Kathleen Kendel Radio

Leonard Cohen

Kathleen Kendel - Pacifica Radio

Interview with Leonard Cohen

WBAI Radio, New York City - 4 December 1974

1.) You Know Who I am / Interview / You Know Who I am
2.) Interview
3.) There Is A War
4.) Interview
5.) Who By Fire
6.) Stories Of The Street
7.) Interview
8.) Teachers
9.) Interview
10.) The Sisters of Mercy
11.) Sisters of Mercy (Judy Collins)
13.) Bird On The Wire
14.) Interview
15.) Bird On The Wire
16.) Interview
17.) A Singer Must Die
18.) Interview
19.) Joan Of Arc (Judy Collins)
20.) Interview
21.) The Unclean Start (poem)
22.) Interview
23.) Two Went To Sleep (poem)
24.) I tried To Leave You
filler
25.) Coming Back To You
26.) Interview in Sydney, Australia

Thanks to: Leonard Cohen Croatia

Title:
For he’s touched your perfect body with his mind / Leonard Cohen ; interviewed by Kathleen Kendel. -- Los Angeles : Pacifica Radio Archive, 1975.
Archive number: BC2630
Songwriter, novelist and poet discusses his life and career. Includes performances of his music by Judy Collins and Cohen.
Length: 1 reel (65 min.) : 7 1/2 ips, mono.
-0-
Recorded on: -0-
BROADCAST: WBAI, 197-.


Transcribed by Paula Jenkins, London, for A Thousand Kisses Deep website

(c) 1975, New Skin For The Old Ceremony Song Book
Courtesy of Speaking Cohen Site


»You Know Who I Am« (Live Songs)

Kathleen Kendel
You are listening to the music of Leonard Cohen, author of the song »Suzanne« as well as two novels and several volumes of poetry. My name is Kathleen Kendel and on December 4th I had the honour of speaking to Mr Cohen. In this next hour or so, we shall hear what he had to say then regarding his work and his feelings, and we shall hear some of the music he has written exemplifying those feelings.

»You Know Who I Am« continues

Leonard Cohen
I don’t feel any compulsion just to stand under the spotlight night after night or year after year --- Although it’s --- Let me put it this way, unless I have something to say or something new to disclose about my own work, I don’t feel that I just want to be a nightly entertainer. I don’t think there is any need for that. There are a lot of good singers around, I think. When one has something new and is in a particular kind of psychic condition, when you feel you want to reveal or display, exhibit whatever the thing is, that is the time to do it not out of habit. So I really haven’t, really haven’t felt that there is anything I could say to Americans for a long time.

Kathleen Kendel
Why is that --- Do you think that Americans ---

Leonard Cohen
I am not saying I have anything momentous to say at all. Do you know what I meant, this is just like sometimes you just don’t feel like going down to the market place because you just don’t feel you can handle the market place. I have felt that way for some years in the United States and it seems to be now that there is just a fortunate gathering of circumstances, the band and the new record and a feeling of energy and the desire to get out of the house and err ---

Kathleen Kendel
Did you feel like Americans were hostile toward you?

Leonard Cohen
Not at all, not at all.

Kathleen Kendel
A lot of people I speak to don’t even know who you are, which led me ---

Leonard Cohen
Yes.

Kathleen Kendel
...to believe --- I was very shocked, when I went to the concert and found you were like sold out for several days, a week, and, I mean, I live in my little world of Leonard Cohen and a lot of people don’t know who he is and felt that you would not draw such a large crowd. Were you surprised?

Leonard Cohen
I was surprised and of course very pleased that there are people who remembered the work and were still interested in it. I never reached for a mass audience in America. I know there are many, many people who have never heard of the work. In Europe of course, where there is a different tradition of music and different kinds of interest and where I have toured more frequently --- There is a different sort of audience. But in America, I knew there was a small audience of people who were interested and one of the reasons for this tour is to make contact with that audience, just to see them and to experience the audience and let them see what has become of me.

»There Is A War« (New Skin For The Old Ceremony)

Leonard Cohen
Well, the years go by and you change. I think in terms of the actual musical style of the record - a great deal of it is due to, whether it is a success or not, it is of course a matter of taste. --- I think it is quite successful. That comes from working with a man named John Lissauer ---
Kathleen Kendel
That’s the arranger ---
Leonard Cohen
The arranger, err, he was playing piano at the gig and certainly to my mind, the most interesting musical mind that I have come across in many years and is a very young man.
Kathleen Kendel
I found that album was very exciting. The arrangement to
Leonard Cohen
I think his work is going to be very important and will certainly surpass what he has done for me. This is a man who is extremely well acquainted with the music of all ages and all times and is completely fluent in all the idioms that you could want and I am very pleased to work with him.

»Who By Fire« (New Skin For The Old Ceremony)the music behind, it was really quite a change then.
»Stories Of The Street« (Songs Of Leonard Cohen)
 
Leonard Cohen
It is very hard to really untangle the real reasons why you do anything. I was always interested in music. It seemed to me I always played guitar. I always associated song and singing with some sort of nobility of spirit. The first songs I learnt were of the Workers Movement and I always thought that this was the best way to say the most important things, even though these things, I don’t mean the most ponderous or pompous things, I mean the important things like how you feel about things, how you feel about someone else. I always thought this was the way to do it.

»Teachers« (Songs Of Leonard Cohen)

Kathleen Kendel
Who are the poets and artists that you respect or who influenced you, or both?

Leonard Cohen
I think that is also very difficult to untangle influences because you represent the sum of everything you have seen or heard or experienced. The kind of language that I have liked, I have been influenced by the Bible and by Cervantes and by the old masters. The kind of sensibility I have been influenced, of course a great deal by the French writers, Camus and Sartre, the Irish poets, Yeats, the English poets and of course we had our own little group of poets in Montreal years back, all very fine. One man especially standing out, I think one of the finest writers in language, Irving Layton. I don’t think he is known down here at all.

Kathleen Kendel
I have only heard of him because of the things you have written, the poetry you have written. I often wondered who Layton was.

Leonard Cohen
Yeah, Layton is probably the most accomplished master of verse living today in English. Quite unknown down here.

Kathleen Kendel
I didn’t know the name and you wrote a few poems referring to Layton and I wondered who he was. I often wondered who Suzanne was and who Marianne was. The people whose names repeat often. I wonder who they are.

Leonard Cohen
Well, Suzanne and Marianne are real women and Irving Layton, his real name.

Kathleen Kendel
Would you relate the story of the »Sisters of Mercy« again. You told us a story before you sang it.

Leonard Cohen
That’s right. I always remember to dedicate this song to the girls for whom I wrote it and like a lot of my material, it's just completely documentary. It doesn’t concern higher metaphysical questions but it is an accurate reportage, as authentic and precise as I can make it, a description of exactly what happened on the interior landscape. I was in Edmonton doing a tour by myself of Canada, I guess this was around ’67, and I was walking... walking along one of the main streets of Edmonton. It was bitter cold and I knew no one and I passed these two girls in the doorway and they bade me stand in the doorway with them. Of course I did and sometime later, we found ourselves in my little hotel room in Edmonton and the three of us were going to go sleep together. Of course I had all kinds of erotic fantasies of what the evening might bring ---

Kathleen Kendel
How old were you at the time?

Leonard Cohen
Oh I was an adult. [laugh] I guess I was around my early 30s. [cough] And we went to bed together and I think we all jammed into this one small couch in this little hotel. And it became clear that wasn’t the purpose of the evening at all and at one point in the night, I found myself unable to sleep. I got up and by the moonlight, it was very, very bright and the moon was being reflected off the snow and my windows were very bright. I wrote that poem by the ice reflected moonlight while these women were sleeping and it was one of the few songs that I ever wrote from top to bottom without a line of revision. The words flowed and the melody flowed and by the time they woke up the next morning, it was done. I had this completed song to sing for them.

Kathleen Kendel
Did they like it?

Leonard Cohen
They did.

Kathleen Kendel
I’m glad.

»Sisters Of Mercy« (Songs Of Leonard Cohen)

»Sisters Of Mercy« (Judy Collins)

Leonard Cohen
I am always pleased when somebody sings a song of mine. In fact I never get over that initial... rush of happiness when someone says they are going to sing a song of mine. I always like it.

Kathleen Kendel
Do you think they all do a good job of it? Is there any particular one you like?

Leonard Cohen
I like the way Judy Collins does some of my songs. I can’t --- I can’t honestly say that I’ve heard my songs done in a way that totally satisfies me, I think with the exception perhaps of »Suzanne« by Judy Collins. And her treatment of the other songs are also very, very delicate and sensitive, but I don’t know if there are really versions of the songs that strike me the way I would like to be struck. Not that my own are that way either.

Kathleen Kendel
Well, how do you feel when lines are changed. Do you change the lines or does someone else do that?

Leonard Cohen
Sometimes a line gets changed. Sometimes one changes a line, sometimes another singer is not comfortable with a certain version of a song and they will change it. For instance Joan Baez, I have heard her sing »Suzanne« and she completely changes the song. She doesn’t like the metaphysical possibility of somebody having their bodies touched with somebody else’s mind, so, that offends her anti-clerical position. It sounds religious to her, it smacks of something that she doesn’t embrace. So she changes it around to, like, I don’t know, touched your perfect body with my thumb or something. I don’t know exactly what it is [laugh] but she moves it around that way. But that’s okay.

Kathleen Kendel
It’s okay?

Leonard Cohen
It’s okay, you know, because a song enters... enters the world and it gets changed like everything else, that’s okay. As long as there are more authentic versions. But a good song, I think, will get changed.

»Bird On The Wire« (Songs From A Room)

Kathleen Kendel
You changed some lines in »Bird On A Wire« from the first recording?
Leonard Cohen
Yeah, I did that with a great deal of thought.
Kathleen Kendel
I kind of preferred the previous lines.

Leonard Cohen
You liked the earlier ones?
Kathleen Kendel
It meant more to me, that’s why. But I figured Leonard Cohen wouldn’t have changed if it didn’t mean –
Leonard Cohen
No, I thought about that very, very carefully. But I am not certain whether I made an improvement. It’s just at some certain moments in one life that one is more comfortable with certain kinds of statement than not and --- [mumbling] but there is no reason and no guarantee that those changes are for the better. I will certainly review that song.
»Bird On The Wire«

Kathleen Kendel
One thing struck me when you were talking between the songs you were doing. Someone asked you to do »Dress Rehearsal Rag« and you refused to do it.

Leonard Cohen
Yeah. Well there are some songs which I never --- I never sing in public. I am not trying to be super-sensitive or coy about it, just that particular song I very rarely sing, to myself, to friends or any time. I wrote it, I taught it to Judy Collins and she recorded it and I have never, I never sung it in public and maybe I have sung it three or four times to myself in that last time. It comes out of... It is an authentic song I think. It comes out of my own experience but I am not interested in, I can’t somehow that I, I haven’t been able to release that song from its private area. I recorded it, I was surprised, I surprised myself that I recorded it. I am not happy with the recording. I think it has a number of flaws in it as a recording but I certainly, I don’t think I could ever do that under the spotlight.

Kathleen Kendel
You refer to yourself as a closet suicide.

Leonard Cohen
Well I, I, I --- One speculates about these things in private. I no longer do. And that is a song about suicide and I certainly don’t want to present myself as a potential suicide for any reason whatsoever. So it has dropped out of my singing landscape. I just don’t think about a song like that.

»A Singer Must Die« (New Skin For The Old Ceremony)

Kathleen Kendel
I had an impassioned argument with a woman who said that »Joan Of Arc« was a sexist song.
Leonard Cohen
It might be but I think it’s on the side of women. But more accurately I think it’s just a song about the total gift, of total giving and the total consummation of the spirit in that kind of experience. It takes in the whole shot to be man and woman.

Kathleen Kendel
That’s what I felt about the song. I tried to get her to listen to the song more carefully.
Leonard Cohen
Well, how did she feel that it violated the feminist point of view?

Kathleen Kendel
Well, she felt it was just another lusting man after a woman’s body. The fire wanting her body and becoming the bridegroom and enslaving her in marriage when she had been free as the soldier.

Leonard Cohen
Oh yeah... I suppose when you have a very strong political position that you can find enemies everywhere. It certainly was not the intention, and I don’t think the effect really, of that song --- I don’t think someone like Judy Collins for instance, who is very aware of the situation of women and of the complex problem of women’s liberation, is going to sing a song of the viewpoint of your friend.

»Joan Of Arc« (Judy Collins)

Kathleen Kendel
Are you writing more poetry or music?

Leonard Cohen
I’ve written a chunk of a novel ---

Kathleen Kendel
Oh that’s wonderful.

Leonard Cohen
...and that novel includes a full book of poems within the novel and I would like to finish that by next year.

Kathleen Kendel
Do you have anything in particular that you are especially fond of. A favourite poem or something that you wrote, something of your own that especially moved you?

Leonard Cohen
[Silence] Nothing comes to mind. One has a changing relationship with one’s own work, you know, pieces, pieces are favoured for some years and then are rejected or abandoned. Sometimes you feel you betrayed yourself, sometimes you feel this really stands for, you know, like children. Sometimes you are happy to see them represent you, sometimes you are really humiliated by what they do.

Kathleen Kendel
Would you read something?

Leonard Cohen
Something new?

Kathleen Kendel
Something new, that would be nice.

Leonard Cohen
Sure, let me get it.

Kathleen Kendel
Okay.

Leonard Cohen (reads slightly different version of a prose piece later published as »The Unclean Start« in Death Of A Lady’s Man, 1978, p. 85-86, and reprinted in Stranger Music, 1993, p.249-250)
I went down to the port with my wife. On the way down I accused her of continuing her relentless automatic assault on the centre of my being. I knew this was not wise. I meant only to rap her on the knuckles and direct her attention to her habitual drift toward bitchiness but I lost control. There is no control in these realms. I became a thug. I attacked her spirit. Her spirit armed itself and retaliated massively. I think we were talking about valises or which of us travelled the lightest. A truce was investigated briefly by shabby deputies neither of which had the authority to begin the initiative. You always carry something extra, a shopping bag, something of string and paper that can’t be checked. I’m glad you didn’t pack for me. You always slow me down. I can’t be an acrobat when you’re around. You’re sandpaper. I can’t be a dancer. I’m dead when you are around. You kill. It is your nature. It is your nature. Observe your nature. Observe your nature. The shoemaker looked up at us as we passed his open doorway. This humiliation made me furious. I shoved a razorblade into her nerves. Her eyes changed colour. This was done by saying Jesus Christ, quickening my step slightly and minutely moving my jaw, rejecting the essence of her totally and forever. If she went down quickly I would nurse her back to love in time to get her blessings before the boat came in. But why should I, she didn’t rub my back when I threw my shoulder out, even when I asked her three times. And why should she since I had defeated her smile over and over. And why should I since she was the enemy of my freedom and the smiling moon over my gradual death. And why should she since I hated her because her beauty died. Why should I because there must be a woman in Jerusalem or beside me on the airplane. Half asleep Old John saw us but there was no humiliation since he didn’t recognize me anymore and I no longer greeted him. Captain Mad Body saw us but it didn’t matter because he was mute and crazy and lived on the port and knew the shames of everyone. We were on the port, in plain sunlight between the masts and the shops. The shit piled up in the One Heart which is the engine of our energy. We are married: there is only one heart. On common ground the armoured spirits tried to embrace but they both fell down paralysed. Pain removed the world. They felt for the organs of sex but they were gone. They reached for the postcard of old beauty but it was gone. There was no war, no peace, no world, the punishment of marriage spoiled. There is no Armageddon here. And fuck you. And fuck you. The horn, the boat was coming. I would have to travel without blessings in the collapsed world. That’s the boat. I won’t accuse you of ruining my trip. I won’t accuse you of ruining your absence. [Later published version continues with eight more sentences and four pages of commentary.]

Kathleen Kendel
That’s from your new novel?

Leonard Cohen
Yes I think so. Just something in the midst of all those blackened pages.

Kathleen Kendel
It’s really nice. It reminded me of a poem that you wrote a long time ago, I guess, called »Two Slept Together«.

Leonard Cohen
Oh yes, very good, very good.

Kathleen Kendel
Which is one of my favourite things. It reminded me of that very much.

Leonard Cohen
Very good, very good. That’s good pinpointing.

Kathleen Kendel
It also reminded me in a way of one of the songs on your new album, »I Tried To Leave You«.
Leonard Cohen
That comes out of that, I am very – That’s the arena that I am working in, really what happens between men and women
Kathleen Kendel
It’s a very topical poem in a way.
Leonard Cohen (reads poem »Two Went to Sleep« originally published in Parasites of Heaven, 1966, and reprinted in Selected Poems 1956-1968, 1968)

Two went to sleep
almost every night
one dreamed of mud
one dreamed of Asia
visiting a zeppelin
visiting Nijinsky
Two went to sleep
one dreamed of ribs
one dreamed of senators
Two went to sleep
two travellers
The long marriage
in the dark
The sleep was old
the travellers were old
one dreamed of oranges
one dreamed of Carthage
Two friends asleep
years locked in travel
Goodnight my darling
as the dreams waved goodbye
one travelled lightly
one walked through water
visiting a chessgame
visiting a booth
always returning
to wait out the day
One carried matches
one climbed a beehive
one sold an earphone
one shot a German
Two went to sleep
every sleep went together
wandering away
from an operating table
one dreamed of grass
one dreamed of spokes
one bargained nicely
one was a snowman
one counted medicine
one tasted pencils
one was a child
one was a traitor
visiting heavy industry
visiting the family
Two went to sleep
none could foretell
one went with baskets
one took a ledger
one night happy
one night in terror
Love could not bind them
Fear could not either
they went unconnected
they never knew where
always returning
to wait out the day
parting with kissing
parting with yawns
visiting Death til
they wore out their welcome
visiting Death til
the right disguise worked


»I Tried To Leave You« (New Skin For The Old Ceremony)

Leonard Cohen
I love hearing my songs on the radio.


Transcribed in March 2005.
Special thanks to Marie Mazur for corrections - connect to her site Speaking Cohen, archive of many articles & interviews.
Transcribed and reprinted with Leonard Cohen's permission. Every effort has been made to trace the copyright holders of the photographs but some were unreachable. We'd be grateful if the authors concerned would contact us.