quite heard, something not quite understood, sonething glimpsed behind teh veil. It seems to be there over and over again and forgive me for trying to uncover something which has been so deliberately concealed.

S: Well, I understand your reasons for it, but I suppose in the long run, It’s become the way I prefer to work because there’s something beautiful in it to me. There’s something beautiful in presenting it that way with the whole mystery about it intact. I think the kind of writing that I always loved was the kind of writing that had all the complications in it and everything was not explained completely. You have to say the same thing about your own work. You don’t reveal everything, relationships are not always clear. There’s a lot of specific things that are hinted at and you fill in the rest with your imagination but you don’t come out and blurt out the sort of obvious arithmetic of it. You don’t come out and say, “Well, I loved you and you don’t love me,” although maybe you have said that.

C: I say it over and over again, I thought. Incidentally, there is very little…

S: Which is why I was attracted to your music at a very early age, it explained, to me it had the world the way I knew it. It didn’t try and make it simple, it didn’t try and clear it up for everyone. It kept it as murky as it actually is in life, and that to me is what I like about it.

C: What did you learn too early?

S: I learned about the way people can treat each other and the way people, in extreme circumstances, will do things that they wouldn’t do if they were thinking about it; how people, at a very basic level, wlil fight to survive and act in ways that humans would prefer to not think of themselves acting like. Those are things I think I learned pretty early. That was my sense of the world, as a place where… the world I grew up in was a very extreme place, it seemed to me. MAybe it was just because of my temperament. I don’t think so. I don’t think it was because of my temperament. I think it was the circumstances. those were the first things I think I learned. I mean, I learned other things as well, but those were the things I learned too early. The other things I learned were things that children know, which are things of the imagination and things, you know, more spirit-like things. Things like, myth-like things. Those are things I also knew as a child.

C: What is the mystery of that poem? Would you mind reading it? I think it’s a wonderful song. I listen to your songs in the car, with the sunroof open and closed, and listening to it in a room, and listening to it in the bath, and I find it has the quiality of allowing you to leave the song and go off into your own considerations, of your own predicament where it becomes a kind of score, a kind of background for your own speculations. And I found myself, after I allowed myself to relax with the record beyond all the implications and obligations of the interview that I knew I would have to do, I tried to expose myself to the record in the normal fashion and I found that you could drift away a lot of the time, which I think is the test for music that I like. You’re very polite in this record.

S: Am I?

C: In fact, you are a very polite person.

S: I think I probably am a polite person. It’s gotten me in trouble many times.

C: Really?

S: Yeah.

C: that’s a curious world in which courtesy and good-manners now gets people in trouble.

S: Well, it did. For example, you have to imagine, say, if someone is in the ocean and they’re drowning, it would be very bad. This is something that actually happened to me when I must ahve been twelve or thirteen, and I felt myself suddenly way over my head, and I found myself saying, “excuse me please, but do you think you could come over here and take me out of this water because I think I’m drowning.” And you know you say it in this perfectly reasonable, …

C: Instead of screaming out, “Help!”

S: … instead of going, “Help!”, yeah. It’s the kind of thing… that’s the kind of thing I mean. I would either prefer to swim to a shallower place by myself or somehow ploitely engage someone else in this life-to-life activity.

C: You thought that help would violate this sacred space between people that must at all times be preserved, this secrecy, this restraint.

S: I don’t knwo what it was, I just felt really foolish. By the time I got out my fingernails were purple. I thought, “Well that was really stupid.” I thought to myself, “Why didn’t you just say ‘help?’ Why didn’t you just shout?” And go “Help!” And it is a polite record, and it is a strange way of threatening someone, this song here. To say “excuse me, if I may, turn your attention my way” is a terribly polite way of saying I’m going to kill you with this rock.

C: That’s right.

S: So, I think you’re right.

C: Who taught you these manners? Did you acquire them yourself?

S: I have no idea, my mother says I was just always like that. She says I carried myself with this way of being like a princess and even if I was going through the garbage it was always with a certain manner, which I think sometimes other people found annoying. It wasn’t the kind of thing that I was taught. I have no idea where I got it from.

C: this was a style you acquired very early in your life, this kind of strong sense of the importance of maintaining the appropriate tine and distance between you and the world, and you and other people.

S: It was before I was seven years old, I’d say.

C: Not to say that you reject anything, but that you have a very well spun filter between you and the phenomena that surrounds you, for which we must be grateful because it produces these extremely mysterious and interesting songs. It is true that someone you’re going to thump on the head with a rock, even if it’s a small rock.

S: A small rock.

C: Is this some idea of the David story?

S: Yeah, it’s smoe idea of it. It’s a very simple version of the story of David and Goliath. It’s the moment where he’s trying to get Goliath’s attention, you might say. Maybe Goliath in his mind is saying, well you’re too small. You’re just too small for me, I can’t even look at you because you’re too small. David is saying, well, it’s this small thing that can bring you down, that will cause your fall.

C: The power of the small.

S: Yeah, the power of the small thing.

C: You’ve mastered that, the power of the small.

S: At some point I hope to grow, it’s the thing I’m very interested in. It is one of the things I’m very interested in.

C: Which is?

S: That power of te small. That idea that small things have their own voice and their own will and their own life and their own dignity in the world. That is very often trampled on by people who feel they are bigger.

C: You know I was asking myself what is the essential quality of the record and that wass the word that came to me was dignity, that it’s dignified, that all your work is very dignified. That it doesn’t surrender to vulgarity, that it never panders. Dignity is the quality that no matter what you’re talking about you never surrender that. You never turn it into a peek show, even though you’re completely concerned with this notion of curtains and concealment and what is wehispered in secret, you never become coy about it. And I think that’s a significant achievement of your work is the dignity that it never surrenders even while talking about matters could easily fall into an undignified confessional mode. It never even approaches that. Is this a man you’re speaking to?

S: In this song? In the “Song of David?”

C: Or is it the world?

S: It’s not a specific man. Sometimes I feel like it’s the world. Sometimes I feel it’s the way I approach the world or the audience even, I stand on the stage and I say, “Excuse me, if I may.” That’s the thing I want. I want their attention for that moment and somehow by the end of the show I will have made them see something. So sometimes I feel that it’s my way of approaching the world or the audience, sometimes it’s a way of approaching someone I feel to be bigger than myself. And it’s not usually a man that I’m involved with but someone that I perceive as having authority. It’s a song about authority. It’s a song about striving to get that authority to know you, to know a person.

C: Is this in anyway a song about your life or your career, which all of us write in some kind of secret way, those songs where you say, “look you’ve underestimated me?” If you want to relegate me as a folk singer or as this particular kind of performer or this particular kind of writer, you’ve got the wrong idea.

S: Yeah, there’s an element of that. There’s an element of that kind of challenge. Definitely.

C: So, a lot of the reviewers that I’ve read have made some point that this record has its flirtatious element, or that you’ve changed, that this represents a radical change in your work or in your direction, is it so?

S: I think I’ve taken more chances with this record than I have with some of the others. I think stylistically it sounds different. I was not as concerned with this record as to how it would be perceived. I was more concerned with the way it felt making it and how to geel that I was expressing parts of my personality that normally I would not ahve brought forth, or would’ve tried to polish up, or would have waited till it was more perfect. But this, I didn’t want to do that at this point in my life.

C: I’m surprised to hear you say that because it has an extremely polished feel, the record. It’ doesn’t sound like an improvisatio nat all.

S: No, no. It wasn’t even a fact of experimenting; it wasn’t as though I was trying to experiment with something wild. It was more a natural letting go of things that were already in there. And it was a question of doing what was right for each song. But, it also meant that the songs themselves had more extreme kinds of moods in them than they did before. I don’t know if a song like Blood Makes Noise ” – I dont know if five years ago I might have decided that song was too ugly to put on a record, cause there are other songs I have that I don’t put on records.

C: Oh, I see. Let’s look at Blood Makes Noise

S: I guess if I bring it up I should expect to have it discussed. This one says:
Blood makes noise
I’d like to help you doctor
Yes, I really, really would
But the din in my head it’s too much and it’s no good
I’m standing in a windy tunnel shouting through the roar
I’d like to give the information you’re asking for

C: But blood makes noise, it’s a ringing

S: in my ear
Blood makes noise
and I can’t really hear you in the thickening of fear
I think that you might want to know the details and the facts
but there’s something in my blood denies…

C: I would like to know the details and the facts, that’s what I’m trying to get to. Now you give me the answer, there’s something in your blood.

S: denies the memory of the act..

So just forget it, doc
I think it’s really cool that you’re concerned
but we’ll have to try again after the silence has returned

It’s kind of a stange way to address one’s doctor. It’s a little flip. It’s almost condescending.

C: It’s foolish if you’re sick.

S: It is foolish I suppose, if you’re sick.

C: Were you sick?

S: I have been sick in my life.

C: Yes? Some of the reviewers have observed that there’s a lot of medical inference and vocabulary.

S: Yeah. Well, some of that is my way of amusing myself and being what I call funny. It’s a very ovscure kind of humor. Some of it is because I think the language of medicine is fascinating and has its own poetry in it. And some of it I think is probably cause when I came off the road in 1987 I was, not seriously sick, I’m really healthy, but I was anemic and I had asthma and bronchitis and stuff you get from being run down. But I think the main reason I work with these terms is because I feel that language itself is beautiful, and especially medical language is a way of talking about the body in a way that’s intimate without being corny. Although I think I’ve probably taken it about as far as I’m going to take it. But, I do get letters from doctors.

C: So, what do they say?

S: Oh, they say that the information is very accurate and could they use the lyrics in their own texts, and…

C: ..could they meet you?

S: One or two want to know if they can meet me. Or they want to know how do I know so much about medicine.

C: Well, how do you know so much about medicine?

S: Cause I’m curious about the body, I’m curious about being healthy and I like the idea of ministering.

C: There’s a very beautiful line in one of your songs. I though it was really excellent, I underlined it, “I will pay for my life with my body.”

S: It’s a very sad line, in the context of it.

C: What does it mean?

S: Well the girl in the song, who is a girl with a secret, feels like the woman who walks in the street. And in that way she is in someway paying for her life with her body.

C: It’s a mysterious way to describe what we all do really.

S: I suppose everyone deos, ultimately.

C: We all pay for our lives with our body.

S: You mean in the final end of it, it is.

C: I mean that’s what we do, pay a little bit everyday.

S: Right

C: I thought it was a very beautiful line that is very much…

S: I mean some people are forced to pay more with their bodies than they might under other circumstances.

C: What is the “bad wisdom?”

S: The bad wisdom is exactly the things we were talking about before. The bad wisdom is knowing something before you’re ready for it. It’s knowing something before it’s time. Before. It could be sexual knowledge. Seom kids take LSD too early.

C: Did you?

S: No. Bad wisdom is when you have too much too soon. You go beyond what you’re prepared to handle.

C: To me it’s quite interesting how consistent the themes are in this record. Song after song we are really discussing the same song, and the same position in regards to the information in the song. Could you read this song, Bad Wisdom?

S: Okay.

C: You don’t have to if you don’t want to. I’m going to have another glass of wine. Would you like one?

S: I’ll have a little bit, yeah.

C: That’s the spirit.

S: I’ll have wine and I’ll have water.

C: the biblical beverages.

S: It sounds so much better than coke and orange juice, or one of those kinds of things.

C: It’s so very stylish of you to have just wine and water.

S: Well, thank you, Leonard. It also happens to be what is available.

C: Why won’t you tell me what you really know about what the bad wisdom is?

S: Because, when I write these songs I feel the important thing is that we know that they are truthful, and ti doesn’t matter. It shouldn’t matter to you, for example. If I’m putting these words out to be judged and I want the work to be judged, then I feel everything you need to know is in the work. There’s nothing you need to know about what I know. For someone to want to know, for example, how much of these songs do I… what are the things in my own life. To me that’s out of bounds then.

C: I completely agree with you.

S: Because then someone is open to judging my character and that’s not what I’m putting out, that’s not what I’m displaying. I’m putting the work out because the work is the work, and the work is what I hope is beautiful and good, and the work is what will be around after I’m not here anymore. Ant that to me seems like the important thing. The bad wisdom is what I said. It’s knowing about something too soon. In some ways, everybody has their own form of it.

C: Well, forgive me for asking you this question over and over again, but according to the instructions that this interview may be broadcast or a transcript prepared in segments of various lengths it is my intention to ask you the same question over and over again so no matter how the segments are divided the most important response to the album will be established.

S: So what question is it that you’re asking exactly?

C: I forget.

S: It all depends. The answer all depends on how it’s phrased and what exactly you want to know.

C: Now, obviously the primary theme of the interview is the new album. I think that we’ve treated that at some length.

S: I think we have too.

End of part 2

Continue with part three of three

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