Skip to main content

Leonard Cohen: Zen And The Art Of Songwriting

The legendary singer-songwriter is touring the U.S. for the first time in 15 years. He joins Terry Gross to talk about his poetry, his songwriting and his time at a retreat called the Zen Center.

43:48

Other segments from the episode on April 3, 2009

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 3, 2009: Interview with Leonard Cohen; Review of the film "Adventureland."

Transcript

*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
..DATE:
20090403
..PGRM:
Fresh Air
..TIME:
12:00-13:00 PM
..NIEL:
N/A
..NTWK:
NPR
..SGMT:
Leonard Cohen: Zen and the Art of Songwriting

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. Leonard Cohen is on a performance
tour for the first time in 15 years, and he’s singing the songs he
became famous for in the ‘60s and ‘70s, like “Suzanne,” “Chelsea Hotel”
and “Famous Blue Raincoat,” as well as later songs he’s known for like
“I’m Your Man,” “Everybody Knows,” and “Democracy.”

(Soundbite of song, “Democracy”)

Mr. LEONARD COHEN (Singer/Songwriter): (Singing) It's coming through a
hole in the air from those nights in Tiananmen Square. It's coming from
the feel that this ain't exactly real, or it's real, but it ain't
exactly there. From the wars against disorder, from the sirens night and
day, from the fires of the homeless, from the ashes of the gay,
democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

GROSS: That recording is from the new double-CD, “Leonard Cohen: Live in
London.” Much of the motivation for performing again is financial. His
former business manager stole just about all Cohen’s money while Cohen
was at a Zen center, where he lived for five years.

Although he won a $9.5 million settlement, it’s unclear if he’ll ever
see a penny of it. I’m sorry that it was a financial disaster that led
to his public return, but awfully glad that he’s performing and
recording again. I’m not sure any singer-songwriter better expresses
cynicism, despair, romantic longing, and the desire for transcendence.

Cohen published poems and novels before he started recording. When I
spoke with him in 2006, he had just published a collection of poems
called “Book of Longing.” I asked him to read a poem.

Mr. COHEN: I’ll just start reading this poem. It’s called “Thousand
Kisses Deep.” It’s a long poem. Some of it is just meant to be read.
Some of it is meant to be sung. I’ll start with two or three verses of
the part that’s meant to be read.

You came to me this morning, and you handled me like meat. You´d have to
be a man to know how good that feels, how sweet. My mirror twin, my next
of kin, I´d know you in my sleep. And who but you would take me in a
thousand kisses deep?

I loved you when you opened like a lily to the heat. See, I’m just
another snowman, standing in the rain and sleet, who loved you with his
frozen love, his second-hand physique, with all he is, and all he was, a
thousand kisses deep.

I know you had to lie to me. I know you had to cheat, to pose all hot
and high behind the veils of sheer deceit. Our perfect porn aristocrat,
so elegant and cheap. I’m old, but I am still into that a thousand
kisses deep.

GROSS: That’s Leonard, and here he is singing the part that’s meant to
be sung.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. COHEN: (Singing) I’m turning tricks, I’m getting fixed, I’m back on
Boogie Street. You lose your grip, and then you slip into the
masterpiece. And maybe I had miles to drive and promises to keep. You
did your all to stay alive, a thousand kisses deep.

GROSS: That’s Leonard Cohen from his CD “10 New Songs,” and the poem is
published in his book, “Book of Longing,” which is a collection of his
poems.

Leonard Cohen, welcome to FRESH AIR. It’s so great to have you on the
show.

Mr. COHEN: Oh, thank you.

GROSS: You know, there’s the expression Boogie Street in that poem. What
does Boogie Street mean to you?

Mr. COHEN: Well, Boogie Street is what we’re all doing. We’re all on
Boogie Street, and we believe that we leave it from time to time. We go
up a mountain or into a hole, but most of the time we’re hustling on
Boogie Street one way or another.

GROSS: Now, you took a several-year-long retreat from Boogie Street and
went to a Zen center on the West Coast, and was it five years that you
were there?

Mr. COHEN: I was there five or six years, yes.

GROSS: So you’ve been alternating, I guess, in your life between Boogie
Street and meditation?

Mr. COHEN: Well, actually, a monastery is just part of Boogie Street. In
fact, on Boogie Street you go back to your flat or your apartment and
you close the door and you kind of eliminate the rest of the world. You
kind of eliminate Boogie Street.

So there’s really more respite from Boogie Street on Boogie Street than
there is in a monastery because a monastery is designed to eliminate
private space.

There’s a saying - like pebbles in a bag the monks polish one another.
So in that kind of situation you are always coming up against someone
else. So in a certain sense coming up against someone else all the time
is Boogie Street.

GROSS: Well, that must be really hard. I mean, I think of you as a
fairly – your reputation as being kind of solitary and reclusive. So we
always think of you as being reclusive when you’re at the Zen center.
Now you’re saying it’s actually you’re always in the company of other
people.

Mr. COHEN: Yes, you – it’s designed to overthrow that appetite for
privacy.

GROSS: Now, some of your poems have alternate lives as songs, like “A
Thousand Kisses Deep,” which we opened with, and you’ve set poems by
other poets to music, including one by Lord Byron. Is there much of a
difference to you between a poem and a song lyric?

Mr. COHEN: Well, there are certain – there are certain poems that really
do lie very gracefully on the page. For instance, to take an obvious
example is a poem by e.e. cummings has a certain graceful display on the
page, and some poems just naturally are meant to be absorbed in silence,
where the tempo is decided on by the reader, and he can reverse it and
forward it and linger.

There are other kinds of lyrics that have their own metrical, imperial
advice, and they invite you to move swiftly from line to line. And there
are poems that are, of mine, that are always candidates for a song.
Sometimes they don’t make it and sometimes they do.

GROSS: Take a song like “Famous Blue Raincoat.” I think that is such an
extraordinary lyric and that it works, it works as a poem. I mean, it’s
just so well written.

Mr. COHEN: Some of them do. Some of them do.

GROSS: Did you write that as a poem or as a song?

Mr. COHEN: I wrote that as a song. But it’s always the same for me, but
it’s only afterwards that I realize that I can, that it does arise with
a melody, or sometimes it arises with a melody that doesn’t work, or the
other thing happens, you know, a melody and a lyric arises, but you
know, the lyric doesn’t deserve that kind of expression, and you’re left
with a good tune.

GROSS: Would you talk a little bit about writing the lyric for that
song?

Mr. COHEN: I don’t know. I don’t remember how it arose. I don’t remember
how any of them get written.

GROSS: What about the image? Do you remember how you got the image of
the famous blue raincoat torn at the shoulder?

Mr. COHEN: Well, I had a blue raincoat. It was a Burberry, and it had
lots of buckles and various fixtures on it. It was a very impressive
raincoat. I’d never seen one like it. I think I bought it in London, and
it always resided in my memory as some glamorous possibility that I
never quite realized.

So it began to stand for that unassailable romantic life, the opposite
of a cloak of invisibility, the garment that would lead you into
marvelous erotic and intellectual adventures. So that’s what the symbol
was, I think.

GROSS: That’s great. And was there somebody like the character in the
song who was almost like a brother to you and then betrayed you by
becoming involved with your lover? I mean, is this a story, or is it
based on something that happened?

Mr. COHEN: Oh, it’s happened many times. I think that’s happened to me a
lot. It happens – when one is in that world, you know, fortunately, you
know, I’ve been expelled from that particular dangerous garden, you
know, by my age.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COHEN: So I’m not participating in these maneuvers with the
frequency that I once did. But I think that when one is in that world,
you know, even if the situation does not result in any catastrophic
splits, as it does in “Famous Blue Raincoat,” one is always, you know,
edging, and one is always protecting one’s lover and one is always in a
certain sense on the edge of a jealous disposition.

GROSS: Why don’t we pause here, and soon we’ll hear more of your poems,
but let’s hear one of your early songs, and this is “Famous Blue
Raincoat.” My guest is Leonard Cohen.

(Soundbite of song, “Famous Blue Raincoat”)

Mr. COHEN: (Singing) Ah, the last time we saw you, you looked so much
older, your famous blue raincoat was torn at the shoulder. You’d been to
the station to meet every train, and you came home without Lili Marlene.
And you treated my woman to a flake of your life, and when she came back
she was nobody’s wife. Well, I see you there with the rose in your
teeth, one more thin gypsy thief, well, I see Jane’s awake. She sends
her regard.

GROSS: That’s Leonard Cohen, singing his song “Famous Blue Raincoat,”
and Leonard Cohen has a new book of his poems called “Book of Longing.”

You know, before we heard that song, you said that you were kind of
exempt from the world of, like, sexual passion now and jealousy and all
that because of…

Mr. COHEN: Well, one is not exempt, but one is not – because one is not
as welcome into the garden.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Right. But you know, that kind of reminds me of a line that you
wrote that I really love from your song “Tower of Song.” You have the
line, I ache in the places I used to play.

Mr. COHEN: Yeah.

GROSS: What a great line.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Is that something you sweated over, or did you just kind of get
that?

Mr. COHEN: Well, you get it, but you get it after sweating. In other
words, you discard – I’m in this situation where I can’t discard
anything unless I finish it. So I have to finish the verses that I
discard. So it takes a long time.

I have to finish it to know whether it deserves to survive in the song.
So in that sense, all the songs take a long time, and although the good
lines come unbidden, they’re anticipated, and the anticipation involves
a patient application to the enterprise.

GROSS: My guest is Leonard Cohen. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: We’re listening to the interview I recorded with Leonard Cohen in
2006. He’s on his first performance tour in 15 years. His London concert
from last July has just been released on a double-CD.

You seem driven by two opposing engines. You know, on the one hand, so
many of your songs are about, you know, lusts and appetites and beauty,
and you know, seeking pleasure of various sorts. And at the same time
you’ve also devoted years of your life to meditation and the desire for
some kind of transcendence.

So - and also your songs make it clear that you’re not unfamiliar with,
you know, depression and regret and fear, which are again the kind of
things that one tries to quiet through meditation. Did you become a
Buddhist because your desires were so dominant?

Mr. COHEN: Well, I never became a Buddhist, to tell you the truth.

GROSS: Should I just use the word practicing meditation?

Mr. COHEN: Well, I don’t even – I bumped into a man many years ago who
happened to be a Zen master. I wasn’t looking for a religion. I had a
perfectly good religion. I certainly wasn’t looking for a new series of
rituals or new scriptures or dogmas. I wasn’t looking for that.

I wasn’t looking for anything exalted or spiritual. I had a great sense
of disorder in my life, of chaos, of depression, of distress, and I had
no idea where this came from, and the prevailing psychoanalytic
explanations at the time didn’t seem to address the things I felt.

So I had to look elsewhere, and I bumped into someone who seemed to be
at ease with himself. It seems a simple thing to say, he seemed to be at
ease with himself and at ease with others. And without ever deeply
studying at the time what he was speaking about, it was the man himself
that attracted me.

GROSS: So this was your teacher? What kind of teacher – is he still
alive, I should ask first?

Mr. COHEN: He’s still alive. I just had tea with – well, it wasn’t tea.
It was liquor. I had a drink with him on his 99th birthday…

GROSS: Whoa.

Mr. GROSS: …a lovely evening I spent with him.

GROSS: How did you decide it was time for you to leave the Zen center?

Mr. COHEN: I don’t know. I’m never sure why I do anything, to tell you
the truth. I don’t know if I could tell you the whole story because it’s
very private, but I felt the reason I’d gone to see Roshi(ph) and had
become a monk, it was appropriate to become a monk because if I was
going to be in his scene, that was the uniform.

As I’ve often said, if he had been a teacher of, you know, physics in
Heidelberg, I would’ve learned German and studied physics in Heidelberg.
So it was appropriate for me to become a monk, but the life was very -
is very rigorous.

I mean, it’s designed to overthrow a 21-year-old. So I was already in
my, you know, 60s and late 60s. So there was that part of it, but I had
the feeling that it wasn’t doing any good, and it wasn’t really
addressing this real problem of distress, which seemed to be the
background of all my feelings and activities and thoughts.

So I began to feel that this is a lot of work for very little return.
That was a kind of, the kind of feelings, the kind of superficial
feelings I had. There were other feelings that are ambiguous and too
difficult to describe. They deserve or probably should be described in
song or poetry rather than conversation.

GROSS: We’ll hear more of our 2006 interview with Leonard Cohen in the
second half of the show. Here’s “Tower of Song” from his new CD,
“Leonard Cohen: Live in London.” I’m Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of song, “Tower of Song”)

Mr. COHEN: (Singing) Now my friends are gone, and my hair is grey. I
ache in the places where I used to play, and I’m crazy for love, but I’m
not coming on. I’m just paying my rent every day in the tower of song. I
said to Hank Williams: How lonely does it get? Hank Williams hasn’t
answered me yet, but I hear him coughing all night long, a hundred
floors above me in the tower of song.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. COHEN: You are very kind to me.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. COHEN: (Singing) I was born like this, I had no choice. I was born
with the gift of a golden voice, and 27 angels from the great beyond,
yeah, they tied me to this table right here in the tower of song.

So you can stick your little pins in that voodoo doll…

(Soundbite of song)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross back with more of our 2006
interview with Leonard Cohen. The great songwriter and singer is back on
the road doing his first tour in 15 years. The tour is largely a
response to having being financially wiped out by his business manager,
who absconded with Cohen’s money. Cohen has a new CD called “Live In
London,” featuring a concert from last July. I spoke with Leonard Cohen
in 2006 after he published a collection of his poems called “Book of
Longing.” Many of them were written at a Zen monastery in California,
where he lived for five years.

GROSS: I would like you to read another poem from your book, “Book of
Longing.” And this is called “Titles.” Would you tell us when you wrote
this?

Mr. COHEN: I’ve been writing it for a while, but I finished it last
winter, in Montreal. It’s a poem called “Titles.”

I had the title poet, and maybe I was one for a while. Also the title
singer was kindly accorded me even though I could barely carry a tune.
For many years I was known as a monk. I shaved my head and wore robes,
and got up very early. I hated everyone but I acted generously, and no
one found me out. My reputation as a ladies man was a joke. It caused me
to laugh bitterly through the 10,000 nights I spent alone. From a third-
storey window above the Parc du Portugal, I’ve watched the snow come
down all day.

As usual there’s no one here, there never is. Mercifully, the inner
conversation is canceled by the white noise of winter. I am neither the
mind, the intellect nor the silent voice within; that’s also canceled.
And now, gentle reader, in what name, in whose name do you come to idle
with me in this luxurious and dwindling realms of aimless privacy.

GROSS: That’s a great poem. That’s “Titles” from Leonard Cohen’s
collection of poems, “The Book of Longing,” or “Book of Longing.” You
know, I just particularly liked the part - because I think this is
really funny - I hated everyone but I acted generously and no one found
me out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COHEN: That’s true.

GROSS: And that was in a monastery that you’re talking about?

Mr. COHEN: Yeah. It’s not the whole story but it’s enough of the story
to justify a line.

GROSS: I want to talk with you a little bit how your voice has changed
over the years. When you started performing you had a much kind of, you
know, clearer and higher voice. Your voice has deepened and roughened
over the - over the years. And we can hear when you speak, you can hear
it in your records from the late ‘80s on. Has that changed because of
cigarettes? Or…

Mr. COHEN: Well, yeah, about, you know, five hundred tons of whiskey
and, you know, a million cigarettes – 50, 60 sixty years of smoking. But
I don’t smoke anymore.

GROSS: How did you stop?

Mr. COHEN: Well, I had my throat examined. I was having trouble getting
the smoke down, so I thought I’d better have my throat examined. And
yeah, it’s a very disagreeable procedure. They put a little camera up
your nose and down your throat and, you know, the doctor looked at it
with a scowl on his face. He said - I said, okay, do I have it? And he
said, no, but you are on the royal road. So I thought I’d better give up
the smokes.

GROSS: Do you feel as a songwriter, do you feel a connection to Irving
Berlin, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen - those guys, the kind of classic
American popular songwriters?

Mr. COHEN: Well, I think they are better than I am. You know, I just
think they know more of the music. Someone like Cole Porter, his rhymes
are, you know, much, much more elegant than mine. I have a very, you
know, very limited, a very limited kind of expression, but I’ve done the
best that I can with it and I’ve worked it as diligently as I can, but I
don’t really - except for one or two songs, maybe like “Hallelujah” or
“If It Be Your Will” - I think those are probably my two best songs. I
don’t think I - I rise to the level of those - of those great
songwriters.

GROSS: It’s funny, you know, you have one recording of Irving Berlin’s
song “Always,” and the last few lines are a lyric that you added of your
own.

Mr. COHEN: Right.

GROSS: And it was a sweet song, you know, I’ll be loving you always with
a love that’s true always, you know, not just for an hour or not just
for a day, you know, not for just…

Mr. COHEN: It’s such a beautiful song.

GROSS: And so - but your last few lines take this, you know, really
lovely sweet song and suddenly it’s like a really dark and sour.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COHEN: You could depend on me for that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Exactly. I’m just going to recite your last few lines if you
don’t mind.

Mr. COHEN: Sure, I don’t remember them.

GROSS: Not for just a second or a minute or an hour, not just for the
weekend and a shakedown in the shower, not just for the summer and the
winter going sour, but always. That’s like…

Mr. COHEN: That’s good.

GROSS: It’s great.

Mr. COHEN: It’s really good.

GROSS: When I hear that I think of you almost as having sat down and
said, Irvine Berlin is great, this is one of the differences between me
and him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: In our sensibilities.

Mr. COHEN: Well, of course the treatment of the song, you know, is so
very different. I think I changed the tempo too. I think his is three-
four and I changed it to four- four and, you know, brought in a
different - a completely different kind of - a kind of drunken version
of it.

GROSS: Uh-huh. And do you think you are more kind of cynical on some of
your songwriting than any of those kind of classic guys I could ever be?

Mr. COHEN: You know, that’s a question I’ve just asking myself in the
past few days because somehow I have heard Louis Armstrong’s “What a
Wonderful World It Could Be” - every turn I hear it for some odd reason.
It’s such a very beautiful song. And I think to myself, you know, why
don’t I leave a couple of songs like that behind me, you know. And I’d
like to. You know, there’s a lot of things I’d like to do, but when
you’re actually in the trenches and, you know, you’re in front of the
page or, you know, the guitar or the keyboard under your hands, you
know, you have to deal with where the energy is, you know, what arises,
what presents itself with a certain kind of urgency.

GROSS: I want to play one of your very cynical songs, and it’s one of my
favorites of yours and it’s “Everybody Knows” from your 1988 album “I’m
Your Man.” And I mean to get this song at its really full cynicism,
there’s a movie called “Exotica” from 1994 in which - by Adam Egoyan –
in which like a young teenage girl has a set piece that she dances all
the time at a strip club, and she’s always dressed as like a schoolgirl
and like the pleated skirt and the buttoned down shirt. And she strips
to your song “Everybody Knows.” Before we hear it, would you talk a
little bit about writing it?

Mr. COHEN: I wrote it with Sharon Robertson - a woman with whom I’ve
collaborated on many songs. I don’t really remember. I wanted to write a
tough song. You know, I had the feeling that, you know, I was Humphrey
Bogart or some - I began it in France, in Paris, at a cafe in the 14th
arrondissment and, you know, I don’t know who I thought I was at the
time, but it was, you know, somebody who you couldn’t put anything over
on. I think that was the mood, you know. I’m a guy - you know, I’m
incredibly gullible in my ordinary civilian life, but as I was sitting
there I was the guy that you couldn’t put anything over on.

GROSS: Well, here is “Everybody Knows,” Leonard Cohen recorded in 1988.

(Soundbite of song, “Everybody Knows”)

Mr. COHEN: (Singing) Everybody knows that the dice are loaded, everybody
rolls with their fingers crossed, everybody knows the war is over,
everybody knows the good guys lost, everybody knows the fight was fixed,
the poor stay poor, the rich get rich. That’s how it goes, everybody
knows. Everybody knows that the boat is leaking, everybody knows that
the captain lied, everybody got this broken feeling, like their father
or their dog just died, everybody talking to their pockets, everybody
wants a box of chocolates and a long stem rose, everybody knows.

GROSS: We’ll talk more with Leonard Cohen after a break. This is FRESH
AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: We’re listening to the interview I recorded with Leonard Cohen in
2006. He’s on his first performance tour in 15 years. His London concert
from last July has just been released on a double CD.

I want to ask you a couple of questions about beauty. There is something
very vexing about beauty when it comes to people. You know, you don’t
need to be told about the pleasures of being in presence of beauty and
how attractive beautiful people are, but when it comes to physical
beauty, that can also sometimes be a superficial beauty, yet you can,
some people almost become like a slave to it, either embodying it or
being attached to somebody who does. In your song “Chelsea Hotel”
there’s a few lines that go - excuse me for kind of ruining your lines
by quoting them, but…

Mr. COHEN: You don’t ruin them.

GROSS: You’re write: You told me again you preferred handsome men, but
for me you would make an exception, and clenching your fist for the ones
like us who are oppressed by the figures of beauty, you fixed yourself,
you said, well, never mind, we are ugly but we have the music.

Do you think of yourself as being someone who has been oppressed by the
figures of beauty?

Mr. COHEN: Oh yeah. Well, there’s no question about that. I still am,
you know, and I still stagger and fall.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COHEN: Of course I have that, just happens to be all the time, and
you know, you just – you just have to get very careful about it because
it’s inappropriate for an elderly chap to register, you know,
authentically his feelings, you know, because they can be interpreted,
so you have to get quite covert as you get older, or you have to find
some avuncular way, you know, of responding. But still you just really
are just, you’re wounded, you stagger and you fall.

GROSS: In the song, you know, the character says to the singer - we are
ugly but we have the music. And the character says to you that they
preferred handsome men but for you they would make an exception. So if
you don’t see yourself as physically beautiful, what has it been like to
feel like you’re a slave to beauty yet feel that you don’t embody that
yourself?

Mr. COHEN: Well, I have asked this question to a lot of people that are,
you know, certifiably beautiful who don’t feel that they are beautiful.
I think this is a – it’s a platitude, but it’s a common experience. So –
so I don’t think anybody beats the rap in this realm. We all feel when
we’re loved that some concession has been made. And you know, we
probably - none of us deserve the love that we expect. So it when comes
to us, you know, we can legitimately understand it as an exception to
the rule.

GROSS: But you never feel like – because, like…

Mr. COHEN: There were times that I thought I was good looking. You know,
I don’t know about how you feel. But, I mean, there were times I felt I
was good looking. But most of the time, you know, especially - you know,
the damn thing about it is that, you know, there’s comparisons around,
you know? So there’s people around you that always look better. You
know? And, you know, since we’re in, you know, a competitive world,
especially, the world of love and romance, you know, one never feels
really up to it. And now and then I have, you know. But most of the
time, I haven’t.

GROSS: So, you’ve never felt like, oh, that some kind of almost, like,
double standard was going on where you responded to beauty and yet felt
that – and your physical presence didn’t embody that yourself?

Mr. COHEN: Oh, yeah, I felt, you know, like a snail…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COHEN: …like a worm, like a slug, you know, many times.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Okay.

Mr. COHEN: I think the last time was this morning, at breakfast.

(Soundbite laughter)

Mr. COHEN: I’d like to recite the lyric of one of my more recent poems,
if we have a moment. This is how it goes: I used to be your favorite
drunk, good for one more laugh. Then we both ran out of luck, and luck
was all we had. You put on a uniform to fight the Civil War. I tried to
join, but no one liked the side I’m fighting for. So let’s drink to when
it’s over, and let’s drink to when we meet. I’ll be waiting on this
corner where there used to be the street.

It wasn’t all that easy when you up and walked away, but I’ll leave that
little story for another rainy day. I know the your burden’s heavy as
you wheel it through the night, the guru says it’s empty, but that
doesn’t mean it’s light. So let’s drink to when it’s over and let’s
drink to when we meet, I’ll be standing on this corner where there used
to be the street. You left me with the dishes and a baby in the bath,
and you’re tight with the militias and you wear their camouflage. Well,
I guess that makes us equal, but I want to march with you. It’s just an
extra in the sequel to the old red-white-and-blue. So let’s drink to
when it’s over, and let’s drink to when we meet. I’ll be waiting on this
corner, where there used to be the street.

It’s going to be September now for many years to come, many hearts
adjusting to that strict September drum. I see the ghost of culture,
with numbers on his wrist, salute some new conclusion that all of us
have missed. So let’s drink to when it’s over and lets’ drink to when we
meet. I’ll be waiting on this corner, where there used to be the street.

GROSS: That’s fantastic. And that’s a song to you?

Mr. COHEN: Yes, it’s a song. I wrote with it with Anjani. I got the
tune. I’ve put down a few versions of it. But I don’t have it – I
haven’t nailed it yet, but it’s on its way.

GROSS: You know, that poem just really kind of gets to one of the things
I love about your writing, which is, at the same time, you’re kind of
trapped in the world but smart enough to know your trapped. Do you know
what I mean?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: It’s like you’re in it and looking down at it at the same time.

Mr. COHEN: Yeah. That’s good. That’s on the operating table. A lot of
people have that experience, though.

GROSS: Well…

Mr. COHEN: The anesthetic does it to you. You know, you’re being
operated on, and yet you’re on top of the thing, looking down at your
body being destroyed. That’s everybody’s condition.

GROSS: It’s been great to talk with you. Thank you so much for reading
some of your work and talking with us.

Mr. COHEN: Oh, it’s been really good. Thanks so much for inviting me.

GROSS: Leonard Cohen recorded in 2006. He’s on his first performance
tour in 15 years. And he has a new CD called “Leonard Cohen: Live In
London,” recorded in concert last July. This is FRESH AIR.
..COST:
$00.00
..INDX:
102692227
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
..DATE:
20090403
..PGRM:
Fresh Air
..TIME:
12:00-13:00 PM
..NIEL:
N/A
..NTWK:
NPR
..SGMT:
‘Adventureland’: A Carnivalesque Comedy

TERRY GROSS, host:

Like so many big names in film comedy, director Greg Mottola got his
start on the cult TV series “Freaks and Geeks,” along with Judd Apatow,
Seth Rogan, Jason Segel and others. He went onto direct the Apatow-
produced “Superbad,” and now has more personal film, “Adventureland,”
set in a Pittsburgh of amusement park. It stars Jesse Eisenberg of the
“The Squid and the Whale” and Kristen Stewart of “Twilight,” as well as
Martin Starr of “Freaks and Geeks.” Film critic David Edelstein has a
review.

Mr. DAVID EDELSTEIN (Movie Critic, New York Magazine): The director Greg
Mottola is light on his unhappy feet. Consider his last film, the hit
“Superbad,” written by Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg. It came on like a
raucous, end-of-high-school comedy about chasing girls, getting drunk
and crashing cars. And yes, it was that. But there was an undercurrent
of sadness and dread. It was closer to “American Graffiti” than
“American Pie,” with a whiff of “Blue Velvet.” As the dweebish teens got
drunk and stoned and edged closer to loosing their virginity, they
entered a world where all the grown ups were scarily unhinged.

“Adventureland,” which Mottola also wrote, is another coming-of-age
film, this time quiet and forlorn, yet still somehow light on its feet.
What could be funereal is carnivalesque, literally. The time is 1987.
The setting: a semi-dilapidated amusement park in Pittsburgh where the
recent college grad protagonist James, played by Jesse Eisenberg, is
forced to work when his alcoholic dad gets demoted and can’t underwrite
his summer in Europe. James is supposed to go graduate school in New
York in the fall, but for now, he’s marooned. The park, “Adventureland,”
is owned by a husband-wife team, played by those “Saturday Night Live”
loony minimalists Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig.

(Soundbite of movie, “Adventureland”)

Ms. KRISTEN WIIG (Actor): (As Paulette) This is James, and he’s applying
for a games job.

Mr. BILL HADER (Actor): (As Bobby) Games. Oh, great. Good. Let’s get you
set up.

Mr. JESSE EISENBERG (Actor): (As James Brennan) Actually, I’ll be - I
prefer a rides job, if it’s still open.

Mr. HADER: (As Bobby) You look more like a games guy. Plus, I already
got up a games application. So…

Mr. EISENBERG: (As James Brennan) Okay, you know…

Mr. HADER: (As Bobby) All right, my name is Bobby. Okay, rules: no
freebies, no free turns for your friends, no free upgrades, no free
food.

Mr. EISENBERG: (As James Brennan) So, just nothing is free here.

Mr. HADER: (As Bobby) Everybody has to pay for everything. And more
importantly, working in games, no one ever wins a giant panda.

Ms. WIIG: (As Paulette) We don’t have that many left.

Mr. HADER: (As Bobby) Cool. Can you hang me a T-shirt, please?

Mr. EISENBERG: (As James Brennan) I have a resume. I don’t know if you
still want to take a look at it.

Mr. HADER: (As Bobby) James – am I pronouncing that right? James?

Mr. EISENBERG: (As James Brennan) Yeah.

Mr. HADER: (As Bobby) James. Yeah.

Mr. HADER: (As Bobby) Okay. By accepting this T-shirt, you are…

Ms. WIIG: (As Paulette) Hired.

Mr. HADER: (As Bobby) Well, it’s usually a more of ceremonial thing.

Mr. EDELSTEIN: As James - I am pronouncing that right - Jesse Eisenberg
is never a droopy hangdog. His skinny frame lists from side to side as
if he’s unable to muster the will to show gravity who’s boss. He’s still
a virgin, which you’d think he’d keep to himself. But what makes him
both riveting and cringe worthy is his compulsive blabbing. There’s
nothing too personal he won’t say with a little prodding, or no
prodding. It gushes out: his sexual inexperience, his crushes, his heart
breaks, and oddly enough, women seem to find that attractive instead of
embarrassing, mainly because he’s different from the bad boys.

James falls hard for Em, a melancholy co-worker played by Kristen
Stewart. And she’s attracted back, only she’s secretly carrying on with
the park’s too-cool, married fix-it guy Connell, played by Ryan
Reynolds. The scenes in which James breathlessly confides in the older,
experienced Connell about his dates with Em are positively traumatizing.

Romantic triangles like this are commonplace in movies and soaps, but
Mottola plays old songs in new keys and strikes dissonant, unsettling
notes. All the characters are old enough to live on their own, but are
still at home, chaffing miserably at their dependence.

I could feel in my bones James’s self disgust as he lay on his old bed,
alienated from his parents’ values and lifestyle, yet comfortable, too,
because this is the world he knows - and because he doesn’t have to pay
the rent. At least James is in the world, still hopeful. Mottola gives
us a contrasting geek - Joel, played by Martin Starr, who cultivates a
nihilistic detachment, which might make him cool if defeat weren’t
written all over him.

“Adventureland” is a just a boy’s life. Many scenes incorporate Em’s
prospective, and Kristen Stewart seem more alive than she did in
“Twilight,” opposite the vampire hunk with the tall forehead. Her murky
emotions are amazingly clear.

The movie’s only disappointment - apart from too little Kristen Wiig -
is that Mottola writes the adult parts so broadly. It’s one thing for Em
to describe her stepmother as a status-obsessed witch, another to have
the actress telegraph that description in every line. But
“Adventureland” transcends its formula plot, because the central
metaphor, the amusement park, has an eerie resonance, offering little in
the way of adventure. It comes to stand for stagnationland, with the
shallow comforts of rides and games and suburban diversions rotting
before your eyes. The real roller coaster – life - is just outside the
park.

GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. You can
download podcasts of our show at our Web site, freshair.npr.org.
..COST:
$00.00
..INDX:
102702872
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

08:38

Ironic, Informal And Expressive, 'New Rules Of Language' Evolve Online

With all our texting, tweeting and social media posting, billions of people are using typed words for the kind everyday communication that used to happen more often in conversation. A new book argues that we’ve created a unique new language to reproduce the shades of meaning that we used to convey verbally. Our linguist Geoff Nunberg reflects on the new rules of language that he calls chat-speak.

42:00

Cave Diver Risks All To Explore Places 'Where Nobody Has Ever Been'

Underwater explorer and photographer Jill Heinerth has dived into unmapped caves deep in the earth, and beneath a giant iceberg. She's seen hidden creatures old as dinosaurs, and witnessed scenes of surreal beauty. Her work is so dangerous, over a hundred of her friends and colleagues have died in caves. She talks about the risks and rewards of her work.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue