Gabriel Byrne: “Leonard Cohen was the soundtrack of my life”

Music transported me to this other world of possibility and imagination. Leonard Cohen is more than a singer. He is a poet who puts his words to music. And he was a soundtrack to my life because I think he always tried to find an answer in spirituality. I am not talking about religion, but about things of the spirit. That’s what I tried to do. I rejected religion a long time ago, but I believe in nurturing the spirit, the soul, whatever you want to call it. This inner flame that must be maintained.

“I was born like this, I had no choice, I was born with the gift of a golden voice.” Is there a gift you were born with?

It’s interesting that he says he had no choice. Do many of us have a choice between the qualities we are given, the advantages or disadvantages we have to face? Beckett said, “Birth was his death”. The idea that you are born and continue on a particular road is true to a point. You can change the circumstances of your life, it’s the slit of light that comes in.

I was born in Dublin at a time when the Catholic Church and the government together were very repressive forces. Your life was limited in scope and possibilities. You have been encouraged to be a good Catholic, find a good job, raise a family, and then shed your mortal shell. I didn’t want that kind of life for myself. I saw how my father lived his life. He was a worker, a worker, and he and his friends were fired at 47, and that was the end of their lives. They could never find another job. They lived on a meager pension. They didn’t think they were entitled to anything more than that. I thought at the time that my father was old. He was only 47 years old. It’s not old.

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Looking back, I see how he was a victim of society at that time. And I began to feel the hold of the Catholic Church over me. It’s cult. To this day I have to say to myself, where does this feeling come from? And I realize that it is the result of the inculcation, of the education, which I had when I was a child. So something that I was born with was this feeling of not wanting to be bound by the restrictions of society. I had friends who got married at 18 and 19 so they could have sex. Then they had families and there they were, 30 years old with three children. It was a dead end that I didn’t want to be in. It’s something that influenced the rest of my life, wanting to escape.

One of Cohen’s last songs was Go home – « without my sorrow… there where it is better than before ». How’s it going when you come home now?

I guess what he’s talking about here is going back to the past. Your recall of the past can often be very wrong. We have a way of masking the past, of reducing its sense of worry. It doesn’t get better when you go back. He gets nothing. The past is the past. We have no control over the past and we have no control over the future. The only thing we have control over, to a limited extent, is now. We learn from the past… but what does the past teach you? You make the same mistakes over and over again, until one day you realize banging your head against a wall only hurts your head, so don’t go back.

A portrait of Leonard Cohen in Amsterdam, April 1972. Image: Gijsbert Hanekroot

Is the notion of a ladies’ man dead?

The guy in the movie, he’s sexist and misogynistic. He believes he has the right to behave as he behaves towards women. This idea has changed. A ladies’ man was often an understatement for a guy who slept a lot. A woman who engages in the same behavior is called a slut. I like to think that a ladies’ man is a man that women like.

There was a time in Irish culture, and it is true in other places too, when there was an envious admiration for people who drank heavily. The idea of ​​the legendary drinker, tortured, drug addicted artist was something glamorous. Of course, there was nothing glamorous about it, and there still isn’t. All those people who died at 27, subject to some sort of glamorous curse. This idea that the artist is somehow different and revered because he is addicted is a dangerous myth. It’s mostly in working-class culture.

Going to the pub on a Saturday and Sunday night, fighting, that’s how you live your life as a man. It’s a seductive myth. And that’s one I learned, through a lot of pain, I had to let go.

Is Democracy Coming to America?

One can wonder if democracy exists. I mean, it’s a Greek word that means rule of the people for the people. The reality of life here and in Britain is that democracy is the rule of the few for the few.

The divisions in America are not just about race, many are deliberately caused and inflamed so that society can be kept at war with itself. Conservatives in Britain are the embodiment of neoliberal privilege and economics. It’s a nice thing to see that asshole Johnson gone, but he’s a many-headed monster. You cut his head off, what’s the next head that’s gonna grow? The Labor Party better shine their shoes too. But is America falling apart? Yes it is.

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Leonard Cohen saw the future and it was murder. What do you see?

Ancient writers from Greece and Rome wrote about the same things that people talk about today. The one thing that worries me more than anything is climate change. It’s good to save a plastic bottle or whatever, but companies are there to make money, so they don’t care. These people are going to drag us out of the precipice into death and destruction, that’s what worries me. But I think as a society, if we can deal with this, we will survive.

How did you try, in your own way, to be free?

Well, I think there’s a lot in there. He does not say that I am free. The process is an ongoing battle. Because are we ever truly free? I think the only way to be truly free is within. Not to be seduced by the goals people say you should have. Trying to break free from religion, economics, social expectations. It forces you to look deep within yourself to say, how can I do this? What do I have to get rid of to try to be free? It’s a great use of language. I tried – in my own way – to be free. You could take a song, sit down with six people, and get six different perspectives. That’s the beauty of a great work of art. It means one thing to one person and something to another person, but in general terms it means the same thing to everyone.

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