During the height of summer, aided by gin martinis and Indonesian cigarettes, Believer contributor Caia Hagel arranged this fictional interview with Leonard Cohen. Even when imaginary, Cohen is a slippery subject, and what follows is entirely untrue. See Part II, Part III.
I wore my blue Burberry trench coat cinched up tight at the waist with a nude body leotard underneath it so it was like I was naked, and I got myself into a Famous Blue Raincoat kind of mood. I had fluttering in my stomach, partly because I had not eaten, partly because I had had four coffees, partly because I was nervous about coming face to face with a song god poet on his own terrain, which had an era all of its own that wasn’t mine.
It was early for a meeting between nighttime people; the streets had emptied of work commuters and pigeons were diving from rooftops and gathering on the pavement to prey on the leftovers and spills of the morning crowd in their rush. The air was bilious with a bulky humidity that seemed to make moving more difficult. The clicking of my shoes drifted to my ears in distant rings through the thickness of it as I pushed my way forward, swallowing aspirin and angling my posture.
Eventually I approached the doors of the Chelsea Hotel. I walked past the plaque commemorating the famous blowjob that Leonard got from Janis Joplin before she OD’d. That woke me up a little more.
Once inside the notorious building, I looked around for what I had heard was his small, suited figure. I knew his low voice well from the CDs I had grown up with but I didn’t know his physical presence. I pictured it as an alert, watchful bird-like one, clothed in slightly outsize and elegant clothing, who, in a room, tended to be partly obscured from others and always watching. My detailed survey of the lobby told me Leonard wasn’t there yet, so I sat on a red velvet couch close to the door.
I noticed the scummy carpet and the dirty walls and the kaleidoscope of art – what artist didn’t live here and lose their mind in the free love era? The art was hung in an artless way that even to me seemed showy when Hello, the Chelsea will be cool for all time. I didn’t need to write this in my interview notepad because everyone of every generation in all parts of the world knows this. But when you stand inside a well-known place and experience the characteristics of it through all of your senses, there are things that hit you. Like maybe there is an underlying insecurity to everything artistic, this is what I was thinking, and I had thought it before while standing open-hearted in front of a large finished canvas like Anselm Kiefer’s Gescheiterte Hoffnung, Wreck of Hope, which has an insecurity that makes others insecure too, and which is what makes us all vulnerable to feeling the delicate condition we actually live in.
Normally one or both of my brothers are with me during interviews since they never stop reminding me that I am underage and they love interrupting and analyzing and having their way with famous people. But on this day, at least there, physically, at the Chelsea Hotel, I was alone. My brothers Henry and James II were waiting, just like me, for Leonard, but from other parts of the city. Their eagerness was making me like music. My iPhone ring tone, which at the time, I remember, was a custom Peruvian techno remix, was going off systematically, alternating with my email inbox noise, which was percussion-sounding, and my text arrival noise, which sounded like an abrupt act of breathing.
Henry and James II were busy screen-scrolling Leonard, which meant conducting random speedy searches and sending me quotes, photos, and questions to ask him.
Henry was like, I’m flying thru Leonard’s book beautiful losers and it’s genius, he’s totally hot for this dead Mohawk Lady Virgin Saint from three hundred years ago and he’s fucking his best friend, who is a guy, with some pimp-messiah agenda, and his wife, who is also a Mohawk and has like, super long nipples and covers her body one day in red gel and says Let’s be other people, crushes herself under an elevator. Listen to this: Tight, tight, tight, oh, I want to be trapped in a thirteen-year-old life.
I’m 14, so I was texting back going, Is that us?
Henry was like, Yeah.
James II was texting at the same time as Henry, saying how wild with unspecific grief Leonard is and has always been, and how I should ask him a question about how wild and unspecific grief feeds him as an artist and feeds all of us as the eaters of his art.
I was texting back, James II, that’s kind of creepy, all that eating and it’s a really brutal question to ask an old man, who could be Sacred, and he was texting back at high speed going, read these lines which came in one by one, in between mine back to him, so that the screen became a messed up conversation, like that Italian word, staccato, and which was sounding off with my music each time another of his lines landed, and the whole Chelsea lounge was alive with Leonard-inspired smartphone rave tones:
Please Be With Me, Especially As I Poke Around The Radio For Religious Music
I Am Frightened Because Death Is Your Idea
Please Make Me Empty
She Stuck Her Fingers In My Ears And I Stuck My Fingers In Her Ears And We Kissed
The Fragrance Of Forests Is In The World It Clings To Our Leather Clothes
She Has Put On Her White Sunhat And Has Turned Her Tits From Him
He Loves Youth Truly
O God, Please Terrify Me
Henry was also texting with Courtney Love, the awesome singer, who had also recently become his texting BFF because they both have insomnia. They found that out when they met at one of Dad’s art celebrity parties.
The Chelsea soon became a three-way texting tribe, me there on the red velvet couch, Henry in a chair at café Florette and Courtney on her bed at her place a few blocks away. Courtney was attaching Honey Boo Boo clips and wondering if American beauty pageants are today’s answer to Mozart and Salieri and Henry was like, that’s so deep, and he started watching Amadeus on sped up and at the same time sending a clip of Mozart’s laugh from that one movie, and asking, Would Leonard rather be Mozart or would Leonard rather be Salieri?
And I was like, Henry, he’s not here yet, and so we were trying to answer the question ourselves, for Leonard, whether he would rather be like Mozart or whether he would rather be like Salieri, and we were guessing he would rather be Salieri because Salieri was dignified and careful and slow and brooding in that jealous genius manner, and he had millions of protégés who took over the music business of the late 1700s, and onwards, and the court was behind him like God.
But Leonard wasn’t always In, said Courtney, now on Group Skype. He was actually super Out, I mean Out, like really Out, like a wolf separated from the pack, or like a wild wanderer in one of those scary episodes of Little House on the Prairie, he just wandered like for years and years getting blowjobs in seedy hotels here and there, eating hot dogs and sitting alone at noodle bars in the middle of the night, that’s why he was so complex and sad, which is why he wrote such amazing religious songs, which is why Kurt loved him too and like, totally tried to conjure him up out of a teacup in his song Pennyroyal Tea (where he sings give me Leonard Cohen.) Did you know Leonard told somebody, Courtney goes, after Kurt died, that he wished he had been able to talk to Kurt so he didn’t feel so alone, since Leonard was an expert, and Kurt was so alone, even though he had me and Frances, and the band and all the fans, but he didn’t see it that way, so Leonard could have been a friend or a priest or even a kind of prophet but he was probably doing penance somewhere far from Seattle, or too busy learning about cunnilingus, or however you say it, because isn’t that the coolest word? I just learned it the other day when my personal trainer told me, Courtney you have the dirtiest mouth, and he gave me a few fancy words to call on, so now I can call on those fancy words to be better. You want to better too, right? We all want to be better, we all want a better self and a better world full of better people that we are also better with, which is why Leonard’s religious music is having like, a total major impact all these years after he was a wild, wondering loner learning how to be ok with that out there in the darkness, since now all these years later, we are all waking up and like, Duh, realizing that the heart really matters and spirit stuff really matters, and will never go Out. Leonard, even if he’s like a century years old, I totally want to fuck him – like, can you imagine? He probably knows more about female body parts and how they all connect and find love than the whole female species. We are so alienated, we all need to get to know our own selves, right? We all need love, right? All You Need Is Love, right? Like the Beetles said? And the Group Skype cut out so Henry and I were both texted, Yeah.
A boy came up to me and said, Are you waiting for Leonard? He’ll be here soon.
Caia Hagel interviews artists, celebrities, demi-gods and monsters, in search of the sublime. Her personality profiles, travelogues, art talks and fictions appear here and there in magazines, on social media and TV networks internationally. She’ll be reading her story, Pilgrims in Nirvana, this Sunday (9/29) as a part of Red Light Lit at Viracocha in San Francisco.
Illustration by Olivia M. Judge