Leonard Cohen: Archive interview – ‘Cohen’s New Skin’ (1975)

❉ A vintage Melody Maker interview, as Cohen emerged from a “washed up, confused, directionless time”.

“America has its own version of the blues. What I do is the European blues. That is, the soul music of that sensibility – White Soul. Even though Europe has its own version of bubblegum.”

LOS ANGELES: “For a while, I didn’t think there was going to be another album. I pretty well felt that I was washed up as a songwriter because it wasn’t coming anymore.

“Actually, I should have known better, it takes me a long time to compose a song,” reflected songwriter/poet/performer Leonard Cohen in between sets of a sell-out engagment at Los Angeles’ Troubadour club.

Over the last few years, Cohen has been engmatic in public, attempting to shy away from interviews and only leaving his music and poetry to speak for himself. However, in the warm environment of Southern California, he had a change of heart and decided to talk to the press and reveal the true side of his personality.

“I used to be petrified with the idea of going on the road and presenting my work. I often felt that the risks of humiliation were too wide. But with the help of my last producer, Bob Johnston, I gained the self-confidence I felt was necessary. My music now is much more highly refined.

“When you are again in touch with yourself and you feel a certain sense of health, you feel somehow that the prison bars are lifted, and you start hearing new possibilities in your work. The previous album Live Songs represented a very confused and directionless time. The thing I like about it is that it documents this phase very clearly. I’m very interested in documentation and often feel that I want to produce a whole body of work that will cover a wide range of topics and themes.

“Not necessarily personal reflections, but a sort of look at the last two decades. My first book was published at 20, and that was 20 years ago.”

“I admire Dylan’s work tremendously, especially the later work. I also like Van Morrison very much, including his superb Veedon Fleece effort. I’m always interested in what Joni Mitchell is doing.”

Since Cohen is a perfectionist, many have felt that he compromised his artistry by moving into music to reach a broader base of people than his books. Leonard looks at it differently.

“I don’t have any reservations about anything I do. I always played music. When I was 17, I was in a country music group called the Buckskin Boys. Writing came later, after music. I put my guitar away for a few years, but I always made up songs. I never wanted my work to get too far away from music. Ezra Pound said something very interesting, ‘When poetry strays too far from music, it atrophies. When music strays too far from the dance it atrophies’.”

In America, Cohen still remains a cultist figure, with fans lining up for hours and hours in advance of ticket sales. But still his audience is a mere fraction compared with the kind of widespread appeal that he’s enjoying throughout Europe and Great Britain. “I have occasionally thought about the differences in my audiences. I think that maybe my music fits into the European tradition.

“America has its own version of the blues. What I do is the European blues. That is, the soul music of that sensibility – White Soul. Even though Europe has its own version of bubblegum.”

In his latest work Cohen has seemed to take on a less personal tone, even though some of the works were started years ago; some are even five years old. “I work very slowly and abandoned hope for many of them. However, last summer I went to Ethiopia looking for a suntan. It rained, including in the Sinai desert, but through this whole period I had my little guitar with me, and it was then I felt the songs emerging – at least, the conclusions that I had been carrying in manuscript form for the last four or five years, from hotel room to hotel room.

“I must say I’m pleased with the album. It’s good. I’m not ashamed of it and am ready to stand by it. Rather than think of it as a masterpiece, I prefer to look at it as a little gem.

“My tunes often deal with a moral crisis. I often feel myself a part of such a crisis and try to relate it in song. There’s a line in a poem I wrote that sums this up perfectly: ‘My betrayals are so fresh they still come with explanations.'”

“The original cover was a 16th century picture from an alchemical text depicting two angels in an embrace. Columbia felt unclothed angels were too much for the American public. A quarter of a million copies have been sold in Europe with this cover and there was not a single reference made to it. Since I designed it, I finally won the battle with Columbia, and they are reinstating the old album cover with a modesty jacket.

“With the exception of these minor problems, I’ve been very happy with the album and my present tour. I am surprised though to see so many young faces in the audience. Maybe it’s a sign of a growing awareness, and I’m pleased, to say the least, that these individuals are taking an interest in my work.”

Between sets, Leonard was happily interrupted with the appearance of old friends such as Phil Spector and Bob Dylan, who wanted to wish Cohen well during the hectic booking. What does Cohen think of his old heroes and the contemporary music scene today?

“In the early days I was trained as a poet by reading English poets like Lorca and Brecht, and by the invigorating exchange between other writers in Montreal at the time. Now I admire Dylan’s work tremendously, especially the later work. I also like Van Morrison very much, including his superb Veedon Fleece effort. I’m always interested in what Joni Mitchell is doing.”

Much of Cohen’s work deals with such themes as betrayal, dealing with emotional hardships, or the re-establishment of a sense of identity that is fading in this impersonated world. He often seems to like to deal with biblical references whenever possible to add a majestic quality to his tunes.

“My tunes often deal with a moral crisis. I often feel myself a part of such a crisis and try to relate it in song. There’s a line in a poem I wrote that sums this up perfectly: ‘My betrayals are so fresh they still come with explanations.’ As far as the use of Biblical characters in such tunes as ‘Story Of Issac’, and ‘Joan Of Arc’, it was not a matter of choice. These are the books that were placed in my hand when I was developing my literary tastes.”

Another interesting use of Cohen’s music appeared in Robert Altman’s film’ McCabe And Mrs Miller’. “There’s an interesting story regarding that piece of work. Director Robert Altman actually built the film around my music. The music was already written, and when he heard it he wanted to ask me to let him use it. I was in Nashville at the time and had just gone to the movies to see a film called. Brewster McCloud.

“I thought it was a fine movie. That night I was in the studio and received a call from Hollywood. It was from Bob Altman saying he would like to use my music in a film. Quite honestly, I said, ‘I don’t know your work, could you tell me some of the films you’ve done?’ He said Mash, and I said that’s fine, I understand that’s quite popular, but I’m really not familiar with it. Then he said there was a film I’ve probably never seen called Brewster McCloud. I told him I just came out of the movie and thought it was an extraordinary film, use any music of mine.”


❉ Source: ‘Cohen’s New Skin’, Harvey Kubernik, ‘Melody Maker’, 1 March 1975. http://www.rocksbackpages.com/Library/Article/leonard-cohen-cohens-new-skin

❉ Reproduced for review purposes according to Section 30 (Criticism, review and news reporting) of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 (CDPA)

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