Leonard Cohen on Moonlight, the Mystique of Creativity, His Influences, and Why He Loves It When People Cover His Songs
“It’s also very difficult to untangle influences because you represent the sum of everything you’ve seen or heard or experienced.”
By Maria Popova
“If I knew where the good songs came from, I’d go there more often,” Leonard Cohen (September 21, 1934–November 7, 2016) famously quipped in a 1992 conversation about work ethic and the creative process. But more than two decades earlier, not having yet condensed the mystique of inspiration into such a clever package, Cohen willingly walked into and talked about the labyrinthine path of creativity.
On December 4, 1971, he sat down with Kathleen Kendel from New York public radio station WBAI for a beautiful conversation about the wild and winding paths of the creative process, preserved by the wonderful Pacifica Radio Archives. Annotated highlights below.
In a testament to his lifelong “sense of being in this for keeps,” Cohen considers the tapestry of creative motivations and influences:
It’s very hard to really untangle the real reasons why you do anything. But I was always interested in music and it seemed to me I always played guitar. I always associated song and singing with some sort of nobility of spirit. The first songs I learned were of the workers movement. I always thought that this was the best way to say the most important things… I don’t mean the most ponderous or pompous things. I mean the important things — like how you feel about things, how you feel about someone else — and I always thought this was the way to do it.
It’s also very difficult to untangle influences because you represent the sum of everything you’ve seen or heard or experienced. The kind of language that I’d like to have been influenced by the Bible and Cervantes, by the old masters. The kind of sensibility I’ve been influenced [by], of course, [is] a great deal by the French writers — Camus, Sartre — the Irish poets — Yeats — the English poets. And, of course, we had our own little group of poets in Montreal years back, all very fine, one man especially standing out — I think one of the finest writers in the language — Irving Layton. I don’t think he’s known [outside Canada] at all.
Echoing young Sylvia Plath’s assertion that “once a poem is made available to the public, the right of interpretation belongs to the reader,” Cohen casts a benevolent eye upon the large and loving body of covers of his songs:
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.
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.
In this wonderful excerpt from the interview animated by Blank on Blank, Cohen reads the poem “Two Went to Sleep” from his 1956 debut as a poet, Let Us Compare Mythologies (public library), and tells the wild story of how moonlight transported him to where the good songs come from:
For more animated archival gems from Blank on Blank, see Nora Ephron on women and politics, Kurt Vonnegut on what it takes to be a writer, Sally Ride’s conversation with Gloria Steinem about being a trailblazing female astronaut, John Lennon and Yoko Ono on the art of love, Ray Bradbury on the secret to great storytelling, David Foster Wallace on the dark side of ambition, Jane Goodall on overcoming extraordinary odds, Hunter S. Thompson on the only cure for our destructive tendencies, and Richard Feynman on what his father taught him about the most important thing.
Published November 15, 2016