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Dylan was at his peak, writing his brilliant "doomsday poems", and revolutionising popular music. Colleges by the scores offered courses regarding pop song lyrics as poetry. Books were written, the main one being Richard Goldstein's The Poetry of Rock. Commentators confidently announced that all the new, young poets were going into pop. There was great promise, but like many of the best promises, things didn't work out.
Dylan went into bland country songs, and so did most of the others. The new young poets are, as before the proclamation of "pop poetry," back writing poems. Of those promising the most back five and six years ago, only Leonard Cohen remains.
Cohen is sitting now in a room on the top floor of the Chelsea Hotel in New York, where Dylan Thomas, O. Henry and Thomas Wolfe once worked. Leonard Cohen is a solitary figure. He hasn't talked to an American reporter in years – the PR man for Columbia Records, which releases his records, can't remember the last time. And in any case he seldom hangs around long enough to be interviewed.
Folk singer David Blue once quipped that Leonard Cohen "spends all his time in airports waiting for buses." When I saw him recently, he was in town for 18 hours, on his way to Europe to visit his stepson. The author of such famous contemporary songs as Suzanne and Bird On The Wire was in a nearly-bare room, one which the Chelsea prefers to rent to painters, due to the sunlight from two large windows. But Cohen has one shade down all the way and the other at half-mast, sending a rectangular shaft of light into the gray, lifeless room. There is no furniture, save a bed and two wooden chairs. The phone is on the floor, in a corner.
Cohen has arranged the two wooden chairs so that they face each other across the shaft of light. He tells me that his songs depict real situations, with real people, usually keeping their real names. There is, for example, a real Suzanne. He tells me that he spends all his time travelling, going no place in particular, with no particular purpose in mind. He mentions his new LP, Live Songs, and a volume of poetry, The Energy Of Slaves, published recently by Viking.
And then, he gets into his feelings about the state of pop song lyrics. "I rarely hear praise anymore," he says. "I get the feeling that my songs have fallen out of favour. One hears an echo, and the echo I have been getting is not one of whole-hearted appreciation. In England, my songs and person have been subject to satire. My person has been satirised as being suicidal, melancholy, and self-indulgent."
Cohen's songs depict people who burn emotionally; who are on fire and calling out for attention, often for love, and seldom getting it. He does this with the utmost care. He is a true wordsmith, about the last one in rock. Note the exquisite delicacy with which he describes the eternal and often pathetic wish of man to be free to fly:
"Like a bird on the wire
Like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried
In my way
To be free."
Says Cohen, "For a certain kind of nature that is prone to melancholy, my music has a salutary effect. For others, it has the opposite effect." It makes them depressed. The ones who want to hear Bob Dylan singing about life in the country ridicule Leonard Cohen. They listen to James Taylor, Carly Simon, Carole King, recent Dylan, and all the others who have been highly-touted in rock circles within the past few years. Despite individual variations, all of these peoples' tunes are love songs or landscapes; postcards, in any case.
"I can't stand it," Cohen says. "Rock has become so wordy and inane. So trashy."
He recites for me the opening verse of a song he just wrote, called Chelsea Hotel. It refers to "workers in song" and "those of us left." We leave the room. We ride down in the elevator, passing several people, including Viva, the Andy Warhol film star, and two kids who appear to be Clifford Irving's children. Cohen pays for his room and we get into a car. I drive with him to the airport.
"Are you working on anything?" I ask.
"I blacken pages from time to time," he says. "I don't like to displease the gods who rule these things, so I won't say 'I've got a book in the works.' I try to put things down. I don't think you can write novels on the road. You need a certain stability. I'm trying to find a place to write in."
He mentions that a girl he once lived with has written a book, and is looking for a publisher. I give him the name of my publisher.
"I'll tell Suzanne to write," he says, and then grins at this slip. I leave him at the ticket counter.
The promise of rock poetry is a broken one, but not one broken by Leonard Cohen. Shortly, there will be a film of his 1972 European tour called Bird on the Wire. And Gene Lesser, who directed The Beggar's Opera off-Broadway, is working on Sisters of Mercy, a collection of Cohen's works. It will open at the George Bernard Shaw Festival in Ontario and perhaps go from there to Broadway.
Leonard Cohen is a worker in song. One of the few left.