It’s hard to find someone in the musical world who doesn’t hold a certain degree of respect for Leonard Cohen. Whether you like his visceral folk songs or not, if you’ve come across the Canadian musician before then there’s one trait that cannot be denied, he is incredibly wise.
It’s a trait of Cohen’s character which, accompanied by his pursuit of Eastern religion in Buddhism and his perceived place in life as ‘the poet’, had seen the singer step back from society and reflect it’s peaks and troughs with stunning clarity. In 1985, as part of an interview for Israeli late afternoon TV news show New Evening, Cohen would deliver yet more nuggets of wisdom.
From the clip below, a previously lost piece of film that was made available again by Israeli Educational Television on the evening of his passing, we can see Cohen in full rock and roll oracle mode as he not only reflects on his own career but our society as a whole. Even with the first question, the ‘Suzanne’ singer has us musing on his thoughts.
The question comes amid, what we’d imagine was a flurry of notes about his songs and, more importantly, the new album’s ‘message’. It’s something the notoriously obtuse Cohen has often refused to comment on and this appearance is no different. The interviewer presumably tries to pigeonhole Cohen as a “protest singer”, something the poet isn’t happy about.
“I never thought of myself as a protest singer,” says Cohen with stunning authenticity. “I never thought that there is a description to ‘singer’, you’re either a singer or you’re not a singer. You either affirm the life of the heart or you don’t.” It’s a joyous line which feels incredibly accurate, especially in consideration of Cohen’s career.
“Of course, if you affirm the life of the heart,” Cohen continues, “There’s going to be an element in society all of the time that does not affirm the life of the heart. So you might find yourself pegged, or described as a protest singer. But a singer is not in a condition of protest, the singer is merely manifesting the heart.” While it can be easy to regurgitate platitudes like this, the real jewel of this clip is the belief with which Cohen says it.
Later in the interview, he continues to fight back against the preconception of his work. After being asked if there is a message to Cohen’s music he replies: “Maybe there is but I’m the last one to know about it.” Pushed further Cohen adds: “I’m not operating from a point of luxury,” claiming that he’s not at the “buffet table choosing between the herring and the caviar, I’m more like a rat, at the bottom of the barrel trying to stick his teeth into something.”
Another moment of beautiful clarity from Cohen comes with wonderful ease: “If I knew where songs came from, I would go there more often. It is a gift, of course you have to keep your tools sharp… but the real song, where that comes from, it is a gift. It is not yours.” The interviewer, Dan Margalit, is clearly enjoying this new take on promotion.
He asks why Cohen doesn’t stand in front of the press and tell them that their interpretation of his songs are “all wrong.” Cohen calmly and astutely confirms that it is the place of others to explore the meaning of his songs but not the singer himself. It’s the employment of this type of ethos, one which gave Cohen over to his audience, which makes Leonard Cohen one of the wisest singers of all time.
It’s a joyful interview and should be a must for any Leonard Cohen fan out there.
Watch Cohen’s rare interview for Israeli TV below: