I first encountered Leonard Cohen in one of those so serious Sunday arts, religion, and culture shows that broadcast TV felt required to provide around the past mid-century. As he was consistently able to do throughout his life, Cohen was able to articulately weave a good deal of provocative thought into an interview. I was struck, and took to reading and listening to Cohen from that point on.
I was young then, and Cohen’s eloquence was novel to me. In the many decades since, I have heard others work the provocative angle in interviews, but never with the same level of quality as in Cohen’s spiel. Poetry, religion, music, politics, and more could enter into his answers — and often when the question didn’t determine which of those things would be in his response.
I cannot find any online video of that exact Sunday TV show from The Sixties, but his 1966 CBC interview is an example of what a Cohen interview would be like.
To some that could seem pretentious. And that is a risk: a lot of provocative interviewees when challenged are bluffing. Asked to show their cards, they will throw the cards and the table in the air, or will fold into muffled defensiveness. Cohen seems to have never done that. He always had, seeming at hand, another answer, deeper or funnier, or more provocative. And those Sixties interviews are even more remarkable in that many current televised interviews are prepared: a demi-scripted performance where the interviewer is tasked to ask questions prepared beforehand, so that the interviewee can be setup to tell their clever story or give a canned pitch for their current work, cause, or situation. My sense is that Cohen wouldn’t have followed such a scheme even if it was expected of him then.
Did you “huh?” at that “funnier” in the above litany? Maybe it’s the baritone voice or the unrestrained gothic concerns; to many superficial observers Cohen has always seemed the uncut expression of despair and sorrow — but with a little sex in it. Yet absurdity and satire were always part of his expression. Those looking for the correct and proper level of seriousness, those with the least sense of humor and the highest expectations for consonant entertainment, are the most likely to miss that element in Cohen.
This a longer-form documentary on Cohen from the mid-60s. Watch the first 3 minutes and ask yourself if songwriting might have lost a talent to stand-up comedy if Cohen had emerged a couple of decades later.
Today’s piece is a short passage from Cohen’s first novel, The Favorite Game, though the words (and I) perform it much like a poem in the Parlando Project manner with The LYL Band. I thought of this older performance today because I recently had a restless dream which had a jukebox in it, and that caused me to think of the disappearance of this phonebooth appliance that directly connected one to the sound of a voice for a coin in public places. How strange that seems now, with our earbuds and all-you-can-bear-to listen-to streaming. Cohen calls out the mechanism’s comic mystery in this passage, and you can hear it without a dime or quarter with the player gadget below — or if you don’t see that player, with this highlighted link.