Interview by Kathleen Kendel
Conversation recorded on December 4, 1974. Leonard Cohen appeared on WBAI FM in New York City. We uncovered this interview in the Pacifica Radio Archives.
The Animated Transcript
I don’t feel any compulsion just to stand under the spotlight night after night or year after year unless I have something to say or something new to disclose about my own work.
Would you read Two Slept Together?
Ok I don’t have it here, do you have it?
Two went to sleep almost every night. One dreamed of mud. One dreamed of Asia. Visiting the Zeppelin. Visiting Nijinsky. Two went to sleep. One dreamed of ribs. One dreamed of senators. Two went to sleep. Two travelers. The long marriage in the dark. The sleep was old. The travelers were old. One dreamed of oranges. One dreamed of Carthage. Two friends asleep. Years locked in travel. Good night my darling, as the dreams wave goodbye.
One traveled lightly. One walked through water. Visiting a chess game. Visiting a booth. Always returning to wait out the day. One carried matches. One climbed the beehive. One sold an earphone. One shot a German. Two went to sleep. Every sleep went together. Wandering away from an operating table.
One dreamed of grass. One dreamed of spokes. One bargained nicely. One was a snowman. One counted medicine. One tasted pencils. One was a child. One was a traitor. Visiting heavy industry. Visiting the family.
Two went to sleep. None could foretell. One went with baskets. One took a ledger. One night happy, one night in terror. Love could not bind them. Fear could not either. They went unconnected. They never knew where. Always returning to wait out the day. Parting with kissing. Parting with yawns. Visiting death ‘til they wore out their welcome. Visiting death ’til the right disguise worked.
Would you relate the story of the Sisters of Mercy again?
I was in Edmonton during a tour by myself of Canada. I guess this was around 67 and I was walking along one of the main streets of Edmonton. It was bitter cold and I knew no one, and I passed these two girls in a doorway and they invited me stand in the doorway with them. Of course I did. And some time later we found ourselves in my little hotel room in Edmonton and the three of us are going to go to sleep together. Of course I had all Kinds of erotic fantasies of what the evening might bring. We went to bed together and I think we all jammed into this one small couch in this little hotel and it became clear that wasn’t the purpose of the evening at all.
At one point in the night I found myself unable to sleep. I got up and by the moonlight, it was very very bright, the moon was being reflected off the snow and I wrote that poem by the ice reflected moon light while these women were sleeping, and it was one of the few songs that I ever wrote from top to bottom without a line of revision. The words flowed and the melody flowed. And by the time they woke up the next morning, it was dawn, I had this completed song to sing for them.
I’m always pleased when somebody sings a song of mine. In fact I never get over that initial rush of happiness when someone says they are going to sing a song of mine. I always like it.
Do you think they all do a good job of it? Is there any…..
I like the way Judy Collins does some of my songs. I can’t I can’t honestly say that I have heard my songs done in a way that totally satisfies me. I think with the exception perhaps Suzanne by Judy Collins and her treatment of all the other songs are also very very delicate and sensitive but I don’t know. I don’t know if there’s really versions of the songs that strike me the way that I would like to be struck. Not that my own are that way either.
It’s ok, you know, because that song enters the world and it gets changed like everything else. That’s ok as long as there are more authentic versions. But a good song I think will get changed.
The Full Interview
Cohen’s Lost Novel?
This interview from 1974 also includes Cohen talking about a novel he was working on at the time. Here’s an excerpt from his writings that Cohen read on-air. We don’t believe this was ever published:
“I went down to the port with my wife. On the way down I accused her of continuing her relentless automatic assault on the center of my being. I knew this was not wise. I meant only to wrap her on the knuckles and direct her attention to her habitual drift toward bitchiness but I lost control. There is no control in these realms. I became a thug. I attacked her spirit. Her spirit armed itself and retaliated massively.
I think we were talking about valises or which of us travelled the latest. A truce was investigated briefly by shabby deputies neither of which had the authority to begin the initiative. You always carry something extra, a shopping bag, something of string and paper that can’t be checked. I’m glad you didn’t pack from me. You always slow me down. I can’t be an acrobat when you’re around. You’re sandpaper. I can’t be a dancer. I’m dead when you’re around. You kill. It is your nature. It is your nature. Observe your nature. Observe your nature.
The shoemaker looked up at us, as we passed his open doorway. This humiliation made me furious. I shoved a razor blade into her nerves. Her eyes changed color. This was done by saying, ‘Jesus Christ’, quickening my steps slightly, minutely moving my jaw, rejecting the essence of her totally and forever. If she went down quickly I would nurse her back to love in time to get her blessings before the boat came in.
But why should I? She didn’t rub my back when I threw my shoulder out. Even when I asked her three times. And why should she? Since I had defeated her smile over and over. And why should I since she was the enemy of my freedom and the smiling moon over my gradual death? And why should she since I hated her because her beauty died? Why should I because there must be a woman in Jerusalem or beside me on the aeroplane?
Half asleep, Old John saw us but there was no humiliation since he didn’t recognize me anymore and I no longer greeted him. Captain Madbody saw us but it didn’t matter because he was mute and crazy and lived on the port and knew the shames of everyone. We were on the port in plain sunlight between the masts and the shops.
The shit piled up in the heart, which is the engine of our energy. We are married. There is only one heart. On common ground the armored spirits tried to embrace but they both fell down paralyzed. Pain removed the world. They felt for the organs of sex but they were gone. They reached for the postcard of old beauty but it was gone. There was no war, no peace, no world. The punishment of marriage spoiled.
There is no Armageddon here and fuck you and fuck you. The horn. The boat was coming. I would have to travel without blessings in the collapsed world. That’s the boat. I won’t accuse you of ruining my trip. I won’t accuse you of ruining your absence.”
1974: New Skin for the Old Ceremony
Music break! New Skin was released in 1974, several months before this interview. Listen to the full album.
Rock n’ Roll Poets
Together with Bob Dylan and Patti Smith, Cohen rounds out our trifecta of rock poet troubadours. Want more? We’ve put together a reading list of our favorite books of poetry penned by musicians.
- The Spice Box of Earth, Leonard Cohen
- Actual Air, David Berman (Silver Jews)
- Babel, Patti Smith
- Now and Then: The Poems of Gil Scott-Heron, Gil Scott-Heron
- Living at the Movies, Jim Carroll (The Jim Carroll Band)
“I’m always pleased when somebody sings a song of mine. In fact, I never get over that initial rush of happiness when someone says they are going to sing a song of mine. I always like it.”
Good thing Cohen is OK with people covering his songs, because cover them they do! Outside of his devoted fan base, Cohen’s albums have never been massive sellers but many of his songs have become part of our cultural universe because so many artists’ have released their own versions, from the acclaimed (Jeff Buckley’s iconic cover of “Hallelujah”) to the questionable (X Factor!).
Take a listen to some of our favorite Cohen covers:
“I’m Your Man”
This performance is from Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man, a 2005 documentary that combines interviews with the singer-songwriter with tribute performances by a parade of stars/Cohen-devotees. Definitely worth a watch!
“I Can’t Forget”
And of course we must include a cover by Rufus Wainwright – they’re practically family after all! Rufus, of the famously musical Wainwright clan, grew up in Montreal alongside Cohen’s two children, and he now has a child with Cohen’s daughter, Lorca.
The Making of a Song
We got to hear Cohen explain the backstory to “Sisters of Mercy” and the evening he met two women on a cold night in Edmonton and ended up spending a TKTKT
“I always remember to dedicate the song to the girls who for whom I wrote it and like a lot of my material that’s just completely documentary. It doesn’t concern high metaphysical questions but an accurate reportage is authentic and precise as I can make it. A description of exactly what happened on the interior landscape.”
“Night Watchman” David Gerard Lawrence
“Water Rising” Gareth David Dickson
“Stronger Than Dust” Nicholaj Sune Bloch
“Sisters of Mercy” Leonard Cohen