This is a transcript of a Radio Luxembourg (RTL 208) interview with Leonard Cohen, broadcast in 1974 and recorded by Jem Treadwell in Trennick Hall, Truro School, Cornwall, UK, using a radio/cassette recorder borrowed from Ravi Saravanamuttu. Transcribed from tape of broadcast by Jem Treadwell, in Howell NJ, 11 February 2001. No permission obtained for publication. Posted 16 August, 2009.
Intro: Suzanne, full track.
Announcer: Leonard Cohen, and the song, from the Songs of Leonard Cohen, and the classic: Suzanne. This is Radio Luxembourg, and about seven days ago Luxembourg in London was fortunate enough to have Leonard Cohen drop by, for a chat with 208ís Duncan Johnson. Duncan, wherever you may be, take it away!
Duncan Johnson [DJ]: What made Leonard Cohen want to sing?
Leonard Cohen [LC]: Thatís a good one!
DJ: How old were you when you started to sing?
LC: When I first sang? Well, I donít think I ever had any... I think everybody sings, and grows up singing, but you mean to make a record and start singing professionally and that sort of thing?
DJ: Yes, because youíre primarily a poet, or a writer.
LC: Well, I do a lot of writing, but Iíve worked with music for a long time, and I think I started as a collector of folk songs, I was interested in folklore and folk songs, and I always played one or two musical instruments, piano and clarinet and I learned guitar and started doing a bit of research into folk songs because I liked them. I saw them as very very close to the kind of work I was doing, which is very simple kind of lyric writing, so it was natural just to pick up a guitar and start singing them. Then I got involved with a barn dance group called the Buckskin Boys in Montreal around 1953 and I was playing a lot of barn dances around town, outside of town.
Then I kind of put the guitar away for a while and wrote a few books. And while I was writing the last book, in Greece, I was listening to a lot of music, a lot of Country-Western music, and I thought I would close down the book writing for a while and go down to Nashville and maybe make a record there. And on the way down I got ambushed in New York by the folk singers, I hadnít known that there was a great explosion of folk music at the time, in New York, that was around í64, and I sort of hung out there for a while and wrote some songs.
DJ: Did you attempt to write poems first, and then songs,
or did they come as songs? (Marianne begins playing in the background).
LC: They seemed to come as songs, with a melody andÖ for what it is.
Break for So Long, Marianne Ė full track.
DJ: Do you think that your childhood environments helped
to influence what you write Ė and what you still do write?
LC: Well my mother was always singing around the house. I hate to give any sort of dignity to my singing, you know I just croak them out, but my mother has a good voice. She used to go round the house singing Russian songs a lot. I mean, I didnít grow up in any kind of puritanical atmosphere where singing was forbidden, everybody hummed a tune here and there, so it seemed perfectly natural.
DJ: Was it part of a good family life?
LC: We were OK, I have no complaints about my family.
DJ: Did you have any trouble with the French people in Montreal?
LC: Itís not a matter of trouble, I grew up in the English minority, which at that time was very isolated from the French majority. We suspected that we were the majority and they were the minority. It was that insulated. And theyÖ in our French education they pretty well ensured that we would never be able to speak the language, so as to further guarantee the isolation of the two communities. But thatís all gone now. Itís clearly a French city now.
DJ: Back about twenty years ago, there was Jack Kerouac.
Did you read any of his writing?
LC: Well I met him before I read his writing Ė I bumped into him in New York in the early sixties. He was hanging out with Ginsberg at that time, and I used to bump into them now and then, and the occasionalÖ
DJ: But he was from much the same sort of linguistic area
as you, wasnít he?
LC: Well, I think he was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, which was where there was a large French Canadian segment.
DJ: Did any of his type of writing appeal to you?
LC: I found his writing very appealing, as I found his person and personality very appealing. He was certainly a great writer, and a terrific person.
DJ: During the fifties, he was very much of a cult with
the beatniks, or whatever they could be called in those daysÖ
LC: I guess they were called beatniks in those days, yeah.
DJ: Öwith the anti-Korean war, as opposed to the anti-Vietnam war.
LC: Well I donít think that theÖ what they called beatniks, and previously, at least in my city, they called bohemians, became bohemian, beatnik, hip, hippy, that sort of genesis, but although there was a pacifist quality to the beatnik life, it didnít have the same kind of emphasis on the anti-war movement like for instance what happened later with so-called hippie phenomenon. In those days it was more an anti-consumer situation Ė people just didnít want to identify with the consumer society around them, so they wore simple clothes and they lived moreÖ they tried to live more simply, and I donít think the alienation was so deep because the movement wasnít so wide-spread. [They were] a few people who just didnít want to participate in the general buying community.
DJ: Youíve become something of a cult personality. Do you
think thatís right, or how do you feel that you yourself are influencing
LC: Well I think oneís influence waxes and wanes. If youíre going to keep on working, and keep on producing things for people, there is, I suppose, a steady and loyal audience that you will find, but outside of that inner circle of listeners or readers you will attract or turn off larger numbers of people who come or leave according to what the particular thing is that youíve produced at the moment. There may be a record that a lot of people like, so your influence will tend to spread for a moment or two and then you may produce something that isnít as popular and it will wane, but I think if you keep on writing or keep on working thereíll be a kind of steady center, and the fringes will grow and decrease.
Break for Tonight Will Be Fine Ė full track, from Live Songs
Announcer: Leonard Cohen, Tonight Will Be Fine, from the LP Live Songs. On Radio Luxembourg itís seven minutes before 2 oíclock.
Commercial: New from K-Tel, 22 Electrifying Hits. Alvin Stardust [Itís just my jealous mindÖ], Charlie Rich [The most beautiful girlÖ], Steelerís Wheel [So they made you a starÖ], Cliff Richard [Take me high love, take me highÖ], plus Billy Paul, Blue Mink, Nazareth, and many more original stars on K-Telís 22 Electrifying Hits. At most department stores and record shops, also on cassette and cartridge.
Announcer: This morning on RTL in Sounds í74, words and music by Leonard Cohen. Jingle: Itís 208!
DJ: As you were writing, in as much as yourÖ outlook on
life changed much?
LC: Well I suppose my viewpoints have changed over the past ten years now, just from ordinary living experience.
DJ: It hasnít altered just from your success, from the financial
rewards success have brought you?
LC: Well Iíve noticed that whatever financial rewards that your work brings you generally tends to lower your standard of living rather than raise it. I know that before I made any money out of writing or music, I was living extremely well on a Greek island in a beautiful white house, with a lot of sunshine and swimming every day, and that as my work found more and more acceptance and presumably my bank account swelled I found myself living in hotel rooms, and going through traffic from one place to another, and generally the quality of life deteriorated quite considerably.
DJ: There are obviously a lot of pressures on your time and demands from various people on your time. Does that irritate you at times?
LC: No, actually I have heard a lot of stories of people in this racket that, you know, collapse under the kind of pressures that the industry creates, but Iíve never beenÖ I donít think myÖ first of all I donít think that my position is that grand as to invite really a huge pressure. I have a modest kind of career in that world, and the pressures are kind of modest. Now and then when I go out into the marketplace I have to do the work that the game requires, but mostly the thing is very very low key, and people seem to be very very nice. I donítÖ Iíve never had my arm twisted.
DJ: Listening to your album Live Songs, it
sounds that the audience are very involved emotionally, and you are singing
at times more like a country gospel singer. Do you do that intentionally,
or is that just something that builds up when youíre on stage?
LC: Well I doÖ I think that the nature of the work is highly emotional and thatís just my own nature. But I think the cut youíre referring to is that long cut, Please Donít Pass Me By, which I had a lot of second thoughts about including. I wasnít certain to include it, and Iím not really certain whether I should have included it. I think it goes on too long and I donít think the intensity is maintained.
DJ: Thereís another track on there that sounds
highÖ sort of country gospelÖ in as much as the emotional effect it has
LC: I think that was the cut of Tonight Will Be Fine, which we did at the Isle of Wight, where everybody was very very loose, I think everybody had gone to sleep, and theyÖ we were supposed to go on at twelve, but there were some difficulties and we didnít go on until about four in the morning, and everybody had gone to sleep and they woke us up for the performance, so we all got on stage in various states of consciousness, and I think the cut reflects that.
Break for the spoken intro and first two lines of the Live Songs version of Bird on the Wire.
DJ: Do you think that youíve got something
to tell the world in your songs?
LC: Well I donítÖ you know I never have written or sung from the idea that Iím standing on a balcony and there are vast multitudes urgently waiting to get the word from me. You know these things areÖ they come out of a much more limited sphere. If it is your work or your craft, you know you feel an emotion and you look for a form in which to clothe it, and you donít necessarily think of the people that are waiting or that they areÖ I mean one would be very foolish to believe that you really had a plan or a program for people Ė no, these are just songs.
DJ: Can you remember the first poem or song
that you wrote, or what it was about?
LC: Well I can remember some early things that I wrote down. I think the earliest was about the age of nine or ten, which was after my father died I remember writing a message, and sewing it up into one of his old bow ties, and burying it in the garden. I think that was the first solemn act of writing that I ever performed.
DJ: Many singers have recorded your songs
Ö a lot of your songs. Are there any [Ö?] added something to the song?
LC: Well I feel that most singers who have careers and can actually make a living that way, sing in a more accomplished way than you do, and almost everybody who has treated one of my songs I feel has brought something that I couldnít bring to it. For instance when I hear Joe Cocker do Bird on the Wire, you know I just stand back amazed because I could never handle a song that way, I just donít have any of the equipment for it. But I love to hear it done that way.
Break for the full track of Joe Cockerís version of Bird on the Wire.
Announcer: Joe Cocker and his rendition of Canadaís Leonard Cohen, composition Bird on the Wire. On Radio Luxembourg itís five minutes after 2 oíclock, and the Leonard Cohen Special on the RTL In Sounds í74 program. For all information behind most of the music you hear nightly on Luxembourg, that happens between 7:45 and 3 oíclock most evenings, for all of you in the UK that read Melody Maker. And inside the current edition: Greg Lake, Georgie Fame, Leo Sayer, Johnny Rae, Stevie Wonder and the Rubettes. Together. Not as a super-group on stage anymore at a festival, but together in the pages of Melody Maker, available at your newsagent later today.
Commercial: K-Tel presents Super Bad, 24 original hits by my brothers and sisters of soul, Joe Simon, The Isely Brothers, the Four Tops, plus Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, Curtis Mayfield [so move on upÖ], Barry White. K-Telís Super Bad LP, brother itís bad, something thatís really out of sight, only £2.25, available at most department stores and record shops.
Announcer: This is a special edition of RTL In Sound í74, words and music from Canadaís Leonard Cohen. Jingle: 208, RTL!
DJ: And, speaking of Bird on the Wire, the
film that theyíve done on the [tour?], is that a documentary about you?
LC: Well, itís not so much about me, although I figure prominently in it because it was a tour I did, but it is a study of a tour, across Europe, and I think itís not bad for a tour film. I myself am not particularly partial to tour films, I think they tend to be a little dull, but this one, although it has its dull moments, it has some quality that people seem to find appealing.
DJ: Do you think it portrays you as you are?
Or do you look like somebody else in the film?
LC: All too much like I really am. [Laughing] One of the duller aspects of the film.
DJ: What about records, with you?
LC: Well Iím in the midst of recording right now, in New York City. Iíve got a bunch of new songs.
DJ: Is it going to be the same style, with
Bob Johnson the producer?
LC: I hope Bob will listen to these tapes and give advice on them at some later date, but Iím working in the studio alone right now.
DJ: What kind of music will it be Ė will it
carry on, or will there be the country influence or theÖ
LC: Well I think some of the songs will relate back to previous records, but I think for some reason or other that a kind of newer and lighter and more sophisticated sound has crept into the music Ė partly due to the work of a musician Iíve been working with by the name of John Lissauer, whoís a very very brilliant arranger and musician.
DJ: You can [Ö?] enough songs for an album?
LC: Yeah, Iíve got more than enough for an album.
DJ: Is there any one singer that you would
like to write a song for?
LC: Well often when I hear singers I wish I actually could write for them, but I write so slowly that I never get around to doing it, you know, but often when I hear a man or a womanís voice on the radio I think thereís some quality in that voice that is not really being expressed in that particular song, if I could write a song that really expressed that personís life Ė but I never do that, because Iím trying to do that for myself.
DJ: What about books? Have you written
LC: Well Iíve blackened a few pages of a novel, maybe I could get around to finishing it.
DJ: Some people have described you as a messenger
of despair, with some of the songs theyíve seen you write. Do you think
thatís right, are your songs rather despairing?
LC: I donít know if thatísÖ I know Iíve certainly been accused of that, people have accused me of being the all-time bummer of the generation, but, I donít know, perhaps itís just Iíve been experiencing a different tradition in music where the lament is understood. If you take emotions that we all experience, and you articulate them and give them a form, it changes the emotion, thatís what a lament is for. A lament is not designed to make anybody feel worse. Itís designed to bring people closer to their emotions and evidently make them more together. I think that is an effect of some of my songs. Some fail Ė some are just bad, and bring you down because theyíre not accomplished in terms of the art or the delivery, but some songs that are called sad, they are sad, but I think the effect of a sad song is not to depress but to bring you closer to the emotion and make you feel better, although itís not uplifting in the sense that itís like keep a stiff upper lip or anything like that but it does have, for me when I listen to a so-called sad song, it has a healing quality. Iíd prefer if my songs had a healing quality. Some of them are depressing, but theyíre not depressing because of the song, itís depressing because of the absence of the song or the lack of craft.
DJ: Are some of them cynical? Or are
LC: Well I thinkÖ I canít remember all the songs now but when I think aboutÖ over my work, the writing and the songs, I think I have adopted a cynical position now, mainly just for whatever effect was necessary in the work. But, I mean the songs were not designed cynically if thatís whatÖ I donít think thatís what you mean. I mean they werenít designed to put anything over on anybody, from that point of view, but I think some of them have a cynical position in them.
DJ: Would you consider yourself a romantic?
LC: Well I certainly indulge myself from time to time, sure.
DJ: Greek gardens must be [Ösomething indistinguishable!]
DJ: What does money mean to you?
LC: Well, as anybody who has responsibilities and dependents and mouths to feed, the answerís clear: itís just really a means of keeping the thing going. As I say, the more money Iíve had the lower my standard of living seems to have become, but at this point, you know, when there are babies and wives around you youíve got to have some money.
DJ: Where do you live now?
DJ: Do you think that the worldís getting
better as a place to live in?
LC: I have no idea. I think people are going through a very confused, and in some cases agonizing, period. But I have no idea what the general state of the world is, because I donít have the viewpoint of those thousands of years, I donít know what mankind has really felt over the ages, itís very hard to know. I know from my fans and from acquaintances and people I talk to that there is definitely a deterioration of purpose Ė people donít seem to know why theyíre doing the things theyíre doing, and this causes a great deal of unhappiness. So that I do know, and it is difficult to discover a purpose in life for a lot of people.
Break for Hey Thatís No Way To Say Goodbye Ė full track.
DJ: What are you doing in the near future,
then, thatís going to affect your life and everyone around you?
LC: Well I have very, you know, old tradition concerns and viewpoints on this matter of what can be done to make a person feel better, and I think men and women need each other. I think that women, by and large, are happier with children than without, and I think that men, by and large, are happier with a woman in their lives, and vice versa, than without, and I think people are happier with work than they are with meaningless leisure so that helps with keeping your relationships clean and keeping your work going.
DJ: Leonard Cohen, thanks very much for coming
in the studio.
LC: Thank you.
Close with Sisters of Mercy.