by Billy Walker
Sounds, March 4, 1972
That most complex of men Leonard Cohen was in London for a lightning visit last week but not, as you might imagine, to tie up any loose ends for his European dates this month or the film that is being shot around the concerts, hut merely to drop off some baby clothes for a friend on his way back to the States from his modest home on the Greek island of Hydra. A quite uncomplicated act from a man who would doubtless admit himself that he didn't fully understand the depths of his own complexities.
Cohen is a man of disarming modesty and when pushed for what might seem flattering self analysis in his view answers quite simply "these are things better spoken of by others than oneself". His style isn't that of a man who has reached the pinnacle of material and artistic acceptance, he can demand high fees for a performance or play for free (as he does in mental hospitals) and is held in almost god-like reverence by his ardent followers who see him as both visionary and genius.
The choice of his hotel, a smallish, unpretentious building on the unfashionable (for hotels that is) edge of Chelsea's King's Road speaks volumes as far as Cohen's attitudes towards "high Style" is concerned. "Ive always felt this way about the places where I stay," he explained, "I prefer them to be of one style rather than another, it's just a notion of styles.
"Someone said 'if riches assist thee acquire riches, if poverty assist thee seek poverty'. There are many styles of life, I don't think one is better than another, it's just that what suits me is a more modest style than generally could be discovered in a first class hotel where so much is based on the good graces of the people around you being purchased."
But what of the promises of "high style"? "I looked into the style and I didn't find it 'high style', I found it a very degrading style. If those things really did deliver what they promised I would be in them, it's just that I found they didn't deliver what they promised that Im not in them."
It's Cohen's ability to look reality straight in the eye and write and sing about it in complete honesty that makes him stand out from so many of todays performers. His belief in the good things of life being the things that all people can partake of regardless of wealth and education lead him to the opinion that the worker and not the artist is where the praise should be apportioned.
"I think the people who do the worlds work, the worlds real work, are extremely important. Its commonplace to say this but to honour artists more than an artisan or labourer is a great mistake and a great folly and when society begins to do that it ends up in first class hotels."
Writing on paper, Cohen's own explanation for his poems and novels, has been the only other means of channeling his creativity up until now but the film, to he made with the help of producer Bob Johnston, Mike Machet and our own Tony Palmer as director, looks like opening up a new direction for him should it be successful enough.
"We hope it will emerge out of the performances, I think its going to surprise me. I would like it to be a kind of essay and I would like the character, who'll be me, to emerge as surprise. I don't think it will really be anything I am."
Leonard has never seen any of Palmer's work but liked him when they first met a few years back. The name of the company, muted as Sincere Productions, will be something that, in Cohen's own words, "represents the sensibility of the idea".
Did he feel that the film would open up new areas for him, directing or producing even?
"All my work is the evidence of a life and not the life itself and if I could live a life well and have the evidence of it turned into information and entertainment 'that would be OK. If I could find a style which would enable me to do that I would he happy to embrace it. I can't think of it now though.
"I would love to be a great film maker, its a wonderful notion. I would also like to be a great mason, but I would like to find areas in which I can summon energy. If its films it would be wonderful but I myself dont think it will be, I dont think I have the talent for it."
But if the next step isnt films are there many new directions left to explore? "No, if you want to work in what is called art but I'm not particularly drawn by that siren any more. I don't know if Im really interested in turning my life into palpable art. I was more interested in that in times past but I'm interested in another kind of direction now."
The fact that Cohen doesn't see his works through the written page or his song-writing in degrees excludes the thought that one area of work may be more rewarding than the other: "It's not something you choose, somehow you move into the areas you have energy and it changes from music to the written page."
In an earlier interview with Leonard the subject of a "standard of excellence" arose and its importance on every man's life work. It plays a great part in his life and, he believes, is an essence of living. "I think you've got to work hard whether to a set notion of good, bad, fair or very good. To work at your total capacity is the most important thing, otherwise you're unemployed and unemployment is the most serious problem.
"I'm interested in performance, I look at it from my own point of view in that you can't be dishonest when you are on stage. You can try and be and whatever you do there goes down into the hearts of the people and is weighed. You can't lie, they can call you a liar but you cant lie."
The total involvement that Cohen employs in his own work suggests that he's merely the tool and not the workman himself and when it comes to basics like being able to relax more in writing books than songwriting such everyday black and whites don't apply.
"When you become the work itself then notions like up-tightness and relaxation are irrelevant, when you are the work itself you don't stand aside you're just the instrument of the energy and there's no second thoughts. It's only when you are not working at your full capacity and you are not the work that these jewelistic notions of failure and excellence come in."
Does the "energy" he talks of work in the way many artists use religion or mysticism in their performance? "There are many people who feel that we are now in the days of judgment and in some ways I think we are and that we'd better be true. I think Dylan says it in one of his songs 'let us not speak falsely now, the hour is getting late'. People have a sense that we are at the end of things and this is not the time to put anybody on.
"I think people have to go to their own sources of energy. I could never in any way evaluate sources people turn to."
Energy or no, it's obvious from Cohen's tortured lyrics that these aren't hastily written ditties that happen to come to him over a television supper while he watches a baseball game. There's a certain depth and unmistakable quality to the sort of songs that Cohen and many contemporary writers put down today, they aren't good time, easy listening, theres a soul stirring in there somewhere and thats what makes them alive.
"I've never written with the kind of luxury of choice. I've never sat down at my table and said 'there are people starving and there are people who are being tortured and brutalized, I must write a song to redeem them'.
My songs have come to me, I've had to scrape them out of my heart. They come in pieces at a time and in showers and fragments and if I can put them together into a song and I have something at the end of the excavation I'm just grateful for having it.
"It tells me where I am and where I've been. I can't predispose the song to any situation or anything in the political realm, but if I live in the political realm and I'm aware of what is going down and my songs come out of that awareness of ignorance. A lot of my songs come out of ignorance."
At the same time he is aware of the importance his songs have upon his followers and that they may seem him as a kind of far-seeing messenger whose lyrics hold a strange yet inviting foreboding. "I understand that my work is confusing enough to he construed as many things, I feel the same way about it myself.
"But it has always been torn from myself and when I'm not in an act of tearing it from myself I can be any kind of pompous fool. I can sometimes act the visionary or the fool, it really doesn't matter what I am, my personality changes all the time but in that act of making the song I don't know what I am and I don't know what to do next. If I did I would write a lot more.
"It's because if the work any value it's because it has been created in a certain kind of furnace that gives it a certain kind of quality and it's nothing I can determine, I wish I could. I would produce a great deal more if I could summon it. If people feel it represents something important it's because the way it's torn from myself and it can't be forged."
Cohen also believes that each man has his own deep well of creativity and should he fail to see this and express it he'll die. "Many of them are dead and I don't know how they manage to keep their manhood alive." But is it a necessity to know there's something inside and to release it?
"You have to or you die the most agonising death. I think they all realise there's something missing, the mental hospitals are full of people who are artists. Nobody can live a life where they are not creating love, I don't want to get corny but nobody can live that way.
"1 wouldn't want to put people under any banner but I note when I walk on the streets, as many have noted before, that there's tremendous agony around us and it's the agony of souls crying out for life."
Finally, Leonard Cohen the artist, performer, writer, driven by the energy, the soul or whatever inner force makes his works so deeply dark and mysterious to some and brilliantly expressive to others, realises the need to heed the inner creative message, whatever its wish.
"An artist responds to necessities within his soul as everybody else does, or should. It takes you where it leads you, it can take you to into silence, it leads you into what it needs for its own survival and if you're obedient or if you're sensitive to the sound of your own self then you'll follow it."
Perhaps the most revealing statement that reflects the modesty of Leonard Cohen comes from his own lips, expressing "test of character" battles with himself to actually get up on stage and perform: "it's a drag in the sense that I'm nervous and no one knowingly goes to his own humiliation, and I always feel that's a real possibility."
This page has been created by Jem Treadwell