1992 Video: Leonard Cohen On His Atrocious Voice, Dylan, Ice-T, Songwriting, Love & Where’s The Beef

Cohen On Cohen: The 1992 Interview

This is a thoughtful, intriguing, and inexplicably obscure Leonard Cohen interview on video. The somewhat garbled Google translation of the on-site description of the video follows:

07/09/2008 – Tomorrow enter the Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen in Bruges, it’s 15 years since he last toured it. You can revisit the interview that journalist Serge Simonart with Cohen in 1992. He had just moved into a new album: “The Future”. “I want to hear People that can not sing” says Cohen. The story of a life will be heard in one voice – that’s why he loves Leadbelly, Dylan and Ice T and he will not mind if his own voice Liberation “terrible”s ets. Cohen also tells how he deceived when Dylan asked him how long Cohen had worked on the song “Hallelujah”. It continues with the central myth of our time, the rhetoric of the extreme left and right, and about love.

Cohen On Cohen Highlights

  • The interview to which the recently published post, Leonard Cohen “Couldn’t Care Less” That Joan Baez “Brutally Violated” His Song Suzanne, referred is part of the Cohen On Cohen video.
  • In chronological order, the songs, with video accompaniment, woven into the interview are “First We Take Manhattan,” “Closing Time,” “Chelsea Hotel #2,” “Take This Waltz,” “The Stranger Song,” “Sisters of Mercy,” “Democracy,” and “Dance Me To The End Of Love.”
  • Among the pre-recorded video segments included within Cohen On Cohen, the most interesting is the sequence from Ladies and Gentlemen… Mr. Leonard Cohen, filmed in 1964, in which the then 30 year old Cohen banters with a makeup artist.

  • Among the pre-recorded videos, the second most interesting is the set of scenes from Robert Altman’s 1971 classic, “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” which featured three of Cohen’s songs, “The Stranger Song,” “Sisters Of Mercy,” and “Winter Lady.”

  • Leonard opens the interview with remarks on the “news that [he] had a terrible voice,” adding that recently Libération had proclaimed he had an “atrocious” voice. He follows that with the matter of fact observation that

Well, you can’t expect any mercy from Libération.

  • He explains his preference for a “guy’s story” the singer feels compelled to perform over the quality of the singer’s voice.

All those guys that I listen to you know – from Lead Belly to Dylan to Ice-T you know they had something in their voice that tells me about their lives, about their true story. I like to hear a guy’s story. … I want to hear people who can’t sing.

  • Leonard re-tells two of his classic anecdotes: First, he relates the story behind the often quoted response given by his lawyer (Marty Machat) when he (Cohen) professed, prior to his appearance at the 1967 Newport Folk Festival that “I can’t sing:’

None of you guys can sing. When I want to hear singers, I go the Metropolitan Opera.

Later, he confesses to lying to Bob Dylan by claiming to have written “Hallelujah” in one year when it actually took twice that long; the punch line, of course, is that Dylan then answered Cohen’s question about how long it took for Dylan to write “I and I” with “fifteen minutes.” This anecdote concludes with a variation of another of Leonard’s favorite lines:

If I knew where the good songs came from, I’d go there more often. And I guess he [Dylan] feels the same way.

  • A contemplation of the relationship between art and commerce is offered:

What we called the revolution of the 60s was also 10 or 15 minutes, and then it was taken over immediately by the head shops and the hustlers and the money makers … it’s also not written anywhere that commerce is an enemy of revolution or an enemy of art. In fact, art and commerce have always been indistinguishable.

This conversation segues into an exploration of the fatigue endemic to contemporary culture and a potential cure for or, more likely, a possible palliation of that exhaustion:

… people get tired of tired of having their souls pressed into various kinds of duty. I think the need for oxygen is perennial. Just Sit back and breath deeply and you’re going to have a different view of the thing’. Relax is what the hippies said. And what the new age says. Just relax.

  • Perhaps the most perspicacious and pointed commentary is Leonard’s contention (beginning at 16:30) that a primary determinant of civilization’s misery is the persistent belief that humans live in – or can live in – paradise:

The central myth of our culture is the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. This is not paradise. … From time to time men and institutions arise that promise to return you to paradise. The Communist party, the Fascist party, this church, that church, this vision, that philosophy… They invite you to go back to paradise. Whenever you hear that, you should duck. You should run in all directions from this. … This is one of the sources of our suffering – this inability to confront the notion that we are not in paradise.

  • On the political front, Leonard focuses on the disconnect between non-extremist rhetoric and reality:

It’s an incredible mess … for some odd reason, we still dare to hope … Freedom from hope … a kind of freedom from cynicism. It’s beyond cynicism, it”s beyond hope. It’s just an embrace. … Public utterance is way behind private experience. … You’ll find that people are talking much more realistically than the leaders. When a leader begins a talk realistically, unfortunately they’re generally from the extreme left or the extreme right. But the thing that is appealing about their rhetoric is that it’s real. The rhetoric of the center is chronically and obsessively concerned with a version of reality that nobody buys. That something really great is going on. Well something great isn’t going on. Something quite despairing is going on.


  • Most poignant, however, are Leonard’s ruminations on the endurance of love:

People change and their bodies change… Bodies decay and die, but there is something that doesn’t change about love… Marianne… when I hear her voice on the telephone, I know something is completely intact even though our lives have separated and we’ve gone our very different paths. I feel that love never dies, and that when there is an emotion strong enough to gather a song around it, that there is something about that emotion that is indestructible.

  • My personal favorite item from the Cohen On Cohen menu is his “Where’s the beef” tutorial provided in response to the interviewer’s questions about the underlying ad campaign (which did not run in the interviewer’s country).1
  • And, who can riff on songwriting better than Leonard Cohen? He explains that one reason his songs require so long to write is that he sees himself

like a geologist, like someone writing for the National Geographic rather than for Rolling Stone. … Precision is very very important – to get exactly the right language to describe the situation in which I find myself. …. there is no inside, no outside. To report from that position involves a kind of surrender. ..It means … burning away a lot of voices whispering in your ear because you start off with a slogan … psychic propaganda … You want to impose a solution on the song. … All those voices have to be not silenced but eliminated. until you get to a position where you can defend every word, and that seems to take a lot of trouble and a lot of work.

  • Finally, in rueful tones, Leonard talks about anger, especially anger with a loved one, with the conviction of someone who has realized a truth about himself:

One of the areas in which it is absolutely urgent that you express your anger with people you love. It’s fatal not to express anger. If you’re close to someone, I think you’re occasionally seized with rage. … Whenever I’m in love, I can be counted on … getting angry three or four times a day.

… One of the descriptions of a good man in the Talmud is [that he is] slow to anger, quick to forgive. … I’m slow to anger and slow to forgive

Cohen On Cohen: The Video

Credit Due Department: Once again, I am grateful to Maarten Massa, who alerted me to the existence of this video treasure.

I am republishing selected posts from my former Leonard Cohen site, Cohencentric, here on AllanShowalter.com (these posts can be found at Leonard Cohen). This entry was originally posted Mar 9, 2011 at 1HeckOfAGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric.


  1. Cohen, it must be noted, misidentifies the fast food chain that ran the commercials. The 1984 “Where’s The Beef?” advertising campaign, starring 81 year old Clara Peller and created by the Dancer Fitzgerald Sample ad agency, was a promotion for Wendy’s, not Burger King or McDonald’s. []

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