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A Visit With Leonard Cohen: Poetry, Britney Spears and More With a Master

Singer-songwriter opened up about writing process, literary influences, Chelsea Hotel years in candid 2001 interview.

Singer-songwriter opened up about writing process, literary influences, Chelsea Hotel years in candid 2001 interview.

I met Leonard Cohen in 2001. He was staying at the Mayflower, a modest, somewhat faded hotel on Central Park West, just up the street from the Trump International. As I recall, his label had originally put him up in a much fancier place, but he hadn’t liked the vibe and switched without telling them. He’d recently spent several years at a Zen monastery in Los Angeles and had an otherworldly stillness about him. I felt more fidgety than usual. I remember his lighter and cigarette frozen in the air in front of his face – he’d been about to light a smoke when I asked a question, and he paused to answer in a long and perfectly formed paragraph, his hands not moving at all. Later, he poured me coffee from the room service cart, asked if I wanted cream, added it himself.

The Q&A that ran in Rolling Stone U.S. was a very short excerpt from our conversation. Throughout, Cohen was self-deprecating and drily funny. His new album at the time, Ten New Songs, had been his first in nearly a decade, and when I asked about the long gap, he quoted Isaac Bashevis Singer: “I believe he said, ‘Every creative person knows the painful chasm between the inner vision and the ultimate expression.’ Well, I was never bothered by that. Because I had no inner vision! And that’s why it takes me so long to write a song. I have the appetite to write – to bring something to completion, to show off – but I don’t have anything particular to write about, and it takes me a while to discern what that will be.”

He told me about his life as a young poet in Greece, where he bought a house for $1,500 in 1960 (“I have a very good sense of real estate. I bought my house in Montreal for $7,000 in 1975. I should have gone into real estate”), and his decision to turn to songwriting: ‘I’d already published three or four books at that time, but I couldn’t make a living. In hindsight, it seems the height of folly to decide to solve your economic problems by becoming a singer. But I didn’t have many options. I was on my way down to Nashville – I thought I’d be able to make a living as a studio musician down there – when I came through New York and bumped into that so-called folk-song renaissance.”

Famously, he moved into the Chelsea Hotel. “Dylan Thomas had stayed there, so for young poets, it was a kind of shrine,” he told me. “It was dangerous. There was a lot of acid around. At your own risk you would accept a potato chip in someone’s room, because it was usually salted with something. But it was an excellent time.” When his first album came out, Harry Smith, the avant-garde filmmaker and record collector best known for his highly influential Anthology of American Folk Music, was also living at the Chelsea. “And he said a very kind thing to me,” Cohen recalled. “Because people were talking about the excellence of the lyrics. And he drew me aside, in a very sincere way, and said, ‘Leonard, I know people are talking about the excellence of the lyrics. But I want you to know: the tunes are great.'”

Unlike the vast majority of interview subjects, at least in my experience, Cohen also had a number of questions for me – for instance, he wondered if I ever felt conflicted as a journalist who also wrote fiction. “Well,” I began, “if I’m interviewing someone I’m not interested in, like Britney Spears …” Cohen perked up. “I imagine that would be quite delightful,” he said.

“I’ve always thought of poetry as a verdict rather than an intention.”

Then he told me about his own “brief and disastrous” career as a journalist: “I had put out a little book in Canada, my first book of poems, and it had come to the attention of the editors of Esquire that Glenn Gould had praised the book. So they asked me to interview him. Generally he didn’t give interviews. So I went up to visit him. He was in Ottawa at the time. He was supposed to give me a half-hour. We ended up talking for three hours. But after about 15 minutes, I stopped taking notes. I thought that what he was saying was etched indelibly into my mind. When I got back home to Montreal, I didn’t remember anything. Esquire started calling me every day and I stopped answering the phone. I never did write the story. I had to return the advance.”

I asked about his favourite lyricists and he quoted the “great haiku” made famous by Fats Domino: “The moon stood still on Blueberry Hill.” I asked if he ever felt tempted to tinker with the lyrics of finished songs and he quoted his friend Leon Wieseltier: “Leon said what he likes most about his work that’s published is its quality of done-ness.” We talked quite a bit about poetry. “I’ve never dignified what I do with that term, poetry,” he said. “I’ve always thought of poetry as a verdict rather than an intention. It’s a verdict for another generation to make. And even the succeeding generations reverse the decisions of the preceding ones. So I like to describe myself as a songwriter.”

I’d forgotten, before listening back to the interview tape the morning after he died, that he’d quoted the last stanza of Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” from memory. It felt, during that week of all weeks, like something deliberately left behind:

Ah, love, let us be true

To one another! for the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams,

So various, so beautiful, so new,

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Rest in peace.