The Next Chapter

Leonard Cohen on Suzanne, songwriting and digging deeper

In a special tribute, we revisit a candid interview from 2006 between Shelagh Rogers and Leonard Cohen upon his induction into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame.

This week, Leonard Cohen died peacefully at the age of 82 in his home in Los Angeles. In a statement, his son Adam Cohen said that his father passed away "with the knowledge that he had completed what he felt was one of his greatest records." The record in question is You Want It Darker, a poignant and profoundly honest meditation on mortality in which he states "I'm ready, my lord," in the title track.

But we were not ready. To reflect on the great Leonard Cohen, we're revisiting his conversation with Shelagh from the winter of 2006, upon the induction of five of Cohen's songs into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. 

On moving from writing to songwriting

I never thought of myself as a songwriter. I thought of myself as a writer, a novelist, but I couldn't make a living that way. I thought as an interim activity, just to tide myself over, I'd try folk songs. At the time I got into it, I saw songwriting as really a temporary activity. But I think I was better at it than writing novels. 

With something like songwriting, one is always surprised when one is described as anything, because in the inner chambers of your heart you're always struggling to come to some definition of yourself that is reasonable. So "songwriter" doesn't occur to me in the morning. I know that it's my gig, and I've got to come up with a number of them to be able to continue this curious career. But it kind of dawns on you after a while that that's what you are. I have my notebook of verses and sketches, and I guess that's what I do, but I reluctantly award myself that title.

On the real Suzanne

There was a Suzanne who was associated with the song, the wife of a friend of mine (the sculptor Armand Vaillancourt). I had begun to write the song — I had the guitar part, and I had many verses about the Montreal harbour. But I loved Suzanne Vaillancourt, she was very beautiful and a very unusual spirit. She did invite me to her place near the river and she did serve me tea and oranges. She allowed me to locate the song and make it about something. It was in some more abstract realm, the song, and she gave it a location and a form and I was very grateful. People are hopelessly attracted to one another at that age — but sex is the sport of the young, as Allen Ginsberg said. There were many legitimate and worthwhile obstacles to our meeting in that sort of way.

On using form to unlock deeper meaning

I've always been interested in form, maybe because I don't trust my own spontaneous nature to come up with anything interesting. Form imposes a certain opportunity to get deeper than your first thought. There's a school of poetry that believes "first thought, best thought." That would have condemned me to a really unauspicious superficiality had I followed that, because I don't have any ideas. Irving Layton once said, "Leonard is free from ideas." But when you submit yourself to a form, then something happens and you're invited to dig deeper into the language and discard the slogans by which you live, the easy alibis of language and of opinion. You're invited to explore realms that you usually don't get to in ordinary easy thought. I consider my thought stream extremely uninteresting, and it's only when I discard it that I say something I can get behind. 

Leonard Cohen's comments have been edited and condensed.