DATE January 1, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen talks about his poems
and music and his collection of poems called "Book of Longing"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Happy New Year.
Today we're concluding our holiday series of music interviews with Leonard
Cohen, a great songwriter who's incomparable when it comes to expressing
despair and cynicism. At the same time, there's a romantic longing and a
spiritual quality to many of his songs. As we'll hear, he spent five years in
retreat at a Zen Center. Cohen became famous in the late '60s and early '70s
for songs like "Suzanne," "Bird on a Wire" and "Famous Blue Raincoat." He
published poems and novels before he started recording, and last May he
published a collection of poems called "Book of Longing." Many of them were
written at the Zen Center. In 2006, a performance film was released called
"I'm Your Man," featuring several singers doing his songs. It recently came
out on DVD. There was some not-so-good news in 2005. Cohen filed a lawsuit
alleging that his former manager defrauded him of millions of dollars, leaving
him with only $150,000. Although he won a multimillion-dollar settlement,
it's unclear whether he'll be able to ever collect any of it. I spoke with
Leonard Cohen in May and asked him to read a poem from "Book of Longing." Part
of this poem is also a song lyric.
Mr. LEONARD 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.
(Reading) "You came to me this morning and you handled me like meat. You'd
have to live alone 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.
I'm just another snowman standing in the rain and sleet, who loved you with
his frozen love, his secondhand 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'm still into that a thousand
GROSS: That's Leonard Cohen, and here he is singing the part that's meant to
(Soundbite from Leonard Cohen's "A Thousand Kisses Deep")
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 ditch it all to stay
alive, a thousand kisses deep."
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: That's Leonard Cohen from his CD "Ten New Songs" and the poem is
published in his new book, "Book of Longing," which is a collection of his
Leonard Cohen, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Mr. COHEN: Well, thank you.
GROSS: It's so great to have you on the show. You know, there's an
expression "Boogie Street" in that poem. What does "Boogie Street" meant to
Mr. COHEN: 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-yearlong 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 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 the 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're always coming up
against someone else. So in a certain sense, coming up against someone else,
all the time, is Boogie Street.
GROSS: That must be really hard. I mean, I think of you as a fairly--your
reputation is being fairly solitary and reclusive. So we always think of
Mr. COHEN: Yes, I'm...
GROSS: ...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, it's designed to overthrow that appetite for privacy.
GROSS: Hmm. Now, you have this new book and I think you're working on a
forthcoming record. In part, the way I read it in the news stories because
while you were at the Zen Center for several years and your career was on
hiatus, your manager swindled you out of millions of dollars and left you with
Mr. COHEN: Yeah, some guys have all the luck.
GROSS: It almost seems like a Zen Cone or something. You know what I mean.
You go to the Zen Center to like retreat from part of the world, and you know,
the material world, and the material world was actually stolen from you while
you were there.
Mr. COHEN: That's true. It's enough to put a dent in your mood.
GROSS: Well, did being at the Zen Center for that long help you deal with
Mr. COHEN: I don't know what helped me deal with it. I guess it just hasn't
hit me yet, but it just happened, you know. I still was eating every day.
There's still a roof over my head. You know, I don't have the savings or the,
you know, that kind of sense of security that I had before but, you know, I
live the same kind of life most the time, and my son said something really
wonderful to me when this whole thing hit. He said, `Listen, Dad. Do what
you have to do, but don't do it for us because we've had a great life and we
can take care of ourselves.' So there really--except for the hassle, you know,
of dealing with lawyers and forensic accountants and tax specialists, the
actual, you know, blow wasn't all that severe.
GROSS: My guest is Leonard Cohen, and he has a new book of poems. It's
called "Book of Longing."
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's certain poems that really do lie very gracefully on
the page. For instance, to take an obvious example, if 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 of mine
that are always candidates for a song. Sometimes they don't make it and
sometimes they do.
GROSS: Well, take a song like "Famous Blue Raincoat." I think that is such an
extraordinary lyric and that it works as a poem. I mean, it's just so
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, the melody and the lyric arises but, you know, the
lyric doesn't deserve that kind of expression, and you're left with a good
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
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, and...
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
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,
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 that, you know, even if the
situation does not result in any catastrophic splits, as it does in a "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
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 from Leonard Cohen's "Famous Blue Raincoat")
Mr. COHEN: (Singing) "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. Then 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 regards..."
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: That's Leonard Cohen singing his song, "Famous Blue Raincoat." You
know, before we heard that song, you said that you were kind of, what, exempt
from that world of, like, sexual passion now and jealousy and all that because
Mr. COHEN: Well, it's not exempt but one is not, you know, because one is
not as welcome...
Mr. COHEN: ...into the garden.
GROSS: You know, it 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. That's right.
GROSS: What a great line!
Mr. COHEN: Yeah.
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 the 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: We'll talk more with Leonard Cohen after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is songwriter and singer Leonard Cohen. His recent book of
poems is called "Book of Longing."
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. 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 is 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...
Mr. COHEN: ...which was last April, April the 21st, a lovely evening I spent
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 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 have 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 the kind of
feelings, the kind of superficial feelings I had. There are 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: Our interview with Leonard Cohen was recorded last May. We'll hear
the rest of it in the second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite from Leonardo Cohen's "Closing Time")
Mr. COHEN: (Singing) "Ah, we're drinking and we're dancing, and the band is
really happening. And the Johnny Walker wisdom running high. And my very
sweet companion, she's the angel of compassion. She's rubbing half the world
against her thigh, and every drinker, every dancer lifts a happy face to thank
her. The fiddler fiddles something so sublime."
Mr. COHEN and Unidentified Backup Singers #1: (Singing in unison) "All the
women tear their blouses off. And the men they dance on the polka dots. And
it's partner found, it's partner lost. And it's hell to pay when the fiddler
Mr. COHEN: (Singing) "It's closing time."
Backup Singers #1: (Singing in unison) "Closing time, closing time, closing
Mr. COHEN and Backup Singers #1: (Singing in unison) "Yeah, women tear their
blouses off. And the men they dance on the polka dots. It's partner found,
partner lost. It's hell to pay when the fiddler stops..."
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Coming up, Leonard Cohen reads the lyrics to a song he hasn't yet recorded.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terri Gross.
We're concluding our holiday series of recent music interviews with Leonard
Cohen, a songwriter, singer, poet and novelist. I spoke with him last spring
when his collection of poems, "Book of Longing," was published. Many of them
were written at a Zen monastery in California where he lived for five years.
I'd 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. And there's a drawing of my house at the bottom of the page.
And in that upper window is a window that I was looking out of when I finished
the poem and wrote the last few lines, a third story window overlooking the
Park de Portugal. It's a poem called "Titles."
(Reading) "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 ten thousand nights I'd spent alone. From a third story
window above the Park de 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 cancelled by the white noise of winter. I am neither the
mind, the intellect nor the silent voice within. That's also cancelled. And
now gentle reader, in what name, in whose name do you come to idle with me in
these luxurious and dwindling realms of aimless privacy?"
GROSS: That's a great poem. It's "Titles" from Leonard Cohen's new
collection of poems, "Book of Longing." You know, I just particularly like the
part because I think this is really funny. "I hated everyone but I acted
generously and no one found me out."
Mr. COHEN: That's true though.
GROSS: And that was in the monastery that you're talking about.
Mr. COHEN: Yeah. It's not the whole story, but it's enough of the story to
justify the 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 clearer and
higher voice. Your voice has deepened and roughened over the years, and we
can hear it when you speak. You can hear it in your records from the late
'80s on. Has it changed because of cigarettes?
Mr. COHEN: Well, yeah, about, you know, 500 tons of whiskey and, you know, a
million cigarettes, 50, 60 years of smoking. But I don't smoke anymore.
GROSS: What--how did you stop?
Mr. COHEN: Well, I had my throat examined. I was having trouble getting the
smoke down, you know, so I thought I'd better have my throat examined. And,
you know, 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. And actually he put my throat up on a screen. I couldn't
really quite follow. It didn't look that interesting. But he said--I said,
`Well, OK, do I have it?' And he said, `No, but you're on the royal road.' So,
I thought I'd better give up the smokes.
GROSS: How hard was it?
Mr. COHEN: It's getting harder now. It's been about five years. You're
never really cured of that addiction, I guess, because now I noticed when
someone lights up, I have a special interest that I thought I no longer had.
GROSS: When you were growing up, you came from a family that had a kind of
deeply religious background. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think your
maternal grandfather was a rabbi and your paternal grandfather was very active
in the Jewish community?
Mr. COHEN: Yes, I came out of a very conservative, what they call,
traditional rather than orthodox. It's an expression of Judaism that looks
toward orthodoxy, but doesn't quite embrace it. But it was a thoroughly
Jewish home and fairly good education. But my mother's father was a great
scholar. He was known as the prince of grammarians, and he wrote a lexicon of
Hebrew homonyms and a thesaurus of talmudic interpretation. And my father's
father was a very competent community organizer and founded a number of
organizations that still exist and around which much of the Jewish community
in Montreal was organized.
GROSS: Were they teacher figures for you when you were a boy?
Mr. COHEN: Not so much. My grandfather, my mother's father who lived with
us just before he died, he was senile at the time. And he was a very warm,
warm figure who, you know, went slowly mad in the house. So, an impressive
figure. I'd like to write about him one day, but I haven't. But not real
influences in my work, but as men, of course, of course, they had some
influence on me.
GROSS: So, it was one of your grandfathers that went mad?
Mr. COHEN: Well, my mother's father became increasingly senile as he lived
GROSS: I see.
Mr. COHEN: And, you know, he'd come into the kitchen and, you know, he had a
cane and he'd set the cane on the edge of the table and he'd just sweep
everything off with it, you know, and say, you know, `Someone's stolen my
watch.' And then he'd, you know, defecate in the hallway and wipe himself with
a curtain. So, it became very distressing, especially for my mother.
GROSS: You had to see somebody who'd been like this, you know, rabbi...
Mr. COHEN: Well, my mother said, you know, people came from a hundred miles
around to hear him speak when he was the prince of Bulliva of a Yeshiva in
GROSS: Did you ever, when you were young, expect to seriously study Judaism?
Mr. COHEN: I would like to study Judaism. I feel that my own Jewish
education was really quite superficial from a certain point of view. Although
I think the values were very clear and were presented very clearly, there were
aspects of the whole tradition that were not emphasized. And, you know, I've
come to those areas myself as I've grown older, but I'd like to go deeper.
GROSS: My guest is Leonard Cohen. We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is songwriter and singer Leonard Cohen. His recent book of
poems is called "Book of Longing."
Do you feel--as a songwriter, do you feel a connection to say Irving Berlin,
Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, those guys, that kind of classic American popular
Mr. COHEN: Oh, well, I think they're better than I am. You know, I just
think they know more about music. Someone like Cole Porter whose rhymes are,
you know, much more elegant than mine. I have to--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 rise to
the level of those great songwriters.
GROSS: It's funny, you know, you have one recording of Irving Berlin's song
"Always," and the last three lines are a lyric that you added of your own.
Mr. COHEN: Right.
GROSS: And it's such 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, not just for a
day," you know, wait, "not for just..."
Mr. COHEN: Obsessive beautiful song.
GROSS: Yeah. And so, but your last few lines--take this, you know, really
lovely sweet song, and suddenly it's like really dark and sour.
Mr. COHEN: You can depend on me for that.
GROSS: Exactly. I'm just going to recite your last few lines if you don't
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." And that's like...
Mr. COHEN: That's good.
GROSS: It's great.
Mr. COHEN: That's really good.
GROSS: But it's like when I hear that, I think of you almost as having sat
down and said, `Irving Berlin is great. This is one of the differences
between me and him in our sensibilities.'
Mr. COHEN: Well, of course, the treatment of the song, you know, was 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 completely different
kind of--a kind of drunken version of it.
GROSS: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. And do you think that you are more kind of cynical on
some of your songwriting than any of those kind of classic guys would ever be?
Mr. COHEN: I--you know, that's a question I've just been asking myself in
the past few days because somehow I've 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. So, in those final moments you really don't chose. You just--you
just, you know, you go where the smoke is and the flames and the glow, where
the fire, you know, you just go there.
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 this set, he said, she dances all the time at this
strip club. And she's always dressed as like a schoolgirl in like the pleated
skirt and 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. See, if I really
remembered the conditions which produced good songs, I'd try to establish
them. So I don't really know. Most of them, you know, begin on napkins or in
the notebook that I, you know, carry around with me all the time. And I
wanted to write a tough song, you know. I had the feeling that, you know, I
was Humphrey Bogart or some--I began in France or Paris at a cafe in the 14th
around...(unintelligible)...and, you know, I don't know who I thought I was at
the time, what it was, you know, somebody who you couldn't put anything over
on. I think that was the mood, you know, that I'm a guy, you know, I'm
incredibly gullible in my ordinary civilian life. But as I was sitting there,
I was a guy who you couldn't put anything over on.
GROSS: Well, here's "Everybody Knows" Leonard Cohen recorded in 1988.
(Soundbite from Leonard Cohen's "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."
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: We'll talk more with Leonard Cohen after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is the songwriter and singer Leonard Cohen.
I want to ask you a couple of questions about beauty. There's 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 the 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 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
were 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. I still stagger and fall. Of course, I have that, it just happens to
me all the time. And, you know, 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 really can be interpreted.
So you have to get quite covert as you get older, you know, or you have to
find some avuncular way, you know, of responding. But still you just really
are just, you know, 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. 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've asked this question to a lot of people that are, you
know, certifiably beautiful, who don't feel that they're beautiful. I think
this is sort of platitude. It's a common experience. 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 deserved the
love that we expect. So when it comes to us, you know, we can legitimately
understand that as an exception to the rule.
GROSS: But you never felt like...
Mr. COHEN: There were times that I thought I was good-looking. You know, I
don't know about how you feel. But 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. And, you know, since we're
in a, you know, a competitive world, especially the world of love and romance,
you know, one never feels really up to it. Now and then I have, you know, but
most of the time, I haven't.
GROSS: But you've never felt like, oh, there's some kind of almost like
double standard was going on where you responded to beauty and yet felt that
in your physical presence didn't embody that yourself?
Mr. COHEN: Oh, yeah. I've felt, you know, like a snail, like a worm, like a
slug, you know, many times.
Mr. COHEN: I think the last time was this morning at breakfast. I'd like to
recite the lyric of one of my more recent poems, if we have a moment. This is
how it goes.
(Reading) "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 the 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 a 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 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 a 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.
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 a street. It's going to be September now for
many years to come. Many hearts suggesting 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 let's drink
to when we'll meet. I'll be waiting on this corner where there used to be a
GROSS: That's fantastic. And that's a song too?
Mr. COHEN: Yeah, it's a song. I wrote it with Anjani. I got the tune, I
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: Could you give us a sense of what the tune is like?
Mr. COHEN: No, I need a keyboard to do that...
Mr. COHEN: ...because the keyboard has the like descending chords while, you
know, the vocal line remains constant.
GROSS: Yeah, and that poem just gets to one of the things that I love about
your writing, which is at the same time you're kind of trapped in the world,
but smart enough to know you're trapped. Do you know what I mean? 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. 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 last May. His recent collection of poems is
called "Book of Longing." The Leonard Cohen documentary and concert tribute
film, "I'm Your Man," is now out on DVD.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
All of us at FRESH AIR wish you a happy and very healthy new year.
(Soundbite from Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah")
Mr. COHEN: (Singing) "Now, I've heard there was a secret chord that David
played and it pleased the Lord. But you don't really care for music, do you?
It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift, the
baffled king composing hallelujah."
Mr. COHEN and Unidentified Backup Singers #2: (Singing in unison)
"Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah."
Mr. COHEN: (Singing) "Your faith was strong, but you needed proof. You saw
her bathing on the roof. Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew her. She
tied you to a kitchen chair. She broke your throne, she cut your hair. And
from your lips, she drew the hallelujah."
Mr. COHEN and Backup Singers #2: (Singing in unison) "Hallelujah,
hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah."
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