Saturday, May 19, 2012

Talking Out of Turn #29: Leonard Cohen (1984)

Leonard Cohen

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show, On the Arts, at CJRT-FM in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to artists from all fields. In 1994, after I had gone to CBC, I had an idea to collate an interview anthology from some of the more interesting discussions I'd had with guests from that period. Since they all took place during the Eighties, I thought I could edit the collection into an oral history of the decade from some of its most outspoken participants. The book was assembled from interview transcripts and organized thematically. I titled it Talking Out of Turn: Revisiting the '80s. With financial help from the Canada Council, I shaped the individual pieces into a number of pertinent themes relevant to the decade. By the time I began to contact publishers, though, the industry was starting to change. At one time, editorial controlled marketing. Now the reverse was taking place. Acquisition editors, who once responded to an interesting idea for a book, were soon following marketing divisions concerned with whether the person doing it was hot enough to sell it.

Tom Fulton, the host of On the Arts at CJRT-FM
For a few years, I flogged the proposal to various publishers but many were worried that there were too many people from different backgrounds (i.e. Margaret Atwood sitting alongside Oliver Stone). Another publisher curiously chose to reject it because, to them, it appeared to be a book about me promoting my interviews (as if I was trying to be a low-rent Larry King) rather than seeing it as a commentary on the decade through the eyes of the guests. All told, the book soon faded away and I turned to other projects. However, when recently uncovering the original proposal and sample interviews, I felt that maybe some of them could find a new life on Critics at Large.

When we spoke to poet and singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen, he had just come out of a relatively long period of contemplation that dated back to 1979. The culmination of that hermitage was a collection of prayers, psalms, meditations, and contemplative texts he wrote called Book of Mercy (McClelland & Stewart, 1984). Little did any of us know, perhaps not even Cohen himself, that shortly after the publication of this book, his music career would once again catapult him back into the larger public arena.

kc: This new work, Book of Mercy, seems like a culmination of a long, quiet and contemplative period.

lc: That's a good way to put it. It certainly wasn't a book conceived out of choice. You don't find yourself sitting down deciding to write a book of prayers. Sometimes the only voice you can find is the voice of prayer. So it's that kind of book. I found myself in a contemplative predicament for a number of years and I studied and looked into these matters. This is the book that came out of that activity.

kc: What prompted this activity?

lc: I think you just find yourself shattered without any other recourse but to address the source of things. Everybody finds themselves at that place from time to time. 

kc: So this is the kind of book that you can only write when you've had some years to consider those sources?

lc: I think that's true. I think you have to have the experience of loss and misdirection, or a sense of failure to do this.

kc: That's curious. When I was reading it, I could feel with each prayer a stripping away of illusion.

lc: That's what I was trying to do. After all, you're not on the stand when you are praying. You can't come with any excuses (laughs). And you don't really have a deep belief in your own opinions any longer, or your constructions about the way things are. That's why you pray. You don't have a prayer (laughs). You're trying to locate a source of strength that you just don't command. 

kc: But didn't you sometimes find that strength earlier in your career through your songs, poems and novels? Or has that just changed?

lc: Let me put it this way. When I was operating an elevator once in New York, at least ten people a day used to make that joke, "How's business? Up and down?" And I think that's the way it is.

kc: Do you think though that your past work has prepared you, too, for things you find yourself contemplating now?  

lc: Yes. I think that's very true. In fact, in a tiny way you find that your work becomes prophetic for yourself. I don't mean prophetic in the big sense. But you find that you write about things that haven't happened yet. And they unfold as you have written them. 

kc: Perhaps the hardest part of that process is coming to terms with being emotionally naked.

lc: I don't think those are risks that you choose. You find yourself in the predicament where you can't use any of your clothing. You can't use any of your armor. It doesn't mean that one shouldn't have clothing or armor. You need that to operate in this veil of tears...

Leonard Cohen performing "Hallelujah"

kc: ....But you're almost suggesting that your hand gets forced.

lc: Yeah (laughs). You can't use any of the things you're used to using.

kc: When you started Book of Mercy was there at least a conscious attempt to write a series of psalms?

lc: I had a secret hope that I might make something out of it. The activity was so intense that I didn't end up with plans for it as it was being written. From time to time, I thought, you know, maybe I'm still a writer and maybe this is a book, but most of the time it was conceived from a place where you can't plan.

kc: How much of an influence did the Torah have on the collection?

lc: I was studying a lot at that time especially the last four years. That kind of writing has always touched me more than any other kind of writing. Those rhythms definitely crept into the style of it. Some people have criticized the book on that level saying that the language is too antique. But it's the tradition I grew up in and it's natural for me to speak that way. We do have a devotional language that we've learned although I haven't stayed totally within that kind of expression. But Book of Mercy has those echoes certainly.

kc: How connected then are these prayers to your music given how the language of the Torah has influenced so much of your music's rhythms?

lc: Those are considerations after the fact if it's your habit to express yourself in rhythms and with musical qualities as it is mine. At the same time, I was writing a number of songs which I'm soon going to put out in an album [Various Positions]. But Book of Mercy, unlike an album of songs, is not a book of poems. It's something else. I think it would only be accessible to somebody who is in a kind of trouble. It's also a very tricky kind of trouble to promote it. Here I am peddling a book in the market place because you want the book to survive. But I know that it can only be useful to somebody who needs to open their mouth in that kind of way. 

CodaI was aware during our talk that Cohen seemed to be contemplating (and accumulating) more and more unexpressed thoughts as the interview was progressing. So after our chat ended, he asked if he could play me something that he felt might best fully answer some of the questions that the interview kept raising. He was my last guest that morning so all I had was my lunch waiting. Since I had my whole life to eat lunch, but little time to spend with Leonard Cohen, we went into the control room that had just been vacated by my technical producer. He handed me a cassette that was obviously a promo tape with no writing on it and asked me to fast forward it to the concluding song on side two. As I cued the tape titled Various Positions, I brought up the volume on the control board while he lounged back in his chair as I did in mine. As the song began gently, he looked over to me and said, "I think this song best answers your questions during our talk." What he played was "Hallelujah." Once it ended, I gave him back the tape, but I forget now what my initial response was. We shook hands and I thanked him for the opportunity to hear this new unreleased song. After escorting him to the door, I went to heat up my lasagna never considering that the song I first heard with Leonard Cohen would turn out one day to be such an enduring one.

Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa). His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. With John Corcelli, Courrier is currently working on another radio documentary for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney.

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