Leonard Cohen & Tobacco: From The Smokey Life To Anti-smoking Ad Soundtrack

When the universe (or statistically inevitable coincidence) presents one with a cosmic joke, however hackneyed, obvious, or egregiously jejune, it seems only prudent to pause, listen attentively, and chortle with sufficient enthusiasm to deflect accusations of a merely polite response but stopping short of the over the top exuberance that smacks of insincerity in acknowledgment of the universe’s graciousness in sharing that nugget of jocularity.

So, get ready to yuck it up – or a least chortle existentially.

Everybody Knows, a Leonard Cohen song1 delivered in his famously deep, raspy voice, the final result, as Cohen himself puts it, of “about 500 tons of whiskey and millions of cigarettes,” has been chosen as the music for a major anti-smoking ad.

According to The Sydney Morning Herald, New South Wales (NSW) residents tuning in to Sunday’s Beijing Olympics broadcast …

will be confronted with a new graphic anti-tobacco advertisement during the Beijing Olympics coverage on Sunday night to drive home a message “everybody knows” but some still ignore. The $1 million campaign is a montage of past Quit campaigns, set to the Leonard Cohen song, Everybody Knows.

The casting is also notable because Leonard Cohen’s music is rarely used in commercials or public service announcements. I do not have access to an exhaustive list, but I would be surprised if, in Cohen’s 40 year career, the number of different ads using his work goes into double figures.2

Leonard Cohen: I’m Your (Marlboro) Man

Leonard Cohen’s smoking was more than an incidental phenomenon. Consider these excerpts from interviews and articles.

In 1973, Alastair Pirrie described in Cohen Regrets3 Cohen’s behavior,

During my last conversation with him, Cohen had changed. He smoked my cigarettes almost continuously and appeared much more withdrawn, answering questions vaguely and lapsing into silences much more frequently.

Similarly, in I never discuss my mistresses or my tailors, Nick Paton Walsh describes Cohen’s behavior during the 2001 interview in relation to his stay at a Zen monastery.

He has another sip of coffee, lights another Marlboro Light, and wriggles his toes inside his pair of comfortable brown slippers. Despite the gruelling years, Cohen is immensely relaxed, a light grin stretching across his tanned face. His arms are thin, his frame fragile, but he radiates Californian healthiness, like no 67-year-old should. He seems content, both with his new record, Ten New Songs, and – judging by the slippers and the silk tie clipped delicately behind his tailored pinstripe suit – his daily luxuries. What attraction could such a sparse lifestyle have to a man who accompanies most new sentences with a freshly lit cigarette?

A July 20, 2008 Sunday Times Profile, describes the tobacco enhanced voice:

Discarding his mantles of “poet laureate of pessimism” and “godfather of gloom”, Cohen wore a fedora and grey suit as he ran nimbly on to the stage to rekindle fervour for the love songs of his youth and the witty, sardonic style of later years. His rasping voice, honed by Marlboro cigarettes, and his evident delight in his adoring audience reinforced a recent triumph at the Glastonbury festival.

The Leonard Cohen No-Step Stop Smoking Program

Cigarettes, once an obligatory accoutrement for Cohen, have apparently been vanquished since 2003 when he quit smoking on doctor’s advice.4. In a June 12, 2008 interview, Cohen discusses his drinking and smoking patterns on earlier tours and how he stopped smoking:

Q: You’ve been working in a room for years; now you’re on a stage. What are the pros and cons?

A: This way, without drinking and smoking, it’s a very, very different situation. Anyone who’s been a heavy drinker and heavy smoker and has the good future to survive that and give it up knows what a very different kind of daily existence one has. I was smoking a couple of packs of cigarettes a day. And I was drinking heavily on these tours.

Q: How did you stop drinking? Did you go into a program?

A: I lost my taste for it. Just like cigarettes. I lost my taste.

“I lost my taste for it.” Dramatic, eh?5

Losing his taste for excessive alcohol and tobacco does not, however, appear to have turned Leonard Cohen into an evangelist for the eradication of these societal demons. The following is an excerpt from “The Cigarette Issue” in The Book of Longing, published in 2006:

But what is exactly the same
is the promise, the beauty
and the salvation
of cigarettes
the little Parthenon
of an unopened pack of cigarettes
and Mumbai, like the Athens
of forty years ago
is a city to smoke in

And from the same volume of poetry comes the poem, “What Did It:”

An acquaintance told me
that the great sage
Nisargadatta Maharaj
Once offered him a cigarette,
“Thank you, sir, but I don’t smoke.”
“Don’t smoke?” said the master,
“What’s life for?”

About That Anti-smoking Campaign

As the following excerpt from the same The Sydney Morning Herald article indicates, the NSW anti-smoking campaign is not one of those wishy washy, the glass is half full sort of programs. Nope, it’s more along the lines of, say, Scared Straight; it’s more big stick than carrot; it’s less about Santa bringing gifts for good little boys and girls than about the boogeyman whisking away naughty children to obliquely defined but unmistakably horrid torments.

NSW Assistant Health Minister (Cancer) Verity Firth said it was a deliberate choice to air the ad during the Olympics. “We know that TV viewership goes up 40 per cent during the Olympic period. … Ms Firth is confident the ad will have a strong impact on audiences. “It’s very, very powerful, I think it’s the build-up of all those different images … that song is just so haunting that I think it will get an emotional response.” “It is a hard-hitting TV commercial, we make no apologies about that because we also know that graphic television advertising really does work the best,” … NSW’s smoking rate had dropped from 24 per cent to 18 per cent in the past decade.

An Everybody Knows anti-smoking ad is shown below. While it is not the most aggressive anti-smoking ad produced for this campaign, it pulls no punches, and watching it may not be how more sensitive viewers want to start their day.


And In Conclusion

Depending on ones perspective on hermeneutics, the life, characteristics, and vision of the artist who has created a work may or may not have significance. Most of us, I suspect, operate as semi-deconstructionalists, albeit out of convenience more than conviction, so the implications of the music for a vehemently anti-smoking ad being provided by an artist known for his smoking through most of his career are trivial, a how-about-that sort of item.

Of course, if this anti-smoking gig is successful, it would open the door for other reverse-field jobs in advertising – I’m thinking

Leonard Cohen: spokesman for the wedding industry

Credit Due Department: Image of the 1985 poster contributed by Dominique BOILE

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 Aug 17, 2008 at 1HeckOfAGuy.com.

  1. Authorship of Everybody Knows, first released in 1988 on Cohen’s I’m Your Man album, is co-credited to Leonard Cohen and Sharon Robinson []
  2. At the moment, I recall the recent Old Navy ad featuring Blue Alert and a British Heart Foundation ad using Waiting For The Miracle in the 1990s. I have read about Suzanne being used to sell bikes somewhere in Europe. I am less sure but think I have also, read about a Cohen song being used to peddle shoes and a cover being used in supermarket ads in England or Europe. In any case, a Leonard Cohen song in a broadcast ad is an unusual event. []
  3. New Musical Express, March 10, 1973 []
  4. He Has Tried in His Way to Be Free by Sarah Hampson. Shambhala Sun: Nov 2007 []
  5. OK, “Waiting For The Miracle – Leonard Cohen’s Battle With The Demons Of Alcohol and Tobacco” isn’t likely to become a best-selling inspirational autobiography – or a Lifetime movie of the week – or a quickie on E!, but based on my experiences working with those trying to stop drinking or smoking, I believe the seldom articulated addiction treatment methodology of “lose your taste for it” would prove attractive to many clients. Leonard, how does the “Cohen Clinic Program To Stop Smoking – Eventually” sound? Have your people call my people. I smell franchise opportunity. []

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