Leonard Cohen interviews Suzanne Vega in 1993

Part 1

Leonard Cohen: Alone at last. This is the first time we’ve ever been alone in a room together.

Suzanne Vega: Is that really true? Yeah, I guess it is true.

C: I met you first at the photographers.

S: Right, so it was you and me and that woman.

C: And assistants.

S: … and assistants …

C: … and well wishers, and onlookers.

S: Right. Then we went for a drink.

C: But, that was a public place.

S: … that was a public place.

C: And what was the next time we met?

S: At the Juno Awards.

C: You were very kind to come to the Juno Awards and sing a fragment of my song.

S: I was very happy to come and sing a fragment of your song.

C: That was very, very kind of you. But, you could hardly say that was a private occasion.

S: Right. No, it wasn’t a private occasion.

C: Our circumstances were different also. Your life has changed radically since then.

S: Well, I guess it has. I suspect yours has, although I don’t know how, you know. Oh, you know because I wrote to you and told you, that’s why.

C: Yes. I consider the letter very sweet, and I was touched by the fact that you would inform me about your situation. May I apologize for not responding?

S: Oh, no problem.

C: I myself have been in the midst of a creative struggle of some dimension. But, our lives have changed radically since that last hurried meeting in many crowded places in Vancouver.

S: Yes, I guess it was Vancouver.

C: Now we find ourselves…

S: But I did receive your Christmas present.

C: Oh good, what was it?

S: It was the dates that you sent through the mail.

C: I’m so glad that you got those. Did you not get a little gift from me after the Juno?

S: Of course I did and I thanked you for it too.

C: Oh, good. I’m glad you thanked me for it. And did you like the dates?

S: Yeah, I liked the dates. I liked them the year before that too.

C: I hope I’ll be able to send you a box of dates every year at Christmas, until circumstances really change and that extravagance can no longer be supported.

S: So, about your new album… no, I was kidding.

C: I’ve been reading the lyrics of your new album, which your management has kindly furnished me. I’ve been listening to the album under many circumstances. I’ve been listening to it in the car, with the sunroof open and closed. It sounds very, very different. The bass disappears when you open the sunroof.

S: Oh, really?

C: …in the sound system in my car, no flaw in your record. In fact, if I may say so, the low notes, not that you sing but that are played…

S: …yes…

C: …are very, very beautiful.

S: and low, and…

C: There’s a wonderful lowness. There’s a wonderful lowness about your record.

S: I feel this too, actually. We got very low to do this record.

C: I don’t think you ever had anything quite this low in your previous work, the sounds … bass sounds…

S: It’s the bass sounds, but also in the attitude I think in keeping what might normally be discarded. Keeping all of it, the distorted parts and the noise that someone else might throw away. We kept it.

C: Why?

S: There’s a low sort of attitude.

C: Were you feeling reckless?

S: Yeah, I suppose I was feeling rather reckless. I was feeling like… I mean, I have no complaints with any of my previous records, but I felt that it was all very clean and some of the things I write about are not especially clean. Art is kind of low and dark and so I felt that it was time to incorporate some of that into the music. I think that’s probably why I picked Mitchell Froom to make the album. He has a taste for those kind of things.

C: It’s very, very successful, and your voice against some of those moments are very beautiful, very pure. But are you as pure in your own life, in your own views as the singer presents herself? There’s an austerity and a kind of unstrident idealism about the record, that is if somebody has kept something, kept some flame alight, kept something unsullied. That’s a feeling that runs through the record. Is that so in your life? Do you lead a life that is guarded?

S: I might say I lead a guarded life, yeah. I mean it’s not as pure as it might look, but it’s not… it’s pretty guarded. I think it’s guarded because it’s had to have been guarded. It’s because I came from places that were not very pure and I suppose that’s why I felt I needed to keep certain things clear and straight. But still I feel myself to be of the world and looking at things that are real and things that are not pure. I don’t feel that I judge other people, but I judge myself very strictly.

C: You are a strict person, and other too I imagine you judge quite strictly. Except the people you happen to fall in love with. Then I imagine you make, as you say in one of your songs, in your song In My Movie …

S: If You Were In My Movie

C: If You Were In My Movie , in that song you seem to indicate that you would give wide allowance to anyone you fall in love with.

S: I don’t know if that’s true, maybe, probably. I don’t know.

C: Is that what the song is about?

S: The song is about flirting. It’s a flirting kind of song. It’s a song looking at another person and saying these are qualities that you could be, that you could have within you. These are the things that I see.

C: You could realize these things with me.

S: Yeah, if you wanted to. It’s putting a glamorous light on someone’s character. Saying these are the things that, when I look at you, these are the things I see. It’s like taking someone’s basic nature and making it more than it actually is.

C: You have managed to make austerity extremely seductive. There is a very seductive quality about your record, although nothing is given away, nothing is thrown away, nothing is revealed.

S: Except in the art work where you can see my legs.

C: I haven’t seen, … nobody showed me any artwork.

S: Well, I’ll have to show… when we’re done with the interview, I’ll show you the artwork. But, in that one I’m dressed as on of the characters on the album, the character of the dancing girl, and so, I’m wearing a dancing girl outfit and you can see my legs. But, I’m still wearing men’s shoes and I’m wearing a cardigan sweater. So, I suppose you’re right because there isn’t anything being revealed, although it’s hinted at.

C: It’s into,… I mean there is nothing in the record that rejects anything that is going on in this world. It casts quite a cold eye on the things around you, but there is a flirtatious, …no flirtatious, I wouldn’t use that word. There’s a very seductive quality to all your attitudes, especially the most restrained of them. I think that’s the genius of the album, behind the very careful construction of the songs and the very sparse lyrics there is some kind of raging appetite. I heard you once on the Howard Stern Show.

S: Oh, you did?

C: Yes, it was one morning a few months ago.

S: Oh really. Do you happen to remember what he was discussing specifically?

C: Well, I think he was discussing your breasts.

S: Yeah, I remember that day.

C: And, he seemed to be pleased.

S: He did seem to be pleased, I remember that.

C: He seemed to be pleased for one reason or another.

S: Right.

C: But the thing that pleased me about the interview, of course next to the astounding information that Howard Stern imparted to us all…

S: Right.

C: … About your anatomy, was just the sound of your speaking voice…

C: … were you surprised at the fact that many people love you?

S: I’m surprised at it, yeah, if you put it like that. It makes me feel shy.

C: Did you not expect to be loved so widely?

S: I don’t think I expected to be understood. Whether I expected to be loved…

C: I don’t understand you. What kind of understanding have you…

S: I’m surprised when people understand as much as they do of the songs, because I guess I don’t reveal a lot about the specific topics. You know when people say, “Well what’s your message?” I never feel that I’m just revealing a message. I guess I felt if I was going to do that I could write out a message on a pamphlet or something and pass it around, and that would be a message of a kind, but it doesn’t seem to be the way to do it that makes the most sense to me.

C: Well, I think that you are revealing something. There’s something in the most refined and abstracted way flirtatious about the way that you refuse to reveal anything.

S: Well, I think it’s because the things that attract me in real life are the things that are not obvious and the things that are not simple.

C: But do you have a kind of passion for this thing that cannot be said? May I ask you to read, would you mind reading?

S: No, I wouldn’t mind.

C: For instance, the lyric of the “…Dancing Girl”

S: Okay. This song is called Fat Man and Dancing Girl and it goes:

I stand in a wide flat land
No shadow or shade of a doubt where the megaphone man
met the girl with her hand that’s
covering most of her mouth

Fall in love with a bright idea and the way a world is revealed to you
Fat man and dancing girl
and most of the show is concealed from view

Monkey in the middle keeps singing that tune
I don’t want to hear it
Get rid of it soon

MC on the stage tonight
Is a man named Billy Purl
He’s The International Fun Boy
And he knows the worth of beautiful girl

Stand on the tightrope
Never dreamed I would fall

Monkey in the middle
Keeps doing that trick
It’s making me nervous
Get rid of it quick

I stand in a wide flat land
No shadow or shade of a doubt
Where the megaphone man
Met the girl with her hand
That’s covering most of her mouth

Does she tell the truth?
Does she hide the lie?
Does she say it so no one can know?
Fat man and the dancing girl
And it’s all part of the show

Stand on the tightrope
Never dreamed I could fall

Monkey in the middle
Keeps singing that tune
I don’t want to hear it
Get rid of it soon

Monkey in the middle
Keeps doing that trick
It’s making me nervous
Get rid of it quick

C: Oh, I thank you so much for reading that. I think that it has, … I think that we should study it, a little.

S: Oh yeah?

C: …carefully. I did study this song with my son, and we went through the lyric line by line.

S: Your son, Adam?

C: My son, Adam. I would love to have the opportunity to study it with you. Because, well for one thing, I think it’s very, very beautiful, beautifully executed song on the album. I think that there are lines in it that get right to the heart of your operating mode, and I’d really like to see what I could uncover for myself and for the listener. So, let’s begin at the beginning and please forgive me if I question you in what seems to be insane detail.

S: Well, I might just say, “Well, I just can’t tell you that”.

C: That’s fine. I think that our friendship will survive this examination.

S: Okay.

C: The first line that I really would like to ask you about is this line, “and most of the show is concealed from view.” What is the show that is concealed from view?

S: The way I was thinking of it was almost like a shadow puppet; the thing that is really causing the shadow is the thing that’s behind the screen. But, that’s not really answering your question. “Most of the show is concealed from view,” meaning the real life no one sees. It’s the thing that happens when I go home, or when I think about my own life or when I think about other people’s lives. The thing that is the most interesting about people is the way they are when no one is looking at them or the way they are when they’re in private.

C: Well, what do you see in this world?

S: And to me that is the kind of show that I give. I don’t give a glamorous show. I don’t come on stage in costumes or outfits.

C: Oh, I see what you mean.

S: Although, in this particular song, I’m playing at being the dancing girl. But, when I say, “most of the show is concealed from view,” the real heart of the whole show is the thing that I don’t do on stage. It’s the private part.

C: So the resonance in your voice, the activity that your lyrics point at is the real song?

S: Yes.

C: And it’s a kind of brush painting, where a line or two will indicate a horizon, or a sky, or a sea, or a mountain, and it’s just done with one or two strokes. I accept that as a partial explanation, but it’s too insistent this record, the lyric is too insistent. Song after song you seem to indicate there’s something going on behind the curtain in “As Girls Go.” You say that if you could just run that number yourself and you could see behind the other side of the curtain you’d understand the situation. But, there is something that is whispering to you and something whispering to the listener all through the record. You don’t have to hear it this way, you could just tap your foot to the record. It’s a great record. But, for those of us that like to torture ourselves in other realms,…

S: Yes.

C: … and those of use who are compelled to do interviews with imperial intentions in the middle of an afternoon these are the thoughts that assail us, there is something whispering to you, and it’s something menacing. It’s something…

S: …dark

C: …something fertile, it’s something wet. It’s something sexual, it’s something violent. What is it really?

S: Well, it’s different things in each of the songs. It’s different things in each of the songs, in the place that you mentioned about what goes on behind the curtain. In that song it’s wondering how far did this person take their own wish to be somebody else. You know, that’s a song about a woman, by all appearances she’s a woman except that you know she’s a man. So you see someone like this who seems very rare. This one particular person had a very rare quality which you could kind of understand after you realized what her situation was. But, it didn’t explain everything. It just made her extremely attractive and so you felt yourself drawn into her because of this rare quality and then you start to wonder how far did the whole thing go. How much pain does this person put themselves through in order to present this extremely attractive appearance, this extremely graceful and beautiful appearance. So that was my question. I mean, I never found out the answer. I didn’t need to know the answer. It was more just the way this person was alluring.

C: How much pain do you go through to present this extremely attractive, modest and refined appearance?

S: I think I’ve experienced a fair amount of pain in my life, but I don’t feel that that’s a part of the show really.

C: You have a clear idea of what the show is?

S: Yeah, I know myself pretty well. I know what my own history as been. But, I don’t feel that I need to,.. you know I take parts of it and make things out of it. And mix it with other things that I know and things that I see. How much pain do I put myself through? I don’t know. I mean, I have to say that at this point in my life I’m happier than I’ve ever been,

C: How come?

S: Cause I feel really free, I think, for the first time in my whole life. I think I feel very much like myself and not concerned with proving something to someone or… I feel like some of those more idiosyncratic parts are starting to come out now in a way that I would not have allowed before.

C: You have money, fame, youth, beauty, talent. That’s a good start… for feeling good.

S: Yeah, but you know that doesn’t mean that people are happy if they have those things. I stick to my original theory.

C: Which is?

S: Which is that I feel very free right now. I feel very happy with myself, with my own character as it is. And those other things are good, and … I’m not working a day job. I’m really happy about that. But I don’t feel that it’s these other things that have made me feel the way I’ve been feeling.

C: Do you have many admirers?

S: I have some.

C: I image they are legion. Would you please tell me what this means, “monkey in the middle keeps singing that tune, I don’t want to hear it, get rid of it soon.”

S: Well, the “monkey in the middle,” – first of all, in order to describe a song like this you have to describe the landscape it’s taking place in.

C: Well, we have all the time in the world.

S: Okay. The “wide flat land” is obviously not a real land. It’s a land in someone’s mind or it’s a land you might see in one of Picasso’s paintings. You know, like the Harlequin series. It’s a circus atmosphere, but it’s like a bad dream or like a nightmare.

C: It’s too real?

S: Too real? No, I said surreal. So in this landscape you have, … what “monkey in the middle’ meant to me was that there was a person in my life who was telling me something over and over again that I didn’t want to hear. I kept trying to get rid of the thing this person was saying, cause I felt this person wasn’t understanding.

C: A real person in your life you mean?

S: Yeah, it was a real person in my life. But, within this landscape she became the monkey in the middle and I kept trying to get rid of it…

C: She’s a voice in your mind and she belongs to a real person and the things she said disturbed you deeply or inhibited you or prevented you from acting freely?

S: The thing that this woman said was.. she was warning me of something, to be careful of something. I didn’t feel like being careful, and in the end she was right and I was wrong. The monkey, the tune was the one I finally heard.

C: That’s a warning voice.

S: Yeah, yeah.

C: And you found that her warnings were well…

S: Accurate.

C: … well conceived.


Part 2

S: Yeah, well conceived. Cause there are certain areas where I’m not cautious, where I just go tumbling headfirst and I think sometimes, in this case her advice was, yeah, well conceived. But, each of these characters is someone in my life ans I wouldn’t feel comfortable telling you who the different people are.

C: No, no, I know.

S: But, there’s a function to each one. The megaphone man is the opposite of the girl with the hand over her mouth. The megaphone man is a person who gives information to the world. The girl who is covering her mouth is the girl with the secret, it’s the same girl that’s in all the songs. It’s the same girl…

C: She has a secret?

S: Yeah.

C: It’s a delicious secret sometimes.

S: Could be.

C: Or a dark secret.

S: It’s a dark one. It’s probably no different than the same secret every woman has. Based on that…

C: What is the secret that everywoman has?

S: Well, I’m sure yo uwould know.

C: I don’t.

S: I’m sure you’ve experienced it several times, over and over again in your life. It’s probably nothing more or less than that, except that sometimes it’s dark, sometimes it’s violent, sometimes it’s stuff that you knew too early that you shouldn’t have known.

C: That’s another theme in this record, or at least in one of the songs, two of the songs, that there is something you find out too early. Now I don’t mean to be tedious with this emphasis on this secrecy bu tnot everybody writes every song about something that happens offstage, about something that is concealed, about a secret that is not told, not whispered.

S: Do you think every song is about this?

C: It appears in a number…

S: In a number.

C: … of the songs. It’s a strong theme in the record, and that’s why I’m just poking around trying to find out what this is. Not what the secret is but what your devotion to the secret is and how it became in a certain sense the aesthetic irritation around which the pearl of the song formed. It’s something that seems to be very present in your psyche, this notion that there’s something to be concealed, something to be discovered, something not quite heard, something not quite understood, sonething glimpsed behind teh veil. It seems to be there over and over again and forgive me for trying to uncover something which has been so deliberately concealed.

S: Well, I understand your reasons for it, but I suppose in the long run, It’s become the way I prefer to work because there’s something beautiful in it to me. There’s something beautiful in presenting it that way with the whole mystery about it intact. I think the kind of writing that I always loved was the kind of writing that had all the complications in it and everything was not explained completely. You have to say the same thing about your own work. You don’t reveal everything, relationships are not always clear. There’s a lot of specific things that are hinted at and you fill in the rest with your imagination but you don’t come out and blurt out the sort of obvious arithmetic of it. You don’t come out and say, “Well, I loved you and you don’t love me,” although maybe you have said that.

C: I say it over and over again, I thought. Incidentally, there is very little…

S: Which is why I was attracted to your music at a very early age, it explained, to me it had the world the way I knew it. It didn’t try and make it simple, it didn’t try and clear it up for everyone. It kept it as murky as it actually is in life, and that to me is what I like about it.

C: What did you learn too early?

S: I learned about the way people can treat each other and the way people, in extreme circumstances, will do things that they wouldn’t do if they were thinking about it; how people, at a very basic level, wlil fight to survive and act in ways that humans would prefer to not think of themselves acting like. Those are things I think I learned pretty early. That was my sense of the world, as a place where… the world I grew up in was a very extreme place, it seemed to me. MAybe it was just because of my temperament. I don’t think so. I don’t think it was because of my temperament. I think it was the circumstances. those were the first things I think I learned. I mean, I learned other things as well, but those were the things I learned too early. The other things I learned were things that children know, which are things of the imagination and things, you know, more spirit-like things. Things like, myth-like things. Those are things I also knew as a child.

C: What is the mystery of that poem? Would you mind reading it? I think it’s a wonderful song. I listen to your songs in the car, with the sunroof open and closed, and listening to it in a room, and listening to it in the bath, and I find it has the quiality of allowing you to leave the song and go off into your own considerations, of your own predicament where it becomes a kind of score, a kind of background for your own speculations. And I found myself, after I allowed myself to relax with the record beyond all the implications and obligations of the interview that I knew I would have to do, I tried to expose myself to the record in the normal fashion and I found that you could drift away a lot of the time, which I think is the test for music that I like. You’re very polite in this record.

S: Am I?

C: In fact, you are a very polite person.

S: I think I probably am a polite person. It’s gotten me in trouble many times.

C: Really?

S: Yeah.

C: that’s a curious world in which courtesy and good-manners now gets people in trouble.

S: Well, it did. For example, you have to imagine, say, if someone is in the ocean and they’re drowning, it would be very bad. This is something that actually happened to me when I must ahve been twelve or thirteen, and I felt myself suddenly way over my head, and I found myself saying, “excuse me please, but do you think you could come over here and take me out of this water because I think I’m drowning.” And you know you say it in this perfectly reasonable, …

C: Instead of screaming out, “Help!”

S: … instead of going, “Help!”, yeah. It’s the kind of thing… that’s the kind of thing I mean. I would either prefer to swim to a shallower place by myself or somehow ploitely engage someone else in this life-to-life activity.

C: You thought that help would violate this sacred space between people that must at all times be preserved, this secrecy, this restraint.

S: I don’t knwo what it was, I just felt really foolish. By the time I got out my fingernails were purple. I thought, “Well that was really stupid.” I thought to myself, “Why didn’t you just say ‘help?’ Why didn’t you just shout?” And go “Help!” And it is a polite record, and it is a strange way of threatening someone, this song here. To say “excuse me, if I may, turn your attention my way” is a terribly polite way of saying I’m going to kill you with this rock.

C: That’s right.

S: So, I think you’re right.

C: Who taught you these manners? Did you acquire them yourself?

S: I have no idea, my mother says I was just always like that. She says I carried myself with this way of being like a princess and even if I was going through the garbage it was always with a certain manner, which I think sometimes other people found annoying. It wasn’t the kind of thing that I was taught. I have no idea where I got it from.

C: this was a style you acquired very early in your life, this kind of strong sense of the importance of maintaining the appropriate tine and distance between you and the world, and you and other people.

S: It was before I was seven years old, I’d say.

C: Not to say that you reject anything, but that you have a very well spun filter between you and the phenomena that surrounds you, for which we must be grateful because it produces these extremely mysterious and interesting songs. It is true that someone you’re going to thump on the head with a rock, even if it’s a small rock.

S: A small rock.

C: Is this some idea of the David story?

S: Yeah, it’s smoe idea of it. It’s a very simple version of the story of David and Goliath. It’s the moment where he’s trying to get Goliath’s attention, you might say. Maybe Goliath in his mind is saying, well you’re too small. You’re just too small for me, I can’t even look at you because you’re too small. David is saying, well, it’s this small thing that can bring you down, that will cause your fall.

C: The power of the small.

S: Yeah, the power of the small thing.

C: You’ve mastered that, the power of the small.

S: At some point I hope to grow, it’s the thing I’m very interested in. It is one of the things I’m very interested in.

C: Which is?

S: That power of te small. That idea that small things have their own voice and their own will and their own life and their own dignity in the world. That is very often trampled on by people who feel they are bigger.

C: You know I was asking myself what is the essential quality of the record and that wass the word that came to me was dignity, that it’s dignified, that all your work is very dignified. That it doesn’t surrender to vulgarity, that it never panders. Dignity is the quality that no matter what you’re talking about you never surrender that. You never turn it into a peek show, even though you’re completely concerned with this notion of curtains and concealment and what is wehispered in secret, you never become coy about it. And I think that’s a significant achievement of your work is the dignity that it never surrenders even while talking about matters could easily fall into an undignified confessional mode. It never even approaches that. Is this a man you’re speaking to?

S: In this song? In the “Song of David?”

C: Or is it the world?

S: It’s not a specific man. Sometimes I feel like it’s the world. Sometimes I feel it’s the way I approach the world or the audience even, I stand on the stage and I say, “Excuse me, if I may.” That’s the thing I want. I want their attention for that moment and somehow by the end of the show I will have made them see something. So sometimes I feel that it’s my way of approaching the world or the audience, sometimes it’s a way of approaching someone I feel to be bigger than myself. And it’s not usually a man that I’m involved with but someone that I perceive as having authority. It’s a song about authority. It’s a song about striving to get that authority to know you, to know a person.

C: Is this in anyway a song about your life or your career, which all of us write in some kind of secret way, those songs where you say, “look you’ve underestimated me?” If you want to relegate me as a folk singer or as this particular kind of performer or this particular kind of writer, you’ve got the wrong idea.

S: Yeah, there’s an element of that. There’s an element of that kind of challenge. Definitely.

C: So, a lot of the reviewers that I’ve read have made some point that this record has its flirtatious element, or that you’ve changed, that this represents a radical change in your work or in your direction, is it so?

S: I think I’ve taken more chances with this record than I have with some of the others. I think stylistically it sounds different. I was not as concerned with this record as to how it would be perceived. I was more concerned with the way it felt making it and how to geel that I was expressing parts of my personality that normally I would not ahve brought forth, or would’ve tried to polish up, or would have waited till it was more perfect. But this, I didn’t want to do that at this point in my life.

C: I’m surprised to hear you say that because it has an extremely polished feel, the record. It’ doesn’t sound like an improvisatio nat all.

S: No, no. It wasn’t even a fact of experimenting; it wasn’t as though I was trying to experiment with something wild. It was more a natural letting go of things that were already in there. And it was a question of doing what was right for each song. But, it also meant that the songs themselves had more extreme kinds of moods in them than they did before. I don’t know if a song like Blood Makes Noise ” – I dont know if five years ago I might have decided that song was too ugly to put on a record, cause there are other songs I have that I don’t put on records.

C: Oh, I see. Let’s look at Blood Makes Noise

S: I guess if I bring it up I should expect to have it discussed. This one says:
Blood makes noise
I’d like to help you doctor
Yes, I really, really would
But the din in my head it’s too much and it’s no good
I’m standing in a windy tunnel shouting through the roar
I’d like to give the information you’re asking for

C: But blood makes noise, it’s a ringing

S: in my ear
Blood makes noise
and I can’t really hear you in the thickening of fear
I think that you might want to know the details and the facts
but there’s something in my blood denies…

C: I would like to know the details and the facts, that’s what I’m trying to get to. Now you give me the answer, there’s something in your blood.

S: denies the memory of the act..

So just forget it, doc
I think it’s really cool that you’re concerned
but we’ll have to try again after the silence has returned

It’s kind of a stange way to address one’s doctor. It’s a little flip. It’s almost condescending.

C: It’s foolish if you’re sick.

S: It is foolish I suppose, if you’re sick.

C: Were you sick?

S: I have been sick in my life.

C: Yes? Some of the reviewers have observed that there’s a lot of medical inference and vocabulary.

S: Yeah. Well, some of that is my way of amusing myself and being what I call funny. It’s a very ovscure kind of humor. Some of it is because I think the language of medicine is fascinating and has its own poetry in it. And some of it I think is probably cause when I came off the road in 1987 I was, not seriously sick, I’m really healthy, but I was anemic and I had asthma and bronchitis and stuff you get from being run down. But I think the main reason I work with these terms is because I feel that language itself is beautiful, and especially medical language is a way of talking about the body in a way that’s intimate without being corny. Although I think I’ve probably taken it about as far as I’m going to take it. But, I do get letters from doctors.

C: So, what do they say?

S: Oh, they say that the information is very accurate and could they use the lyrics in their own texts, and…

C: ..could they meet you?

S: One or two want to know if they can meet me. Or they want to know how do I know so much about medicine.

C: Well, how do you know so much about medicine?

S: Cause I’m curious about the body, I’m curious about being healthy and I like the idea of ministering.

C: There’s a very beautiful line in one of your songs. I though it was really excellent, I underlined it, “I will pay for my life with my body.”

S: It’s a very sad line, in the context of it.

C: What does it mean?

S: Well the girl in the song, who is a girl with a secret, feels like the woman who walks in the street. And in that way she is in someway paying for her life with her body.

C: It’s a mysterious way to describe what we all do really.

S: I suppose everyone deos, ultimately.

C: We all pay for our lives with our body.

S: You mean in the final end of it, it is.

C: I mean that’s what we do, pay a little bit everyday.

S: Right

C: I thought it was a very beautiful line that is very much…

S: I mean some people are forced to pay more with their bodies than they might under other circumstances.

C: What is the “bad wisdom?”

S: The bad wisdom is exactly the things we were talking about before. The bad wisdom is knowing something before you’re ready for it. It’s knowing something before it’s time. Before. It could be sexual knowledge. Seom kids take LSD too early.

C: Did you?

S: No. Bad wisdom is when you have too much too soon. You go beyond what you’re prepared to handle.

C: To me it’s quite interesting how consistent the themes are in this record. Song after song we are really discussing the same song, and the same position in regards to the information in the song. Could you read this song, Bad Wisdom?

S: Okay.

C: You don’t have to if you don’t want to. I’m going to have another glass of wine. Would you like one?

S: I’ll have a little bit, yeah.

C: That’s the spirit.

S: I’ll have wine and I’ll have water.

C: the biblical beverages.

S: It sounds so much better than coke and orange juice, or one of those kinds of things.

C: It’s so very stylish of you to have just wine and water.

S: Well, thank you, Leonard. It also happens to be what is available.

C: Why won’t you tell me what you really know about what the bad wisdom is?

S: Because, when I write these songs I feel the important thing is that we know that they are truthful, and ti doesn’t matter. It shouldn’t matter to you, for example. If I’m putting these words out to be judged and I want the work to be judged, then I feel everything you need to know is in the work. There’s nothing you need to know about what I know. For someone to want to know, for example, how much of these songs do I… what are the things in my own life. To me that’s out of bounds then.

C: I completely agree with you.

S: Because then someone is open to judging my character and that’s not what I’m putting out, that’s not what I’m displaying. I’m putting the work out because the work is the work, and the work is what I hope is beautiful and good, and the work is what will be around after I’m not here anymore. Ant that to me seems like the important thing. The bad wisdom is what I said. It’s knowing about something too soon. In some ways, everybody has their own form of it.

C: Well, forgive me for asking you this question over and over again, but according to the instructions that this interview may be broadcast or a transcript prepared in segments of various lengths it is my intention to ask you the same question over and over again so no matter how the segments are divided the most important response to the album will be established.

S: So what question is it that you’re asking exactly?

C: I forget.

S: It all depends. The answer all depends on how it’s phrased and what exactly you want to know.

C: Now, obviously the primary theme of the interview is the new album. I think that we’ve treated that at some length.

S: I think we have too.


Part 3

C: The following list of topics is illustrative only. We would like you to touch on most of the issues so as to provide the content necessary to satisfy the promotional purpose of this piece. However, during the course of your conversation, please fell free to venture in any other areas that may come up.

S: Yes.

C: So, it was not entirely without permission that I was prodding in these areas, even though I understand that your aesthetic determines that, or is a kind of curtain, the kind of curtain you speak about, beyond which the viewer is not invited to look. There is this and this alone and this is the work and it should be judged as the work by itself without any reference to the hand that created it.

S: Yeah, I know that sounds cold.

C: That’s okay. I can take it.

S: It sounds cold, but ut’s the way I like it.

C: You like to write about anything you don’t really have to write about.

S: I like to write about things that are extreme in some form. I like to write about something I feel I have to write about.

C: Do you find it hard to write?

S: Sometimes.

C: What is the hardest song on this album?

S: The hardest song on this album was “99.9F”

C: That was hard to write? And yet, it comes off effortless.

S: That was the most difficult song. That was the song I was sitting there looking in the thesaurus and the rhyming dictionary with. Looking up synonyms and antonyms for hot, cold, fever, romance, anything I could get my hands on.

C: Is this a flirtatious song?

S: Yeah. Couldn’t you tell? You couldn’t tell.

C: Well, I’m immune to these kinds of approaches.

S: Oh, I see.

C: I thought it was very lovely, and to repeat that phrase “ninety-nine point nine” was very fresh. Let’s look at this song.

S: Okay.

C: Why did you call this the title of your album?

S: Because I felt that it described the stance of the album, which is not normal, off the norm, not wildly feverish but off the norm enough to create tension, enough to give you a straight dizzy hallucinatory feeling but not so much that you feel that you’re out of your mind in listening to it. It seemed slightly hotter than maybe some of my other albums. the other albums have a much cooler tone to the whole sound of them.

C: A cautious intoxication.

S: Yeah, I guess so.

C: Do you drink?

S: Yeah.

C: What do you usually like to drink?

S: Well, let’s see, these days I drink gin and tonic. I drink wine or I drink cognac or I drink brandy or I drink sake. I have a bunch of things that I like to drink.

C: Do you find that a lot of people are drinking now, these days?

S: I find that most of the people I hang out with tend to drink but I think that’s also because that’s the kind of crowd I hang out with. I drink Jack Daniels.

C: What are the people like in your crowd?

S: Oh god. It’s a very diverse crowd, I suppose. It’s not even really like a crowd, its more like a thinly, sparsely populated little gathering of forlorn and homeless people.

C: Where do they live? Is it nationwide or is your crowd more or less in one town?

S: My crowd. Some live in New York and some live in California, and some are people I used to know from the folk scene and I’m still friends with them. In the village. And some are new friends I made last year, and there’s been some pretty wild drinking going on there. Drink to six, seven, eight the next morning.

C: Among your new friends?

S: Yeah, among my new friends.

C: Your new friends drink a lot.

S: Yes, yes we do. And I drink with them.

C: Could you let us in on one of these evenings. these drinking evenings. How do they begin? What is the middle like? And what is the ending like?

S: The beginning usually means me going to pick my sister and she comes with me, or my brother, because they all like to hang out. We’re talking about a party now, not talking about an intimate social gathering, this is a party.

C: I’d really like to know what an evening where a lot of liquor is consumed…

S: With me it usually ends up in wild dancing.

C: Yeah? Begins early and ends late?

S: Yes. I really love to dance.

C: What music do you dance to?

S: I used to dance to your music actually, when I was younger, seventeen or so. You’ll laugh at the songs I chose to dance to, they’re not what you’d think of as dancing songs.

C: On the contrary, others may not think so, but you and I know what a dancing song is.

S: So Long Maryann, or The Avalanche Song, or The Master Song.

C: What are you dancing to these days?

S: There’s a band called Les Negresses Vertes, which is a terrible French pronunciation on my part of their title. It’s almost like gypsy music. I’ll dance to that. What else will I dance to? I dance to some of the new U2 albums. Sometimes I’ll dance to … PM Dawn has a song called Paper Doll which I like. Or different things that come up or catch my imagination in some way.

C: And when you go out with friends, when you’re with your crowd, how are people dressing in your crowd?

S: Well, I have a friend of mine who makes dresses, she tends to make these big linen dresses and pants, they’re loose and baggy and usually made out of cotton or linen or something like that… they’re almost peasant-like.

C: Do you wear them too?

S: Yeah, I wear them often.

C: They have pants underneath the skirt?

S: Either pants, which are baggy, they’re like farmers pants. See, I’ll show you the art work of the album cover and I’m wearing some of her clothes.

C: What’s that?

S: That’s the album cover.

C: That’s the vinyl?

S: Yeah, yeah, that is the vinyl. Here, I’ll show you, hold on a second.

C: Okay. Hold on everybody, Suzanne is dancing across the room.

S: These are some of her pants.

C: Oh, that’s a very nice picture.

S: They’re baggy and they’re really cool.

C: Those are your arms.

S: Those are my arms.

C: And what is your expression?

S: This is the expression… I don’t know. What would you describe it as? “What the hell are you looking at?” kind of face?

C: That is the extremely seductive… this combination of austerity and voluptuousness that your songs manage to convey. that is a refined invitation to a cautious intoxication.

S: Well, thank you, Leonard. As opposed to the other. Here, let me show you the other poster that I see lying on the floor.

C: Okay. Suzanne is now going over to get the other poster that is lying on the floor.

S: These are the fishnet stockings from the dancing girl. The dancing girl on the album is wearing fishnet stockings and these are them blown up.

C: I know. This has many resonances of self-abuse.

S: Self-abuse?

C: Yes.

S: I don’t think so.

C: I think you might be making a pass at yourself in this.

S: No, Leonard, you’ve got it all wrong.

C: Oh, I’m sorry.

S: You’ve let your imagination go too far. This is my shoe. This is my shoe. This is my knee.

C: I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m terribly sorry. But, I think that anybody’s imagination is being invited to really careen around the place.

S: Well, we’ll put this one away then.

C: Yeah, please do. A man of my age should not be compelled to look at those kind of photos.

S: So anyway, those are Morgan’s pants. What I started to show you were Morgan’s pants, what they look like.

C: Are you choosing your intimate male partners from among the members of this crowd? Or, do they come drifting in, they belong to other crowds?

S: No.

C: … sometimes no crowd at all.

S: I would say no crowd at all, really.

C: Guys stumble into your life from…

S: No, I wouldn’t say they stumble in. You know, you asked me in the beginning if I was a guarded person, and I guess I’m sort of a guarded person.

C: I thought so until I saw those fishnet stockings. That’s changed things a lot. I wish I saw that at the beginning of this interview.

S: But that’s a character.

C: No, I really don’t think you can use that as an alibi.

S: Oh.

C: This is you in fishnet stockings, you cannot sanitize this image.

S: Oh, I didn’t say I was going to sanitize it, I just said I was in character.

C: No, I’m sorry Suzanne.

S: It’s not a very clean character, but…

C: You’re not in character at all. Forst of all, there’s no enough showing to indicate a costume that could even indicate a character.

S: That’s because you saw an isolated detail there. You haven’t seen the whole context of it.

C: You mean that’s just part of the poster?

S: No the actual picture the costume is from is… there’s a real picture.

C: Yes, but when you select your hand and a fishnet stocking and nothing else, people cannot be faulted if they don’t assume you’re in costume.

S: Well, they would if they… Okay, whatever. I could fault them if I want to.

C: You can do anything you want. Would you like to talk about Mitchell Froom?

S: Would I like to talk about Mitchell Froom?

C: Yes, because the production is really extremely competent and beautiful. What was his contribution?

S: Well the reason I wanted to work with him was because I could tell from his other records that he didn’t approach anything in a formulaic way, and that seemed like a good thing to me.

C: Would you like to talk about the other people that worked with you?

S: Yeah, we could do that. I think that the musicians that we used on this album, besides using… on one track we used Mike Visceglia and Marc Shulman who are my long term musicians that I’ve used for a long time. But the newer musicians are Bruce Thomas, who played with Elvis Costello for ten years, he was in The Attractions, the band. Do you like Elvis Costello or do you listen to him?

C: I’ve listened to him a lot. He’s a great singer.

S: So, I’ve always liked the way his band sounded. To me it’s very witty and it’s got a lot of interesting things about it. And Jerry Marotta played percussion and drums.

C: Do you get along well with your musicians?

S: Yeah, I do.

C: And when you tour do you feel part of a family?

S: It has felt that way sometimes, not always, but most of the time, yeah. I do, I like it, I like the atmosphere that develops.

C: You like touring?

S: I like a lot of it. The last one was a little long.

C: How many concerts did you do?

S: I did ten months.

C: Ten months on the road?

S: Ten months on the road, sometimes five shows a week.

C: How many concerts altogether did you do?

S: I don’t remember.

C: Hundreds.

S: Hundreds, yeah. Well, there’s fifty-two weeks in a year, tem months… forty weeks, but it wasn’t really forty weeks, it was more like thirty.

C: Let’s say thirty weeks, let’s say an average of three concerts a week…

S: Ninety?

C: Nine hundred. It’s nine thousand concerts, I think.

S: We can study my itinerary if we want to count them. A lot, a lot, but there’s a lot about it that I love. It is like a family and I get to know…. I’m on the road with seventeen guys that I have to know about in some way or another, and know about their lives, and what’s happening with their lives. Who’s having problems and who’s doing well, and who’s just ahd a baby and who’s mother is sick. I enjoy that kind of feeling, of getting to know people and getting to know their character.

C: And do you feel that you occupy some maternal function on the road, that you kind of hold it together with these concerns that you just mentioned? That you are the center of the family?

S: I’m definitely the center of the family. I suppose that makes it maternal. Sometimes I feel more like the figurehead of the ship, and the engine. Maternal’s not quite the word cause that implies a certain coziness which is not really always there. There’s still always a bit of distance and formality, but I like the atmosphere. I like staying up and drinking and playing poker and tlking and that kind of thing.

C: You like that?

S: I like the feeling of being on adventure, of being on the bus overnight on a ferry and we’re going somewhere, we’re going to Greece or we’re going to Italy and this feeling of a shared adventure.

C: You’re lucky.

S: Why is that?

C: You’re lucky to have this experience.

S: Do you like touring?

C: Yeah, I like it. I kind of feel like part of a motorcycle gang.

S: Yeah, I could see that.

C: What plans do you have to tour?

S: Probably early next year.

C: Do you have your band put together yet?

S: No.

C: Can I play in it?

S: What would you like to play?

C: I don’t know.

S: You could sing, you could be a backup singer.

C: Congas

S: It’s like I always go see you perform, you always have two very beautiful women standing by you.

C: I could be one of the beautiful women standing beside you.

S: I could have you standing behind me singing.

C: Oh, that would be a great honor. What kind of live show can be expected?

S: Well, you’ll come with me and we can sing duets, we can dance.

C: Oh, that would be really nice.

C: Now your expectations and feelings about the album, we’ve looked into that, but I think if you would speak about your expectations… but really honestly about your expectations.

S: What do you mean, “but really honestly” as though I’ve…

C: It’s not that I geel you’ve been dishonest in any sense.

S: Well that’s good because I haven’t.

C: No, I don’t feel you’ve been dishonest.

S: No.

C: But there is this tantalizing and …

S: …irritating?

C: …irritating is not quite the word, let’s say intriguing sense of secrecy that you insist on preserving.

S: I bet.

C: I’d really like to know what you expect from this album, but really deeply. Do you think that this album will bring you the lover?

S: It’s possible.

C: Do you think of it as a mating call? Do you see this album as a mating call?

S: Why? Do you see it that way?

C: Yes, yes I do.

S: Do I see it as a mating call? As a mating call?

C: Yes, I see this album as an exquisite, refined mating call of one of the most delicate and refined and concealed creatures on the scene. This is the mating call of concealment. This is how secrecy woos her lover. So, do you think that this album will bring you the lover which the album calls out to?

S: Yes.

C: I do too. I really do. I think we are at last approaching the truth of the enterprise. This no doubt will not find it’s way into…

S: I think you’re wrong. I think they’ll make a headline out of it in fact. But without saying anymore than that, I would say, “yes”.

C: I think so. I find it irresistable myself.

S: On that cheery note, that’s a cheery note to end on.

C: I think so



Suzanne’s interview with Leonard Cohen from 1992 (part 3 of 3)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s