The Return of Leonard Cohen

by Mick Brown

Sounds, July 3 1976

"I'm too old to die that kind of spectacular
death. For me to commit suicide or O.D. would
be ... unbecoming"

I don't think mankind will be damaged
if I don't put out a new album or a new book"

THE POSTER outside the Colston Hall, Bristol announced the appearance that evening of 'The Poet of Rock and Roll'.

Inside a girl takes photographs of the road-crew setting up equipment on stage – for an art-project, she explains. She really wanted to photograph the concert, so she’d scrimped, saved, begged and borrowed enough to buy a couple of tickets. Now she can't make it on account of the revision she has to do for tomorrow's exams. She'd sold the tickets to friends in a matter of hours. She's all of sixteen years old.

LEONARD COHEN is clearly bemused by it all. He sits back in his dressing-room, issues a slight smile and says isn't it amazing that some of these people were only eight years old when he wrote his first song? Cohen is forty-one.

On stage, illuminated by the harsh glare of a single spotlight dividing his face into patches of darkness and light, he looks a curious cross between Lenny Bruce and an Old Testament prophet – the protruding, hawkish nose, the dark eyes, lines etched into his face and forehead.

Backstage he looks strangely vulnerable; a thin, slight figure dressed in pressed slacks and a brown leather jacket, a cigarette burning between his fingers. One has heard that Cohen can be reserved to the point of being difficult. In fact he's extraordinarily charming, polite, approachable.

It is a rule of the road that he never gives interviews or holds audience before a performance, using those couple of hours before going on stage to summon-up reserves of energy and concentration for the task at hand.

After a performance he will talk, sign photographs and scraps of paper, receive gifts, kisses, handshakes. Gladly. He says he cherishes the attentions of his audience.

In Montreal he lives in an immigrant-worker neighbourhood where he's kn6wn only as a guy who has two kids and a small house and who never seems to be around very much.

In the small village in Greece where he also spends his "sitting-down time" the people are similarly unconcerned with who he is or what he does. A little bit of attention on the road is, well, reassuring.

Outside his dressing-room young matrons with glasses and wistful expressions hover in droves, thrusting programmes at the road-manager who brings them back signed. In the inner-sanctum Cohen holds court with a tribunal from a local college newspaper, hunched in a chair wreathed in cigarette-smoke, ringed by earnest, enquiring faces; a scatter of papers on the floor – Cohen's poems, which one of his inquisitors has painstakingly copied by hand.

"What I'd really like to know is why your poetry is so stark, so incredibly blunt – a poem like for instance . . . Cohen takes the proffered sheet, glances at the writing. "Yeah – I like that poem... If it didn't have the word 'cunt' in it I'd probably read it out loud on stage. But I'm not ready to say that word well enough yet. There are some things that are designed to rest on the page and not be spoken..."

"Do you use the same technique then for writing songs and poetry?"

"Yeah – just one word at a time. . ."

"To what extent then should poetry have relevance throughout time, or do you think it should sum up an episode, a moment, and preserve that on paper for forever?"

Cohen blinks at his questioner through the smoke-haze. "I don't know: forever is a long time..."

Leonard Cohen hasn't come back. He's never been away. While other performers tend to move, or even stand still, in a blaze of publicity, Cohen just keeps on toiling away quietly in what he calls his little corner – writing songs, sometimes; poems, sometimes; books, sometimes – all at his own pace.

Travelling . . . He's always been peripatetic – trace his career from Montreal, to New York, to Nashville, to Greece – but more so in the last six or seven years, "since I could afford the air-fares". He was in Ethiopia just before the revolution: "I just get to a place, check into a hotel and hit the streets." The Wandering Jew.

"But to tell you the truth I'm getting a little tired of all that now. A tour'll cure that for you for a while." Not that he tours often; he says he needs the nourishment of a private life more than anything touring can give him. But, for whatever reasons, this year he's been back on the road – a brief round of club dates in the southern American states, and now Europe, where he seems to enjoy a larger and more loyal following than anywhere else.

So far it's been sold-out houses all the way, and Bristol is no exception – a lot of older faces in the audience, people for whom 'Songs From A Room' was no doubt a soundtrack for sorrowful bed-sit dramas all those years ago; a surprisingly large number of younger people who can't have been aware of Cohen first or second time around, but who've tuned into that finely-honed angst somewhere along the way; and a man in elfin boots, long hair and a cloak who stands up in one of those moments of pregnant, reverential silence which punctuate a Cohen performance and shouts out 'God bless you, Leonard' to crackle of sympathetic applause from the rest of the audience; an audience which, in short, substantiates the tag 'The Poet' more than it does the description 'Of Rock and Roll...'

The tour publicist says it's been like this everywhere Cohen has played, and it'll no doubt be the same tomorrow night when he plays the Albert Hall, even though he's sure to get negative reviews.

This anticipation of the critical thumbs-down seems strange at first, but thinking about it Cohen has always been more popular with the paying-customer than with the press, who perhaps find the disarming frankness and pessimism of his lyrics and the dark, confidential monotone of his voice too much of an invitation for cynicism to turn down. Actually, says his publicist, it's more of an inverted snobbery.

The first time Leonard played London the nationals loved him; it's since he became an institution they changed their minds. And sure enough, the reviews of the Albert Hall concert are marked by a sort of reserve, dwelling on the despairing nature of Cohen's lyrics and the fact that much of his material was familiar from his albums, not to say previous visits.

Sure enough, it was, but familiarity is an intrinsic part of Cohen's appeal, and anyway he is hardly the most prolific writer of songs.

His last album, 'New Skin For The Old Ceremony' appeared almost two years ago, and free as he is from the normally pressurising demands of a one or two album a year record contract he tends to work at his own pace, which he admits is slow.

"Songs seem to take me a long time," he says. "I don't know why; they're not especially excellent for taking so long. I don't have any sense or urgency about any of my writing actually. I don't think mankind will be damaged if I don't put out a new album or a new book."

Nonetheless, he has put down five or six tracks for a new album, one of which, 'Do I Have To Dance All Night', was hurriedly recorded at Musicland Studios in Munich for release as a single. Cohen says it would be 'amusing' to have a hit with it, and the song gets two airings at Bristol – once to close the first half of the show and again during one of the innumerable encores – to help make it happen.

It's unusually lively for a Cohen song, but it fits the mood of his backing band, who seem to relish the opportunity to rock out – a guitar and pedal-steel player, drums, bass, a keyboards-player with a taste for synthesiser swirls and two strong girl singers who sound mournfully ethereal in all the right places, and who also work slick Lambert/Hendricks/Ross type scat arrangement behind Leonard on 'I Tried To Leave You'.

Generally, there is not much levity to be found in a Cohen performance, and what there is comes not so much from his songs as his wry, self-mocking introductions and the bitter-sweet poems which he reads over a loose, jazz-tinged instrumental backing.

But levity is not what Cohen's audience comes for. His concerts tend toward the atmosphere of a public confessional, a knowing, world-weary perambulation around the more painful areas of the human psyche.

Cohen is in the grand tradition of Jewish writers who wear their suffering on their sleeve. Maybe the English, generally tight-assed about their hang-ups, like living it vicariously.

There is certainly a reassurance of sorts to be found in listening to someone who can so clearly and painstakingly articulate the emotional crises we all go through at some time or another. If anybody's going to make your heart bleed for mankind in general, and for himself in particular, it's Leonard Cohen. But I for one am happy to thank him for it – at least some of the time.

Cohen agrees that his is very much a relating audience, often as prepared to share their confidence with him as he is with them. "There are some people who come to me for some illumination on their problems," he says. "I guess they feel I'm writing about some of the things they themselves are going through. But I don't usually have much help to give – there isn't much you can say to someone in the midst of their own crises."

Cohen, one senses, has enough trouble with his own. Not that his personal life is perpetually in shreds. Cohen gives every impression of being quite contented with – or at the very least philosophically resigned to – whatever life has brought his way.

He lives simply enough with his family; he says that because he didn't taste success until he was in his 30's he was already too set in his ways to develop expensive tastes. His friends are the guys he grew up with on the same street in Montreal. He smiles more often than you'd expect and seldom frowns.

You get the feeling Cohen has to do more than just wake up in the morning to find all that pathos which permeates his work, and that plumbing the more despondent depths of his soul is a struggle. Some people may say he struggles too hard and that his visions are intimate almost to the point of indecency.

Cohen says he abides by only one maxim in his writing: to always honour the difference between just a cry and a piece of work. "A cry of pain in itself is just that," he says. "It can affect you or you can turn away from it. But a piece of work that treats the experience that produced the cry of pain is a different matter altogether. The cry is transformed, alchemised, by the work by a certain objectivity which doesn't surrender the emotion but gives it form. That's the difference between life and art."

His books are extensions of the same vision – the gospel of objective self-revelation, autobiographical "because I can only treat the things I know – and I just know a small corner. There are writers who are great visionaries, who can depict huge movements – things like that. They're the great writers. I'm just the other kind."

He supposes his writing is therapeutic in the way that any work is. "I feel better when I'm working than when I'm not, but I feel both things – a need to write and a need to quit. The need to write is greater – off and on. Sometimes you get tired of the whole thing; think you'll get an honest job. Sometimes you know you're just dealing with the pipes and you think you'd like to get out of the basement. But you recognise your limitations and try to work within them...

He is a perfectionist – his own harshest critic. His first novel 'The Favourite Game', went through four drafts before publication. He's spent the last two years working on another novel, but withdrew it from his publishers at the last moment.

"It isn't any good," he says with a faint smile. "But somebody said it's as hard to write a bad book as it is to write a good one, so I guess it's kept me in shape doing it. In a way it's too personal; it treats people close to me in a way that is somehow inaccurate, one-sided."

A cry of pain rather than a piece of work? He laughs. "Yeah – it doesn't have that objectivity that I think it should have. I try to be truthful in whatever I do in some kind of way – not so much truthful to the fact as truthful to the quality of the experience. The book was true – but it wasn't fair."

His publishers wanted it just the same. "They think they can sell it," says Cohen.

It hasn't always been like that. Cohen spent his youth in lonely Montreal hotel rooms, struggling to write books which some people liked but nobody would buy. Eventually he started concentrating on writing songs instead, "to pay my grocery bills". He performed intermittently around Montreal and then moved to New York.

There he met Judy Collins and sang her some of his songs; she recorded one straight off. That led to a meeting with John Hammond – the legendary A&R man who discovered Dylan and Aretha Franklin – and a contract with Columbia Records.

On the way he managed to be duped out of the rights to 'Suzanne' and a couple of other songs. "I didn't really understand American business practises," he says charitably, "but I heard someone singing 'Suzanne' in Corfu not so long ago and it seemed somehow fitting that I didn't own it.

It was around the time of his first album that he met Janis Joplin, an interlude in his life that prompted a song which is one of the highlights of his stage performance, 'Chelsea Hotel No.2'. 'I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel/you were talking so brave and so sweet/giving me head on the unmade bed/while the limousines wait in the street'.

"I was saddened by her death," he says. "Not because someone dies – that in itself isn't terrible. But I liked her work so much; she was that good that you feel the body of work she left behind is just too brief.

"There are certain kinds of artist that blaze in a very bright light for a very brief time: the Rimbauds, the Shelleys, Tim Buckley – people like that; and Janice was one of them.

"Then there's the other kind, like Satre or Bernard Shaw who are careful about themselves and what the risks are. You can't get too safe, but as you get older you learn something about survival. The game is rough from a lot of points of view; because the prizes are big the defeats are big too.

"The life is rigorous, and the invitations to blowing it are numerous and frequent. Me? I'm careful as I can be without it getting too much of a drag. Anyway, I'm too old to die that kind of spectacular death. For me to commit suicide or O.D. would be...," he pauses for the appropriate word, "... unbecoming ..."

This page has been created by Jem Treadwell