by Joăo Lisboa
Expresso, Lisboa, Portugal on July 9, 1994
Translated by Inęs Branco
Leonard Cohen invites me to sit down; he serves the coffee and asks me if in Lisbon it is so hot like it is in Madrid. I answer him yes and I don't like it very much. "Then you live in the wrong country. But, indeed, don't we all do?"-He says with a little smile. Of course we didn't remind to talk about his new live album which was what put us together. We can't really lose time with frivolities like that, when we have in front of us a man who says with an apparent serenity:"I always have the feeling that I'm living in the edge of collapse and I need to take emergency rules: I tried Prozac, I tried love, I tried drugs and zen meditation. I tried to forgot all those strategies and to go on. But the only place where true evaluation happens is when I sit down to write, when I reach that spot that I can't be dishonest about what I do".
It is for almost 30 years that you are a composer and a recorder. But it was in the 60's, excepting last years, that you had most popularity, and the true is that you weren't in harmony with the spirit of those days. Do you have an explanation for that?
I've always felt a brotherhood with what is happening in every epoch. But the true is that I never was (and still don't being) in the centre of the events. I felt close to the beat generation, and although I wasn't really a part of it, I met Ginsberg, Kerouac and Corso.
Before them, I also agree with those we called "vagrant", I went to their coffee-houses in Montreal, although I wasn't one of theme.
After, appeared the hippies, whom didn't interested me, specially when they started polluting the rivers and left the garbage everywhere, when they went to the country to worship God and Nature. They were awful campers. I was a boy-scout, so I can say it!...
When Vietnamese war began, although nobody likes the war, and my mother had come from Russia and had suffer with communist experience, I understood that communism was not a kind expression and that the occident should resist it. That's why I never took part in that rhetoric of writing "America" with a K and was described as a fascist country. It wasn't, it had received my family when they come as refugees and I had a gratitude debt to it.
That's why I've been close to every movement, but I've never get along with one.
Quoting an author, whom I don't remember the name, he once said that who marry the spirit of his generation, takes the chance of getting widow in next generation. Is that why you deliberating isolated yourself?
Must have been a French man who said so, but it is a great quote. With me, it is a fact, but it was not deliberated.
It seems that will happen now a Woodstock commemoration. I don't know if there is a genuine appetite to reaffirm those values, that I never understood which were... It must not have been by chance that I was not invited for this, like I wasn't for the first one...
What made you take such a strong decision like abandon literature and dedicate to music, when you had already published two fiction and several poetry books extremely well accepted?
That time, nothing seemed very strong and now neither. But there was the economic pressure, I couldn't just live of literature. In retrospection, it seems madness that I believed I could go to Nashville and become a studio musician or a compositor in order to pay the bills and continue writing. It was not what happened.
I was always interested by the words of the songs and was through "folk" that I reach poetry and literature. I gathered popular songs from several countries, including Portugal-things of Amália Rodrigues, which I adore when I was young. But also flamenco, country music, Scottish border ballads, songs from the Spanish civil war...
Your songs are really immerse much more in an European sensibility than an American, aren´t they?
They must be because I always was interested in Lorca, Camus, Cervantes, Dostoievsky, Maupassant, Tchekov. That was my tradition, more than the Americans. And also European singers: Greek singers like Pireu, and Brassens, Brel, Ferré.
By other side, my mother was a wonderful singer. From my father I got other thing: he loved to sing but he was incapable to do it well. Just like me! (laughs)
It has been said very much about your Jewish ancestry and about what has it determinated in your choice of subjects and images you wear. Was it really important to you?
It's hard to say because in fact I was not given the opportunity to choose between being Franciscan or Jewish. It is true that Jewish tradition was very strong in my home. But anyone has ever said to me that there is a God and, if so, what does he want from me. So, there was a total absence of theological tyranny.
I lived in a strongly catholic city, so it was very contrasting with the horror stories my friends told me about their relations with the priests. I grew up without feeling any obligations to a supreme being.
I made you that question because in your songs there is a big mixture of mysticism and paganism...
You're probably right. I was interested by the christians, mystics, islamics, sufis, jewish and also by the tantrisme. All those union processes with God, which go through a sexual metaphor, a intoxication with the loved being...
Did you felt attracted by a material god?
I was attracted by the intoxication of love, the idea of surrender like a drunk in the presence of that mistery... like in Saint Teresa ecstasy... Maybe it was just because I was a teenager with too many hormones, attracted to love by reality, by a narcotic metaphor. But that still fascinates me today and I even think that Rumi, the big Persian poet of Love, of century 13, is the biggest religious poet of all times, certainly at the same level of King David.
Politic subjects, which have rarely interested you, show in your last album in two songs, "The Future" and "Democracy", without being exactly comprehensible if you see both with pessimism or hope...
I just tried to be precise. The happening that originate those two songs was the fall of Berlin wall, that was celebrated by everyone as a splendid occurrence, but I saw it as a sinister event. Maybe due to my reluctance to join the party, I felt a kind of "frisson", which told me something awful will happen. That's why, in a instinctive way and no way programmatic, I wrote "Give me back the Berlin wall, give me Stalin and St. Paul", having the presentiment that order would crumble. And I add clearly "I´ve seen the future and it's murder". Unfortunately, that's what happened.
And I believe that the homicidal instincts of humanity must be controlled by very strong central governments. Other way, it will be death and generalize chaos. That's the way human beings are.
You are very suspicious about human specie...
It must be very careful with it!...
In other song you also say "There's a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in". It is not a very happy thought to believe that something will always have to break, to open a crack, in order to the light gets in...
It is a happy thought if we enjoy the truth. There is always something that will have to break. Usually it is our personal proud.
A Buddhist thinker said that disappointment is a great way to illumination. Other masters said: "from the broken débris of my heart I will erect an altar to the Lord".
The idea that there is a staircase of gold and marble, which leads to knowledge is seductive, but seems to me that the idea of something needing to get broken before we can learn anything is a more true idea. It is my experience, maybe you can escape it, but I doubt it. Unless the heart breaks, we will never know anything about love. As long as our objective universe don't collapse, we'll never know anything about the world.
We think that we know the mechanism, but only when it falls we understand how intricate and mysterious is the operation. So, it is true, "there's a crack in everything", all human activity is imperfect and unfinished. Only that way we can have the notion that there's something inside us that can only be located through disillusion, bad luck and defeat. Unfortunately, that seems to be the case.
Let's stop talking about disillusions for now... How do you feel, after almost three decades being a cult and confidential artist and having a descending of musicians whom confess to be in debt to you and record tribute albums to you?
I feel very grateful for being resuscitated that way. A few time ago I didn't sell a record or a book and, because of that, this change was very welcomed.
But, 4 or 5 years ago, my daughter, she is now 19, started to tell me that her friends playing in garage bands were picking up my songs. That was the moment when I had the feeling that people were discovering my work again. Because, for how modest an author tries to convince us he is , he always wishes to believe that he lasts more than a moment and that he can be important to the next generation.
But I also think that is due to my postures were right. During the "Aquarium Era", when it was obligatory to talk about peace and love, I thought all that was ridiculous and I said: "There's a war between the rich and the poor, there's a war between man and woman, why don't you come on back to the war?". It was a very unpopular statement. And also during the Vietnamese war, I sang: "man of peace or man of war, it is men on either side". That's why I don't think it was an accidental coincidence.
Of course I might be forgotten in next 15 minutes, but I think there's something notable in my position as an author and singer that makes some sense.
Through all these years your discography is small. Writing songs is a hard discipline to follow, to you?
Very hard. I've always admired the persons that are capable to write fast and well. There's something crazy and not very healthy in the time I need to concentrate. Each word I write makes me sweat.
Your "disciple" Suzanne Vega said that language is a permanent fight...
It is a fight. But I don't regret it either. Most people work hard and I feel happy to be one of theme. If you want you can imagine me agonizing while I write. I prefer to think that's just hard work and nothing else.
Regarding to what you've called, with irony, your "golden voice", you once said the critics have some difficulty in understanding that for instance Bob Dylan or Tom Waits are two of the most sophisticated voices of your generation...
Absolutely. What I mean is that most times, critics (particularly the rock critics, which is proud of being in the head of all the others) still in the 19 century, in what concerns to esthetics. Who doesn't have the resonance voice of a bell is not acceptable.
Europeans are much more sophisticated. You couldn't tell Serge Gainsbourg's voice was exemplary and, however it was given a value.
Of course I'm not in the same category of Tom Waits. He's a incredible musician and controls completely the character he created. Dylan has also a very special abandonment, if we know the American music history, we can find there influences that goes from Jimmy Rodgers to Howlin' Wolf.
I just understand myself well with my songs.
Since your first record, I've always thought that in your songs there is a kind of wisdom that can only exist with age and experience. Now, that you're reaching 60 years old, do you believe that there is really a direct relation between age and wisdom?
I think that there is a wisdom of all ages and that it is adequate to each moment. As Ginsberg said: "Sex is youth sport". There's the wisdom of the 20 years old and other of the 60 years old.
But if that subject interests you, a friend of mine use to say that you can reach wisdom reading the great books. I don't know if that's true. I spend most time of the year in a zen monastery, with my back right and my legs crossed.
I think the truly write of poetry transmits a certain kind of wisdom that we don't have, but to which we are only the way. When I penetrate into the slow and painful writing of a song, there are certain realities bigger and better than me that manifestates and I don't command anymore. The rest is only my personal, foolish and chaotic life.