Leonard Cohen’s ‘New Skin for the Old Ceremony’ at 45

Leonard Cohen’s ‘New Skin for the Old Ceremony’ at 45

John Lissauer was a 22-year-old Manhattanite when Leonard Cohen knocked on the door of his studio loft in 1972. The two were set to work on a new album together, and the young artist-producer was nervous. Lissauer’s first impression of folk’s Godfather of Gloom? “He was giggly,” Lissauer recalls. “Twinkly.”

“I thought he’d be this dark, depressed, moody folky guy with his minor key songs,” he continues. “He plays me a couple of songs and he’s so gentle and lovely and funny and gracious.” This from a man who once sang, “I myself am the pedestal/For this ugly hump at which you stare” (“Avalanche,” from Songs of Love and Hate). To say Lissauer was pleasantly surprised would be an understatement.

The pair had rubbed elbows previously at a gig in Montréal and had spoken about working together. Even then, Lissauer didn’t know what to expect: would he be dealing with a depressive debonair, the French-Canadian guy who performed minor-key ballads like “Master Song,” “Avalanche” and “Famous Blue Raincoat” with a dour expression? Or someone entirely different?

Lissauer came to Cohen with a clean slate; he wasn’t necessarily a fan of Cohen, or even of folk music. Perhaps because of this, Cohen dropped his guard — and revealed a bracingly different side of himself to the producer.

The pair ended up clicking, and they worked together on 1974’s New Skin for the Old Ceremony, a relatively lighthearted Cohen album that ditched black-and-white atmospheres for a tapestry of colors and moods. Today (August 11) marks the album’s 45th anniversary.

Lissauer didn’t want to overhaul Cohen’s basic MO; there are breakup tales (“I Tried to Leave You”), ominous Hebrew proverbs (“Who by Fire”) and kiss-and-tell ballads (“Chelsea Hotel #2”). All he did was add a spring to Cohen’s step.

“I think [Songs of Love and Hate] was gloomy because it was shrouded in loneliness,” Lissauer says of the album’s ultra-bleak predecessor. “Leonard and I shrouded New Skin in ‘Let’s not be so serious.’”

The result is now regarded as a Cohen classic. Eager to work together again, Cohen and Lissauer began a follow-up called Songs for Rebecca. The album was scrapped, and Cohen was instead paired with Phil Spector for 1977’s disastrous Death of a Ladies’ Man.

Cohen and Lissauer would work together one last time on 1984’s Various Positions, an inspired album that gave the world its secular hymn, “Hallelujah,” but was considered such a commercial nonstarter that Columbia Records initially refused to release before reinstating the album six years later.

Now’s the perfect time to revisit New Skin for the Old Ceremony, an album that wrapped familiar Cohen themes in clever, ornate music that eased up on the dourness. Read on for an interview with Lissauer about his memories of making the album.

How did you come to know Leonard Cohen in the 1970s?

There’s a young Canadian guy, a Montréal singer-songwriter named Lewis Furey. He was one of Leonard’s proteges. I did his first album, and it was really a unique record, the first punk record ever, almost. It was in 1972 and sort of multi-sexual, or asexual, or whatever you want to call it. It had rock tangos in it and all kinds of edgy, edgy, edgy stuff.

We did this record for A&M, and they loved it, and we decided to play Montréal at the Nelson Hotel. The third night we were there, I was dicking around on my tones, reverbs and just playing with stuff, looking at the setlist, and this guy in his late thirties comes over in a black suit and just stands there with his hands in his pockets, he’s very patient. I say, ‘Hey, man!’ He says, ‘Man, I can’t believe what you did with Lewis. I’m Leonard Cohen.’

I wasn’t a folk guy, so I wasn’t a huge fan of his. My girlfriend was a huge fan, but [for me], folk music was three chords and see-ya-later. I was interested in more advanced stuff. But he was being super complimentary and he really paid attention to the details. He said, ‘Listen, I’m going to be in New York in a couple of weeks. Can I call you and maybe we’ll talk about recording?’

I remember giving him my number and thinking I’d never hear from him again. It just felt like one of those nights where, y’know, everyone’s excited. Then he called me in New York 10 days later, showed up at my loft with his guitar and came up to the fourth flight. I was a 22-year-old kid with a studio. He plays me a couple of songs and he’s so gentle and lovely and funny and gracious.

I thought he’d be this dark, depressed, moody folky guy with his minor key songs. But there was no age difference between us, even though he was probably 18 years older. We were like kids. He was giggly. We had the best two hours ever. There was no discomfort. He liked the fact that I wasn’t treating him as some legendary scary guy.

What direction were you trying to take New Skin for the Old Ceremony in? What kind of palette did you want to work with?

He played me ‘Lover Lover Lover,’ ‘Chelsea Hotel’ and ‘Who by Fire’ and I was just salivating. What he played for me was so interesting and visual. I didn’t know any better nor have any governor on my tongue, but my instinct was individual vignettes in little picture frames. I told him I could hear bourbon-soaked clarinet here, and he was saying, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah!’

We also had to get the approval of John Hammond, who was the greatest A&R guy that we’ve ever seen, and not for hire, not for sale. We went to Columbia Records and did three songs. Hammond says, ‘Leonard, you’re in business. This kid is going to work well with you.’ And that was it. We went to the studio a couple of weeks later and did the record in pretty quick time.

After the relentlessly gloomy Songs of Love and Hate, it seems like the light got in a little bit on New Skin. The arrangements are more colorful, the songs often lighter and funnier.

I think it was gloomy because it was shrouded in loneliness. Leonard and I shrouded New Skin in ‘Let’s not be so serious.’ We tried to make it listenable, and I don’t want to say ‘entertaining,’ because we didn’t go for hit-making. We [wanted to] make it illustrated. I wanted to help drape these songs in a nice frame and make a vignette or something.

‘Why Don’t You Try’ and ‘I Tried to Leave You’ were kind of bleak, but I saw them as self-effacing bleak. So, we went that way, and he was so happy with that, because I didn’t make them darker. I went from sepia to color, as some critic said. It doesn’t sound 45 years old. It sounds like it’s from almost no time.

Sometimes, I would make up instruments that didn’t exist by combining weird things [together]. ‘Who by Fire,’ I wanted to be just a little bit pagan and hollow. Off-putting. It’s accusational.

I didn’t get into the religious aspect of it, I got into it as a movie: ‘Hmm, there’s a very interesting little short film here.’ We never talked about his lyrics. We never talked about Judaism ever. I just worked on what the lyrics sounded like to me.

Is it true that you and Cohen worked on a scrapped follow-up called Songs For Rebecca?

Oh, boy. We wrote an album together. He was so happy with how New Skin came out that the next year, he said, ‘Listen, John, I like your melodies better than mine. Why don’t I give you a bunch of melodies and you write songs to them?’ So, he gave me seven or eight, we went to California and wrote together. We got them pretty polished, and then he disappeared.

The Songs For Rebecca record still exists. I have a copy of rough mixes of seven songs. It’s really very good. We just never got back to it. We never really talked about it. …. I would love to see that come out.

All in all, your description of Cohen as a fun, bubbly guy flies in the face of his depressive image.

I feel like I’m the only guy who would say, ‘What are you talking about?’ This is a very twinkly guy. I do know that he fought depression and he would go off to be by himself. I just thought he was partying with the girls, and he might well have been. But the legend that is Leonard is a darker one. I can’t support it other than hearing people speculate about it.

The Leonard I knew, we never had a dark moment, and this is 40 years or something. I can’t think of anyone I’ve known who hasn’t had even a little cloudy moment. It’s these two Leonards: the one who gets written about by people who actually didn’t know him, and the guy that I knew.

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