After his comeback to performing and Hallelujah’s unlikely chart domination, Leonard Cohen has had a remarkable year. He talks to Jian Ghomeshi about love, death and taking risks
Interview extracts referred to one of Leonard Cohen’s songs as Dancing to the End of Love. That should be Dance Me to the End of Love.
What have you learned from being back on stage?
Leonard Cohen: I learned that it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks. I’ve been grateful that it’s going well. You can’t ever guarantee that it’s going to continue doing well, because there’s a component that you really don’t command.
In 2001, you said to the Observer that you were at a stage of your life you refer to as the third act. You quoted Tennessee Williams saying: “Life is a fairly well-written play except for the third act.” You were 67 when you said that, you’re 74 now – does that ring more or less true for you still?
LC: Well, it’s well written, the beginning of the third act seems to be very well written. But the end of the third act, of course, is when the hero dies. My friend Irving Layton said about death: it’s not death that he’s worried about, it’s the preliminaries.
LC: Sure, every person ought to be.
Let me come back to the beginning of the first act. This was a brand new career for you that started in your 30s. How fearful were you of starting a second career?
LC: I’ve been generally fearful about everything, so this just fits in with the general sense of anxiety that I always experienced in my early life. When you say I had a career as a writer or a poet, that hardly begins to describe the modesty of the enterprise in Canada at that time – an edition of 200 was considered a bestseller in poems. At a certain point I realised that I’m going to have to buckle down and make a living. I’d written a couple of novels, and they’d been well received, but they’d sold about 3,000 copies. So I really had to do something, and the other thing I knew how to do was play guitar. So I was on my way down to Nashville – I thought maybe I could get a job. I love country music, maybe I’d get a job playing guitar. When I hit New York, I bumped into what later was called the folk-song renaissance. There were people like Dylan and Judy Collins and Joan Baez. And I hadn’t heard their work. So that touched me very much. I’d always been writing little songs myself, too, but I never thought there was any marketplace for them.
Some people would think it’s ironic to go into music to make money, given that it’s not necessarily the most lucrative of professions for most artists.
LC: Yeah, I know. In hindsight it seems to be the height of folly. You had to resolve your economic crisis by becoming a folk singer. And I had not much of a voice. I didn’t play that great guitar either. I don’t know how these things happen in life – luck has so much to do with success and failure.
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