Text & photos by Christof Graf
An evening with… Or
London City, UK. Tuesday, the 16th of September 2014, 6.30 p.m., at Canada High Commission, McDonald House. Sony UK und Sony America have invited to “An Evening with Leonard Cohen”, which was meant to be a preview of Leonard Cohen’s latest of 13 studio albums. There would be no interviews, SONY Germany tells Prof. Dr. Christof Graf, webmaster of www.leonardcohen.de and author of five books on Leonard Cohen.
… 104 minutes in the life of Leonard Cohen
- A glimpse behind the scenes –
The Scenario, in the run up, brought back memories of procedures to Leonard’s 12th album in January 2012.
Then, there was only a kind of mini press conference regarding the promotion of „Old Ideas“.
Following a welcoming, a short photo-session, a joint listening of the album together with the artist, was a hosted talk-show of not quite 15 minutes and a succeeding short questions round with selected journalists from all over Europe. Brief small talks and very few memorable photographs rounded off the exceptional event held in front of 150 selected guest. That’s what happened just about a week before the publishing of “old Ideas”, at least that‘s what happened in Paris. Two days later there was a similar event in London. And yet another two days later, the whole thing took place in New York. There weren’t any further promotion activities after that.
2014 was not to be any different. On the contrary, the promotion was even more restrictive. Of course, it was a marketing strike and well calculated, to publish Cohen’s new album close to his 80th birthday. Everybody wanted an interview, no matter whether it was a TV station, a radio station, or the print media. But nobody got anything. The first press information relating to Leonard Cohen’s new album was distributed in August. Then there was nothing. At the beginning of September, there were rumours about “brief” press talks as like “Paris 2012”. The first one took place, rather unspectacular, in Los Angeles, on the 12th of September 2014. The one in London, on the 16th of September, was discussed 8 to 10 days prior and carried out even more restrictive than any other event of this kind before.
London was supposed to become the only promotion activity for Europe, directed by SONY America. SONY UK would organise everything on site, whereas all the other SONY dependencies would do the groundwork and invite, rather send out journalistic multipliers. A week in advance, the appointment was approved and the list of names sent to America. I was part of the German entourage. We were instructed not to make any films, photographs or even audio recordings. The artist didn’t wish to have any TV cameras on site. Whether the artist actually knew about that was not communicated. Leonard really doesn’t like films in which he has to comment on things, on which he doesn’t want to comment, and he doesn’t want to have to deliver any explanations either. In general, he does not reject the documentation of such events. Yet, his management does, or at least those people, who feel obliged to be his management. Merely the BBC would record and acoustically conserve the event – of course hosted by BBC-Speaker Stuart Maconie. They had received the exclusive rights to broadcast the original sounds prior to anyone else. 24 hours later, everyone else would have access to the original sounds and be able to use them for editorial purposes.
The procedure would be as follows: Cohen comes in, is introduced, then the album is heard together with the artist, followed by some questions of the BBC-Speaker addressing the artist, a maximum of 15 minutes, succeeded by a maximum of 3 to 4 questions coming from the attendees, before the artist finally disappears. Subsequently, 3 short interviews of about 5 minutes would be granted, before the artist would leave the Canada High Commission, McDonald House in 3rd Grosvenor Sq. Two days later he would make a stop-over in New York, where he would be the centre of the exact same scenario.
Sounds like a really good plan. All publicists were briefed to meticulously stick to the rules and give way to the BBC and to make sure that no German journalist would ask any wrong questions, in the wrong place, at the wrong time. Sounds like a really good plan.
At least us German journalists were at the right time, in the right place and pledged to entre at 6.00 p.m. local British time. It was granted and we were ticked off of the names list and immediately overtaken by journalists from other nations. One would meet again at the “moving buffet” and the drink holes. A similar scene could be observed in the fireplace room. Spaniards, French, Norwegians took for the first vacant rows of seats, whereas the Germans, more subtle, sat in rows 4 and 5. 2 seconds later, all eighty seats were taken. Only the colleagues of the BBC took their time while looking for seats. The first 3 rows, counting 8 seats were reserved for the BBC and representatives of the Canada High Commission, all along the commissioner himself and his wife.
At exactly 6.30 p.m., Leonard Cohen entered the room together with his manager Robert Kory. Cohen, actually not very tall, stood above all. Cohen is quite slim, doesn’t need much room, but still, he fills the room with his quietness, his aura and his presence.
Cohen is one of those people, who by entering a room, fills every possible space. He is wearing a suit, obviously the same one as he is wearing on the cover of “Popular Problems”. Contrary to “Paris 2012”, he is not wearing a hat; but a shirt and tie. Obviously the same as he is wearing on the cover of “Popular Problems”. His hair is longer. Not cut as accurately as during his tour in 2013, and it is also slightly longer. In some places, it seems to be thinning, sparse, yet not as grey as in the past. His face is noticeably haggard. Cohen belongs to that group of people, who don’t become bulkier but leaner as they age, their body as well as their face.
All in all, now, in 2014, Cohen doesn’t look like an 80 year old. I know 60 and 70 year olds, who actually look older. All attendees seem to be thinking the same thing. 104 minutes in the life of Leonard Cohen begins. One of the SONY-Women accompanies Cohen to podium. Kory stays in the background. The high Commissioner welcomes Cohen warmly and leads into the topic of “Cohen”, by talking about memories of their first encounter. Then Cohen thanks him for his kind words and invites the attendees to listen to the new album together. Cohen smirks sheepishly and says that he doesn't dare look into the faces of the listeners during the session and would prefer to wait next door. He retires by saying “see you, 36 minutes later”. There's a great applause, followed by the first sounds of “Slow”, forcing everybody into a voluntary silence. By then nearly eight minutes had already passed and the audience were listening to the lines of the first Song called “Slow”
I’m slowing down the tune I never liked it fast
You want to get there soon I want to get there last
It’s not because I’m old It’s not the life I led
I always liked it slow that’s what my momma said …
After nearly 32 minutes the audience were listening to the last lines of thew last of the nie somgs, called “You Got Me Singing”…
You got me singing like a prisoner in a jail
You got me singing like my pardon’s in the mail
You got me wishing our little love would last
You got me thinking like those people of the past
After all of all 36 minutes and 9 songs later, Cohen returns. He sits down on the approximately 30 cm high pedestal, into a kind of Victorian armchair, which is in front of the fireplace, next to the BBC speaker.
And again there is applause. The BBC speaker seems somewhat unprepared and for some opaque reason also pretty nervous. After all, he is only sitting opposite the greatest and most renowned philosopher besides Bob Dylan. As for all, there are only journalists from 25 European countries and Israel present, including the whole BBC, of course. Cohen on the contrary seems quite relaxed. He knows that his album is good.
Maybe it's not as good as his masterpiece album “Old Ideas”, for me that is, but at least 3/4 as good. 3 songs (“Slow”, “Almost Like The Blues”, “Born In Chains”) actually have a lifetime character and 3 others are seldom heard innovations (like “Nevermind”, “A Street”, “Did I Ever Love You”) that bottle up your brain and heart and simply stay there. 3 songs are more a kind of a filler and the rest can be considered a Cohen standard on a very high level; one of them, like “My O My” sounds even a little bit of a Joe Cocker-Song. The voice sounds deeper and in 2 songs, nearly like a mumble. Most of the attendees are fascinated and page through the booklet of song lyrics, looking for words and emotions to describe and come to terms with what they have just heard.
The BBC speaker accommodates by asking some questions… another 13 minutes go by. Then he runs out of questions. One really could have put together a more competent presentation and interview. A few cards for interviewing purposes would not have been condemned by anyone. Jarvis Cocker, sitting diagonally in front of me, and having carried out this panel discussion 2 years ago in London, surely would have been the better man for the job. After 13 minutes he finally gives up, but at least he is eloquent enough to entangle the attending journalists in the round of questions. Everybody is anxious and wants to ask a question. Yet, it was said that the speaker would hand over 3 questions to the journalists. After that the event would be over. It was said that recordings were not permitted. It was also said that all attendees would receive the audio recording of the event within 24 hours, for their own disposal.
The audio recording was not available within 24 hours after the event. The original sounds of the event were only distributed within 48 hours for personal use. Had the attendees turned off their smart phones, the procedure and content of this historical encounter would never have been documented. Photographs had not been allowed, neither had the event been documented visually by the officially assigned photographers. There was no endless ongoing camera clicking, neither by the SONY UK photographer, nor by the High Commission photographer. There were just a few pictures that originated from the beginning of the presentation. Filming devices were not to be seen at the event. Thanks to the smart-phone documentation, the 104 minutes in the life of Leonard Cohen can be traced in pictures and words and, at least in parts, and is documented by mp3 recordings, but not entirely available for the public. Neither are the 3 interviews, lasting for 5 minutes held by the French, the German and finally the English journalist.
Cohen was ….. At the end of the 25 minute enduring question and answer session, half of it reaching a small talk level, like "Which book are you reading at the moment?”
The question normally asked by yellow press journalists, "Are you enjoying… (London)?” wasn’t asked - thank god. Nevertheless, and despite the impression of a slightly stressy and improvised event, one did actually gain a lot of information in a short time. All this is documentated in the following transcript of the “spoken words” in public this evening.
SM (stands for Stuart Maconie from the BBC): Can I ask you first Leonard about the collaborative nature of the record with Patrick Leonard who is here. How does that work and how did it work?|
LC (stands for guess who): Pat, Leonard and my son worked on a record, Like A Man, which was a great record. I always liked Patrick Leonard’s work with some great stars that we all know. But it’s when I heard a record that he made with just piano music improvised that I really understood how abundant his talent is. So we just tried out a few songs together and they came together rather quickly. I kind of had a veto power over it, but Pat supplied the music. And it happened rather quickly and I don’t really know…it’s a kind of a mysterious process. I don’t really know much about it and neither does Pat and neither do you. But it’s a mysterious process and we’re happy the way it came together. We’re working on a new record. We’ve got half of it finished, so perhaps we will meet again in Trafalgar Square. [Audience laughter] Anyways that’s all I can say about it.
SM: You say you are deep into a new record.
LC: That’s right. Yeah.
SM: Does that mean that this record has a mood, a unifying thought or a mood for you?
LC: I think it has a mood of despair and melancholy. I think it has a unifying feel, but those are things that we award, that we ascribe to a piece of work after it is finished. While it’s going on you’re just kind of scraping the bottom of the barrel trying to get something together.
SM: Popular Problems, that’s the title, after Old Ideas, Popular Problems suggests that there are preoccupations of themes that we can all share. Would that be correct?
LC: Yes and the next record will be called Unpopular Solutions. [Audience laughter]
SM: So we are dealing in universal constants?
LC: Yeah. [laughs]
SM: I know that you’ve said that some of the songs came very quickly, some have been percolating through for 40 years. Does that affect how you think about them afterwards? The length of time that you’ve had to work on, carve or hone them or whatever.
LC: You know I don’t know how other writers feel, but I just have kind of sense of gratitude that you can bring anything to completion in this veil of tears. It’s the doneness of a thing that I really cherish.
SM: How do you know when it is finished? How do you know song wise? Because I know one track that was intended maybe for this will now be on the next record. Is that right?
LC: We hope so if we can figure out how to do it.
SM: So completion. Do you know when a work is done?
LC: Yes, yes. You know, I think…was it Otton who said you know, “a poem is never finished, it’s just abandoned?” I don’t know who said that.
SM: Yeah. It was him.
LC: So it was him. So yes that’s all there is. Anyways these are you know technical questions that I don’t think anybody really has the answer to. You can speculate on these things after the thing is finished, but while you’re working at it you just hope that you can come up with something that is respectable and you know you can get behind.
SM: It’s a record with the presence and energy of a modern record. The forms that you continue to explore are blues, it seems to me gospel, it seems to me some country. Would that be true? Do you find these forms kind of sustaining in what you want to say?
LC: Well that’s our music. We don’t want to reinvent the wheel. So you take the forms that are available and you try and work with those. I mean Pat’s palate is very very wide, so he brings a tremendous newness to the old forms.
SM: When you did something like this in Los Angeles you said the road beckoned. So does that mean that you like to take those sons on the road?
LC: I like life on the road. It’s a lot easier than civilian life. You kind of feel like you are in a motorcycle gang. [Audience laughter]
SM: Is the actual process and the experience of singing for people, in front of people, still something…
LC: It’s a lot easier than this. [Audience laughter]
SM: Is it?
LC: Because you have a band behind you. [Audience laughter]
SM: Yeah. Is it still a big part of what you want to do?
LC: Yeah it is.
SM: Is it about the communality of it?
LC: You know if you can do anything it’s kind of satisfying. I mean it’s this and washing dishes that are the only thing that I really know how to do. [Audience laughter]
SM: Let’s ask some questions from the audience. Gentleman from the BBC.
Q: Hello Leonard.
Q: Matt Everett from BBC Radio. I wanted to ask, there seems to be within the album kind of recurrent mentions of the military and war and battles. I was wondering if that kind of reflected a current preoccupation with conflicts that are taking place at the moment?
LC: Of course it reflects the world that we live in. It was not anything deliberate. But I think one picks up these things from the atmosphere.
Q: Would you call it a political record in any way then?
LC: I’ve tried over the years to define a political position that no one can actually decipher. [Audience laughter]
Q: I just very quickly…when you came and spoke here a couple of years ago you said that you were looking forward to starting smoking again when you hit 80. Is that still the plan?
LC: Yes, but does anyone have a cigarette? [Audience laughter] There are so few places that you can smoke now. I’m going to be 80 in a couple of days. I smoked for 50 years or so, gave it up 10 or 15 years ago, but I really like smoking. [Audience laughter] And I think about it a lot. I’m thinking about it right now. [Audience and LC laughter]
SM: Gentleman here.
Q: David from The Independent.
Q: Hi. We’re in the Canadian residence. I wondered actually how important being Canadian is to you and whether it informs your music.
LC: Well Canadians are very involved in their country. You know we grow up on the edge of America. We watch America the way that women watch men. [Audience laughter] You know very very carefully. [Audience laughter] So when there is this continual cultural and political challenge right on the edge of your lives of course it develops a sense of solidarity. So yes it is a very important element in my life.
SM: Gentleman there with your hand up there. That’s you yeah.
Q: Hi I’m Yaniv from Israel. And I wanted to ask you- I kind of got a bit of Jewish references in your songs here and I’m wondering how much you feel closer to your Jewish roots, if anything, and how much does that influences your writing and your music?
LC: Well I grew up in a very conservative, observant family. So it’s not something I ever felt any distance from, so it’s not something I have to publicize or display, but it is essential to my own survival. Those are values that my family gave me, which are Torah values, are the ones that inform my life. I never stray very far from those influences.
SM: Lady there.
Q: Felicia from the Norwegian Newspaper VG.
LC: Oh there you are. Hi.
Q: Hi. Your last album went to the number 1 in 11 countries, but a couple of your albums before that only went to number 1 in Norway and Poland. [Audience laughter] What is it with you and those two countries?
LC: I’ve been trying to figure that out myself. [Audience laughter] Well I lived with a Norwegian woman for a long time when I lived in Oslo for a while and my family came from Poland in 1860. So maybe that explains something. [Audience laughter]
SM: This lady right at the back there. Oh Janice, hello.
Q: Hi Stewart. I had Beth Orton on my show recently and she actually stayed in your house and was absolutely enamored by all of the literature that was there. And I was just wondering what are you reading at the moment and what is an inspiration for you?
SM: Beth Orton. When she stayed at your house… Beth Orton the British songwriter when she stayed at your house said that she was enamored by all of the literature in your house. And Janice was wondering what are you reading currently?
LC: See I don’t read very much. [Audience laughter] Let me think. It’s kind of a secret. I don’t know. [Audience laughter]
This audio has not been circulated:
SM: Okay. Gentleman here.
Q: Hello- Michael Hamm from The Guardian. When you sing the old songs on stage, is it hard for you to extract meaning from things that you wrote maybe 40-45 years ago as presumably a very different person?
LC: It always is a problem to find the door into the song, whether it’s old or whether it’s new, but I don’t really have any problem with that. Somehow the challenge of a concert or of a song is really what one is doing. Which is to find the meaning. We are all involved in this struggle at every moment because we lead the same lives over and over again and there always is this problem of making it new and making it significant. So it’s the same struggle that we have in our daily lives, in our relationships with people that we know very well- their habits and their idiosyncrasies. It’s the same with a song. You just have to find the way into the center of the song, the center of the person, the center of an activity. It’s the same as ordinary life.
Q: And is that what art is about? Is that what art does…use the significance of the experiences you have?
LC: I think that’s one good definition of it, sure.
SM: Lady there
Q: Hello, Shirit from Israel. You said that there is a mood of despair running through this album, but I’m looking at the lyrics of your last song and it seems very optimistic to me--- After all “you got me singing” you say and even got you back to singing the Hallelujah hymn. Is there a hidden optimistic in you after all?
LC: Yeah, I’m a closet optimist. [Audience laughter]
Q: What about Hallelujah. You hadn’t been singing it for many years and then you started to sing Hallelujah on stage again recently. Is that significant?
LC: Yes. The word Hallelujah of course is so rich; it’s so abundant in resonances. It is a wonderful word to sing and people have been singing that word for thousands of years. It seems to call down some kind of beneficial energy just when you declare in the face of the kind of catastrophes that are manifesting everywhere just to say hallelujah. To praise the energy that manifests both as good and evil just to affirm our little journey here. It is very invigorating to sing that word.
SM: The lady there.
Q: Conxa Rodríguez, El Mundo in Spain. You’ve done events at the high commission in Los Angeles and now in London for 25 countries...It feels from outside that you are an institution. Do you feel like an institution? [Audience laughter] And how are you going to celebrate your 80th birthday?
LC: How am I going to celebrate it? Any suggestions? [Audience and LC laughter] One of the lovely and charitable realities of my family life is that we hardly celebrate holidays or birthdays or anniversaries, so everybody is kind of let off the hook. If you forget somebody’s birthday or anniversary there’s no penalties. So I think it’ll just go by like any other day. I might have a smoke. [Audience laughter]
SM: And the first question—do you feel like an institution?
LC: Well sometimes I feel like an institution but kind of like a mental hospital. [Audience laughter]
Q: Thank you. From Denmark. If you were to actually write that manual for living with defeat which you mentioned on your last album, what would be the key point?
LC: Of living with defeat?
Q: If you were actually to write that manual for living with defeat?
LC: Oh right I remember that lyric.
Q: What would be the key point in such a manual?
LC: [Audience laughter] That’s a hard one. That’s a tough question. What would be your approach? [Audience laughter]
Q: Well I’m curious to know your answer. [Audience laughter]
LC: I wish I could really come up with something because we are all living with defeat and with failure and with disappointment and with bewilderment. We all are living with these dark forces that modify our lives. I think the manual for living with defeat is to first of all acknowledge the fact that everyone suffers, that everyone is engaged in a mighty struggle for self-respect, for meaning, for significance. I think the first step would be to recognize that your struggle is the same as everyone else’s struggle and that your suffering is the same as everyone else’s suffering. I think that’s the beginning of a responsible life otherwise we are in a continual battle, a savage battle, with each other. Unless we recognize that each of us suffers in the same way, there is no possible solution…political or social or spiritual. So that would be the beginning—the recognition that we all suffer.
SM: Just a couple more questions maybe. Gentleman there.
Q: Christof Graf from Germany. First of all thanks for being here and thanks to see you in such good health.
LC: Well thank you for coming this long distance and thank you for many people who have come long distances. I deeply appreciate it.
Q: Thank you. One song is called “Born in Chains”. Are you born in any chains and are there still any chains in which you are living…in which you have to live?
LC: We all live lives that are tethered to the circumstances in which we find ourselves, so in a certain sense everyone is born in chains and lives in chains. There are moments of liberation and also moments of captivity. So life seems to move between hose 2 polarities.
SM: Ok maybe we need a cheery and upbeat question to end. There’s a gentleman right in the very back row there.
Q: Hi I’m Javier from Spain, also . I would like to ask you. You gew up in a very special place in Montreal with this division among English speaking population, French speaking population. For you in your 80s with your wisdom and so many things that you’ve gone through. What do you think of this referendum that is going to happen in a couple of days. In Spain, there a vast number of people that wants to be asked if they want to be a part of Spain. What do you think? Does it have any sense for you?
LC: Of course I follow all of these developments like everyone else. I don’t feel compelled to take a stand one way or another. I assume that everybody is working with their best intentions. I don’t think there are any sinister or subversive components to one side or the other. People are trying to make their lives significant and some people feel that a political solution is the way to elevate their lives. That’s a legitimate position. I don’t have any opinion about it one way or another. I recognize that people are all engaged in a struggle for self-respect and for significance and this is an expression of those deep intentions and desires.
SM: Because I don’t think life can get anymore rich or strange than a Spanish journalist asking Leonard Cohen about the Scottish referendum, I might call a halt there and just say that this may one of the last events of this kind that happen in this beautiful building. As a Canadian, how does that make you feel? Does it make you feel a sense of pride?
LC: I feel so grateful. I express my gratitude to the High Commissioner for the hospitality that he’s shown us. Canadians are kind of reticent and reluctant to boast about their country, but I feel a sense of gratitude to Canada for a number of reasons. First of all, Canada received my family when they were refugees from oppressive regimes in Eastern Europe, so I don’t take the thing casually. My family came from a situation that was extremely disagreeable and we were welcomed into a country where we were allowed to practice our own religion. We were allowed to flourish, allowed to start our own enterprises. So aside from the fact that I like what Canada does in the world, I feel a very personal sense of gratitude for the hospitality the country showed to my family. And I grew up with that sense of gratitude. My father served in the Royal Montreal Regiment during the First World War. I was brought up to be a patriot and I still am.
SM: I think Popular Problems is a wonderful record and I do hope Leonard can be persuaded to sing it for us live at some point. We thank Leonard Cohen.
LC: Thanks so much, friends
Nothing of what Cohen told the French journalist, was heard anywhere and neither was it displayed anywhere in the French media. Not even the chat with the English journalist was to be found anywhere. The original sounds of the German journalist on the contrary were distributed freely by SONY because nobody wanted the few words Cohen said, disappearing in the depths of oblivion or wanted to imagine them being used on all sorts of communication channels.
During the short interview, Cohen sat in the front part of the room of the High Commission House, at a table, his interview partner opposite him, assembling and disassembling recording devices, which finally allowed for 7 minutes of material instead of 5.
Also attending were the bosses of the record labels of the various countries represented by the interviewing journalists. There was also a record label from the UK or the USA, Cohen’s manager Robert Kory and surprising enough – Dominique Isserman, Cohen’s partner and French amour in the 80ies. She didn’t have any function on the evening of the event; she didn’t take any photographs either. She was simply present. After the 3 interviews, Cohen left the High Commission House and the 7 + 37 + 25 + 6 + (3x7) + 5 + 3 = 104 minutes in the life of Leonard Cohen went by faster than expected, yet they still linger on in unforgettable emotions.
P.S.: After those 104 Minutes in the life of Leonard Cohen starts a new life, maybe called “Just 6 Minutes talking with Jarvis Cocker on Leonard Cohen`s Popular Problems”. But that is a totally different story…
© 2014 Christof Graf
Christof's website is at leonardcohen.de