My Long-Overdue Love Letter to Leonard Cohen

07/02/2012 09:33 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017


The column "framed" here below was written in Athens, Greece, and first published in September of 1988, in a small, now-defunct, English-language monthly called The Athenian. A longer version was published that same month, in Greek, in an also-now-defunct Greek magazine called Periodiko.

Alone among Greece's clamoring journalists in Leonard Cohen's second home-of-the-heart, Greece, I was granted an interview with the poet-troubadour whose fan I had been, at that time, some 20 years. He was in medias res of his "I'm Your Man World Tour" and, upon arriving in the city, granted a press conference at Athens's Ledra-Marriott Hotel.

Wearing a brand-new charcoal-grey suit (Armani, I believe), and a just-off-the-rack white shirt-of-quite-some-cost, he was jet-lagged and unprepared for the feeding frenzy of Greek arts reporters.

Cohen is very, very big in Greece, and in Europe, in general, where the poet, poetry, still has a passionate following.

Alone among the hacks there that day, I was a native speaker. Alone among them, I had two degrees in American Lit, all Cohen's books and records, had been a student of poet Coleman Barks, the great translator of Rumi, and was a published poet, myself. Alone among them, I could quote Leonard's lyrics back to him . . . and make sense of them. I could parse him.

But that's not what got me my exclusive, three-day-long interview with Leonard Cohen.

Instead, it was the fact that, alone among those talking-all-over-one-another scribes, I had a needle and thread in my purse . . . and Leonard's brand-new suit pants were split (they'd never been sewn, in fact) right up the seat. After he spoke to the crowd, I made my way through the throng, needle and black thread proffered.

"You're going to want to talk to me."


"Mr. Cohen, your pants are split right up the back seam."

"Can you come up to my room? Now?"

"Of course. With my tape recorder? And, I know you: no hanky-panky?"

A weary smile.

And so, it began. The interview that went on for three days, and certain innocent intervals of three nights. Plus one mega-concert at Athens's Lycabettus Theater.

I sewed up his pants expertly, handed out to me from a crack in the bathroom door. We talked at length. We sang a duet of "Molly Malone," which I still have on tape. For a few years after, we wrote. He was in love, at the time, with French photographer Dominique Issermann, which I just guessed at (from a cryptic inscription on his latest album). He thought I was psychic: I opined that he must be interviewed primarily by morons.

Now, listening to the tracks on one of his more recent CDs, Ten New Songs,"I realize that something I asked him about, something we spoke of, in that long-ago interview (and the column I wrote framing it) might have, must have, stuck, somewhere in that fertile, magpie's mind of his.

I asked him about a favorite poet, a favorite poem, of mine, "The God Abandons Antony," by Constantine Cavafys, as translated by my friend and mentor, Edmund "Mike" Keeley. He knew it by heart. I knew it by heart. In Mike's English translation.

Now, in Ten New Songs' "Alexandra Leaving," Cohen has "transposed" Cavafys's great lyric about courageous resignation, dignity in defeat, from Marc Antony, on the eve of his and Cleopatra's death in Alexandria, to a contemporary lover facing the end of a tutoiment. The Roman emperor about to lose absolutely everything becomes--in a stroke of Cohen-genius--Alexandra's lover; Alexandra having left him now, in spirit if not in the flesh, for another: "Suddenly the night has grown colder./The god of love preparing to depart./Alexandra hoisted on his shoulder,/They slip between the sentries of the heart.

"As someone long prepared for this to happen, [That line, and one other, taken directly from Cavafys]/Go firmly to the window. Drink it in./Exquisite music. Alexandra laughing./Your firm commitments tangible again./And you who had the honor of her evening,/And by the honor had your own restored--/Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving;/Alexandra leaving with her lord."

Sweet God, it's a magnificent song! And, if you know your Plutarch, know your Cavafys, know your Cohen, it is even so much the richer. The Greeks will all "get" this song; the Greeks now being crushed by The Crisis, being crushed by the great powers of the European Union. And they will thank, are thanking Leonard Cohen now for writing this song, an anthem that encapsulates their sorrow, their strength, their wistful acknowledgment of complicity in their own defeat.

There are other songs on this CD that will "live and breathe" as well, long after their author no longer lives and breathes: "In My Secret Life," "A Thousand Kisses Deep," "You Have Loved Enough," and "The Land of Plenty," in my opinion. Leonard told me, 20 years ago, that only one of his compositions would "endure." I believe, strongly, that he was wrong, and this compilation, released as the poet regards a world, and even himself, being "abandoned by the god," contains many lasting gifts to future, unborn audiences.

But now, my 1988 column, which I titled "Dinner With Leonard."

. . .

Sometimes, I feel I was really born in 1967, the year I entered university. I was 16, the Vietnam War was going great guns, and I felt like a purblind, newborn kitten whose eyes were just opening.
What the kitten saw was ugly.

Time and Newsweek covers featured such people as North Vietnam's Gen. Giap and the US's Westmoreland and, in uniform, the young and moribund.

We were all learning catchphrases such as M-16 and MIG; the Ho Chi Minh Trail and the DMZ. (In 1967, Oh Best Belovéd, there were still DMZs in our world.) But the October cover of Time, featuring Dana Stone's photograph of a fallen marine, ran with a banner reading: "Rising Doubt About The War."

That year of this purblind kitten, Leonard Cohen's first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, came out around Christmastime, and the poems written and scored and sung by the Rabbi's grandson from Montreal became part of her vocabulary as well.

I was 17 when I first heard Leonard Cohen sing. The songs, for that first album, weren't as political as those that came later. "Suzanne," and "Sisters of Mercy," and "Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye" were love songs tied up with ribbons of spirituality and cynicism, despair and compromise. (Love in our ruins.)

The 60s "litters" believed they'd, we'd, end the war, that love would conquer all. Really.

The older cats of the 70s--remember that AP photo of the little Vietnamese girl, naked, napalmed, fleeing the firestorm?--were giving up. Leonard Cohen went political.

Back from an idyll in his "First Mate's House" on the Greek island of Hydra, and the arms of a Norwegian blonde he'd immortalize in "Marianne"--ah, the man has loved women--he came out with Songs From a Room.

The lyrics were more bitter. One of them, "Story of Isaac," was a sermon on the sacrifice of purblind kittens. It was also, as are all of Cohen's songs, more personal than that. (Isaac is nine in the song; Cohen lost his father and composed his first poem at nine.) "You who build the altars now/To sacrifice these children/You must not do it anymore./A scheme is not a vision/And you have not been tempted/By a demon or a god./You who stand above them now/Your hatchets blunt and bloody/You were not there before/When I lay upon the mountain/And my father's hand was trembling/With the beauty of the Word."

So, I and my peers teethed on a distant war and the bittersweet Eucharist of Cohen. Twenty years have passed, as I write here. Cohen is middle-aged and visits Hydra seldom now. But his 1988 world tour, introducing an album titled I'm Your Man has brought him to Athens, and the Lycabettus Theater.

Twenty years have passed, and I'm no longer a long-haired hippie literature and journalism major with a peace sign on the seat of my purple bell-bottoms. I may--in that interval--have become a fairly pushy woman-scribbler, because I somehow managed to pull off dinner, dinners, alone with Leonard Cohen.

It was June 18th, and Cohen, wearing a suit tailored in Milan, looked for all the world like a cross between Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino, impersonating a flat-bellied Mafioso. He enjoyed his fassolada and spaghetti, that first evening, and he talked for some five hours about everything from the Talmud, his Lithuanian mother, Greece in 1959, Bruce Springsteen, and the un-named woman (I finally guessed her identity) he intended to marry, to journalism. Cohen claims to be not a lyricist, not a poet, not a singer, but a journalist now. The shoe fits: the songs are still reports from the militarized zone(s).

Part of the interview I taped I can share. Much of it, however, was sung or conducted on elevators or behind the piano in the Ledra-Marriott Hotel bar. But "dinner with Leonard" I got on tape: a dream come true.

. . .

Elizabeth Boleman-Herring: Why didn't you carry on your family tradition?
Leonard Cohen: I did.
EB-H: You became a 'priest'?
LC: I became a bad priest.
EB-H: There's no such thing as a bad priest.
LC: That's what Graham Greene thought . . . .
EB-H: What comes first for you, lyrics or melody?
LC: They're usually born together, like twins. Maybe one comes out a little ahead of the other, but they're close. Maybe one line comes and then just a chord change in a certain key: C to F--always a beautiful change; one of the most beautiful there is. Just a chord change will suggest a line or two. I'll work like that until maybe the first verse is done. Then, I have a musical form. Then, there's the bridge.
EB-H: At nine, you understood . . .
LC: . . . the connection. Instinctively made the connection, between language and deep feeling.
EB-H: Who gave you the raw material at home? My own mother read Shakespeare to me in my cradle in 1952.
LC: Nobody was ever that mean to me! They read me fairy tales, nursery rhymes . . . lullabies. [Waiter appears with huge platter.] OH BOY, AM I EVER LUCKY: SPAGHETTI BOLOGNESE!
EB-H: Leonard, that's the only thing I can cook . . .
LC: . . . so, can you get a divorce?
EB-H: There's no death in your lyrics.
LC: [Mouth full of spaghetti.] No death . . .
EB-H: No death in your lyrics or no death, period?
LC: Well, something between the two.
EB-H: How long have you known that?
LC: I've always known that.
EB-H: Do you put other people's poetry to music often?
LC: Lorca's poem, I translated. I translated a good poem, "Take This Waltz," and I put it in a nice musical setting, and I know it will live forever.
EB-H: Come on: which of your songs will survive?
LC: "Take This Waltz": about 23 years, and then it will be completely forgotten. They'll all be forgotten: everything I ever wrote.
EB-H: Does that bother you?
LC: Not in the least. I couldn't care less.
EB-H: Why do you keep singing?
LC: Who knows? There were other things I was interested in.
EB-H: Such as?
EB-H: [Willing to have my leg pulled, again and again, throughout this and following evenings.] You like Cavafys, you said.
LC: "The God Abandons Antony." [Declaiming:] "Like a man long-prepared . . ." That poem is good.
EB-H: It's pretty close to your world view.
LC: You're there by the window. You see them going by. The ghostly clamor. The high-pitched voices. The atmosphere of abandon and ecstasy . . . [Pauses.]
EB-H: . . . and?
LC: . . . you don't say to yourself: Am I imagining this? Is it really happening? It's really happening.
EB-H: And do you try to hold onto it?
LC: [Grins.] For a second or two, why not? And you see that that fails . . .
EB-H: . . . like relationships?
LC: . . . like relationships and ALL things.
EB-H: Have you ever written anything mean, cruel?
LC: Never.
EB-H: No, not the man who wrote "The Guests." Where did that one come from?
LC: "The Guests" was the nicest song that ever happened to me. The music I'd had for a long time, unusually, but I didn't know what it was for. And then there was this girl who went to Persia to study with the Sufi order of the Whirling Dervishes. She became entitled to teach the dance and went back to America and began to teach. To be "entitled" to teach the dance, you must not only have mastered it, you must have mastered its implications.

So, I'd written my song, and this girl had begun to form Sufi groups and, when she was in the Middle East, she'd formed an association with a Sheikh who was interested in her personally. After she'd been teaching for a couple of years, this man came to America to review the progress of the various Sufi groups and he told her his own were dancing to a song written by a Westerner. And she asked what song. And he said, "The Guests"--it has the spirit of Rumi in it. Rumi, who lived in the 13th century, was the founder of the Dervishes. He was probably the greatest ascetic religious poet--in the same league as King David.
EB-H: Do you aspire to dance naked, like David, in the streets? [Forgive me, Dear Readers: but I was then a jejeune 36 to his 53.]
LC: I have no aspirations. My mind doesn't work that way. I think more like--a dog, a TV set, and a woman by my side when I think of the really wonderful things.
EB-H: You've got that in alphabetical order . . .
LC: Well, in those moments when those things can be appreciated, they all have the same value, the same weight. That's what brings the peace . . . all things have the same weight in what we all peace. Those are the really lovely moments.
EB-H: Few and far between?
LC: No--going on all the time.
EB-H: . . . but there's your deep sadness. It permeates your songs.
LC: I'm just "the sad thing" that has the same weight as "the happy thing" and "the indifferent thing," "the beautiful thing" and "the thing." BOY, IS THIS FASOLADA GOOD! I'm eating your dinner, too. [And, he did just that: everyone does, as I talk so damned much.]
EB-H: How readily do you answer personal questions?
LC: There's a certain type of question that has the appearance of a personal question that you can take a position on and speak about with a certain amount of intimacy. But I don't think anybody can answer really personal questions. I think we're all too shy.
EB-H: How many times have you been in love? You've never married, but you have two children . . .
LC: Well, I started in love, but people finally weaned me away from it . . .
LC: . . . BUT THEY WERE NOT SUCCESSFUL!! [The room fell silent around us: we were really shouting.]
EB-H: But you've never married.
LC: No. [Singing.] I never really fell in love, so I never saw the point. If I understood what "they" were trying to tell me, I was in love, but they all said that wasn't good enough: I had to "fall."
EB-H: And that's never happened?
LC: It's finally happened . . . if by falling in love they mean that life becomes impossible to live and you hardly know how to get from one moment to another, and that you cannot entertain the idea of living without the approval and love of "the object." If that's what falling in love is, I know what it's like.
EB-H: When did this happen?
LC: A few months ago.
EB-H: Where is she?
LC: [Singing.] "Where, where, where is my gypsy wife tonight?" Not far. Just a heartbeat away.
EB-H: Will you stay fallen?
LC: Well, that really awful feeling has gone. I took a lot of antidepressants and spent several months in a monastery [Grins.] and that finally went. I never fell in love till I was a man of 52. And this new album is for her.
EB-H: "For D.I.," wherever she is. Have you gone from sad to tortured, then?
LC: Oh, no! Nietzsche called love "the gay science."
EB-H: Well, here's the scholar who wrote "O tangle of matter and ghost . . ."
LC: I WAS a superb lyricist.
EB-H: Was?
LC: . . . and completely unrecognized. And that's the beautiful thing about it . . .
EB-H: "Humbled in love"?
LC: I wrote for years and years and people laughed. They thought it was the funniest stuff in the world. I sang my heart out. Everything I felt, I wrote down.
EB-H: Why?
LC: Be free from "why."
EB-H: Well, I've got past "should." Maybe "why" will take a few more years.
LC: You've got a great big heart, Elizabeth, but you're very, very cerebral.
EB-H: A lobotomy might help, but, then, I couldn't make sense of: "Do you remember the pledges/That we pledged in the passionate night?/They're soiled now and torn at the edges/Like moths on a stale yellow light."
LC: Cerebral is OK. That's Raja Yoga, the path of the mind.
EB-H: I would have preferred a different path.
LC: Well, we never get what we prefer.

. . .

And so, it is now 2012, and Leonard Cohen is yet again going out on tour. I have not again seen him, in the flesh, since that last day, in 1988, in Athens, but I know he remains very much the same man I met, and hung out with, for three days so very long ago, when we were both so very much younger.

And, wherever you're singing tonight, Mr. Cohen, I pray that there are many, many more members of your audience now who "get" you, and stand up to applaud long and hard at the end of each song; audience members both cerebral and big-hearted. For "You have loved enough/Now let [us] be your lovers.'