The wisdom of Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen“We’ve got to be very careful, exploring these sacred mechanics. Someone will throw a monkey wrench into the thing, and we’ll never write another line…” Leonard Cohen cracked a smile even as he ducked Jarvis Cocker’s questions like a veteran prize fighter last night at a special playback of his twelfth studio album Old Ideas.

The elegant pair were sat in the basement of a Mayfair hotel, in front of what looked like every BBC arts critic and broadsheet music writer in the country, but Cohen seemed mindful that pulling apart poetry, like dissecting a frog, has a tendency to kill it. Regardless, this new record from the 77 year-old stands up to even the most forensic examination. It’s a masterfully crafted record that feels like the return of old truths and forgotten melodies. “I think this particular record invites one to be swept along with it,” he remarked, “even if you happen to have written it yourself.” One of the pre-eminent songwriters of the Twentieth Century, when Cohen moved to New York to become a singer in 1966, he told fellow songwriter Jackson Browne that although he loved Bob Dylan, “Dylan wrote really long lines, and I want to write really short lines.” In conversation he now shies away from the “mysterious and dangerous territory” of such technical scrutiny, and as he once told an interviewer, “I never discuss my mistresses or my tailors”.  Nevertheless he had plenty of field notes to pass on from his years of labour in the tower of song.

Leonard Cohen on….

Being perceived as depressing
“It’s the song that allows the light to come in. It’s the position of the man standing up in the face of something that is irrevocable and unyielding… and singing about it. It’s the position that the Greek Zorba had. When things get really bad, just raise your glass and stamp your feet and do a little jig. That’s about all you can do.”

The death of a ladies’ man
“Back then it was agreeable to have some kind of a reputation or some kind of list of credentials so you didn’t have to start from scratch with every woman you walked into. Now it doesn’t really matter one way or the other.”

His voice getting still deeper
“It’s what happens when you give up cigarettes, contrary to public opinion. I thought it would destroy my whole position and my voice would rise to a soprano.”

His technical ability
“Journalists, especially English journalists, were very cruel to me. They said I only knew three chords when I knew five!”

The invigorating effects of a sell-out world tour
“I’d kinda forgotten. I hadn’t done anything for 15 years. I was sort of like Ronald Reagan. In his declining years he remembered he’d had a good role. He’d played the role of a President in a movie. I kind of felt that somewhere I’d been a singer. Being back on the road re-established me as a worker in the world, and that was a very satisfactory feeling.”

The possibility of touring again
“I decided that I’ll start smoking again when I’m 80. I’ll be 78 this year, so if I go out on tour for a couple of years I’ll be able to start smoking on the road. I’m looking forward to that, so it is a possibility.”

Rock’n’roll lyricism 
“The thing I liked about [the PEN New England award for literary excellence in song lyrics] was that I’m sharing it with Chuck Berry. “Roll over Beethoven / Tell Tchaikovsky the news”… I’d like to write a line like that.”

The benevolent dictatorship of London landladies
“I lived at the corner of Gayton Road and Hampstead High Street in 1959. I lived with my landlady, Mrs Stella Pullman. I had a bed in the sitting room and I had some jobs to do, like bringing up the coal to start the fire every morning. She said to me, ‘What do you do in life?’ and I said ‘I’m a writer.’ She said, ‘How much do you write?’  and I said, ‘Three pages a day.’ She said, ‘I’m going to check at the end of every day. If you haven’t written your three pages and you don’t bring up the coal, you can’t stay here.’ She did that, Stella Pullman, and it was under her fierce and compassionate surveillance that I wrote my first novel, The Favourite Game.”

Drinking from the well of inspiration
“I never had a strategy. I always felt I was scraping the bottom of the barrel trying to get a song together. I never had the sense of standing in front of a buffet table with a multitude of choices. It’s more like what Yeats used to say, working ‘in the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart’.  You always feel like you’re at the end of the line. There’s no sense of abundance but I blacken a lot of pages. It is my work and I try to do it every day. Most of the time one is discouraged by the work, but now and again by some grace something stands out and invites you to work on it, to elaborate it or animate it in some way. It’s a mysterious process. This place is filled with writers, and we all know that the activity depends not just on perseverance and perspiration, but also a certain kind of grace and illumination. We depend on that.”

Failing better
“I wrote “Hallelujah” over the space of at least four years, I wrote many, many verses. I don’t know if it was eighty, maybe more or a little less. The trouble… my trouble… it’s not the world’s trouble, and it’s a tiny trouble, I don’t want you to think that this is a significant trouble. My tiny trouble is that before I can discard a verse, I have to write it. I have to work on it, and I have to polish it and bring it to as close to finished as I can. It’s only then that I can discard it, so the process takes a long, long time. I can work on a verse for a long, long time before I understand that it isn’t any good, but I can’t discard it before it’s finished.”

The advice he’d give to a young writer
“I’m reminded of the advice my old friend Irving Layton, who has passed away now but probably is the greatest Canadian poet that we’ve ever produced, and a very close friend. I would confide in him, and after I’d told him what I planned to do and what my deepest aspirations were, he’d always say to me, ‘Leonard, are you sure you’re doing the wrong thing?'”

Originally published by British GQ.