The Prince Of Asturias Awards Speech
By Leonard Cohen
Oviedo, Spain – October 21, 2011
The Annotated Transcript
Introduction: The transcript by Coco Éclair & Allan Showalter1 begins at the point just after Cohen’s opening salutations. The annotations and commentary are by Allan Showalter with assistance from Adrian du Plessis, Ruth Stimson, Afric Prendergast, and Coco Éclair.
It is a great honor to stand here before you tonight. Perhaps, like the great maestro, Riccardo Muti, I’m not used to standing in front of an audience without an orchestra behind me, but I will do my best as a solo artist tonight.2 I stayed up all night last night wondering what I might say to this assembly.3 After I had eaten all the chocolate bars and peanuts from the minibar,4 I scribbled a few words.5 I don’t think I have to refer to them. Obviously, I’m deeply touched to be recognized by the Foundation. But I have come here tonight to express another dimension of gratitude; I think I can do it in three or four minutes. When I was packing in Los Angeles,6 I had a sense of unease because I’ve always felt some ambiguity about an award for poetry. Poetry comes from a place that no one commands, that no one conquers. So I feel somewhat like a charlatan to accept an award for an activity which I do not command.7 In other words, if I knew where the good songs came from I would go there more often.8 I was compelled in the midst of that ordeal of packing to go and open my guitar.9 which was made in Spain in the great workshop at Number 7 Gravina Street.10 I pick up an instrument I acquired over 40 years ago. I took it out of the case, I lifted it, and it seemed to be filled with helium it was so light. And I brought it to my face and I put my face close to the beautifully designed rosette,11 and I inhaled the fragrance of the living wood. We know that wood never dies. I inhaled the fragrance of the cedar12 as fresh as the first day that I acquired the guitar. And a voice seemed to say to me, “You are an old man13 and you have not said thank you, you have not brought your gratitude back to the soil from which this fragrance arose. And so I come here tonight to thank the soil and the soul of this land that has given me so much.”14 Because I know that just as an identity card is not a man, a credit rating is not a country.15 Now, you know of my deep association and confraternity with the poet Frederico Garcia Lorca.16 I could say that when I was a young man, an adolescent, and I hungered for a voice, I studied the English poets and I knew their work well,17 and I copied their styles, but I could not find a voice. It was only when I read, even in translation, the works of Lorca that I understood that there was a voice. It is not that I copied his voice; I would not dare. But he gave me permission to find a voice, to locate a voice, that is to locate a self, a self that that is not fixed, a self that struggles for its own existence. As I grew older, I understood that instructions came with this voice. What were these instructions? The instructions were never to lament casually. And if one is to express the great inevitable defeat that awaits us all, it must be done within the strict confines of dignity and beauty. And so I had a voice, but I did not have an instrument. I did not have a song. And now I’m going to tell you very briefly a story of how I got my song.
Because I was an indifferent guitar player.18 I banged the chords. I only knew a few of them.19 I sat around with my college friends, drinking and singing the folk songs and the popular songs of the day,20 but I never in a thousand years thought of myself as a musician or as a singer.21 One day in the early sixties,22 I was visiting my mother’s house in Montreal. Her house was beside a park23 and in the park was a tennis court where many people come to watch the beautiful young tennis players enjoy their sport.24 I wandered back to this park which I’d known since my childhood, and there was a young man playing a guitar. He was playing a flamenco guitar, and he was surrounded by two or three girls and boys who were listening to him. I loved the way he played. There was something about the way he played that captured me. It was the way that I wanted to play and knew that I would never be able to play. And, I sat there with the other listeners for a few moments and when there was a silence, an appropriate silence, I asked him if he would give me guitar lessons. He was a young man from Spain, and we could only communicate in my broken French and his broken French. He didn’t speak English. And he agreed to give me guitar lessons. I pointed to my mother’s house which you could see from the tennis court, and we made an appointment and settled a price. He came to my mother’s house the next day and he said, “Let me hear you play something.” I tried to play something, and he said, “You don’t know how to play, do you?” I said, “No, I don’t know how to play.” He said “First of all, let me tune your guitar. It’s all out of tune.” So he took the guitar, and he tuned it. He said, “It’s not a bad guitar.” It wasn’t the Conde, but it wasn’t a bad guitar. So, he handed it back to me. He said, “Now play.” I couldn’t play any better. He said “Let me show you some chords.” And he took the guitar, and he produced a sound from that guitar I had never heard. And he played a sequence of chords with a tremolo, and he said, “Now you do it.” I said, “It’s out of the question. I can’t possibly do it.” He said, “Let me put your fingers on the frets,” and he put my fingers on the frets. And he said, “Now, now play.” It was a mess. He said, ” I’ll come back tomorrow.” He came back tomorrow, he put my hands on the guitar, he placed it on my lap in the way that was appropriate,25 and I began again with those six chords – a six chord progression. Many, many flamenco songs are based on them.26 I was a little better that day. The third day – improved, somewhat improved. But I knew the chords now. And, I knew that although I couldn’t coordinate my fingers with my thumb to produce the correct tremolo pattern, I knew the chords; I knew them very, very well. The next day, he didn’t come. He didn’t come. I had the number of his, of his boarding house in Montreal. I phoned to find out why he had missed the appointment, and they told me that he had taken his life. That he committed suicide. I knew nothing about the man. I did not know what part of Spain he came from. I did not know why he came to Montreal. I did not know why he played there. I did not know why he he appeared there at that tennis court. I did not know why he took his life.27 I was deeply saddened, of course. But now I disclose something that I’ve never spoken in public. It was those six chords, it was that guitar pattern that has been the basis of all my songs and all my music.28
So, now you will begin to understand the dimensions of the gratitude I have for this country. Everything that you have found favourable in my work comes from this place. Everything, everything that you have found favourable in my songs and my poetry are inspired by this soil. So, I thank you so much for the warm hospitality that you have shown my work because it is really yours, and you have allowed me to affix my signature to the bottom of the page.
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 Oct 25, 2011 at 1HeckOfAGuy.com.
- Coco Éclair prepared a complete, direct transcription of Leonard Cohen’s words. I provided a modicum of editing based on my own knowledge of Cohen’s phrases used in telling the anecdotes in the past and, of course, on the English-only tape of the speech not available to Ms Éclair.
- Ira Nadel, Cohen’s biographer, in an interview recorded in “Leonard Cohen Under Review 1934-1977,” pointed out
Leonard as a performer is happiest, I think, when he’s got company on stage. He’s always got his backup singers and he usually has a substantial group accompanying him. It’s not just Leonard and a piano man or Leonard and … someone on the drum kit. … He goes on tour and he establishes this community that’s crucial for him. They provide a support for him … as the performer. The fundamental thing is that he is part of a group.
- It is worth noting that Leonard Cohen is the only musician ever honored with the Prince Of Asturias Award For Letters. Consequently, one might have anticipated that if Cohen’s speech were to focus on the arts, it would have spotlighted poetry or prose. In such a case, one would have anticipated incorrectly. Cohen has always taken the poet’s prerogative to use any platform as an opportunity to address the issue of his interest.
- Leonard Cohen has a penchant for such foodstuffs. Anjani tells of fueling the Cohen lyric-writing engine with candy during their work together on the Blue Alert album:
The song was No One After You, and we just needed one line to finish it so I could record it the next day:
I lived in many cities
from Paris to LA
I’ve known rags and riches
It was a bit tense as he paced back and forth. I sat at the piano and didn’t move, didn’t say a word. Then he finally said, “I need some chocolate if I’m gonna do this.”
That would have been milk chocolate, because he doesn’t like dark — and of course I always keep some around — so he ate a bar and about a minute later he came up with the line:
I’m a regular cliche
- In addition to writing Chelsea Hotel #2, based on his liaison with Janis Joplin at the Chelsea Hotel where Cohen lived for some time and providing the music for and helping write “I Am a Hotel,” a 24 minute video filmed at Toronto’s King Edward Hotel in 1983 which won the Golden Rose at an international television festival in Montreux, Leonard Cohen has frequently spoken about working in hotels. For example, he often introduced “Hey That’s No Way To Say Goodbye” by referring to the site of its origin (Back cover of 1976 “Greatest Hits”):
This song arises from an over-used bed in the Penn Terminal Hotel in 1966. The room is too hot. I can’t open the windows. I am in the midst of a bitter quarrel with a blonde woman. The song is half-written in pencil but it protects us as we manoeuvre, each of us, for unconditional victory. I am in the wrong room. I am with the wrong woman.
Bruce Grenville, writing at Sanctuary of a Temporary Kind: Leonard Cohen (see photos at link) about Ladies and Gentlemen… Mr. Leonard Cohen, a film which
catches him [Cohen] on a return trip from Greece to his hometown of Montréal [where] he is staying in a $3-a-night hotel in Montréal’s Tenderloin district–an area of the city centered on the corner of St. Laurent and Ste. Catherine streets,
The hotel room, Cohen says, is a sanctuary, a refuge, an oasis. It is a place to lay low and pursue the five hours of writing that he likes to commit to each day. As he rises from bed, looks out the window and washes up, Cohen’s voiceover offers his appreciation for the room: “You always have a feeling in a hotel room that you are on the lam; and it’s one of the safe moments in the escape, it’s that breathing spot. The hotel room is the oasis of the downtown; it’s a kind of temple of refuge. It’s sanctuary, sanctuary of a temporary kind, therefore all the more delicious. But whenever I come into a hotel room, and there is the moment after the door is shut and the lights you haven’t turned on illumine a very comfortable, anonymous, subtly hostile environment, and you know that you’ve found the little place in the grass and the hounds are going to go by; for three more hours, you’re going to have a drink, light a cigarette, and take a long time shaving.”
Cohen also famously stated
But we’re not going to live forever; maybe I think, basically, that nothing really changes. I’m not attached to that opinion, though. I don’t even care if it’s true. When you’re banging your head against the dirty carpet of the Royalton Hotel trying to find the rhyme for “orange,” you don’t care about these things. (Leonard Cohen’s Nervous Breakthrough” by Mark Rowland, Musician, July 1988.)
Leonard Cohen is known for his modest requirements in hotel rooms:
Someone said “If riches assist thee acquire riches, if poverty assist thee seek poverty.” There are many styles of life, I don’t think one is better than another, it’s just that what suits me is a more modest style than generally could be discovered in a first class hotel where so much is based on the good graces of the people around you being purchased. (From “Complexities And Mr. Cohen” by Billy Walker. Sounds, March 4, 1972. Found at LeonardCohenFiles.)
- While Cohen maintains a residence in Montreal, he has spent most of his at-home time in the past two decades at what Larry “Ratso” Sloman described as his “modest house in a decidedly unfashionable section of Los Angeles,” a site that afforded him an up close and personal view the Los Angeles Riots. (Source: 7 Reasons Leonard Cohen Is the Next-Best Thing to God by David Browne. Entertainment Weekly. Jan 08, 1993.)
Leonard Cohen noted in “Hello, I Must Be Cohen” by Gavin Martin (New Musical Express, January 9, 1993) that
Los Angeles is a great city — it’s falling apart on every level. Geologically it’s falling apart, politically it’s falling apart, the physical realm is also in deep fragmentation…a very suitable landscape for my dismal expression.
Finally, this excerpt from Pico Iyer on the strange connection between the Dalai Lama and Graham Greene by Jeff Baker in The Oregonian (April 06, 2010) effectively limns the setting.
It’s an extraordinary thing. He lives in this tiny house in central Los Angeles that’s so dangerous I’m scared ever to visit it, an area where everyone has barred their windows, you can almost hear sirens and breaking glass. Out of all my friends in California — normal people, struggling writers — he lives in the single most modest place. I and my friends seem rich next to Leonard Cohen. He shares a house with his daughter and he might as well be in the monastery and he’s been there for almost 30 years.
- Cohen has been reliably humble in his public assessments of his his skills as a poet. His own poem “Thousands,” which he recited in Leonard Cohen Discusses Life, a PBS interview (This site includes the Real Player audio of the interview by Jeffery Brown as well as the full transcript.) first broadcast 28 June 2006, is characteristic:
Out of the thousands who are known or who want to be known as poets, maybe one or two are genuine and the rest are fakes, hanging around the sacred precincts, trying to look like the real thing. Needless to say, I am one of the fakes, and this is my story.
As is this quote from Yakety Yak by Scott Cohen (1994)
I always considered myself a minor writer. My province is small and I try to explore it very, very thoroughly. It isn’t like I chose this. This is what I am. You know whether you’re a high jumper or not. I know in a sense I’m a long-distance runner. I’m not going to win any sprints. I’m not going to win any high jumps or anything spectacular. I may hang in there if my health remains good and I will explore this tiny vision.
In his interview with LA Times music blog: Leonard Cohen reborn in the U.S.A. by Geoff Boucher (Los Angeles Times, February 27, 2009 ) Cohen lists some of his competitors and his own assessment of his ranking:
You’re up against some heavy competition. King David, Homer, you’re up against Shakespeare, Dante, Donne, you’re up against Whitman. It’s like going up against Muhammad Ali if you’re a pretty good neighborhood boxer, and that’s what I think of myself as. I’m just a pretty good neighborhood boxer. Legacy? I never thought that it would mean anything to me when I’m dead. I’m going to be busy.
And from “Porridge? Lozenge? Syringe?” by Adrian Deevoy in The Q Magazine, 1991.
Being called a poet is not very attractive. It’s like being called a hippy. There’s something a bit fruity about being called a poet. So whatever that activity is — when you write lines that don’t come to the edge of the page — you just keep quiet about it.
And Cohen’s views on the title of “poet” have shifted:
View #1: From June 16, 1961 CBC interview with Leonard Cohen
I think the term “poet” is a very exalted term and should be applied to a man at the end of his work. When he looks back over the body of his work and he’s written poetry then let the verdict be that he’s a poet. But I would never assume that title until it’s been awarded me by a very good and long performance.
View #2: From Harry Rasky’s The Song Of Leonard Cohen, filmed in 1979
It’s due to the process of cultural advertising which has the same effect as commercial advertising. Certain words [in this case, “poet”] become devalued and, not only that, but many people rush to embrace the description and I just don’t like the company.
On the other hand, he does admit to certain ambitions:
Marco: Once you said that you wished you could have been like a poet whose songs are sung from Chinese women washing clothes on a river. Is it still this your goal? …
Leonard Cohen: Dear Marco, They don’t have to be Chinese. … (From an online chat in 2001)
- Note the segue from poetry to songs accomplished by this line, which has been oft-repeated by Leonard Cohen. In a June 28, 2006 NPR interview, for example, Cohen’s response to the interviewer’s observation that he had been inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame was
I don’t know where the good songs come from or else I’d go there more often
Cohen has frequently debated the relationship between songs and poems – taking both sides of the debate:
… I regard everything I write as being set to music, almost as if I hear a giant guitar accompanying me! (Leonard Cohen Seventeen. March 1968)
I never did set poetry to music. … I got stuck with that. It was a bum rap. I never set a poem to music. I’m not that hopeless. I know the difference between a poem and a song! (“Porridge? Lozenge? Syringe?” by Adrian Deevoy, Q Magazine, 1991)
It depends on what part of the being is operative. Of course it’s wonderful to write a song, I mean there is nothing like a song, and you sing it to your woman, or to your friend, people come to your house, and then you sing it in front of an audience and you record it. I mean it has an amazing thrust. And a poem, it waits on the page, and it moves in a much more secret way through the world. And that also is… Well, they each have their own way of travel. (Leonard Cohen: The Romantic in a Ragpicker’s Trade by Paul Williams. Crawdaddy, March 1975.)
Perhaps what happened is as simple as Leonard Cohen’s response to an interviewer who asked why, after writing “two wildly successful novels that sold over 800,000 copies each, … it’s been twenty-six years now since Beautiful Losers was published, … you never returned to the fiction form:
I got lost in the song. I got very involved in the life of music and the lyric and I went to some quite remote places …
- Cohen has owned, of course, many guitars. In a Dec 10, 2009 LeonardCohenForum post, Patyou, a confessed “guitar maniac,” listed these instruments used by Cohen from the 1960s through the World Tour:
From 1967 (See the pictures from Newport) to 1970 tours (included IOW) : a Ramirez flamenca guitar (this one was the most difficult to identify because nothing looks more like a flamenca guitar as another flamenca guitar)
In the 1972 and 1974 tours (see the pictures in the Concert Pictures section) : a Conde Hermanos flamenca guitar
In the 1976 and 1979 tours: an Ovation Classic model (the recent models are easier to find out because each brand is now very recognizable and there are more pictures on stage)
In 1985 and 1988 : the Chet Atkins Gibson model
In 1993 until the last tours : the Multiac ACS Godin
Leonard Cohen also used guitars as subjects for his drawings. Note the self-mocking legends written on each of these sketches:
- A photo of Cohen with his Conde guitar at his March 23, 1972 performance at the Albert Hall in London can be found at LeonardCohenFiles
- A guitar’s rosette is the ornamental circular band surrounding the sound hole of an acoustic guitar. Shown below is the rosette of flamenco guitar made by Cónde hermanos. (The photo is by Villanueva and was found at Wikipedia Commons.)
For an informative and delightful discussion of the complex design and construction processes of this piece, see Rosette Making, A Real Labor of Love by Kenny Hill (Acoustic Guitar, July 2001)
- An enlightening discussion of the choices in woods used to construct acoustic guitars can be found at Tapping Tonewoods by Dana Bourgeois (Acoustic Guitar, March/April 1994)
- Leonard Cohen had just turned 77 when this speech was given. One should note, however, that when Leonard Cohen wrote these words from Tower Of Song
Well my friends are gone and my hair is grey
I ache in the places where I used to play
he was 54. (Of course, Bruce Springsteen was only 24 when he wrote, “We ain’t that young anymore” in the song Thunder Road.)
- Cohen’s use of his guitar’s heritage to link himself with Spain was presaged in his official acknowledgement of the award, issued from New York on June 2, 2011:
I am most grateful to be recognized by the countrymen of Machado and Lorca, and my friend Morente, and the incomparable companions of the Spanish guitar.
Re Morente, in a Chris Douridas Interview With Leonard Cohen (KCRW, Los Angeles, February 18, 1997) Cohen’s enthuses about a flamenco-based cover of We Take Manhattan by Morente:
The fact that he saw something in my songs that could be translated into flamenco music is what touches me. Cause a lot of the changes in for example First We Take Manhattan are flamenco changes. So that he saw that these songs had a reference to something that he understood and that we meet there and that he made those songs into flamenco songs.
- “Spain saw its credit rating cut by two notches on [Oct 18, 2011] as Moody’s warned that the country risked being sucked deep into the European debt crisis.” Source: Spanish Credit Rating Downgraded by Graeme Wearden. The Guardian, 18 October 2011.
- Leonard Cohen has often spoken about the influence of Lorca on his life. A good starting point is his concert introduction to Take This Waltz from the October 31, 1988 Austin show:
Long time ago I was about 15 in my hometown of Montreal, I was rumbling through….or rambling as you say down here. We say “rumbling.” Actually we don’t say that at all. I was rumbling through this bookstore in Montreal. And I came upon this old book, a second-hand book of poems by a Spanish poet. I opened it up and I read these lines: “I want to pass through the arches of Elvira, to see your thighs and begin weeping.” Well that certainly was a refreshing sentiment. I began my own search for those arches those thighs and those tears…. Another line – “The morning through fistfuls of ants at my face.” It’s a terrible idea. But this was a universe I understood thoroughly and I began to pursue it, I began to follow it and I began to live in it. And now these many years later, it is my great privilege to be able to offer my tiny homage to this great Spanish poet, the adversary of whose assassination was celebrated two years ago. He was killed by the Civil Guards in Spain in 1936. But my real homage to this poet was naming my own daughter Lorca. It was Federico Garcia Lorca. I set one of his poems to music and translated it. He called it “Little Viennese Waltz.” My song is called “Take this Waltz.”
These words from a CBC Radio Interview (August 26, 1995) presage his thoughts on Lorca expressed in his Prince Of Asturias Awards speech:
Well, I don’t know how he [Lorca] helped me find my own voice. Since he seemed exotic and far away, he allowed me to steal or borrow a lot of his voice. It’s like anything that you fall in love with is going to give you a certain kind of blindness. I think you are blinded to your own imperfections and limitations. It allows you to kind of lurch forward on the path that you want to choose for yourself. I don’t think that’s the real benefit of falling in love with a writer when you’re young. With Lorca, when I stumbled on him, it was something that was terribly familiar, it seemed to be the way that things really were. The evocation of a landscape that you’re really felt at home in, maybe more at home than anything you’ve been able to come up with yourself.
A discussion of Lorca, especially as his work influenced Cohen, can be found at Leonard Cohen’s Lonesome Heroes (the video is cued to start at the 7:50 mark; the portion pertinent to Lorca ends at 20:30
- In addition to his formal literature studies at McGill, Cohen was also knowledgeable, of course, about the work of his own mentors, such as Irving Layton. Additional evidence of Cohen’s easy familiarity with the classic canon of English poetry is his habit of quoting lines from several such poets at selected concerts during the World Tour. Examples follow:
- “In Memory Of Eva Gore-Booth And Con Markiewicz” by William Butler Yeats: Anthem Performance From July 31, 2010 Leonard Cohen Lissadell House, Sligo Concert
- “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley: October 7, 2010 Leonard Cohen Moscow Concert
- “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold: Stuttgart, Germany, Oct. 1, 2010 and October 7, 2010 Moscow Concert
Consider this quote from Leonard Cohen On Marianne – “She Was An Old-fashioned Girl” – And On Leonard Cohen
I wanted to be a writer. From very very early time I just knew that I was going to be a writer. So there was never any ambiguity or difficult decision about what I wanted to be. And it was a writer not in the popular culture,; on the contrary, it was a writer to writers that were already dead. The writers I was writing for and the audience I was writing for, was not a popular audience. I was writing for William Butler Yates, I wouldn’t say Shakespeare, because I never really enjoyed Shakespeare, but there were other poets that I was writing for that were dead. And that was where I was aimed. I wanted to be one of those, I wanted to be in that tradition, I didn’t care, in fact with the little group of poets that I grew up with in Montreal, we criticized each others work very very savagely, we had a very very high sense of our calling. And a very exaggerated sense of our own importance.
At one point Cohen reported he
was only writing Spenserian stanzas to be set to music. I don’t think there’s anyone else in the western world writing Spenserian stanzas with that very intricate verse form. So I got very interested in the whole lyrical form.
And, in a 1988 interview with Mr. Bonzai, Cohen listed multiple influences:
There’s so much excellent work. Every time I turn on the radio, I hear something good. Everytime I pick up a magazine, I read some writing that is distinguished. My pace and viewpoint is being influenced continually by things I come across.
You recapitulate the whole movement of your own culture. Occasionally we are touched by certain elaborate language, like the language we associate with the Elizabethan period, with the King James translation of The Bible, or Shakespeare. In certain moments you are influenced by very simple things. The instructions on a cereal package have a magnificent clarity. You’re touched by the writing in National Geographic — it represents a certain kind of accomplishment.
Occasionally you move into another phase where you are touched by the writing of demented people or mental patients. I get a lot of letters from those kinds of writers. You begin to see it as the most accurate kind of reflection of your own reality, the landscape you’re operating on. There are many kinds of expression that I’m sensitive to.
Personally, I take some pleasure in noting that Leonard Cohen and I share two major sources of influences:
The first poetry that ever affected me was in the synagogue, in the liturgy, and the Bible stories. And that would send shivers down my spine. The stories I was reading, in those days, mostly came from Marvel Comics. Captain Marvel, Superman, Aquaman, Spider Man, the various heroes. I thought I could write. I was never very sure. I knew I could write something. I started writing poetry to girls. Tried to get girls interested in my mind. (Leonard Cohen’s Bunch Of Lonesome Heroes – Blue Beetle, Captain Marvel, Spider-Man, …)
Later, Cohen would report feeling estranged by his own generation of poets. Speaking to Michael Silverblatt on KCRW Bookworm program about Book Of Longing June 22, 2006, Cohen declared
I’m reluctant to call [my work] poetry. I like your idea of footnotes, or notes or some other kind of activity, because I think there is an enterprise called poetry today and I don’t really feel part of it […] I don’t have that mind that seems to be valued today. I can’t understand a lot of the stuff that’s written.
- Despite the jokes, many of which are made by Leonard himself, about his supposed lack of instrumental talent and musicological knowledge that have persisted throughout his career, Cohen’s guitar playing is more accurately characterized as unusual for a pop musician rather than rudimentary. This excerpt from the Pitchfork review of Songs of Leonard Cohen is instructional (and the entire article is enlightening on Cohen’s musical style):
There’s his unique guitar style– most of his songs are built from delicate webs of musky, finger-picked flamenco or broad, awkward chord progressions … .
Cohen’s explanation of his shift to writing songs on guitar to writing songs on synthesizers in Songwriters On Songwriting by Paul Zollo (Da Capo Press 1997) is also helpful in understanding the instrument’s importance to his songwriting:
[Interviewer] Do you work on guitar?
[Leonard Cohen] It usually was guitar but now I have been working with keyboards.
[Interviewer] Does the instrument affect the song you are writing?
[Leonard Cohen] They have certainly affected my songs. I only have one chop. All guitar players have chops. Especially professional ones. But I have only one chop. It’s a chop that very few guitarists can emulate, hence I have a certain kind of backhanded respect from guitar players because they know that I have a chop that they can’t master. And that chop was the basis of a lot of my good songs.
John Simon, the producer of Songs Of Leonard Cohen, in an interview for “Leonard Cohen Under Review 1934-1977,” describes Cohen’s guitar style:
Leonard apparently learned how to play classical guitar because he did things like [Simon plays triplets on piano] real fast – real fast.
Cohen has, indeed, garnered some notoriety (note the comments on this LeonardCohenForum page devoted to folks attempting, typically without success, to emulate Cohen’s technique.) for his capacity to play those rapid triplets, enhanced with flourishes, that can be heard in, for example, Avalanche or The Stranger Song,
Most recently, David D. Robbins Jr., reviewing the early release of “Darkness” from the Old Ideas album, pointed out that
A low-moan acoustic guitar, gracefully finger-picked [by Cohen], purrs through the opening …
- In 1993, Cohen told a BBC interviewer,
Now, I don’t want to give you the impression that I’m a great musicologist, but I’m a lot better than what I was described as for a long, long time; you know, people said I only knew three chords when I knew five.”
- For an example of this behavior, watch this excerpt from Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr Leonard Cohen.
- Leonard frequently related 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. (Source: 1992 Video: Leonard Cohen On His Atrocious Voice, Dylan, Ice-T, Songwriting, Love & Where’s The Beef)
Cohen, quoted in Leonard Cohen: The Poet as Hero by Jack Batten (Saturday Night, June 1969) declared
I used it [his guitar] as a courting procedure. Probably I got down on my knees to serenade a girl. I was shameless in those years.
The article goes on to observe that
To this day, his guitar playing suggests a skill acquired around campfires and honed at solemn gatherings of folk-song devotees, and for all its aptness and, at times, funky spirituality, it remains rather rudimentary and functional.
- This is almost certainly a chronological error. Cohen was born 21 September 1934 so in the “early sixties,” he would probably have been 26 to 30 years old. In his own telling of the same story, however, in a 1988 BBC interview with John Archer, Cohen estimates the age of the Spaniard who taught him guitar as “16 or 17” and his own age as “13 or 14.” That segment can be viewed at this Leonard Cohen BBC Interview (video cued to begin at 9:45)
- The Cohen family home was in Westmount; the park he mentions is Murray Hill Park. The home, scenes from the neighborhood, and the park can be viewed at Growing Up Cohen.
- Cohen was not himself a tennis player at the time although he did make an attempt, under instructions from his Zen mentor, to learn tennis at a much later date. See Leonard Cohen On Zen, Depression, Women, Children, Headhunters, Loneliness, & Tennis.
- One can only assume that Cohen’s appending “in the way that was appropriate” to “he placed it [the guitar] on my lap” was to preclude any suspicions that there this event was tainted by sexual impropriety. Sadly, the prevalent cultural hypervigilance and press sensationalism regarding this subject justifies such cautionary efforts.
- Neither I or those I’ve consulted have been unable to discover a direct reference to a flamenco six chord progression that serves as a basis for a large number of flamenco songs, but the brief essays at Flamenco Guitar Music and Understanding Flamenco, as well as the Wikipedia Flamenco entry may be helpful. Also see discussion of the flamenco influence on Cohen’s own songs below.
- Leonard Cohen has recounted this story of his guitar teacher committing suicide in more concise form on several occasions. For example, in addition to the 1988 BBC interview with John Archer already mentioned, Cohen gave this account in his interview with Chris Douridas (KCRW, Los Angeles, February 18, 1997) follows:
There was a young man in the park behind my mother’s house. A dark young man, very handsome, played flamenco guitar. I asked him if he would give me a few lessons. He did. He gave me three or four lessons. On the basis of those lessons I wrote most of my songs. He showed me some changes with the guitar that was very very important to me. He didn’t turn up for the final lesson, and I phoned his boarding house, they told he’d committed suicide. I don’t know whether that was because of the progress with his student; or I think perhaps he had other issues.
- Because Cohen appears to be referring not to a specific set of six chords but to the tonal ‘mode’ in which he writes his songs, some basic musicology is helpful on this point. The following simplified explanation is contributed by Ruth Stimson with assistance from Afric Prendergast:
The bog-standard, major scale mode for most Western music is the Ionian. There are six other modes that are routinely utilised by non-Western (e.g., far Eastern or Arabic) music. The third mode, the Phrygian, is most often used by Spanish/flamenco music (influenced by Arabic music, hence the different modal sound). It has a minor or flattened seventh, which makes it distinctive.
While there is no evidence of a specific six chord progression associated with this musical mode, or flamenco in general, there is certainly a classic four chord progression – known as the Andalusian cadence (the Wikipedia entry includes sample sound clips and also notes that this progression was popular with musicians in the 1960s and 1970s; also see Flamenco Chord Progressions, which includes chords that feature heavily in Leonard’s earlier guitar music, and and Chord Progressions For Songwriters by Richard Scott).
While Leonard Cohen is disingenuous to claim all his music is based on this mode, his repertoire does include several excellent examples that fit into this classification:
First We Take Manhattan: The progression is especially obvious in the chorus, the chords played behind ‘First [dum] we take Manhattan’ [dum, dum, dum – progressing downward] Begins at 0:58.
The Story of Isaac: The phrase ‘I was / nine / years / old’ follows the chord progression downwards [slashes represent chord changes] Begins at 0:1r.
Sisters of Mercy: The phrases ‘I’ve been where you’re / hanging, I / think I can / see how you’re / pinned’ and ‘they / brought me their / comfort and / later they / brought me this / song’ again follow the chord progression downward. Begins at 0:23.
The Guests: The phrase ‘One by one / the guests arrive / the guests are coming’ is a partial progression. The note rises again on the ‘through,’ which is thus not part of the progression. Begins at 0:07.
Leaving Green Sleeves: In this case, the progression is obvious as the chord is played a beat before these lyrics start: ‘I sang my song / I told my lies / to lie between your / matchless thighs.’ You can also hear the characteristic progression at the beginning of the song in the phrase, ‘alas my love you did me wrong.’ The music for Leaving Green Sleeves is, of course, a folk tune co-opted rather than written by Cohen – though perhaps the association of the Phrygian mode with troubadours may be have played a part in the attraction the song held for him, the Phrygian mode.
More generally, flamenco/Spanish music is associated with the minor keys, and Leonard Cohen certainly uses these a lot, probably chucking in flattened sevenths for good measure.
Further, “Darkness,” an early release from the Old Ideas album is described by Tom Hawking at FlavorWire as
… start[ing] with a moody flamenco-influenced intro that’s decidedly reminiscent of Songs of Love and Hate track “Avalanche,” …
The actual chords of most Leonard Cohen songs, including the above examples, can be found at Chords of Leonard Cohen, a site maintained by Maarten Massa.