Q: Do you still train your voice? Leonard Cohen: “I try to smoke quite a lot, and drink, that tends to deepen it.” Listen To, Read Leonard Cohen Interview With Charlie Rose – 1988



00:00 Charlie Rose: He has been called a poet laureate of outrage and romantic despair for more than 20 years now. Canadian, Leonard Cohen, has been writing and singing songs with a sense of passion and longing. He was at the forefront of the renaissance of song poetry in the ’60s. And now, he’s finding himself in the midst of yet another renaissance. He’s out with “I’m Your Man,” his first major label album in nearly ten years, and it’s getting critical acclaim. We look now at the video version of one of the songs from the album, “First we take Manhattan.” (MUSIC) (SINGING) They sentenced me to 20 years of boredom… For trying to change the system from within… (MUSIC) I’m coming now, I’m coming to reward them… First we take Manhattan… Then we take Berlin… Joining us now, Leonard Cohen. Welcome back, I should say.

01:06 Leonard Cohen: Oh, thank you very much for having me over.

01:09 Charlie Rose: Why ten years?

01:10 Leonard Cohen: Well, it’s been ten years in this country because my record company neglected to put out a couple of my records. But, you know, I’ve been still moving around Europe and playing there.

01:22 Charlie Rose: What’s it like during that lull period? I mean, do you notice any difference when you’re…

01:28 Leonard Cohen: No, I don’t notice it because you don’t really live according to your chart position. One continues to do one’s work.

01:39 Charlie Rose: And do the audiences still want to hear the favorites?

01:43 Leonard Cohen: Yes, I like to sing the old songs. Usually, I’m asked for them. It’s sometimes difficult to enter into a song you have been singing for 20 years, but it’s just important to find the door.

01:57 Charlie Rose: Difficult to enter into it, what do you mean?

02:00 Leonard Cohen: Well, for instance, last night, the audience asked me over and over again to sing “Suzanne.”

02:06 Charlie Rose: Of course, they did.

02:07 Leonard Cohen: And, you know, there was a point where I felt, OK, I’ll start the song now.

02:13 Charlie Rose: Do you purposely tease them in a sense?

02:14 Leonard Cohen: No, no.

02:16 Charlie Rose: Knowing you’re going to have to do it, but wanting to hold out as long as possible?

02:20 Leonard Cohen: Well, it isn’t that severe an ordeal, you know. It’s a pretty good song —

02:26 Charlie Rose: I don’t mean ordeal, but in the sense knowing that in the end it’s your responsibility to them, to an audience, if you’ve written a song, and performed a song, and sang a song that has registered. Did you write that?

02:35 Leonard Cohen: Yes.

02:36 Charlie Rose: That is really — that’s your probably the most popular song you’re known for.

02:41 Leonard Cohen: Certainly over here, yes.

02:42 Charlie Rose: Yeah. Therefore, you know that they want to hear it. And I would think an artist would owe that to an audience.

02:48 Leonard Cohen: No doubt about it. There would be no point in refusing to sing a song that people like.

02:56 Charlie Rose: But I’m saying, if you sing it like the third song in your performance that evening, in a sense, you wouldn’t want to do that either, would you, because you want to hold it out until the end.

03:05 Leonard Cohen: The position of every song has to be carefully determined in a concert set.

03:09 Charlie Rose: And what goes into that determination?

03:11 Leonard Cohen: It’s mostly instinctive, but a lot of it has certain technical considerations. You don’t want to put three up-tempo songs all together.

03:19 Charlie Rose: Is it written down somewhere, or do you know? In other words, do you have it somewhere hidden on stage?

03:24 Leonard Cohen: Well, in a certain sense it’s engraved in the heart, but I do have a set list pasted on the floor beneath my synthesizer —

03:31 Charlie Rose: I went to a performance the other night. And I went backstage, and there it was, the whole play list was right there. I knew, that they have to had — if you play every night on your own tour, and you change, you’ve got to have some recollection of where I want to go.

03:45 Leonard Cohen: There are technical considerations too, because we’re working with synthesizers and some programs, so that players have to be aware of what song is coming up.

03:56 Charlie Rose: You are what, now, 50?

03:57 Leonard Cohen: 54.

03:58 Charlie Rose: 54. Do you still train your voice? Do you still work with your voice?

04:02 Leonard Cohen: I try to smoke quite a lot, and drink, that tends to deepen it.

04:07 Charlie Rose: Right, right.

04:09 Leonard Cohen: I never had a voice. I never thought I had a voice.

04:12 Charlie Rose: Yeah. But you have a deep voice.

04:13 Leonard Cohen: I have a deep voice that keeps getting deeper.

04:15 Charlie Rose: Because?

04:17 Leonard Cohen: I think it’s the 50,000 cigarettes.

04:19 Charlie Rose: You still smoke?

04:21 Leonard Cohen: I started again for the tour.

04:23 Charlie Rose: Why?

04:24 Leonard Cohen: There’s just that moment on a tour when you — I’d been reaching for a cigarette for 30 years and just kept doing it. I had quit for some time.

04:32 Charlie Rose: Because of the cancer scare or the health.

04:35 Leonard Cohen: Yes, yes. Just generally wanting to get on the bandwagon of health and —

04:21 Charlie Rose: I would think a tour for someone like you, who really does have a one-to-one relationship with an audience in a sense, I mean, it’s not a lot of razzle-dazzle, it’s you and the audience and song, and they know what they want to hear, would be fun, would be enjoyable, would be satisfying, would be confirming.

05:01 Leonard Cohen: Well, it’s — I love touring. The preparations are difficult, but once you get on the road, it’s like living with a motorcycle gang. And, you know, you’re free from decisions and alibis. You know that the whole day funnels down to that moment where you step out on the stage and there’s nothing else that is really to be considered.

05:19 Charlie Rose: Like a television show.

05:20 Leonard Cohen: Yeah, it’s like you know exactly what I speak of. There is nothing that’s going to stand in the way of that moment.

05:26 Charlie Rose: If “Suzanne” is the audience’s favorite, what is yours?

05:29 Leonard Cohen: I don’t know if it’s the audience’s favorite but I think that it’s the most familiar song and their right to insist that they hear it. I think it varies from night to night in terms of how well the song is played and sung.

05:44 Charlie Rose: Yeah, are you the least bit surprised at your continued survivability and acceptance and success?

05:53 Leonard Cohen: Of course, I’m happy to be able to stay in the game, but when I started this work on this racket, I always thought I was in for the long haul.

06:01 Charlie Rose: And thought that you would be successful and would have a career?

06:07 Leonard Cohen: I never thought of it in terms of a career. I always wanted to be paid for my work, but I didn’t want to work for pay.

06:14 Charlie Rose: That’s a good way of putting it. And you don’t work for pay now?

06:20 Leonard Cohen: Of course there is an economic consideration.

06:22 Charlie Rose: No, no. Pay for your work. You don’t work for pay. You don’t have to do this.

06:26 Leonard Cohen: You know, there are certain private obsessions that really determine what your life is, and a lot of my life is concerned in turning out a certain standard of work, and as long as I can keep up a respectable standard, I’m pleased.

06:45 Charlie Rose: Why do you think you’re more appreciated in Europe say than in the United States?

06:49 Leonard Cohen: I used to say because they don’t understand the words over there. I don’t know. (LAUGHTER)

06:55 Charlie Rose: That if you sang French in France, they wouldn’t appreciate you as much.

06:58 Leonard Cohen: I don’t know. You know, in America, there are very simple and perhaps even refreshing market laws and if you don’t satisfy those laws, you just don’t perform in the market.

07:13 Charlie Rose: Yeah.

07:13 Leonard Cohen: And it’s been determined that I am not a mainstream singer and, therefore, the market is not as receptive, but I can’t — I can’t don a cloak of neglect, you know, indulge in some kind of sense of obscurity because it isn’t so, I’ve had a modest worldwide career for a long time and I can’t complain about that.

07:34 Charlie Rose: I wouldn’t either. Tell me about the new album. Some say it kind of harks back to country and western.

07:40 Leonard Cohen: Well, you know, I started off in a country western band in Montreal about 35 years ago called the “Buckskin Boys.” I’ve always liked that element. I think country music is one of the most sophisticated strains of music we have in America.

07:54 Charlie Rose: Why?

07:55 Leonard Cohen: Well, it’s a kind of minimal music where there’s a great emphasis on — on the voice, on the experience in the voice, and I love to hear the stories told in country music.

08:07 Charlie Rose: I do, too. And it — but it’s sophisticated because it’s raw, it’s —

08:16 Leonard Cohen: No, because the hearts and minds that produce this music are very sophisticated. We have this notion that because it’s from Tennessee and there’s some cotton farmer singing it that it’s not gonna be informed by the highest —

08:28 Charlie Rose: I don’t have that notion at all, but I’m interested what you think it does that reflects sophistication.

08:34 Leonard Cohen: It’s just the refinement of very complex situations into very cogent and heart-touching phrases. The technical considerations of country music are very demanding, and the great singers, the great writers like Hank Williams are as important as any other writers we have.

09:00 Charlie Rose: Do we still — you know, what’s interesting is the trend now is back, Randy Travis and some of those guys, are really, in a sense, looking for those roots.

09:16 Leonard Cohen: Well, you know, the roots have always been there, and for millions of people, the roots never withered. Fad styles move away from one music or to another, but that kind of music has always been there. We call it folk music. That is our music.

09:34 Charlie Rose: Where does blues fit in?

09:37 Leonard Cohen: Well, you know, you’ve got to earn the right to sing the blues, you know.

09:42 Charlie Rose: Yeah.

09:43 Leonard Cohen: They fit in whenever the heart is full enough and, you know, the heart is willing, you sing the blues. Not my strain of music, you know. I wouldn’t touch that kind of music.

09:57 Charlie Rose: Because?

09:58 Leonard Cohen: It’s not really my tradition, but I love it.

10:01 Charlie Rose: Yeah. Have you seen Clint Eastwood’s film on Charlie Parker?

10:05 Leonard Cohen: I haven’t seen it yet.

10:07 Charlie Rose: They say it’s incredible. That really it’s the best film ever made about a jazz artist. Where — How is the writing experience for you?

10:19 Leonard Cohen: It’s a desperate kind of experience.

10:21 Charlie Rose: Never gets easy.

10:22 Leonard Cohen: Well, no. You know, there’s said to be two schools of writers. The Flaubert school where you work three months on a paragraph, and, you know, the Thomas Wolfe School where you write 40,000 words on the top of the refrigerator every night. Unfortunately I’m in the former category.

10:40 Charlie Rose: I’d be in the latter. The idea of working three months on one paragraph or even writing and not — and laboring over one paragraph before you move to the next paragraph is just painful to me.

10:54 Leonard Cohen: It’s a severe enterprise, but there is something that is wonderful about finishing a song that you’ve labored on with that kind of care and intensity. You know that — if you’re gonna to be singing a song for the next 20 years, you want to be sure that you can get behind every word. I have a lot of songs I can still get behind because I brought that kind of attention to the lyric.

11:20 Charlie Rose: Because you knew what went into fashioning the words and the paragraph.

11:23 Leonard Cohen: Well, I have to write down everything that I throw away, so by the time I get down to six verses in a song, maybe I’ve thrown away 60 or 70 completed songs. So the ratio is about 10 to 1.

11:37 Charlie Rose: What’s the difference in writing poetry versus prose?

11:42 Leonard Cohen: I don’t know if there’s any difference. I’m not sure that we even know what poetry is today. Certainly, just the fact that the lines don’t come to the end of the page, does not guarantee its place in poetry. I don’t think we should really disturb ourselves with those considerations. Poetry has rhythm, authority, music, but prose can have that, too. Sometimes a paragraph in the “National Geographic” will have that kind of stunning simplicity and clarity that we associate, you know, with great verse.

12:14 Charlie Rose: Yeah, it really is that. Stunning simplicity and clarity.

12:18 Leonard Cohen: But we don’t have to be limited to that because sometimes we like complexity and we like puzzles and certainly modern poetry gives us a lot of that —

12:29 Charlie Rose: Any book that you continue to go back to and want to read? For example, I think it was Carlos Fuentes who said to me on this broadcast that every few years or so he reads “Cervantes.”

12:47 Leonard Cohen: Yeah, oh, it takes a few years to read “Cervantes.” I suppose the book that I go back to most often is the bible, the King James’ version of the bible.

12:57 Charlie Rose: Why?

12:59 Leonard Cohen: The language, the authority, the magnificence of the whole presentation. I don’t think we have anything in our language that touches it. That’s just on the literary level. It also obviously has other values. But to read the psalms of King David or the story of King David. That’s the prototype of every poet, of every singer, of every writer.

13:26 Charlie Rose: Are you a religious man?

13:28 Leonard Cohen: I wouldn’t say so, no.

13:29 Charlie Rose: Yeah. I would think so, but you don’t think so.

13:32 Leonard Cohen: Well, you wouldn’t want to advertise yourself that way on national television.

13:35 Charlie Rose: Because?

13:36 Leonard Cohen: You would never be able to get a date. (LAUGHTER)

13:39 Charlie Rose: What kind of date? (LAUGHTER) Well, thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to have you here. Much success with the album. And I hope you will come back. You’re always welcome on this broadcast.

13:50 Leonard Cohen: You’re very kind. Thank you very much.

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