This isn't directly related to the MOQ and yet it pertains to the
discussion between David Harding and me about creative freedom in
jazz. Maybe some of you enjoy the music of Leonard Cohen as much as I
do, and this is how he describes finding his song. I thought it worth
It is a great honour to stand here before you tonight. Perhaps, like
the great maestro, Riccardo Muti, I’m not used to standing in front of
an audience without an orchestra behind me, but I will do my best as a
solo artist tonight.
I stayed up all night last night wondering what I might say to this
assembly. After I had eaten all the chocolate bars and peanuts from
the minibar, I scribbled a few words. I don’t think I have to refer to
them. Obviously, I’m deeply touched to be recognized by the
Foundation. But I have come here tonight to express another dimension
of gratitude; I think I can do it in three or four minutes.
When I was packing in Los Angeles, I had a sense of unease because
I’ve always felt some ambiguity about an award for poetry. Poetry
comes from a place that no one commands, that no one conquers. So I
feel somewhat like a charlatan to accept an award for an activity
which I do not command. In other words, if I knew where the good songs
came from I would go there more often.
I was compelled in the midst of that ordeal of packing to go and open
my guitar. I have a Conde guitar, which was made in Spain in the great
workshop at number 7 Gravina Street. I pick up an instrument I
acquired over 40 years ago. I took it out of the case, I lifted it,
and it seemed to be filled with helium it was so light. And I brought
it to my face and I put my face close to the beautifully designed
rosette, and I inhaled the fragrance of the living wood. We know that
wood never dies. I inhaled the fragrance of the cedar as fresh as the
first day that I acquired the guitar. And a voice seemed to say to me,
“You are an old man and you have not said thank you, you have not
brought your gratitude back to the soil from which this fragrance
arose. And so I come here tonight to thank the soil and the soul of
this land that has given me so much.
Because I know that just as an identity card is not a man, a credit
rating is not a country.
Now, you know of my deep association and confraternity with the poet
Frederico Garcia Lorca. I could say that when I was a young man, an
adolescent, and I hungered for a voice, I studied the English poets
and I knew their work well, and I copied their styles, but I could not
find a voice. It was only when I read, even in translation, the works
of Lorca that I understood that there was a voice. It is not that I
copied his voice; I would not dare. But he gave me permission to find
a voice, to locate a voice, that is to locate a self, a self that that
is not fixed, a self that struggles for its own existence.
As I grew older, I understood that instructions came with this voice.
What were these instructions? The instructions were never to lament
casually. And if one is to express the great inevitable defeat that
awaits us all, it must be done within the strict confines of dignity
And so I had a voice, but I did not have an instrument. I did not have a song.
And now I’m going to tell you very briefly a story of how I got my song.
Because – I was an indifferent guitar player. I banged the chords. I
only knew a few of them. I sat around with my college friends,
drinking and singing the folk songs and the popular songs of the day,
but I never in a thousand years thought of myself as a musician or as
One day in the early sixties, I was visiting my mother’s house in
Montreal. Her house was beside a park and in the park was a tennis
court where many people come to watch the beautiful young tennis
players enjoy their sport. I wandered back to this park which I’d
known since my childhood, and there was a young man playing a guitar.
He was playing a flamenco guitar, and he was surrounded by two or
three girls and boys who were listening to him. I loved the way he
played. There was something about the way he played that captured me.
It was the way that I wanted to play and knew that I would never be
able to play.
And, I sat there with the other listeners for a few moments and when
there was a silence, an appropriate silence, I asked him if he would
give me guitar lessons. He was a young man from Spain, and we could
only communicate in my broken French and his broken French. He didn’t
speak English. And he agreed to give me guitar lessons. I pointed to
my mother’s house which you could see from the tennis court, and we
made an appointment and settled a price.
He came to my mother’s house the next day and he said, “Let me hear
you play something.” I tried to play something, and he said, “You
don’t know how to play, do you?’
I said, “No, I don’t know how to play.” He said “First of all, let me
tune your guitar. It’s all out of tune.” So he took the guitar, and he
tuned it. He said, “It’s not a bad guitar.” It wasn’t the Conde, but
it wasn’t a bad guitar. So, he handed it back to me. He said, “Now
I couldn’t play any better.
He said “Let me show you some chords.” And he took the guitar, and he
produced a sound from that guitar I had never heard. And he played a
sequence of chords with a tremolo, and he said, “Now you do it.” I
said, “It’s out of the question. I can’t possibly do it.” He said,
“Let me put your fingers on the frets,” and he put my fingers on the
frets. And he said, “Now, now play.”
It was a mess. He said, ” I’ll come back tomorrow.”
He came back tomorrow, he put my hands on the guitar, he placed it on
my lap in the way that was appropriate, and I began again with those
six chords – a six chord progression. Many, many flamenco songs are
based on them.
I was a little better that day. The third day – improved, somewhat
improved. But I knew the chords now. And, I knew that although I
couldn’t coordinate my fingers with my thumb to produce the correct
tremolo pattern, I knew the chords; I knew them very, very well.
The next day, he didn’t come. He didn’t come. I had the number of his,
of his boarding house in Montreal. I phoned to find out why he had
missed the appointment, and they told me that he had taken his life.
That he committed suicide.
I knew nothing about the man. I did not know what part of Spain he
came from. I did not know why he came to Montreal. I did not know why
he played there. I did not know why he he appeared there at that
tennis court. I did not know why he took his life.
I was deeply saddened, of course. But now I disclose something that
I’ve never spoken in public. It was those six chords, it was that
guitar pattern that has been the basis of all my songs and all my
music. So, now you will begin to understand the dimensions of the
gratitude I have for this country.
Everything that you have found favourable in my work comes from this
place. Everything , everything that you have found favourable in my
songs and my poetry are inspired by this soil.
So, I thank you so much for the warm hospitality that you have shown
my work because it is really yours, and you have allowed me to affix
my signature to the bottom of the page.
Because – I was an indifferent guitar player. I banged the chords.
Notice how Leonard Cohen relates that all his songs and music have
sprung from those six chords the man from Spain taught him and how it
relates to Bill Evans and the creative freedom he finds in jazz.