The Discipline Of Writing – Leonard Cohen & Barbara Gowdy
This brief video is a portion of an interview of Leonard Cohen by Canadian novelist and short story author, Barbara Gowdy held on November 19, 1992.1 The conversation focuses on Cohen’s then recently released album, The Future, but also includes, as seen on this clip, thoughts on the value of traditional writing disciplines.
Barbara Gowdy Interviews Leonard Cohen (1993)
Video from tvochannel
The Full Barbara Gowdy Interview With Leonard Cohen – Graciousness, Songwriting, Optimism, Hot Dance Tracks, Romantic Love, and More
A transcript of the full interview was published in 1994 in the book “One on One: The Imprint Interviews” (edited by Leanna Crouch and published by Somerville House Publishing). A few excerpts follow:
This was both the easiest and the most exciting interview I have ever done. Exciting because Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” was an anthem to me and for thousands of other teenaged girls in the late sixties. When you mention that song, people tend to go on about the lyrics “And she feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China,” but it was the line “And you know that she’s half crazy but that’s why you want to be there” that I went for, exonerating, as it seemed to, my behaviour then and over the next fifteen years.
The fact that the interview went off so smoothly — that came as a surprise. I had only a few hours to prepare for it, I had nothing to wear, I forgot my shoes. But from the minute he entered the room, Leonard was relaxed and gracious. And once the interview started he was remarkably open. It was as if he didn’t know how famous he was, despite all the women lined up in the hallway outside the hotel room where the interview took place. It was as if getting close to the truth was much more important than giving an impression of cleverness or mystery.
– Barbara Gowdy
Gowdy: In the title song of your new recording, The Future, it says, “There’ll be the breaking of the ancient Western code / Your private life will suddenly explode / There’ll be fires on the road… / I’ve seen the future, baby it is murder.” How are we to take this?
Cohen: With a grain of salt, I guess. “There’ll be the breaking of the ancient Western code, I mean your private life will suddenly explode.” That is this whole investment in private space that the West has painfully established over the centuries. That is specifically what is going to collapse. “There will be phantoms, there’ll be fires on the road” — a return to suspicion, superstition, return to the tribal paranoia and the white man dancing. It evokes a scene of the end of things but with certain variations.
Gowdy: That’s kind of bleak, isn’t it, even for you?
Cohen: It would be bleak if it wasn’t set to a hot dance track.
Gowdy: Yeah, there’s an upbeat rhythm behind it.
Cohen: They [Cohen’s lyrics] really are prophetic but, unfortunately, the songs take so long to finish that my prophecy business is collapsing. My song on the unification of Germany is just finished, a long time after the event. My song called “Democracy” was used and people identified it with the victory of the Democratic party. I’d written it long before that, it just didn’t come out until very recently.
Cohen: I think America’s the great laboratory. Regardless of how ironic we’ve trained ourselves to be about America — we in Canada and in Europe — in a certain way our blessings can be summoned for America; somehow we understand that it is there the great experiment is taking place. The races are confronting each other, the classes live side by side, the rich and the poor watch the same screen every night — so something is going on there that’s going to affect us all. And I don’t think anyone with goodwill cannot wish it well.
Gowdy: That sounds optimistic.
Cohen: I think there’s an optimistic note there.
Cohen: … I prepared a lot of Red Needles. That’s a cocktail I invented in Needles, California, in 1976. It consists of tequila and cranberry juice and Sprite and fresh cut fruit. I prepared pitchers of this cocktail for the musicians and we couldn’t stop playing; most of the takes are twenty-five minutes long, and we kept this one because it’s eight minutes long. I did fall down in it, that’s where the guitar solo occurs. It was a very exuberant, passionate evening, and several musicians told me it was the happiest time they ever spent in a recording studio.
Gowdy: Has the way you feel about romantic love changed over the years?
Cohen: I’m not sure how I felt about it. I’ve never considered myself a romantic person. I find it very difficult to locate sentimentality or nostalgia or that kind of warm passion or potato feeling in myself, so I’m not sure what is meant by romantic love.
Gowdy: What do you think you say to women–it might be an unfair question–in your lyrics, in your poems?
Cohen: I think I’ve been saying the same thing from the very beginning. We’re all in the same boat, we’ve entered into this quarrel, into this cage, union, and extremely ambiguous circumstance together and we’re going to sort it out together. That is why I never thought of myself as a romantic poet because I always was very clear from the beginning that this confrontation involves some serious risks to the versions of oneself.
Gowdy: You mean the confrontation between men and women?
Cohen: Yeah. And it’s always been confrontational. Not in an aggressive sense but in an acknowledging sense that there are some profound differences and it involves serious risks and that these risks are really best acknowledged. And I think that’s the tone of most of the stuff and if the love and passion can transgress that mutual acknowledgement then you do have something that takes off, either it’s a song or a poem or the moment. But without that, you’ve got the moon-in-June school of writing–though my stuff gets close to the moon-in-June school of writing, but I think it’s that acknowledgement of the risk that rescues it every time.
Gowdy: I’d like to talk about writing here. Especially your novel writing, because you wrote two wildly successful novels that sold over 800,000 copies each, but it’s been twenty-six years now since Beautiful Losers was published, and I wonder why you never returned to the fiction form.
Cohen: 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–at a certain point I 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.
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 Feb 18, 2011 at 1HeckOfAGuy.com.
- The YouTube blurb lists the date of the interview as 1993 but the 1992 date is provided by the York University archives as well as the Speaking Cohen site. [↩]