An Irishman’s Diary on meeting Leonard Cohen
You should never meet your heroes. So some people say. It will lead to disillusionment. Nietzsche went further. He warned, “Take care a falling statue doesn’t strike you dead.” However, the polar opposite applies to my first meeting with Leonard Cohen. He had been a hero of mine since I was a teenager and that interview we did in 1985 – it’s included in this week’s edition of my radio series The Joe Jackson Tapes Revisited — rerouted my life, deepened my dreams, and sent my soul soaring high as the chorus in his song Hallelujah.
Not bad, eh, especially given that my main aim for that interview was merely to help Cohen change his public image in Ireland. The week before he arrived here to do a gig at the National Stadium, I’d read in the press these comments: “Get out the Valium and razor blades, Leonard Cohen is back in town.” “The only man the Samaritans ever took out a contract on.” “See Leonard expire at the Stadium.”
Yes, those quotes were funny and LC laughed when I read them to him. But he also said, “You do get weary getting tagged that way, especially when the work really isn’t like that.” And he was right. Overall, his work is not like that.
Cohen also happily agreed when I then suggested that too many people at the time still tended to view him only in terms of his first three albums, The Songs of Leonard Cohen, Songs from a Room and Songs of Love and Hate, from 15 or so years earlier. As such frequently overlooked were albums such as Recent Songs, and his latest, Various Positions – which, incidentally, included Hallelujah.
“I think if there was some way it could be attacked,” I said, referring to his public image. Leonard replied, “I would love it to be attacked”, and thus sounded the clarion call for a battle that I have fought ever since.
Why? Meeting your heroes is one thing, being able to give back to them something is a gift of a higher order and it was the least I could do for someone who, though his music, novels and poetry had given so much to me over the preceding 17 years. But the gifts LC had given me were negligible compared to the gifts he gave me during that interview.
For example, Cohen, whose record company had refused to release in America his album Various Positions – they told him it wasn’t “commercial enough”, even though, as I say, it included what has since become Cohen’s most covered song Hallelujah – said this to me. “To tell you the truth, just speaking man to man, I’m really happy that I’ve still got an audience and that I can still give a concert and still send people home happy. It’s hard to survive in this business. There are many forces that conspire again a man of 50 singing.”
His use of even that phrase, “speaking man to man”, seemed to somehow elevate, however fleetingly, our exchange beyond the fan-hero or student-Zen teacher mode that I felt dominated our time together.
Something similar happened later. I told Cohen that “my first conscious experience of song as therapy” occurred one night 13 years earlier while I was listening to his recording, Sing Another Song, Boys. I explained why. He said, “That’s the way I feel when I hear certain songs at certain times. I feel, ‘He’s said it for me,’ like when Ray Charles sings Take These Chains from My Heart (And Set Me Free). ”
That comment also seemed to level the playing field because it highlighted the fact that Leonard Cohen and I both needed other voices to help us express the inexpressible.
There were many similar moments during that interview. Is it any wonder that after I left Cohen’s room in Jury’s Hotel I could not feel my feet touch the floor? I felt transcendent. In fact, as my girlfriend approached me she said, “Joe, you look different. Did something go wrong?” I replied, “Wrong. No, on the contrary, I never felt so right in my life!”
Later that night I wrote this in my dairy: “He came through. Thus begins my career as an interviewer.”
I was not a journalist, or interviewer, merely a fan and budding poet/playwright who asked Niall Stokes, editor of Hot Press, to allow me to interview Cohen.
But that meeting, specifically the feeling of transcendence, made me feel I had found my calling in life and must seek out more of my heroes to interview. This quest would take me back to LC twice and lead to my interviewing roughly 1,400 celebrities but no interview ever again would be quite as momentous as my first with Cohen. Hallelujah.
The Joe Jackson Tapes Revisited: Leonard Cohen will be broadcast tomorrow at 10pm on RTÉ Radio 1.