Alastair Pirrie – “Cohen Regrets” (1973)

December 30, 2008 at 4:16 pm (Leonard Cohen, Reviews & Articles)

Written for the New Musical Express, March 10, 1973…

 

Leonard Cohen, Grand Master of Melancholia, slipped quietly in and out of London last month – even CBS, his record company, had difficulty tracking him down – and left behind his intention to quit with the music business.

 

As displayed in his albums, Cohen is a man of many moods – and CBS, at least, are taking his announcement with a cool attitude of wait and see.

 

CBS Press officer Lon Goddard confirms that Cohen was depressed by the state of the music business on his return to Canada. “But,” he adds, “I don’t think it’s going to last. When he’s rested for a month or so, he’ll be back.”

 

Meanwhile, a new Cohen album, completed during his British visit; is expected shortly.

Alistair Pirrie spoke to Leonard Cohen for NME.

 

If Leonard Cohen sticks to his announced decision to quit the music business; it will come as no surprise to those who know him well.

Among friends, he would often claim that he hated the business of selling his songs to people, and he hated the society that made this necessary.

One night recently he told me why he wanted to quit. “I’m no longer a free man; I’m an exploited man. Once, long ago, my songs were not sold; they found their way to people anyway.

“Then people saw that profit could be made from them; then the profit interested me also. I have to fight too many people on too many levels to have to fight about money as well.”

He paused and took a sip of his wine. “There is much to regret in the system of placing songs at the disposal of others.

“Now the record companies pressure me to force my songs because the stores want them to sell. I will not force my songs for them.”

Cohen was born 35 years ago in Montreal, Canada. He started off his career studying arts at McGill University though later, interested in business, he switched to commerce.

Later still he tried law at Columbia University in New York and, on leaving, took a job in the family clothing factory.

He had started writing at the age of 14 – mostly prayers and poems to get women. Not long after he started in the family business, his first book of poems was published, and any plans he had to run the factory were forgotten.

At the end of the fifties Cohen took off with a woman called Marianne and lived in virtual isolation on the Greek island of Hydra for nearly eight years.

When he left, he suffered a nervous breakdown and it was soon after this that he started putting his poetry to music.

He says that he has no concept of religion in his life but, strangely enough, he sings a song about Joan of Arc on his last LP Songs of Love and Hate.

“It was a strange song indeed; it was out of myself and contained the notion of reverence. When I recorded that song I will admit to having a strong religious feeling. I don’t think it’ll happen again.”

 

Cohen is a dark, sad man, and, at times, his deep, dead-pan voice falters into a brooding silence.

He doesn’t like Lennon-type protest songs. “I don’t programme the songs I write,” he told me, “I just write what comes.

“If my passion was involved in those daily issues I would write about them. Anyway, I half feel that my songs do protest in their own way.

“I don’t have to have a song called ‘Give Peace a Chance’. I could write a song about conflict and, if I sang it in a peaceful way, then it would have the same message. I don’t like these slogan writers.”

All of his songs and poems are about people and situations which have come into his life.

“Suzanne” on his first LP, Songs of Leonard Cohen, is a description of a spent with a girl of that name. It really did happen, and she did feed him tea and oranges that came all the way from China.

Another of his songs from that same LP was written when he was in Alberta and met two girls in a cafe.

“I was alone,” he intoned gravely, “and I had nowhere to stay that evening. I went with them back to their room and we all slept together. When I awoke I wrote a song about them. I called it ‘Sisters of Mercy’.”

Although Cohen -was always dissatisfied with the record business, he didn’t feel he was working in a void which isolated him from new experiences.

“It’s been my experience that there is no situation which is artificial. There are responses which are artificial or untrue.

“But I mean, here we are sitting and drinking wine. You and I are together here. There is no room for a lie: we’re just two men sitting talking.”

 

If Cohen had to be remembered by only one of his songs, he would choose “Bird on a Wire.”

“The song is so important to me. It’s that one verse where I say that I swear by this song, and by all that I have done wrong, I’ll make it all up to thee.

“In that verse it’s a vow that I’ll try and redeem everything that’s gone wrong. I think I’ve made it too many times now, but l like to keep renewing it.”

Cohen became more and more dissatisfied with each LP he produced, culminating in almost dejection over his last record Songs of’ Love and Hate.

“I suppose you could call it gimmicky if you were feeling uncharitable towards me. I have certainly felt uncharitable towards me from time to time over that record, and regretted many things. It was over-produced and over elaborated… an experiment that failed.”

During my last conversation with him, Cohen had changed. He smoked my cigarettes almost continuously and appeared much more withdrawn, answering questions vaguely and lapsing into silences much more frequently.

In his song “Bird on a Wire” there is a line in which he says “I have tried in my way to be free”.  Perhaps he feels that this latest move will mean a new chance for him to be free. I think for a man as self-explorative as Leonard Cohen, freedom is a great deal further away.

Alastair Pirrie

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6 Comments

  1. "It was a strange song indeed; it was out of myself and contained the notion of reverence." Leonard Cohen On Joan of Arc - Cohencentric: Leonard Cohen Considered said,

    […] Cohen Regrets (1973) by Alastair Pirrie. Beat Patrol: December 30, 2008. [Originally written for the New Musical Express: March 10, 1973.] Originally posted Nov 13, 2013 at DrHGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric […]

  2. Leonard Cohen On Writing Songs, Not Slogans - Cohencentric: Leonard Cohen Considered said,

    […] Cohen Regrets (1973) by Alastair Pirrie. Beat Patrol: December 30, 2008. [Originally written for the New Musical Express: March 10, 1973.] Originally posted Nov 13, 2013 at DrHGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric […]

  3. Leonard Cohen Explains Why Bird On The Wire "Is So Important To Me" - Cohencentric: Leonard Cohen Considered said,

    […] Cohen Regrets (1973) by Alastair Pirrie. Beat Patrol: December 30, 2008. [Originally written for the New Musical Express: March 10, 1973.] Originally posted Nov 19, 2013 at DrHGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric […]

  4. "I’m no longer a free man; I’m an exploited man." Leonard Cohen On His Conflicts With The Music Business (1973) - Cohencentric: Leonard Cohen Considered said,

    […] Cohen Regrets (1973) by Alastair Pirrie. Beat Patrol: December 30, 2008. [Originally written for the New Musical Express: March 10, 1973.] Photo Credit: Peter Brosseau/Library and Archives Canada/PA-170174. […]

  5. "It’s been my experience that there is no situation which is artificial. There are responses which are artificial or untrue." Leonard Cohen - Cohencentric: Leonard Cohen Considered said,

    […] Cohen Regrets (1973) by Alastair Pirrie. Beat Patrol: December 30, 2008. [Originally written for the New Musical Express: March 10, 1973.] Photo Credit: Peter Brosseau/Library and Archives Canada/PA-170174. […]

  6. "I suppose you could call [Songs of Love and Hate] gimmicky if you were feeling uncharitable towards me. I have certainly felt uncharitable towards me from time to time over that record." Leonard Cohen (1973) - Cohencentric: Leonard Cohen Consid said,

    […] Cohen Regrets (1973) by Alastair Pirrie. Beat Patrol: December 30, 2008. [Originally written for the New Musical […]

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