Hear Leonard Cohen’s Final Interview: Recorded by David Remnick of The New Yorker


Image by Rama, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

We’ve heard very few details about Leonard Cohen’s death this week, and that is by design. The Cohen fam­i­ly request­ed pri­va­cy for his funer­al and received it. While most out­lets report­ed that he passed away on Thurs­day night, he actu­al­ly died on Wednes­day and was buried on Thurs­day. This col­lec­tive gra­cious­ness on the part of the press comes, I’d say, at a time when lit­tle grace abounds. Grace is a word that I par­tic­u­lar­ly asso­ciate with Cohen. He was a grace­ful man, always impec­ca­bly coiffed and dressed (his father was a tai­lor), his hand­some, hang­dog face nev­er any­thing but per­fect­ly direct.

For sev­er­al days before his death, New York­er edi­tor David Rem­nick sat down with Cohen for the first inter­view he’d giv­en in sev­er­al years. The poet and folk singer/songwriter leg­end had ter­mi­nal can­cer, we learn, and was con­fined to a med­ical chair. Nonethe­less, says Rem­nick, intro­duc­ing the edit­ed audio inter­view below, Cohen was “in an ebul­lient mood for a man… who knew exact­ly where he was going, and he was head­ed there in a hur­ry. And at the same time, he was incred­i­bly gra­cious. The most gra­cious host this side of my moth­er.” Cut to Cohen offer­ing him a few slices of cheese, and Rem­i­nick declin­ing.

Cohen kept his ill­ness secret (though he made allu­sions to it in a let­ter to his dying girl­friend Mar­i­anne this past sum­mer). Rem­nick reveals that he record­ed almost the entire­ty of his incred­i­ble final album You Want It Dark­er while con­fined to that chair. His voice rubbed raw with age, like John­ny Cash’s in his Amer­i­can Record­ings ses­sions, Cohen’s last songs car­ry all the spir­i­tu­al urgency and ragged vig­or of the best work of his career. Where did it come from? Unsur­pris­ing­ly, the first sub­ject in Rem­nick­’s inter­view is death. Cohen has been writ­ing about death since his first album in 1967.

He begins with his father’s death when he was nine, “a kind of ori­gin sto­ry for his career as a writer.”

The funer­al was held in our house. When we came down the stairs, the cof­fin was in the liv­ing room. And it was open. It was win­ter, you know. And I was think­ing, like, it must be hard to dig.

Remem­ber­ing this scene, Cohen’s Mon­tre­al accent strength­ens, then relax­es as he describes how, after the funer­al, he went to his father’s clos­et, cut a bow tie in half, wrote “some kind of farewell to my father” on the wing of the tie, and buried it in the back­yard. “It was just some attrac­tion to a rit­u­al response,” he says, “to an impos­si­ble event.”

This trag­ic vignette, and Cohen’s reflec­tion on it, is, as Rem­nick says, like a super­hero ori­gin sto­ry. With the same mea­sured, rhyth­mic voice and clear expres­sions as his songs, Cohen con­nects the mor­tal to the mys­te­ri­ous­ly divine act of writ­ing, which accom­plish­es “some kind of farewell” whose effects are unknown to us. What pos­si­ble sig­nif­i­cance the act had for Cohen, he can­not say, but it was sim­ply the appro­pri­ate response. Cohen’s final album seemed to be the right response to his own death.

This dwelling on mor­tal­i­ty is of course huge­ly sig­nif­i­cant and in the fore­ground of this inter­view-slash-trib­ute from Rem­nick, but it isn’t a mor­bid piece at all. In a ret­ro­spec­tive of Cohen’s career, we learn how he went from an acclaimed but strug­gling poet and nov­el­ist to folk singer in 1967, and how crip­pling stage fright led to him drink­ing three bot­tles of wine before he per­formed. At a 1972 con­cert in Israel, Cohen apol­o­gized, left the stage part­way through a song, and dropped two hits of acid in his dress­ing room. The audi­ence began singing loud­ly, and he returned to sing “So Long, Mar­i­anne” while hal­lu­ci­nat­ing wild­ly.

The sto­ry is hilar­i­ous, told with the same dry wit that under­cuts all of Cohen’s obser­va­tions about sex, death, and God. For all the deep­ness we asso­ciate with Leonard Cohen, says Rem­nick, he seemed reluc­tant to ana­lyze his work in reli­gious terms. But when he does open up about it, he gives us a back­drop against which to under­stand much of his spir­i­tu­al phi­los­o­phy: prayers, he says, “are to remind God, it was once a har­mo­nious uni­ty.… “ as well as his writ­ing phi­los­o­phy: “I only know,” says Cohen, “that if I write enough vers­es, and keep dis­card­ing the slo­gans, even the hip ones, even the sub­tle ones, that some­thing will emerge that rep­re­sents.”

You can also lis­ten to Remnick’s New York­er Radio Hour pod­cast at the WNYC site (and above) and read Remnick’s arti­cle on his last meet­ings with Cohen at The New York­er.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Leonard Cohen Has Passed at Age 82: His New and Now Final Album Is Stream­ing Free Online

Leonard Cohen Plays a Spell­bind­ing Set at the 1970 Isle of Wight Fes­ti­val

Ladies and Gen­tle­men… Mr. Leonard Cohen: The Poet-Musi­cian Fea­tured in a 1965 Doc­u­men­tary

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (6)
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  • Erna Austin says:

    David the inter­view with Mr Cohen was awe­some thanks for shar­ing it . I am moved by his thoughts and phi­los­o­phy and hisim­pend­ing demise . I’m 84 years old and it gave me hope that my life’s end can be beau­ti­ful also . Thank you again and for show­ing us what a wounder­full man he was in life and behind I know he will Rest In Peace thru eter­ni­ty. ErnaE.Austin

  • Silvia Kurtz says:

    I did read the whole inter­view when it was pub­lished but I did­n’t read any­thing about cancer.He was con­fined in a med­ical chair because he had back frac­tures. Those could be because of a ter­mi­nal can­cer but also because oth­er med­ical con­di­tions.

  • Dan says:

    “Rem­nick said that “when I vis­it­ed him in Los Ange­les he was suf­fer­ing from can­cer but keep­ing it very pri­vate. He was in deep pain from com­pres­sion frac­tures on his spine and he had to sit in a big, blue med­ical chair to ease that pain”.”


  • Fran says:

    I love Leonard Cohen — who does­n’t — but this was the first review I had ever read by David R. (Mr. R. also did an arti­cle about the review), and I was so very impressed by his thoughts on var­i­ous sub­jects and his writ­ing tal­ent. So I not only redis­cov­ered Mr. Cohen all over again (it had been a lit­tle while), but I also dis­cov­ered a new writer who I admire very much.

  • John Monaghan-Coombs says:

    A love­ly piece thank you so much he was very impor­tant to me.
    But may l remind you he was Cana­di­an not Amri­can.

  • Dianne Richmond says:

    Hi there, many thanks for shar­ing this time with this most won­der­ful, won­der­ful man. I came to Leonard in 1992 with The Future and then got into his back cat­a­logue. Had the most joy­ous time in his audi­ence a cou­ple of times in Aus­tralia — two unfor­get­table evenings in my life. Sad that he was in so much pain. You want it Dark­er has been on high rota­tion on my cd play­er since.
    PS — how on EARTH can you be a neigh­bour of Mr Cohen’s and blast your lousy leaf­blow­er in his pres­ence!!!!
    Thank you so much

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