"Patrick Leonard: de Madonna à Leonard Cohen"
La Presse (Canada) by Alain de Repentigny, January 21, 2012
Leonard Cohen a fait appel à quatre réalisateurs pour Old Ideas, mais Patrick Leonard est le seul à avoir signé avec le poète les quatre chansons qu'il a réalisées. «Je n'aime pas collaborer, m'a expliqué Cohen le soir de la séance d'écoute à Los Angeles. Avec Sharon Robinson, si, mais avec Phil (Spector), ça ne s'est pas très bien passé. J'ai échangé des idées avec Patrick Leonard et il n'y a pas eu de conflit d'ego. Patrick est un musicien majeur. Il a travaillé avec Madonna, mais on l'a un peu oublié aujourd'hui. J'espère que mon album va lui redonner de la visibilité.»
C'est par l'entremise d'Adam Cohen, dont il a réalisé le récent album Like a Man, que Patrick Leonard a fait la connaissance de Cohen père. «Mes chansons préférées sur l'album, outre celle qu'il fait à la guitare acoustique, sont sans aucun doute celles qu'il a écrites avec Pat, dit le fils Cohen. Je les trouve plus inventives, plus naturelles, elles ont la fraîcheur de ses vieux disques. Et entre les mains d'un expert comme Pat Leonard, l'enregistrement de la voix est beaucoup plus convaincant, profond et évocateur.»
Cette voix de baryton à nulle autre pareille que Patrick Leonard a placée au premier plan et qui donne parfois l'impression de nous chuchoter quelque chose à l'oreille est essentielle pour Adam. Pour son père aussi qui lui a déjà dit: "Si ta voix n'est pas très présente, c'est que tu te caches".»
Cohen et lui se sont apprivoisés progressivement, raconte Patrick Leonard avec un gros sourire dans la voix: «Il y a deux ou trois ans, on a fait connaissance autour d'un sandwich au thon dans un petit déli où Leonard a ses habitudes. Un an et demi plus tard, Adam m'a demandé de faire un arrangement de cordes pour une chanson de son père qui ne s'est pas retrouvée sur l'album. Leonard l'a beaucoup aimé. Il m'a invité chez lui pour en parler et m'a laissé des textes pour que j'en fasse des chansons, dont celui de Show Me The Place.»
Patrick Leonard me fait entendre au téléphone la piste de piano de Show Me The Place. «Leonard l'a chantée plusieurs fois avant de me dire qu'il voulait réentendre la toute première prise. évidemment, il avait raison: son énergie, son enthousiasme y sont palpables et on peut entendre sur le disque certains bruits typiques d'une première prise. Ce n'est pas surtravaillé.»
Patrick Leonard n'oubliera pas de sitôt l'enregistrement de la chanson sexy-jazzée Anyhow dans la pièce arrière de la maison de Cohen: «Je me mordais pour ne pas pouffer de rire et quand vers la fin il a dit «I'm naked and I'm filthy», j'ai craqué. Après coup, on en a ri tous les deux un bon moment.» Mais il est surtout fier de Going Home, un poème que Cohen lui a remis en lui disant qu'il ne voyait pas comment en tirer une chanson. «Je lui ai dit: laisse-moi essayer. J'ai composé la musique le lendemain à la maison et il m'a offert de couper le deuxième couplet qui était plus long que le premier. J'ai refusé. Ce deuxième couplet a une forme musicale très inhabituelle... et amusante.»
Croit-il que Old Ideas peut lui ouvrir des portes comme le souhaite Leonard Cohen? «ça me touche que Leonard dise ça, mais il n'y a pas tant de disques que j'aimerais réaliser et je préfère me consacrer à ma propre musique. Le premier véritable album complet que j'ai réalisé fut True Blue de Madonna dont j'ai écrit avec elle la plupart des chansons. ça commençait au pas de course! J'ai travaillé avec d'autres artistes de Warner Brothers pendant 10 ou 15 ans (Bryan Ferry, Rod Stewart, Fleetwood Mac...) ainsi qu'avec Roger Waters. Puis il y a eu la fusion avec Dreamworks et la business a changé. Où veux-tu aller après Leonard Cohen? C'est un cadeau incroyable! J'ai fait entendre Show Me The Place à un certain nombre de personnes et j'ai vu des jeunes femmes aussi bien que des chefs amérindiens se mettre à pleurer sans trop savoir pourquoi.»
"Patrick Leonard: from Madonna to Leonard Cohen"
La Presse (Canada) by Alain de Repentigny, January 21, 2012
Leonard Cohen has used four directors for Old Ideas, but Patrick Leonard is the only one who signed with the poet, the four songs he performed. "I do not work, Cohen explained to me the night of the listening session in Los Angeles. Sharon Robinson, though, but with Phil (Spector), it did not very well. I exchanged ideas with Patrick Leonard and there was no conflict of ego. Patrick is a major musician. He has worked with Madonna, but was somewhat forgotten today. I hope my album will give him visibility."
It is through Adam Cohen, which he carried out the recent album Like a Man, Patrick Leonard Cohen met father. "My favorite songs on the album, besides the one he made on acoustic guitar, are undoubtedly those he wrote with Pat, the son said Cohen. I find them more inventive, more natural, they have the freshness of its old records. And in the hands of an expert like Pat Leonard, the voice recording is much more compelling, deep and evocative."
The baritone voice like no other that Patrick Leonard at the forefront and which sometimes gives the impression of something we whisper in the ear is essential for Adam. For his father who also has said: "If your voice is not present, is that you hide."
He and Cohen are gradually tamed, Patrick Leonard said with a big smile in his voice: "There are two or three years, we got to know about a tuna sandwich in a small deli where Leonard habits. Eighteen months later, Adam asked me to do a string arrangement for a song of his father who was not found on the album. Leonard has loved. He invited him to speak and let me texts for me to make songs, including the Show Me The Place."
Patrick Leonard on the phone I heard the track Piano Show Me The Place. "Leonard has sung several times before telling me he wanted to hear again the very first take. Obviously, he was right: his energy, enthusiasm are tangible and you can hear some noise on the disk of a typical first dose. It is not surtravaillé."
Patrick Leonard will not soon forget the recording of the song sexy, jazzy anyhow in the back room of the house of Cohen: "I bit my not to giggle, and when towards the end he said "I'm I'm naked and filthy," I snapped. In retrospect, we both laughed a good time. "But he is most proud of Going Home, a poem that Cohen gave him, saying he did not see how to make a song. "I told him let me try. I composed the music at home the next day and he offered to cut the second verse, which was longer than the first. I refused. The second verse has a very unusual musical form...and fun."
Does he think that Old Ideas can open doors as he wants Leonard Cohen? "It touches me that Leonard says that, but there is not so hard that I make and I prefer to devote myself to my own music. The first real full length album that I made was True Blue by Madonna which I wrote with her most of the songs. It started at a run! I worked with other artists from Warner Brothers for 10 or 15 years (Bryan Ferry, Rod Stewart, Fleetwood Mac...) and with Roger Waters. Then came the merger with Dreamworks and the business has changed. Where do you go after Leonard Cohen? This is an incredible gift! I did hear Show Me The Place to a number of people and I saw young women as well as Indian leaders to cry without knowing why."
"The Leonard Cohen catalogue: It all goes back to an astonishing debut"
The Gazette (Montreal) by Bernard Perusse, January 23, 2012
Old Ideas was preceded by 11 other studio albums by Leonard Cohen. It's a body of work so strong that no album can be dismissed altogether. Some of them struggle to survive questionable choices in production or arrangement, but each disc includes at least one song everyone should hear.
Here's the Cohen catalogue to date, with our ratings and commentary. For each album, we have selected a canonical song, one that always elicits a gasp of joyful recognition, and a lesser-discussed classic.
All of the albums -- except the new disc, Old Ideas -- were recently issued in an essential, reasonably-priced box set titled Leonard Cohen: The Complete Studio Albums. The presentation is bare-bones: an unadorned cardboard sleeve, featuring original artwork, for each release, with all recording details squeezed into a single booklet covering the entire oeuvre. Spartan packaging aside, it should be in every home.
The many live Cohen albums are not included here, but the best are Field Commander Cohen -- Tour of 1979 (2001) and Live In London (2009).
Songs of Leonard Cohen, 1967, Five stars: The astonishing debut, which introduced all Cohen obsessions -- love, faith, betrayal and despair among them -- through inventively-arranged songs that became instant classics.
Also indispensable: Sisters of Mercy
Songs From a Room, 1969, Three and a half stars: Nothing wrong with the songs, although the performance and production sound a bit clunky. And that Jew's Harp on half the album? Really bad idea.
Canonical: Bird on the Wire
Also indispensable: Story of Isaac
Songs of Love and Hate, 1971, Four and a half stars: Almost as stunning as the debut, with tastefully subdued string arrangements that bring warmth even to the sad songs.
Canonical: Famous Blue Raincoat
Also indispensable: Avalanche
New Skin For the Old Ceremony, 1974, Four stars: The arrangements are more full-bodied and what was the LP's second side is a tour de force, but when Cohen tries yelling as a vocal approach, it's hard not to wince.
Canonical: Take This Longing
Also indispensable: Who By Fire
Death of a Ladies' Man, 1977, Two and a half stars: The ill-advised collaboration with Phil Spector, the king of sonic clutter, makes it the odd album out in the Cohen oeuvre, but it's not quite as bad as conventional wisdom would have it.
Indispensable: that would be generous, but Memories is a cool track
Recent Songs, 1979, Four stars: Some of the strongest melodies and most intriguing arrangements to date (Mariachi horns?) make this a spectacular return to form. Three cheers for Raffi Hakopian's violin.
Canonical: Came So Far For Beauty
Also indispensable: The Gypsy's Wife
Various Positions, 1984, Five Stars: The one Columbia initially refused to release (it finally did so in 1990 after it had been out on an indie label). The fact that this was a masterpiece, with robust melodies and a generosity of spirit, didn't seem to matter to the suits. "Look, Leonard, we know you're great," Cohen later quoted label president Walter Yetnikoff as saying, "But we don't know if you're any good."
Also indispensable: Dance Me to the End of Love
I'm Your Man, 1988, Four stars: Unfortunate '80s production values can't capsize what is almost a greatest-hits album in itself. The deep, deep voice surfaces here.
Canonical: I'm Your Man
Also indispensable: Tower of Song
The Future, 1992, Three stars: Some brilliant songs, but Cohen's fascination with synthesizers deepens, to the album's detriment. For the first time, some tracks are actually throwaways.
Canonical: Closing Time
Also indispensable: Democracy
Ten New Songs, 2001, Three stars: Collaborator Sharon Robinson becomes Cohen's right-hand woman and the mechanical keyboard sound threatens to sink some excellent material. Cohen's voice is now a heavily-mic'ed whisper.
Canonical: In My Secret Life
Also indispensable: The Land of Plenty
Dear Heather, 2004, Two and a half stars: Uneven, at times even forgettable, this rambling meditation on aging found Cohen's voice in even rougher shape, and the synths continued to dominate. But even lesser Cohen albums have their sweet spots.
"Cohen on Cohen: Adam muses Old Ideas"
The Gazette (Montreal) by Bernard Perusse, January 20, 2012
There was no way the new Leonard Cohen album would be left off the table during an interview with his son Adam, so we asked for his impression of the disc.
"As his son, I love it and I'm filled with high hopes and expectations that I'm certain will be confirmed." he said. "And as a fan, if I was to muster some kind of objective commentary, I feel certain that he is going to distinguish himself from a lot of dinosaurs as not being a nostalgia act. He remains pertinent, and he is, in many ways, at the summit of his career."
When comparisons to Dylan's late-career successes were suggested, he paused thoughtfully. "I have great esteem for Dylan," he said "We all do in this family. But with all due respect, I think my father's work is, perhaps, even more pertinent than Dylan's. Certainly his stage show is much more generous and satisfying."
"Leonard Cohen: the maestro who's made the most of his misery"
The Telegraph (UK) by William Langley, January 22, 2012 (Photo/drawing by Springs)
Even on the release of 'Old Ideas' -- his 12th album -- the 77-year-old singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen remains happy to be sad, says William Langley
"I've got no future, I know my days are few," gasps Leonard Cohen on his latest album. It's this kind of cheeriness that has earned the singer-poet the nickname Laughing Len -- not to mention the Prince of Pessimism, the Godfather of Gloom and the Maestro of Melancholy. But, while looking on the dark side has served him well over the years, there are worrying signs that now, at the age of 77, he's getting serious.
To some extent, Cohen's unhappiness is understandable. He has had a tough life, both before and after he became famous. Anyone who has had a gun held to his head by Phil Spector, had his entire career earnings embezzled by an allegedly crooked manager, and been given the middle name Norman has plenty to feel resentful about.
In London last week, for the launch of Old Ideas, his 12th studio album, he showed few signs of cheering up. The critics were generally agreed that this was a very good thing. One praised the latest work as "a mix of suffering, heartbreak and darkness", and another as "a characteristically intimate reflection on love, death and suffering". Cohen, rarely given to commenting on his own work, confirmed: "I've come to the conclusion, reluctantly, that I'm going to die. But, you know, I'd like to do it with a beat."
Perhaps we should be grateful that he has lasted this long. His splendidly unglued life has been largely spent, as one of his support acts has quipped, "sitting in airports waiting for buses". He has come through breakdowns, bereavements, traumas, court appearances and separations, and sought help through drugs, religion and self-analysis. In the late Seventies, he made an album with the deranged producer Phil Spector, and later recalled: "One night, Phil approached me with a bottle of kosher red wine in one hand and a .45 in the other, put his arm around my shoulder, shoved the revolver into my neck, and said, 'Leonard, I love you.' I said, 'I really hope you do, Phil.'"
While all this surely eases the job of making music for people to slit their wrists to, it doesn't make it any easier to be Leonard Cohen. One of the reasons he rarely gives interviews is the difficulty of addressing the core conundrum that he had never intended to be a pop singer -- and, having become one, can't give it up.
This is no trouper's tale. In her autobiography, the folk singer Judy Collins recalls having to practically manhandle Cohen onstage at his debut American concert in 1967. "I can't do it," he said, "I would die from embarrassment." Halfway through his opening number, Suzanne, Cohen got the jitters, unstrapped his guitar and walked off again. "I can't do it, I can't go back," he told her. "But you will," she said, and, willingly or otherwise, he has been doing so ever since.
Today, he is a relatively polished stage performer, trim and dapper, with the look of an ageing mob lawyer in his charcoal suit and fedora. The voice -- once described as "deeper than a Siberian coalmine" -- is now deeper still and roughened by age, but it arguably suits the material. When Cohen needs some vocal variation, he can call on others, as he did in recruiting Britain's Webb Sisters for a world tour and his Live in London album.
What he hasn't got much better at is explaining what these dark, reproachful, sometimes caustic songs are really about. Cohen likes to deflect such questions, either by using Yeats's line about "the foul rag and bone shop of the heart" or arguing that the "sacred mechanisms" of songwriting simply don't lend themselves to explanation. You can understand his reticence when something like Hallelujah, an oddball song on a flop album, ends up as a soundtrack to The X Factor.
Most fans agree that the repertoire's central theme is disappointment. It isn't hard to spot where it comes from. Cohen was born in Montreal, the son of middle-class, observant Jewish parents. He thinks his early years were happy, but, when he was nine, his father, Nathan, who ran a clothing store, died suddenly. The boy took solace in books and especially poetry, and after leaving McGill University set out to become a full-time poet.
The next big blow was discovering the difficulties of making such a career choice pay. His first poetry collections, and two early novels -- The Favourite Game and Beautiful Losers -- sold poorly, although the latter would gain some fame when its core sex scene was voted the worst in the history of Canadian literature.
Growing disillusioned with the world of letters, he headed to New York with the vague idea of becoming a singer. There, he fell in with Andy Warhol's Factory, a smacked-out salon of waifs, aesthetes and famous-for-15-seconds nobodies that fortunately numbered some talents, too -- notably the Velvet Underground, filmmaker Paul Morrissey, and the poor, doomed model-cum-muse Edie Sedgwick. Cohen could see the difference and understood what it would take to succeed.
The odds remained against him. He was already in his early thirties, and pop promoters tended to ask: "Aren't you a little old for this game?" He wasn't good-looking, couldn't sing very well and had no obvious charisma. The breakthrough came when Judy Collins, whom he had met in a club, agreed to record his composition, Suzanne. In 1967, The Songs of Leonard Cohen was released, keying perfectly into the fashionable singer-poet genre established by Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. Unsettling, literate and beautifully phrased, the record made Cohen a star.
All these years later, he remains one. Each attempt to retire has been thwarted. For several years in the Nineties, he vanished into a Zen monastery in California, but emerged in 2000 claiming that he had beaten depression and was keen to work again. He soon changed his mind, but in 2005 discovered that more than
$5 million in earnings had vanished from his bank accounts. He won a civil suit against his former manager Kelley Lynch, but failed to recover the money, and was forced to return to work. He has never married, listing matrimony as high among his phobias.
However few days he claims to have, they'll be spent like last week's -- pleasing, teasing and worrying the fans. Success, he says, is survival, and he currently has both ends covered.
"Leonard Cohen: Portrait of the artist as an older man"
National Post (Canada) by Ben Kaplan, January 31, 2012. (Illustration by Steve Murray)
Leonard Cohen is releasing his 12th album, Old Ideas, on Jan. 31. Born in Montreal, Cohen learned guitar and formed his first band while a student at McGill, but the musician has always been more than just an everyday rock star. He's a prophet, a poet, a sex symbol, an observant Jew who practices Zen, a businessman who lost his fortune, a muse and, perhaps most importantly, a father. The Post's Ben Kaplan assembled a panel to dissect the various parts of the 77-year-old icon.
Cohen as muse:
Leonard Cohen was living in black and white when I first met him -- existing in the blurdom of a wintry December sidewalk, in a dark petticoat with an upturned collar, in a city I had never travelled toward. Here was the man who I would later speak of as though his name were a mountain, whose songs would soundtrack my life like small white arrows aimed at the stars. Here was Leonard Cohen, pausing in front of a department store window in 1965, his shoulders hunched against the cold while the St. Laurence Seaway maintained a stony silence. I approached him and confessed that my girl cries every night like a slow-closing season. I wanted to know why he burned the house that he loved, and what it was that would someday perfectly forget us all. While he spoke, women were hiding behind lemon trees in Sienna, cattle were carving canyons out of time, blossoms were falling in quiet courtyards, and rivers were honing their anger towards the world. While he spoke, I noticed how his face rhymed with the passing streetcars and the deep caskets of our days. I turned, and lost him for hours.
Written by musician Justin Rutledge (justinrutledge.com)
Cohen as Montrealer:
There are still a number of his classmates around, as well as his former babysitters. I only ever saw him twice in Westmount, once eating a banana outside of a fruit shop. The other time was at a bead emporium 25 years ago, where teenage girls gathered every Saturday to buy beads. Leonard was standing there as an indulgent father and Westmounters, being so polite, we pretended not to notice. I worked as a men's clothing salesman in high school selling the Freedman line, which was the Cohen family's topcoat and cashmere overcoat brand. Leonard came back here to raise his children and in the local alternative high school, you had Adam Cohen, Rufus Wainwright and Martha Wainwright in the same class. You didn't want to say much if you knew Leonard. The line went: "If you were a friend of Leonard Cohen and told people you were friend of Leonard Cohen, you were no longer a friend of Leonard Cohen."
Novelist Terry Rigelhof lives in Westmount, Que. (tfrigelhof.com)
Cohen as dad:
One of the chief occupations of my father is to divine what somebody needs and give it to them before they ask. He remained in his children's lives despite incredible obstacles. There was a moment, when we were living in the south of France, that my father wasn't allowed on the property. So he bought a caravan and lived at the end of our road. Despite the distances my mother placed before him, he was always present with instruction and humour. To many, he was lugubrious because of his poetry, but to us, he was the most hysterical guy. We still get together every Friday when we're in town for a family meal and he's a constant source of counsel, advice, support and encouragement. I feel loved. I've always felt seen. I was between five and eight when he lived in that caravan. He was parked right at the T, where the public street met the private road. It's hard on a kid, when you see your makers at pointed odds, especially when you understand that financially, your father's floating the whole scene and living in a caravan at the end of a dirt road. In retrospect, every visit was an education. He was there to protect values. It would be lighting the Sabbath candles and learning Hebrew prayers, singing songs, reading the bible. In the Jewish tradition, "Cohen" is the high-priest. It's no accident my father has a ministerial quality. As a father, he still continues to feel like a shepherd imparting an ancient understanding.
Adam Cohen released the album Like a Man in October 2011. His Canadian tour begins in Sherbrooke, Que., on Feb. 6. (adamcohen.com)
Cohen as Jew:
Young people are looking for someone to challenge the status quo and Cohen brings to the surface Jewish ideas that are often taboo. Who By Fire comes right out of the Rosh Hashanah service and Hallelujah talks about King David, almost in a critical way. My work in the synagogue is based on the fact that people are searching for a better understanding of themselves. They want to be connected to something bigger, and Cohen, who's able to transcend one religion, feels spiritual, real and whole. In his music, he questions what it is to live a meaningful life and whether talking about Abraham thinking he needs to kill his son or how we all must eventually confront death, Cohen searches for something bigger than himself. That's why we read his poems and sing his songs every year at Yom Kippur.
Yacov Fruchter is the spiritual leader of the Toronto-based Annex Shul
Cohen as poet:
He was seen by us on the west coast as a relief from the staid eastern poetic sensibility, he and Irving Layton. Cohen was shifting away from the national, he wasn't writing about Canada. That was intriguing. I was a student at the University of Buffalo when Cohen came to read in 1964. The reading went smoothly, then he pulled out his guitar! He knew how to work his shtick and perform. He has a European sensibility, and he dovetails it with his jet-setting internationalism; always with a slight political undercurrent buzzing through. The poetry has this sort of free-floating world view and I love his use of image and turns of phrase, the meaning and the paradoxes that go along with being alive. Of course, central to this, was his use of the first-person singular. It's not egotistical. It's plaintive -- he's always crying.
Fred Wah is the Poet Laureate of Canada
Cohen as sex symbol:
I think there are probably millions of women around the world who have an unrequited love affair with Leonard Cohen through his music. A man who sings and plays guitar is almost always sexy. But Leonard Cohen is that and more. He is an artist who seduces with the depth of his voice, his sultry melodies, his hypnotic rhythms and his profound lyrics. He has also kept enough distance between us and him through the years to make him irresistible -- like that unattainable man that you can't have, so you want him even more.
Bernadette Morra is the editor-in-chief of Fashion magazine
Cohen as businessman:
Half the people I do business with ask me about Cohen, and I tell them, "He picked the wrong person to trust." Most of my business comes through referrals, and if you're even accused of misconduct, it can ruin your livelihood. The way I understood Cohen's situation, his American business manager was simply taking money for herself out of his company. Usually, an artist has a manager, a business manager and a lawyer. It sounds like Cohen trusted this one woman to look after everything -- and she took his money. The music industry can be shaky. What happened to Cohen helped lots of artists to do more than sign cheques and close their eyes.
Jay Abraham is an accountant working in the music industry. His clients have included Nelly Furtado and Avril Lavigne.
"Leonard Cohen: 'Old Ideas' Icon Celebrated by Rufus Wainwright and Others"
Spinner by Lonny Knapp, January 31, 2012
If a cover is the highest compliment one songwriter can bestow upon another, then few songwriters command as much respect as Leonard Cohen. It seems like thousands of artists have interpreted his work, especially his signature late-career song 'Hallelujah' which Cohen once told the CBC could use "a break."
With the release of 'Old Ideas,' his 12th studio album and first since 2004's 'Dear Heather,' the 77-year-old icon adds 10 original compositions to his illustrious canon. Critics and bloggers are calling the album his best since 1984's 'Various Positions,' even comparing it to Bob Dylan's comeback, 'Time Out of Mind.'
Has a senior citizen ever created such a hullabaloo amongst the indie rock crowd?
Cohen isn't doing much press for the album -- and he doesn't have to because other artists are more than happy to promote his album for him. Spinner chatted with three singer-songwriters (including Rufus Wainwright, the father to Cohen's granddaughter) and one rapper about the man's infamous baritone and how, despite his age, Cohen still delivers the goods.
Leonard Cohen's new record is receiving loads of hype. The music industry has changed deeply since he released his first album back in 1967. Why is he still relevant?
Rufus Wainwright -- Recorded 'Chelsea Hotel No.2' and 'Everybody Knows' for the documentary 'Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man' and 'Hallelujah' for 'Shrek.'
"Apparently, he's a very good-looking man, and you can't under-estimate that in show business. [Laughs]. He has this individual voice; I wouldn't say he's a great singer per se, but nobody sounds like him. Plus, he's good at what he does: writing songs. He's created this persona, and he maintains a sense of mystery. It's masterful, and I'm not even sure if he does it deliberately. He's just the full package, which is rare indeed."
Sarah Slean -- Recorded 'Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye' and 'Dress Rehearsal Rag' on the Art of Time Ensemble record 'Black Flowers.'
"He is a poet and his words express the inexpressible. No matter what he is writing about, he is addressing timeless questions about life, suffering, joy, love and death."
Ron Sexsmith -- Recorded 'Heart with No Companion' on his self-titled debut.
"Obviously he's a poet, but it's never highbrow; it's never pretentious. He talks about things in a real way. Anytime Leonard gets around to making a record, I want to hear what's on his mind. It's like getting a phone call from a friend you've haven't heard from in a long time.
"At 77 years old, Leonard Cohen is well past the performing prime of most pop stars. In the last few years, however, instead of slowing down, he's returned to touring and recording."
At his age, can he still pull it off, or is time he hung up his hat?
Buck 65 -- Recorded 'Who by Fire' on his latest disc '20-Odd Years.'
"I saw him at the Beacon Theater in New York on his last tour. I was unprepared for how unbelievably great the show was. My favourite song are his early ones, and he played all the songs I was really looking forward to hearing. His versions of songs from those first albums were superior to the recordings. He never sounded better and it was the last thing I expected."
Wainwright: "I'm a huge opera fan, and the great composers, Verdi, Pucini, Wagner, composed their greatest works just before they died. There is a depth of wisdom you can only get through the passage of time. I think Leonard is proving this in the pop world, and I think it's the way it should be."
If you could claim just one of his tunes for your own, what would it be?
Wainwright: "I'd have to say 'Bird on a Wire.' It's so direct, and simple in its construction but then there are these minute turns of phrase and the descriptions are just cavernous. Also, I love country music, and I feel that pure country influence in the song."
Sexsmith: "He looms pretty large in my life and I could probably play an entire evening of his music, but I always thought, 'Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye' is a one of those perfect songs. In two verses, he says everything you'd want to say in that kind of situation where you are going separate ways. The line 'Walk me to the corner, our steps will always rhyme,' has always stuck with me."
Slean: "'Dress Rehearsal Rag.' This is a song for that moment in life when you arrive at the end of an anguished search inside yourself, and come up empty, and the world looks laughably insane, and you hate yourself for being a part of it. It is a dark-night-of-the-soul anthem, and he handles this subject without sentimentality, pity or nostalgia; it's just raw."
How did you discover Leonard Cohen?
Wainwright: "I grew up in Montreal so Cohen really came to me. But I have to admit, my sister was the bigger fan. When I did that film ['I'm Your Man'] I immersed myself in his material, and was brought into the fray. My daughter is his granddaughter and if I'd been this ravenous Leonard Cohen fanatic, I don't think that would have been allowed to happen [laughs]."
Sexsmith: "I discovered one of his records in a delete bin in 1985. That record helped me discover who I wanted to be as a songwriter. He made we want to work harder on the words, not waste anyone's time with juvenile stuff, and write about the world and love in a real way."
Buck 65: "The draw was his lyrics. Back in the '80s, there was very little effort to make rap relatable. Then in the '90s, Tupac and Biggie made rap accessible, and all of a sudden my sister was a fan. I couldn't like the the same music my sister liked, so I went on a bit of a search. I discovered some great writers, but none better than Leonard Cohen -- I don't think I've found a better lyricist to this day."
Slean: "My parents had 'Songs of Leonard Cohen' on vinyl. My mother would get that far away, wistful look in her eye whenever 'Suzanne' or 'Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye' came on. When I moved to Toronto, I took my parents record player and vinyl with me and that same Cohen record opened anew for me; the melodies are undoubtedly beautiful, memorable and genius in their own right, but how the words struck me!"
So what is he like in person?
Slean: "I met him at The [Canadian] Songwriter's Hall of Fame celebrations on the year of his induction. At the gala dinner, I went up to his table and knelt down beside him. He was so frail, he looked so thin and delicate. He took my hand in his hands, and was looking at me with these oceanic brown eyes. I said something utterly obsequious, 'You have no idea how huge you are in my world.' He was so gracious and charming, and I really felt like I was in the presence of somebody truly extraordinary."
Wainright: "He's a family man and a fantastic grandfather. He plays keyboard with Viva, my daughter, all the time. He lives upstairs so he visits daily. I'm very fortunate to have him around, 'cause a lot of the time, I'm off working and making records and touring. He's been there for his daughter, Lorca, and me."
"A secular saint"
INTERVIEW: Leonard Cohen is back with his 12th album - he talks to BRIAN BOYD about rapturous audiences, his love of Yeats and how he has temporarily given up smoking
SPEND ANY TIME in the company of Leonard Cohen and you feel as though you are in the presence of a secular saint. As we talk about Yeats, Ireland and how he was brought up by an Irish Catholic nanny in Montreal, the conversation keeps getting interrupted as people approach, almost tremulously, for a "rub of the relic". Hands reach out to touch him, books and albums appear to be signed and tales are told of loss of virginity and life-changing experiences to the accompaniment of his music. "Bilbao 1968," says a elderly women who then beats her retreat - happy, no doubt, to have said just that to him.
To each and every interloper he is graciousness personified. He listens intently to each and every reminiscence and encomium and then smiles softly, doffs his fedora hat and says "thanks, I'm glad I played a part, however small". Smartly dressed in a grey suit, he's in droll good form tonight. Surveying the throngs around him he quips: "It's good to be back on Boogie Street again."
We are in London's Mayfair Hotel. His record company has arranged a playback of his new album, Old Ideas, in front of a media gathering.
Newsnight's Kirsty Wark looks very excited indeed as Jarvis Cocker (who will do a public interview with him later) plays the record for us.
Oddly, Cohen sits in the room with the media for the playback and when asked about this later he shrugs, "Yes, but I wasn't listening to it." He defuses the somewhat reverential feel in the room early on when he's asked about how old the ideas on the album are. "They're 2,614 years old," he says.
Old Ideas is just his 12th studio album in a 40-odd year recording career. It's a consequence of the momentum he built up over a series of world tours over the past few years, undertaken to help replenish his bank account after it was all but cleared out by an ex-manager in 2005.
He lyrically deals with this incident on the album's standout song, Show Me The Place, when he sings: "The troubles came, I saved what I could save; a shred of light, a particle away, but there were chains so I hastened to the hay." As with the other nine tracks on this most intimate and hushed of works, it features an even more sonorous baritone delivery than usual. Themes of spirituality and lashings of religious allegory along with the constants of the sacred and the profane are delivered in a manner that make Tom Waits sound like a choir boy. He sounds positively sepulchral on this.
"I sound like that because I gave up cigarettes," he explains. "Contrary to public opinion I thought [giving up] would destroy my whole position and my voice would rise to a soprano. I plan on resuming smoking when I'm 80 so I can smoke when I go out on the road again."
On his relatively paltry recorded output and how he sets about the creative process, he is blithely dismissive of his talents. "Writing an album, it always feels like I am scraping the bottom of the barrel trying to get the songs together," he says. "I've never had the sense that I've had a multitude of choices. There is no sense of abundance - I'm just picking at what I have. It's like what Yeats said about working in 'the foul rag and bone shop of the heart'. I do get discouraged by the work.
"It is a mysterious process, it involves perseverance and perspiration and sometimes, by some grace, something stands out and invites you to elaborate or animate it. These are sacred mechanics and you have to be careful analysing them as you would never write a line again. If you looked too deeply into the process you'd end up in a state of paralysis.
"People ask about the imagery all the time but sometimes it's enough to say that the imagery has its own validity."
He does confess to a troubling kind of perfectionism. "I wrote 80 verses or something for Hallelujah . That song was written over the space of four years and that's my trouble - I can't discard a verse. I have to work on it and polish it. I can work on a verse for a very long time before realising it's not any good and then, and only then, can I discard it."
What becomes apparent is that, as patient and solicitous as he is in answering questions about the songwriting process, he sparks into life and becomes more animated when the conversation doesn't have him as the cynosure.
HE'S BEEN THROUGH very rough waters financially and was well into his 70s when he had to haul himself around concert venues around the world to rectify this distressing situation. It can't have been easy for someone who was happiest when he was ordained as a Rinzai Zen Buddhist monk in 1994 and went to live in a Zen Buddhist centre near Los Angeles for a number of years. While there, he worked as a personal assistant for a "Master" and the Dharma name he took on his ordination translates as "silence".
He doesn't talk directly about the court cases he got caught up in a few years ago to deal with his financial affairs and anything that hints at his personal life - a question about Rufus Wainwright (he is the grandfather to Rufus's child) is safely batted away: "Rufus can hold a tune and that puts me at a disadvantage," he says.
Get him on to poetry though (still his first real love) and he sparkles.
"I was 15 when I first became deeply touched by the rhythm and structure of words. I would haunt all the secondhand book shops in Montreal with this huge appetite for poetry. My two great heroes are WB Yeats and Fernando Garcia Lorca." He quotes from Lorca's Song Of The Morning Market: " Under the Elvira arch let me see you pass/that I may lap your eyes and cry."
"At the time I read that, I had absolutely no idea what those words meant but I just knew that's what I wanted to do with my life," he says. He then quotes from Yeats' When You Are Old and Grey and says "As a young man, Yeats spoke to me in a way I could understand. Shakespeare I couldn't understand, but Yeats I could. It was his subject matter and also I really admired the way he put his personal life on the line.
"I remember this great thing when I went to do a show in Lissadell in Sligo [in 2010] and being able to go all around Sligo afterwards and to see all the places associated with Yeats. That was a huge thing for me," he says. At the Lissadell show he was able to quote freely from Yeats' work, saying he still remembered the lines from learning them as a young man in Montreal 50 years previously. He also changed the lines to Hallelujah at the show, singing: "You don't think I'd come to the Yeats' county just to fool ya."
"I had an Irish Catholic nanny growing up," he says. "I was actually brought up part Catholic because of that. I loved her - she taught me so much about everything. And I got to know her family as well. I really can't remember if she first introduced me to Irish poetry but there was a lot she educated me in."
TWO NIGHTS PREVIOUSLY at a press conference in Paris, he had talked about his now fabled Royal Hospital Kilmainham shows in 2008. "We were playing in Ireland and the reception was so warm that tears came to my eyes and I thought 'I can't be seen weeping at this point' - then I turned around and saw the guitar player weeping."
If the poetry takes precedence, it's because he only turned to music (he didn't release his first album until he was 33) after his literary ambitions were thwarted. One publisher turned down an early Cohen novel on the grounds that the writer was "preoccupied with sex". Being told that "guitars impress girls", he had his first hit when Judy Collins covered his song, Suzanne. Looking back now, he says the guitar did as promised: "It was agreeable to have some kind of a reputation or some kind of list of credentials so you didn't have to start from scratch with every woman you walked into. Now it doesn't really matter one way or the other."
Over the years he was erroneously viewed as dealing in despondency and doom - he was "the poet laureate of pessimism". His work, though, is shot through with a pervasive mordant wit but he says he has long since given up fighting the image of "the womanising poet who sings songs of melancholy and despair".
Yeats once said of a fellow countryman: "Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy which sustained him through temporary periods of joy" and there was a reflection of this when Cohen said from the stage a few years ago - in explaining his long absence away from the spotlight - "I turned to a rigorous and profound study of the religions and philosophies, but cheerfulness kept breaking through." He also provided one of his great lines at that same concert. Surveying his surrounds, he noted: "It's been a long time since I played this venue, it must have been 15 years ago. I was 60 years old at the time, just a kid with a crazy dream."
Still something of a cult figure in the music world, he never was a massive commercial success - but he is one of the very few artists out there (perhaps Dylan being the only other) who is capable of such an intimate and enduring connection with his listeners. And it says a lot about the state of popular culture when you realise that it was the X Factor that was responsible for bringing his work to a mainstream audience - thanks to so many egregious cover versions of his work.
If anything, his reputation was perversely burnished by his recent financial problems. He had signed over power of attorney to his manager (and former lover) and it is alleged that she emptied his $5 million bank account. "It was a long, ongoing problem of a disastrous and relentless indifference to my financial situation. I didn't even know where the bank was," he told the New York Times three years ago.
If he had to go back on the road purely for financial reasons, he now says that he will happily continue touring and recording, despite not necessarily having to do so. "I was invigorated and illuminated by playing again," he says. "I hadn't done anything for 15 years but even during the time I still had the feeling somewhere that I had been a singer. In fact, when the last tour ended I didn't feel like stopping so I wrote this record. Everyone has reacted so well to me - I have been touched by the kindness. Even the press have been kind - they used to say of me that I only knew three chords. When I fact I know five."
"There's a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in," he famously sang on 1992's Anthem. "It's just the song that allows the light to come in" he explains. "It's the position of the man standing up in the face of something that is irrevocable and unyielding and singing about it. It's the sort of position Zorba the Greek took - that when things get really bad you just raise your glass and stamp your feet and do a little jig. And that's about all you can do."
It's time for him to go now. He grabs my hand, doffs his cap and says, "it's been a real pleasure talking to you" but there's one last aperçu.
"The best piece of advice I ever received in my life was from a great Canadian poet called Irving Layton. I would always go to him and tell him about my plans and what I was going to do next and he would just look at me and say 'Leonard - are you sure you're doing the wrong thing?'"
BOOK OF LONGING: The life
BORN IN 1934 in Montreal, Canada, into a middle-class Jewish family, Cohen's first musical foray was as a teenager in a country-folk outfit, The Buckskin Boys Goes to McGill.
He went to university in Montreal in 1951 and emerged with a BA degree. In 1956, he published his first poetry book, Let Us Compare Mythologies.
In the early 1960s, Cohen went to live on the Greek island of Hydra, still determined to become a writer.
He released his first album, The Songs Of Leonard Cohen, in 1967.
In 1994 he moved into the Mount Baldy Zen Buddhist Center near Los Angeles and took the name "Jikan". Five years later he left the centre to begin recording again. In 2005 it emerged that a former manager emptied his bank account while he was at Mount Baldy.
In 2006, Cohen made his first public appearance in 13 years in a Toronto book shop signing copies of Book Of Longing, a collection of poetry and drawings.
In 2008 he embarked on a two-year world tour and was received near rapturously wherever he went. He releases his new studio album Old Ideas this month.
In the 1970s Cohen had two children with the artist Suzanne Elrod - a son Adam and daughter Lorca (named after the poet). This is not the same Suzanne he sings about in the song of the same name - that is Suzanne Verdal, the wife of a friend. It was a platonic relationship - hence he only "touched her perfect body with his mind". Cohen did have an affair with Janis Joplin, of which he recounted intimate details in Chelsea Hotel #2 - "giving me head on an unmade bed". He mentioned the subject of the song was Joplin in an interview once and now says it is one of the biggest regrets of his professional life: "It was an indiscretion for which I'm very sorry." For the past 10 years he has been in a relationship with the US singer/songwriter Anjani Thomas.
HALLELUJAH: The song
He recorded the song Hallelujah for his 1984 album Various Positions but it went relatively unnoticed. With lyrics that evoke several Old Testament themes and featuring a poor vocal (by his standards) it only began to take on its new life when in 1991 John Cale (a founding member of Velvet Underground) recorded it for a tribute album called I'm Your Fan.
Cale asked Cohen to fax him through the lyrics and he received 15 pages worth of material - about 80 verses in all. Cale edited the song down and such was the impact his version had that it was included in the film Shrek . Cale's version is the best version of the song although people who have never heard it tend to go for Jeff Buckley's rather breathy version instead. Significantly, Buckley covers Cale's version of the song, not Cohen's.
The main reason not everyone knows Cale's version is because when it came to releasing the multimillion selling soundtrack to Shrek, his version was replaced by Rufus Wainwright's version. The film was distributed by the DreamWorks company which was also Wainwright's record label at the time. It was a case of cross-marketing.
Twenty-four years after its initial release the song returned to the top of the Irish and UK singles chart when the 2008 X Factor winner, Alexandra Burke, released it.
The song has been covered hundreds of times (mostly badly) but one of the very best versions out there is by Cohen's Canadian compatriot KD Lang.
As a tribute to the John Cale version of his song, Cohen now covers Cale's reworking of Hallelujah when he plays it live.
Speaking of the song, Cohen says it can be best viewed as a source of inspiration and illumination: "Regardless of what the impossibility of the situation is, there is a moment when you open your arms and you embrace the thing and you just say 'Hallelujah! Blessed is thy name'. And you can't reconcile it any other way except in that position of total surrender, total affirmation."
"Exclusive Q&A: Leonard Cohen on New Tour, 'Old Ideas'
'Touring is like taking the first step on a walk to China'"
Rolling Stone by Andy Greene, January 30, 2012
This week Leonard Cohen releases Old Ideas, his first album of original material in eight years. The 77-year-old songwriter has hardly been inactive during that time, though. In 2008 he launched a world tour that just seemed to keep going and going, eventually ending in Las Vegas in December of 2010 after an astounding 247 shows. Cohen played to the largest audiences of his career during the tour. When it wrapped, he began work on Old Ideas with producer Patrick Leonard.
Rolling Stone sat down with Cohen backstage at Joe's Pub in New York last week after he previewed the new album for the media. Among many other things, he told us that another tour is "being booked" and shared his surprising picks for his favorite covers of "Hallelujah."
Tell me what your expectations were prior to the last tour, and how they changed as the tour went on.
I never thought I'd tour again, although I did have dreams. Sometimes my dreams would entail me being up on stage and not remembering the words or the chords. It had a nightmarish quality, which did not invite me to pursue the enterprise.
How did it feel when you actually did it?
I was very grateful for the warmth of the audience, the competence of the musicians, and the coherence of the group.
I think people were surprised that you did three hours a night.
Minimum three hours.
You did about 250 shows. Did you feel drained by the end?
There's a certain fatigue I guess you could locate, but as you probably know, when the response is warm and tangible, one is invigorated rather than depleted.
You began playing new material as the tour went on. Did you write those songs on the road?
I wrote "Darkness" on the road. I wrote "Feels So Good" on the road, although we haven't recorded it. But I did play it. I wrote "My Oh My" and I rehearsed some other songs on the road -- new songs that didn't make it onto the record. So I have a new record [after this one], at least two-thirds of it, anyway.
Was it always your game plan to record a new album when the tour wrapped up?
Well, I really didn't have a game plan. I kind of surprised myself. But the inertia of the tour kept a number of us active. It isn't so easy just to stop once you've been involved in that degree of activity, so we just kept going.
During the late Nineties and early 2000s a lot of people assumed that you had just retired.
I never thought so myself. Certainly the public aspect of my life was dormant, but I never stopped working myself. I never had a sense of personal retirement. I kept blackening pages and playing my keyboard. It's just that I never thought I had to take it anywhere.
You said that this new album came to you very quickly. What do you attribute that to?
If I knew what the formula was, I'd apply it more regularly.
How long did it take you to record the whole thing?
Well, we came off the tour and we didn't do very much for a little while. Then I bumped into Pat Leonard. I was listening to my son's record, which I thought was very beautiful, and Pat had done some lovely work on that, especially some string parts that he'd written. And I thought I'd ask him to do some string parts on some other songs of mine. That didn't work out, but we started to write together, and then it went kind of swiftly.
We recorded it in my backyard. I have a little studio over my garage -- Pro Tools -- and Ed Sanders, who is my engineer, he has a lovely little studio. So we were in very small studios, with Pro Tools. But we ran it rough analog, which is where you get warm sound. It didn't take much more than a year to record, working off and on.
Your touring band plays on it?
They're playing on one track, but mostly it's just Pat and I. I'm playing guitar by myself on "Crazy to Love You." I'm playing all the parts on "Amen," except for Sharon Robinson playing a synth bass and live strings, and I'm playing the synth on "Different Sides" with Neil Larsen playing on top of it. So I played a lot myself, and Pat played a lot himself.
Do you want to tour again soon?
A tour is being booked. Whether I'm going to show up... I haven't signed on for it yet, but it's certainly in the air.
Do you want to do it?
I have two minds. I don't like to do a small tour, so whether I'm going to sign up for for another couple of years...is that really where I want to be? Maybe it is.
But you think it's going to happen?
Looks like it's going to happen.
I know that you toured last time partially because of your financial situation. The tour must have taken care of that, so what would drive you to tour again?
I was able to restore my tiny fortune within a year or so, but I kept on touring. It wasn't exclusively that unique situation. Touring is like taking the first step on a walk to China. It's a serious commitment, so there are a lot of factors to be examined.
I've heard "Hallelujah" covered by so many singers over the years. Do you have a favorite?
There's so many fine covers of it. It's all over YouTube, so people will send me their 11-year-old daughter singing it. That's always very charming. And there are great versions of it by k.d. lang. Bon Jovi has a great version of it.
I've always like John Cale's version of it.
John Cale's is terrific.
Why name the album Old Ideas? What does that mean to you?
It was the old ideas, old -- you might even say unresolved -- ideas that are wracking around in my brain, and the brain of the culture.
"Leonard Cohen Essential Discography: 10 of Our Favorite Tracks"
Flavorwire by Tom Hawking, January 31, 2012
You may have noticed that we are raving Leonard Cohen fanatics here at Flavorpill. As such, it's no surprise that we are quietly losing our shit about the fact that he has a new album out today -- Old Ideas is his first studio album since 2004's Dear Heather, and promises to be compulsory listening. We thought we'd celebrate by putting together our completely subjective essential Leonard Cohen discography, like we did for Tom Waits a while back -- ten songs from over the years that best illustrate what we love about Montreal's poet laureate. Choosing only ten songs from a discography that spans nearly half a century is, of course, a pretty challenging task (especially if you're limiting yourself to one track from any given album.) So don't just rant and rave about our choices -- let us know your favorites, too.
No, you basically can't create any sort of Cohen playlist without this song. In a manner befitting Cohen's mid-1960s shift from the printed page to the world of music, the genesis of "Suzanne" lay in a poem that he wrote about Suzanne Verdal, who was the wife of Canadian sculptor Armand Vaillancourt. Years later, Verdal told the BBC about the evenings she spent with Cohen: "I would always light a candle and serve tea and it would be quiet for several minutes, then we would speak. And I would speak about life and poetry and we'd share ideas." Isn't that exactly how you'd imagine a night with Leonard Cohen should be?
Sure, the obvious choice off Songs From a Room is "Bird on a Wire," but we've always been partial to the sad tale of Nancy, a song that demonstrates Cohen's talent for writing lyrics that are simultaneously oblique and emotive -- the song is full of cryptic imagery, and yet it paints a vivid portrait of a subject who was obviously a deeply troubled soul. As it turns out, Nancy was a real person, and her story was just as sad as the lyrics imply -- there's a fascinating article about her here.
Cohen has of course written a long line of classics, but along with "Suzanne," this is his other überclassic, the tale of a doomed love triangle that's written as a letter from the singer to his rival. Perhaps its most remarkable aspect is how philosophical and pragmatic it manages to be: forlorn but forthright, melancholy but not bitter. Who else would write these lines to the man who effectively cuckolded him: "Thanks/ For the trouble you took from her eyes/ I thought it was there for good/ So I never tried"? And, of course, it also creates a vivid image of the singer alone in his freezing Lower East Side room at 4am, clutching a lock of his lost love's hair as he pens a letter to the man who took her away. If we had to choose a favorite Cohen song, it's probably this one. But that's just us, of course.
With his image as a dapper polymath so deeply ingrained these days, it's easy to forget that Cohen was quite the hellraiser in his time -- particularly the period he spent at the Chelsea Hotel, where he got it on with everyone from Nico to Janis Joplin (the latter famously cataloged, of course, in this album's "Chelsea Hotel #2?) and embraced the narcotic diversions of the time with gusto. "It was dangerous to accept a potato chip at a cocktail party then," he chuckled to the Observer in 2001. "It could be sprinkled with acid. I went to somebody's room who was having a cocktail party, had a few chips, and four days later was still trying to find my room." Echoes of this time can be found in "Field Commander Cohen," which casts its author as a kind of poetic subversive, a "grateful faithful woman's favorite millionaire," spiking the drinks at bourgeois parties and generally wreaking polite havoc. It's also a fine example of one of Cohen's more overlooked attributes: his sense of humor.
The late '70s seem to have been a strange time for Cohen -- there was the aborted album Songs for Rebecca, which was to follow New Skin for the Old Ceremony, and then the strange, fraught Phil Spector collaboration Death of a Ladies' Man. It wasn't until the mid-'80s that he got things back on track -- to an extent with 1985's mixed bag Various Positions and then fully with 1988's triumphant I'm Your Man. In the interim, however, came Recent Songs, which is a largely forgotten record these days. It's a shame, because it has its charms. The arrangements marked a return to the acoustic sounds of Cohen's earliest albums, and it contained a couple of gems -- including this song, an extended metaphor about guilt and disloyalty that, like many of Cohen's best lyrics, can be interpreted in any number of ways.
Cohen's spiritual odyssey over the years has led him from the synagogues of Montreal through a brief flirtation with Scientology to a five-year retreat at a Zen monastery. People tend to assume that the oft-abused "Hallelujah" is his most "religious" song, but it's this song from the same album that's probably his purest declaration of faith and trust in some sort of higher power. "From this broken hill all your praises they shall ring," he intones solemnly, before qualifying the statement: "If it be your will to let me sing."
I'm Your Man was a comeback album of sorts, a creative renaissance that found him embracing the synthesizer and a more "modern" sound. More crucially, it also marked his first collaboration with Sharon Robinson, whose talents would go on to contribute greatly to the excellent records he's made since. "Everybody Knows" is the sole Robinson collaboration on I'm Your Man, and it's a cracker -- a world-weary deconstruction of the way humanity works that's just as relevant today as it was in 1988: "Everybody knows the fight was fixed/ The poor stay poor, the rich get rich/ That's how it goes/ And everybody knows." Ain't that the truth.
Cohen once described the line "There is a crack in everything/ That's how the light gets in" from this song as "the closest thing I could describe to a credo... That idea is one of the fundamental positions behind a lot of the songs." It also always makes us weep like a small lost child, for some reason.
Cohen has a habit of basing works on literary precedents -- I'm Your Man's "Take This Waltz," for instance, is based on Federico García Lorca's poem "Little Viennese Waltz" -- but rarely has the idea worked so beautifully as it did on this highlight from the generally excellent Ten New Songs. It's a bittersweet meditation on the end of a relationship, a reminder to celebrate the good times rather than mourn the fact that things have come to an end. We're sure we remember reading at some point that the song refers to a real-life relationship Cohen had many years ago, and had been unable to address in song until decades later, but we can't for the life of us find the relevant interview on the Internet. Curse you, Google.
And finally, this near-spoken word piece finds the prodigal poet coming full circle, reading a villanelle by the Canadian poet F.R. Scott, whose work had appeared with Cohen's on a record called Six Montreal Poets way back in 1957. Nearly half a century later, Cohen sets Scott's words -- again, written decades ago but still hugely relevant today -- over a backdrop of delicate acoustic guitar and Anjani Thomas's gorgeous backing vocals, reciting them with a solemnity that's incredibly moving.
"Leonard Cohen macht seine Hörer zu Dichtern"
Die Welt (Germany) by Burkhard Spinnen, January 27, 2012
Seit über 40 Jahren trägt der Folk-Poet Leonard Cohen seine melancholischen Lieder vor. Jetzt ist er mit dem Album "Old Ideas" zurück. Eine Verbeugung.
Nein, ein Fan war ich nie. Doch als ich anfing, bewusst Musik zu hören, waren Cohens Songs immer dabei. Mir schien es damals, Anfang der 70er-Jahre, als hätte es sie immer schon gegeben. "Suzanne", "The Stranger Song", "Bird on the Wire": Cohens Musik hatte etwas Zeitloses und zugleich Unverwechselbares.
Auβerdem, wie sollte man überhaupt ein Cohen-Fan sein? Man konnte sich doch nicht emphatisch jemandem anschlieβen, der den Prototyp des Einzelgängers verkörperte. Das wäre ja absurd. Ich war kein Fan, ich selbst war Cohen, uneins mit mir, aber bemüht, dabei eine lässige Haltung zu bewahren. Allerdings durfte ich einmal einen ganz besonderen Fan kennenlernen.
Begleitung zum Cohen-Konzert
Mitte der 80er-Jahre betreute mein Professor eine ägyptische Germanistin. Sie war ein paar Jahre älter als ich und eine der schönsten Frauen, die ich jemals aus der Nähe gesehen hatte. Allerdings war sie absolut unnahbar, eine kühle, hoheitsvolle arabische Prinzessin mit Stipendium und Doktortitel.
Nach Wochen, in denen ich für sie Bücher ausgeliehen und Botengänge absolviert hatte, lieβ sie mir ausrichten, sie habe eine besondere Bitte: Ich solle sie zu einem Konzert von Leonard Cohen begleiten. Als Frau und strenggläubige Muslimin sei es ihr auch in Deutschland verboten, alleine dorthin zu gehen.
Ich war sehr perplex, aber ich sagte zu, natürlich. Also gingen wir zu Cohen, beide so angezogen, wie wir es für richtig hielten: sie in einem roten bestickten Kleid und mit einem hauchdünnen Kopftuch, ich in Jeans und Lederjacke.
Der Sänger trat wie ein Statthalter auf
Cohen trat auf, war jünger, als ich es heute bin, aber für mich ein älterer Mann, der perfekte Statthalter und Impresario seiner eigenen Legende. Er trug Schwarz; so viel weiβ ich noch. Doch meine Aufmerksamkeit galt an diesem Abend weniger dem Geschehen auf der Bühne und mehr der schönen ägypterin.
Ich erinnere mich gut. Zwei Stunden lang stand sie neben mir und war, über kulturelle und religiöse Grenzen hinweg, ein stiller Echoraum für die Sehnsucht und die Melancholie, die von Cohens Musik ausging. Ihn selbst sah ich in ihren schwarzen Augen.
Und mit der Zeit schämte ich mich sogar für die vielen Male, die ich Cohen vielleicht nur mit halbem Herzen gehört hatte. So intensiv wie ausgerechnet diese ägypterin neben mir hatte ich es jedenfalls nie getan. Und ihr dabei zuzusehen sagte mir mehr über seine Musik als mein eigenes Hören.
Der letzte Akt der Solidarität
Beiläufig verstand ich an diesem Abend auch, dass es eine Erotik gibt, die nicht durch die Ausstellung von Kraft und Lebensfreude funktioniert. Ich hatte das immer geahnt, aber nicht zu glauben gewagt. Spätabends brachte ich die ägyptische Prinzessin mit meinem alten Ford Taunus nach Hause. Beim Abschied sah sie glatt durch mich hindurch. Ich habe das verstanden.
Als Cohens erste Platte 1968 erschien, war die Popwelt noch in Ordnung, herrschte noch die Utopie, alle Musik, egal ob die von Country Joe oder die von Jimi Hendrix, könne das gemeinsame Lebensgefühl der Jugend ausdrücken, könne ihren gemeinsamen Wunsch nach der totalen Umgestaltung der Gesellschaft transportieren. Doch bald darauf begannen Differenzierung und Kommerzialisierung.
Ich denke, Cohens Songs übernahmen nun eine spezielle Funktion: Sie waren die Musik gewordene überzeugung, dass der Einzelne leider doch eine schwierige Gröβe ist, schwer zu begreifen, heute würde man sagen: inkompatibel, und auβerdem immer nahe an der Verzweiflung. Also auch untauglich zur Revolution. Für viele war es der letzte Akt der Solidarität, gemeinsam Cohen zu hören. Eine kleine Kommunion in Melancholie, an der auch ich gerne teilnahm, wenngleich, wie gesagt, oft nur mit halbem Herzen.
Cohen fing als Schriftsteller an
1997 erschien die deutsche übersetzung einer Cohen-Biografie. Ich erfuhr, dass der Sohn aus gutbürgerlichem Hause eigentlich mit literarischen Büchern begonnen hatte, Gedichtbänden und Romanen. Er galt als junges Talent, erregte Aufsehen, erhielt Preise und Stipendien. Doch über seinen vierten Gedichtband schreibt der Biograf Ira Nadel: "Die Sammlung wurde sehr gemischt rezensiert, die Verkäufe waren schwach. Cohen (damals 32) dachte über eine andere Karriere nach."
Und eher beiläufig, unter lauter Tournee-Anekdoten, zitiert Nadel Cohen kurz darauf mit der Bemerkung, die Popmusik sei die Zukunft der Lyrik. Seitdem ist Cohen für mich noch etwas anderes: Er ist der Schriftsteller, der sich in die Musik gerettet hat. Ein Lyriker singt fortan seine Gedichte zu Gitarrenbegleitung und wird ein Weltstar. Geht das so? Ist die Popmusik tatsächlich die Zukunft der Lyrik? Vielleicht sogar die der Literatur überhaupt?
Der Schock ist Bestandteil seiner Musik
Ich war damals 40, hatte vier Bücher veröffentlicht und kam mir abgehängt vor, wie einer, der im Gutenbergzeitalter noch mit der Hand schreibt, dazu in einer Sprache, die sich nicht vertonen lässt. Wenn ich Cohen jetzt wieder hörte, dann hörte ich in jedem Vers und in jedem Akkord eine doppelte Melancholie: zunächst die seiner Texte und seiner Musik, dazu die des Abschieds von der Literatur zugunsten von Wirkung. Es hat gedauert, bis ich den Schock verkraftet hatte.
Oder bis dieser Schock für mich ein wesentlicher (und sinnvoller) Bestandteil von Cohens Musik wurde. Tatsächlich macht man ja Ernst mit der Literatur, wenn man den Zeilen auf Papier wieder eine individuelle menschliche Stimme gibt, dazu Rhythmus und Klang und sie damit in den Ausdruck einer unverwechselbaren Persönlichkeit verwandelt.
Seit über 40 Jahren trägt Cohen seine Gedichte so vor, wie sie in seinem Kopf wahrscheinlich entstanden sind. Die begleitenden Musiker geben all dem Sinnlichen Ausdruck, das dabei eine Rolle spielt, aber so schwer zu Papier zu bringen ist. Und wir, die Hörer, dürfen uns für drei Minuten als Dichter fühlen.
"Leonard Cohen makes his listeners to poets"
Die Welt (Germany) by Burkhard Spinnen, January 27, 2012
For over 40 years, maintains the folk poet Leonard Cohen's melancholy songs. Now he's back with the album "Old Ideas." A bow.
No, I was never a fan. But when I began to consciously listen to music, Cohen's songs were always there. It seemed to me then, in the early 70s, as if it had always existed. "Suzanne," "The Stranger Song," "Bird on the Wire": Cohen's music had something timeless yet distinctive.
Moreover, how can we ever be a Cohen fan? One could not but emphatically connect to someone who embodied the prototype of a loner. That would be absurd. I was not a fan, I was self-Cohen, disagree with me, but try to keep it a casual attitude. However, I was allowed to meet a very special fan.
Support for Cohen's concert
The mid-80s looked after my professor an Egyptian Germanist. She was a few years older than me and one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen up close. However, it was absolutely unapproachable, a cool, regal Arabian princess with scholarship and PhD.
After weeks in which I had borrowed for her books and errands completed, they had me adjust, they have a special request: I should accompany her to a concert by Leonard Cohen. As a woman and devout Muslim, it was her forbidden in Germany to go there alone.
I was very perplexed, but I said yes, of course. So we went to Cohen, both dressed up, as we felt was right: she in a red embroidered dress with a gauzy veil, I was in jeans and leather jacket.
The singer appeared as a governor on
Cohen occurred was younger than I am today, but for me, an older man, the perfect governor and impresario of his own legend. He wore black, as far as I remember. But my attention was that night a few of the events on stage and more of the beautiful Egyptian.
I remember well. For two hours they stood next to me was, across cultural and religious boundaries, a silent echo chamber for the longing and melancholy that came from Cohen's music. I saw him self in her black eyes.
And over time I was ashamed even to the many times I had only heard Cohen perhaps half-heartedly. Just as intense as this Egyptian woman next to me I had never done it anyway. And watch her told me more about his music than my own hearing.
The last act of solidarity
Incidentally, I saw that night also, that there is an adult who does not work through the issue of energy and vitality. I had always suspected but never dared to believe. Late at night I brought the Egyptian princess with my old Ford Taunus home. When they parted, she looked straight through me. I understand that.
Appeared to be Cohen's first album in 1968, the pop world was still intact, still dominated by the utopia, all music, whether by Country Joe and the Jimi Hendrix could, could express the common feeling of the youth, their common desire for the total transformation the transport company. But soon both differentiation and commercialization.
I think Cohen's songs took on a special function now: They were the music had become convinced that the individual is, unfortunately, but size is a difficult, hard to understand, we would say today: incompatible, and also always close to despair. So also disabled the Revolution. For many it was the last act of solidarity, common to hear Cohen. A little Communion in melancholy, which was also glad I took part, though, as I said, often only half-heartedly.
Cohen began as a writer
Appeared in 1997, the German translation of Cohen's biography. I learned that the son had actually started from middle-class home with literary books, poetry and novels. He was a young talent, caused a sensation, won prizes and scholarships. But on his fourth book of poems writes the biographer Ira Nadel:. "The collection was very mixed reviewed, the sales were weak Cohen (then 32) was thinking about another career."
And casually, with a loud tour anecdotes, quotes needle Cohen shortly by saying that pop music was the future of poetry. Since Cohen for me is something else: He is the writer who has taken refuge in the music. A poet sings his poetry from then on to guitar accompaniment and is a world star. Is that so? Is the pop really the future of poetry? Perhaps even the literature at all?
The shock is part of his music
I was then 40, had four books published and made me feel disconnected, like one who writes in the Gutenberg era still with his hand, in a language that can not be set to music. When I heard Cohen again, then I heard in every verse and every chord in a double melancholy: the first of his lyrics and his music, to which the demise of the literature in favor of action. It took me until I had coped with the shock.
Or was this music to a major shock for me (and useful) part of Cohen's. One does not actually serious about the literature, when the lines on paper represents an individual human voice, to rhythm and sound and transforms it into the expression of a distinctive personality.
For over 40 years, Cohen wears his poems as they were probably in his head. The accompanying musicians have all the sensual expression, which plays a role, but so hard to put down on paper. And we, the listeners, we may feel as a writer for three minutes.
"Simon Kelner: I love to wake to the sound of a gravelly, deep voice"
The Independent (UK) by Simon Kelner, January 20, 2012
What joy! I woke up yesterday morning and the first voice I heard was not John Humphrys, nor Robert Peston, but someone equally recognisable, whose words provoked thought rather than anger and induced pleasure rather than anxiety. Leonard Cohen has been here to promote his new album, called Old Ideas, the first produced in a studio for eight years and a snatch of his Today programme interview with another God of modern music, Jarvis Cocker, was enough to help me start the day in an elevated mood. When you're used to hearing politicians talk about bailouts and bonuses, it was a thrill and a privilege to hear Cohen - with that voice, now so gravelly it could have been laid by a McNicholas lorry - talking in a characteristically poetic way about the art of songwriting.
He explained that he'd always found words hard to come by. "I always felt I was scraping the bottom of the barrel trying to get a song together," he said. "I never had the sense I was standing in front of a buffet table with a multitude of choices. It was more like what Yeats used to say: I was working in the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart."
Now there was a thought to conjure with before breakfast. Not quite as on the agenda as public sector pension cuts, I grant you, but who wouldn't want a little lyricism with their toast? I should admit to my partiality to Leonard Cohen, inset. Since I listened as a mournful student to "Suzanne", I've reserved a place in my heart for him. Cocker said that there was an "intimacy" to Cohen's music and I certainly think that any man who could perform in front of 20,000 people at London's O2 Arena and turn it into an intimate evening has something quite extraordinary. I saw Cohen twice at the O2 - the first time through a fog of tears, so moving did I find the whole experience - and believed it would be the last time I'd see him perform. After all, he's now 77 and I'm not getting any younger either. The release of a new album offers hope that he may go on tour again - the driving force for the last one was his tricky financial position, owing to a law suit with his former manager, whom he accused of stealing almost £3m from him while he was in a Buddhist retreat.
And with more live performances comes the opportunity to open his work to a new and possibly younger, audience.
He brought the house down at Glastonbury in 2008 and where once he was popular only with sad middle-agers like me, he does have a younger, cooler following as well.
But I don't expect people who didn't grow up with Cohen as a soundtrack to their lives really to get it. I asked a young person in my office whether she liked Leonard Cohen. "Yes, I do," she said unequivocally. "But I'm glad when it stops."
That's the problem with young people. No soul.
"Le Gagnant Magnifique"
L'Est Républicain (France) by Xavier Frere, February 6, 2012
ON AIMERAIT le voir rire, parfois. De ce rire caverneux, profond, dont il doit avoir le secret. Un sourire même. Celui qu'on ne décèle quasiment jamais sur les clichés de sa photographe française attitrée, Dominique Issermann. Car, aujourd'hui, derrière le masque (presque de cire), les tempes grises, le borsalino soigneusement posé et les costumes noirs, Leonard Cohen pourrait franchement « se marrer ». On sait que ce n'est pas toujours compatible avec une politesse qu'on dit légendaire, ou une classe qu'on juge naturelle.
Le titre du nouvel album du Canadien, « Old ideas », tient lui aussi de cette dérision dissimulée, toute en retenue. Rarement de « vieilles idées » sont venues en tout cas faire la nique aux jeunes artistes, jusque dans les charts, français notamment. Il y aurait de quoi rire, à 77 ans, chez celui que la presse britannique -- par dérision déjà- avait surnommé dans les années quatre-vingt « Laughing Len » (Len le rieur).
Après huit ans d'absence depuis le timide « Dear Heather », une tournée mondiale en 2008 véritable renaissance-plébiscite - mais d'abord pour renflouer les caisses après s'être fait arnaqué par son ex-manageuse -, rien n'indiquait que le vieux sage Cohen pourrait renouer, sur un douzième album, avec autant de moments de grâce.
Est-ce ce soin apporté à une instrumentation classique du folk (violon, guitare, batterie et même banjo), loin des synthés qui ont accompagné son retour (gagnant) dans les années quatre-vingt ? Ou à cette voix, toujours plus grave, plus profonde, souvent entourée de choristes féminines, qui fait de plus en plus du crooner Cohen un cousin germain de Tom Waits, chanteur pour lequel il a d'ailleurs toujours montré beaucoup de respect ?
La (petite ?) mort se hisse parfois en toile de fond de ses « vieilles idées » pas morbides pour un son. Ce n'est pas nouveau, pourrait-on dire, comme l'amour (le dépouillé « Crazy to love you », titre le plus cohenien du lot), le désamour, le désir. Autant de thèmes qui jalonnent l'æuvre du maître depuis ses débuts -- dans la littérature en 1966 avec « Les Perdants magnifiques », dans la musique un an plus tard avec le classique « Songs of Leonard Cohen » -- mais qui s'accompagnent, au crépuscule d'une carrière et d'une vie, d'une forme d'apaisement, de sérénité. Son immersion dans les années quatre-vingt-dix dans une communauté bouddhiste à Los Angeles, retirée du monde à l'époque de la déflagration grunge, contribue sans doute encore à cette atmosphère zen.
Ce statut de pop star, Leonard Cohen le doit vraisemblablement à un parcours intègre, lui qui n'a jamais cédé aux modes, ou qui a su habilement s'en affranchir. à une écriture contemporaine, où l'actualité politique a, par exemple, fait une irruption remarquée après la Chute du Mur. Aux rencontres symboles de ses premiers pas, avec Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Nico ou Janis Joplin. En France, c'est « La chanson du partisan », en 1969, qui propulsera le troubadour d'alors en héritier de Brassens et Vian. Plus d'une décennie plus tard, ce sera la scène rock (Nick Cave en tête, John Cale et Jeff Buckley disciples d'« Hallelujah » et toute la scène britannique) qui le remettra au goût du jour, en fera son idole, montrant toute l'étendue de son influence chez les jeunes générations.
Il y a quelques mois, son fils Adam, presque quadragénaire, s'est fendu d'un album intitulé « Like a man ». Sans doute un clin d'æil, un écho à cette légende de père qui sortit en 1988, avec une batterie de tubes (« Everybody knows », « First we take Manhattan »...), l'album « I'm your man ». Deux décennies plus tard, le paternel ne faiblit pas, serait même déjà reparti dans l'écriture d'un treizième disque, voire dans l'organisation d'une prochaine tournée. Leonard Cohen reste notre homme, THE Man. Sans rire.
21 er septembre 1934 : naissance à Montréal
1966 : roman « Beautiful losers » (Les perdants magnifiques)
1968 : « The songs of Leonard Cohen » 1 er album
1974 : « New skin for the old ceremony »
1984 : « Hallelujah » sur « Various positions »
1988 : « I'm your man »
2008 : tournée mondiale
2012 : 12 e album « Old ideas » (Columbia/Sony music)
L'Est Républicain (France) by Xavier Frere, February 6, 2012
We would like to see him laugh, sometimes. This cavernous laugh, deep, he must have the secret. Even a smile. That we did not detect almost never about the stereotypes of his French photographer of record, Dominique Issermann. For now, behind the mask (almost wax), gray temples, carefully put the Borsalino and black suits, Leonard Cohen could frankly "chuckle." We know that this is not always compatible with a legendary politeness they say, or a class that considers natural.
The title of the album's Canadian, "Old ideas", this is also concealed derision, any restraint.Rarely "old ideas" have come anyway to the picnic for young artists into the charts, including French. There would be laughing, at age 77, one in the British press - derisively nicknamed him-already in the eighties "Laughing Len" (Len the joker).
After eight years away from the timid "Dear Heather", a world tour in 2008 plebiscite-renaissance - but first to bail out after being scammed by his ex-manageuse - there was no indication that the wise old Cohen would resume on twelfth album, with so many moments of grace.
Is this the care given to a traditional folk instrumentation (violin, guitar, drums and even banjo), away from synths that accompanied his return (winner) in the eighties? Or the voice, even more serious, more profound, often surrounded by female singers, which is more of a crooner Cohen cousin of Tom Waits, singer for whom he has also always shown great respect?
The (small?) Death sometimes rises in the background of his "old ideas" not to sound morbid. This is not new, you might say, like love (the stripped "Crazy to Love You", as most cohenien the lot), falling out of love, desire. So many themes that mark the master's work since its inception - in literature in 1966 with "The Loser beautiful" in music a year later with the classic "Songs of Leonard Cohen" - but which is accompanied, at twilight of a career and a life, a form of appeasement, serenity. His immersion in the year ninety in a Buddhist community in Los Angeles, removed from the world at the time of the explosion grunge, yet undoubtedly contributes to this zen atmosphere.
The pop star status, Leonard Cohen has a likely path of integrity, he who never gave in to fashion, or who has cleverly to overcome it. In a contemporary writing, where the political has, for example, made an irruption noticed after the Fall of the Wall. Meetings symbols of his first steps, with Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Janis Joplin or Nico. In France, it's "Song of the partisan" in 1969 that will power the troubadour of then heir to Brassens and Vian. Over a decade later, it will be the rock scene (Nick Cave in mind, John Cale and Jeff Buckley disciples of "Hallelujah" and the whole British scene) who will provide up to date, will make his idol, showing full extent of its influence among the younger generations.
A few months ago, his son Adam, almost forty, has cracked an album called "Like a man". Probably a nod, an echo of this legend father who went out in 1988, with a battery of tubes ("Everybody Knows," "First We Take Manhattan"...), the album "I'm your man". Two decades later, the father is not weakening, would even have gone back to writing thirteenth disk, or in organizing an upcoming tour. Leonard Cohen still our man, THE Man. No kidding.
21st September 1934: Born in Montreal
1966: novel "Beautiful Losers" (The beautiful losers)
1968: "The songs of Leonard Cohen 'album 1
1974: "New skin for the old ceremony"
1984: "Hallelujah" on "Various Positions"
1988: "I'm your man"
2008: World Tour
2012: 12th album "Old ideas" (Columbia / Sony Music)
"Born with the gift of a golden voice"
The Brock Press by Katherine Gottli, February 6, 2012
"Well my friends are all gone, and my hair is grey/I ache in the places I used to play," sang Leonard Cohen in 1988 on the I'm Your Man album - the eighth release from Canadian singer-songwriter, poet and author. "Tower of Song" would proceed to be covered by numerous other artists, including fellow Canadian, Martha Wainwright, on the sound track that accompanied the 2005 documentary Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man.
It's now 2012, and Cohen has just released his twelfth studio album - eight years after his last release. Aside from the 12 albums, the 77-year-old also has published 10 books of poetry and two novels. Celebrated as one of the most prolific authors this side of the 49th parallel, all of his work explores themes of religion, sexuality, relationships and, most consistent with other Canadian contemporaries, isolation.
His professional and personal career has not been without controversy - something not typically associated with, first of all, Canadians, let alone Canadian authors. He began his literary career with the aid of a generous trust fund bequeathed to him from his father -- Nathan Cohen, the owner of a successful Montreal clothing store -- who died when Cohen was nine-years-old. Numerous songs throughout his musical career have been about various women, often ones that he was not in a relationship with when written ("Suzanne", one of Cohen's more well-known songs was written about the former wife of a friend, rather than his long-time partner, Suzanne Elrod with whom he split with in 1979). Finally, in 2005, Cohen alleged that his former manager, Kelley Lynch, misappropriated $5 million (US) of his retirement fund, and was then sued by other former business associates, which shot him into the spotlight - not for his career, but rather the publicity surrounding his looming bankruptcy.
Regardless of the international accolades and awards throughout the entirety of his career, Cohen is arguably best known internationally for his song "Hallelujah", and for other people singing it (KD Lang, another Canadian, sang the song at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics - not Cohen). Cohen's voice is less than angelic - perfect for the brooding, introspective lyrics of his songs, but less than perfect for mass public consumption. If Cohen and Tom Waits recorded an album together, it could very likely be used as musical sandpaper.
While many may know who Cohen is, most are not familiar with the scope and depth of his career, but associate him with one or two of his well known songs. He could very likely be named the most popular of the unknowns - fans exist in the underground appreciating him for his poetic ability, while the general public reveres him when it's the "cool" thing to do. For example: The release of his 1966 novel Beautiful Losers prompted The Boston Globe to write, "James Joyce is not dead. He is living in Montreal under the name of Cohen". Yet, Seal's speech presenting Cohen with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2010 Grammy's lasted 19 seconds and included an extended shot of Heidi Klum clapping politely.
Yet, here Cohen is, releasing another album as he creeps closer to the age at which most well-known celebrities fade into nonexistence - and this is after coming off an extensive World tour. Old Ideas has already been reviewed as one of Cohen's better albums - undoubtedly due to it being more accessible than many of his previous releases. Cohen has worked hard to make a name for himself, and continues to do so well past the age of retirement. International fame, or lack-thereof aside, Cohen still exists "paying his rent every day, in the Tower of Song".
"Hallelujah for Leonard Cohen"
Slate by Jan Swafford, February 8, 2012
When it comes to lyrics, he's second to no one--including Dylan.
Leonard Cohen has a new album out: Old Ideas, his 12th, and his first in seven years. He's 77 now, and if you know Cohen you know his age will get its due in the new songs. The title, of course, has a double meaning, the second being that these songs are ideas about getting old. His life is his wellspring, and life has amounted to a long and singularly winding road for this troubadour.
Born in Montreal in 1934 of Polish and Lithuanian Jewish parents, Cohen was first a modestly successful poet. He learned guitar to pick up girls and got into songwriting partly because he was tired of being poor. His first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, came out in 1967, when he was 32. Probably it got green-lighted in the wake of Bob Dylan's success, when Dylan had demonstrated to record executives that you could make highly personal, elusively poetic, scraggly sounding records that the public would buy. Of course, Dylan was riding a folk wave when he emerged in the early '60s, and Cohen caught that wave too.
I'd like to compare those two, in the process of looking back over Cohen's life and songs. He and Dylan have been working for decades without any visible connection or competition. In practical terms there is no competition, because Dylan has been by far the more visible and influential artist. But if Cohen has always sung in the shadow of Dylan, in the quality of the work I suggest he has been in nobody's shadow.
A long career has done Cohen well by me, and I imagine a lot of listeners. In the '60s and '70s, I liked a few of his songs well enough, though I found the voice and the tunes not as striking as Dylan's brassy honk and his unforgettable melodies in the folk days. "Blowin' in the Wind," "Mister Tambourine Man," any number of Dylan songs seemed timeless, as if they'd evolved through many voices over many years. (Some, including "Blowin' in the Wind," were based on traditional tunes.)
Cohen didn't do that, probably couldn't do that. He was never the tunesmith Dylan was, and in the early years his voice actually made Dylan's sound pretty good. Cohen sang in a tenor you could call "reedy" if you wanted to be nice, "nasal" if you didn't. They're both mediocre guitar players; any number of high-school students could play rings around them. Cohen's melodies tended to start at the bottom of his range, ascend toward the top of his range--which was not very far--then descend and screw around in the lower region for the rest of the verse. His early hit "Suzanne" is a case in point.
And who by fire, who by water,
who in the sunshine, who in the night time,
who by high ordeal, who by common trial,
who in your merry merry month of May,
who by very slow decay,
and who shall I say is calling?...
And who by brave assent, who by accident,
who in solitude, who in this mirror,
who by his lady's command, who by his own hand,
who in mortal chains, who in power,
and who shall I say is calling?
Who else in our time would or could write a lyric like that?
To put Cohen at the top of his trade is not to forget classic American song lyrics like the wordplay of Ira Gershwin or Cole Porter. But I wonder how often either of those geniuses, for such they were, actually meant what they wrote: "In time the Rockies may crumble,/ Gibraltar may tumble,/ they're only made of clay,/ but our love is here to stay." That's from Ira Gershwin. It is, I submit, exquisite bullshit, music in itself. And I wonder in what respect Dylan means "Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot/ Fighting in the captain's tower/ While calypso singers laugh at them/ And fishermen hold flowers." You wonder sometimes if Dylan is earnest about much of anything other than his scorn.
There's an unmistakable sense that Leonard Cohen means every word he sings, in his irony and his cynicism, in his pain and his exaltation. For me, all that didn't sink in for quite a while. After the mid-'70s I lost track of Cohen. I'm a classical musician, perennially struggling to pursue my craft while somehow paying the rent. For decades, the little time I had to spare for pop music I spent on the Stones, Beatles, Creedence, Joni Mitchell, Dylan, Zappa, et al. Like a lot of people I was too lazy to come to terms with Cohen's lyrics. Then cruising cable one night about 15 years ago, I came upon him standing in his usual suit, at the foot of a staircase somewhere, behind a little keyboard, singing "Democracy." It was a dry and understated but strangely powerful performance, and the song slayed me. At the end he was ushered up the stairs by a couple of babes in tight dresses. It was a memorable turn for an aging bard and self-proclaimed ladies' man.
For the first time I heard Cohen's new voice, the whiskey baritone that I like better than his old voice. His melodies may still be on the plain side, but the voice says so much more than it used to. In that voice there's a lot of years, a lot of cigarettes, stimulants, lust, regret, and hard-won wisdom. When he gets spiritual, the voice questions that wisdom but doesn't destroy it--see "Anthem" and his much-covered "Hallelujah."
The day after catching him on TV, I went out and bought The Best of Leonard Cohen and More Best of and have been listening to them ever since. I've got more songs from various albums in the mix, but mostly it's those collections and a few of Ten New Songs, from 2001. He put together the best-of albums himself, and he chose well.
If Cohen is the finest poet of our songwriters, he's hardly a simple or a predictable one. You can never guess which direction a line is going to come from: cynical, surreal, earnest, bitter, exalted--no way to know. Eventually it adds up to a strange sense. Beside Dylan's flights of fancy and rage, Cohen's sentiments seem more immediate, more real. Or maybe I just have a touch more preference for Cohen's familiar depression tinged with something like religion than for Dylan's wit and wildness and biliousness. A prime example is "Democracy," the song that brought me back to Cohen.
Look at how the trajectory of the lines builds to an unexpected climax.
It's coming through a crack in the wall,
on a visionary flood of alcohol,
from the staggering account
of the Sermon on the Mount,
which I don't pretend to understand at all.
It's coming from the silence
on the dock of the bay,
from the brave, the bold, the battered
heart of Chevrolet:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.
That's what I mean by never knowing where a line is going to come from. The trajectory of that verse careens among, roughly, 1) surreal/alcoholic, 2) the New Testament, 3) Otis Redding, 4) surreal/economic, before we arrive at the stunning refrain.
None of this is intended to put down Dylan. At his best he's incomparable. Consider the beginning of "Highway 61 Revisited":
Oh God said to Abraham, Kill me a son.
Abe say, Man, you must be puttin' me on.
God say, No.
Abe say, Whut?
God say, You can do what you want, Abe, but, uh,
next time you see me comin', you better run.
Abe say, Where you want this killin' done?
God say: Out on Highway 61.
That's not exact because I'm quoting it from memory. Even at their weirdest, you can often quote Dylan lyrics from memory. This song is sublime in its way, also hysterical. It begins with a succinct send-up of religion before dissolving into surrealism, which is where most of the song dwells.
If Cohen is not as wild a poet as Dylan, he's closer to the heartstrings--his and ours both. He's got his surreal side too, but it's in support of his essential realism. And in many ways he's gotten better as he got older, which few would claim about Dylan. Cohen's best songs do what I think popular song ought to do: Capture something meaningful in our lives and put it into melodies worth singing in the shower.
I'll be adding to my mix songs from Old Ideas as I get to know it. (You can hear it streamed here.) In this one Cohen doesn't bother with the music so much, and he barely bothers to sing--or maybe his voice is too frayed for that now. He's homing in on the words, in that sense maybe returning to his roots as a young poet winning prizes and admirers. The valedictory quality is inescapable, starting with the titles: "Amen," "Darkness." It begins with "Going Home," which is a stern and sardonic address to the poet from his muse, or from God, or maybe they're the same:
I love to speak with Leonard,
he's a sportsman and a shepherd,
he's a lazy bastard livin' in a suit.
But he does say what I tell him
Even though it isn't welcome--
he just doesn't have the freedom to refuse.
The song has one of Cohen's unforgettable refrains:
Going home without my burden,
going home behind the curtain,
going home without this costume that I wore.
Over the decades, Cohen's songs have steadily darkened, even as five years in a Zen monastery during the '90s tempered some of his lifelong depression. In Old Ideas, Cohen reaches maybe the deepest black yet in "The Darkness." Here darkness is at the center of all, evoking death, naturally, but also love and regret: "Winning you was easy, but darkness was the price." Yet there's still always a small niche for hope and renewal: "Come healing of the reason, come healing of the heart." In the new album there's a kind of aura around every line, a sense of something said once and for all, and it's not all bleakness, and it's terrifically moving.
Looking over his songs from the last decades, one has one's complaints. In some periods I wish there were more acoustics and less synth and slick production. For a while he was afflicted with Phil Spector. To mention another regret: I dearly love "The Land of Plenty" from Ten New Songs, right from its gently wafting opening lick, but I wish he had let this one blossom around its unforgettable refrain:
May the lights in the land of plenty
Shine on the truth someday.
Instead, Cohen takes it into some kind of vaporous personal kvetch:
I know I said I'd meet you,
I'd meet you at the store,
but I can't buy it, baby,
I can't buy it anymore.
I have a fantasy that someday he'll give in and write two or three verses for "The Land of Plenty" that are worthy of its refrain. It could be a song to make things happen, the way "This Land Is Your Land" and "We Shall Overcome" do. But in Ten New Songs he's generally near his prime. "My Secret Life" and "Here It is" are among the great ones, and "A Thousand Kisses Deep" is becoming the classic it deserves to be.
Love, lust, bitterness, transcendence. In his art the range of his concerns and his responses to life inescapably reflect his experience. The long list of his lovers, short- and long-term, includes Joni Mitchell and Rebecca de Mornay, with a celebrated-in-song encounter with Janis Joplin--"giving me head on the unmade bed/ while the limousines wait in the street." True, he later regretted those lines ("My mother would be appalled"). In person and in song, Cohen is funnier than you expect. That's another part of his range, his life. Cohen is reported to be an observant Jew and is an ordained Buddhist monk, and I'm not kidding. Yet some of the most memorable imagery in his songs is Christian:
Here is your cross,
Your nails and your hill;
And here is your love,
That lists where it will.
As for listing, I'm the sort of annoying person who trots out lists of favorites. With Dylan songs I'm not so sure what they are, because the nature of surrealism is that one bit of surrealism is more or less equivalent to another, and his rants and putdowns (see "Positively Fourth Street") only intermittently entertain me.
But with Cohen I know my favorites. Here are three to illustrate why I call him the finest poet of our songwriters. As usual the lyrics shine while the music is along for the ride--but particularly good rides in these cases.
The one already mentioned is "Democracy," which is generally the first song I play for people who don't know Cohen. It invariably knocks them out. Maybe my favorite is "Closing Time," partly because it's a terrific tune as tune, actually a fine thing to dance to, thanks to some splendid sidepersons.
It has all Cohen's fractured, paradoxical brilliance on display. The first verse sets a boozy Saturday-night scene:
Ah, we're drinking and we're dancing
and the band is really happening
and the Johnny Walker wisdom running high.
And my very sweet companion,
she's the Angel of Compassion,
she's rubbing half the world against her thigh.
And every drinker every dancer
lifts a happy face to thank her,
the fiddler fiddles something so sublime.
All the women tear their blouses off
and the men they dance on the polka-dots
and it's partner found, it's partner lost,
and it's hell to pay when the fiddler stops.
It's closing time.
That mix of quotidian horniness, Biblical overtones, party trance, and down and dirty jealousy is classic Cohen. But everything turns on that little refrain. It reminds me of refrains in Yeats, one of Cohen's touchstones: Daybreak and a candle end. In the course of "Closing Time," the refrain evolves from the closing of a bar to the closing of love to the closing of life:
I loved you when our love was blessed,
and I love you now there's nothing left
but sorrow and a sense of overtime.
And I missed you since the place got wrecked,
and I just don't care what happens next:
Looks like freedom but it feels like death,
it's something in between, I guess.
It's closing time.
If "Closing Time" is my favorite all in all, the one I call Cohen's greatest is "Anthem."
This song doesn't wander off into personal bitterness and regret. It sets the sights high and keeps them there. It's a sort of gospel song celebrating the brokenness of life, everything flawed and incomplete, and the possibility of redemption in that. In its refrain there is a kind of truth the like of which is hard to find in popular song.
Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack, a crack in everything.
That's how the light gets in.
I don't know if the end of that verse comes from some venerable Eastern text. It's good enough for that, but I suspect it's all Cohen. In the song, that sad revelation is inseparable from his whiskey baritone, and irony always hovers in the wings. But you don't forget it. It's the kind of truth that is cinched by the perfection of its saying. These are words to engrave not on a wall, but on your soul. Here's what our troubadours can do when they're truly great, and when they truly mean what they say.
"Leonard Cohen's Old Ideas, and the genius of his lyrics. - Slate Magazine"
Open Salon by Ted Burke, February 11, 2012
Jan Swafford essentially argues in her Slate article that Leonard Cohen is a better lyricist than Bob Dylan, or anyone else for that matter who has bothered to compose rhyme to melody. A broad premise, typical for Slate and internet magazines where deadlines often drive good argument. Still, the story has a point I think Swafford tip toes around; Bob Dylan is, in essence and in fact, a song lyricist who has a particularly strong gift for the poetic effect, while Cohen is a poet in the most coherent sense; he had published several volumes of poetry and published two novels prior to his taking up the guitar. Dylan's style is definitely the definition of the postmodern jam session, a splendid mash up of Little Richard, Hank Williams, Chuck Berry and a long line of obscure or anonymous folk singers who's music he heard and absorbed. His lyrics, however arcane and tempered with Surreal and Symbolist trappings--although the trappings, in themselves, were frequently artful and inspired--he labored to the pulse of the chord progression, the tight couplets, the strict obedience to a rock and roll beat. This is the particular reason he is so much more quotable than Cohen has turned out to be; the songwriter's instinct is to get your attention and keep it and to have you humming the refrain and singing the chorus as you walk away from the music player to attend to other task. Chances are that you are likely to continue humming along with the music while you work, on your break, on the drive home, for the remains of the day. This is not to insist that Cohen is not quotable or of equal worth--I am in agreement that Cohen , in general, is the superior writer to Dylan, and is more expert at presenting a persona that is believably engaged with the heartaches, pains and dread-festooned pleasures his songs take place. His lyrics are more measured, balanced, less exclamatory and time wasting, and exhibit a superior sense of irony. Cohen is the literary figure, the genuine article, who comes to songwriting with both his limitations and his considerable gifts. All is to say that Dylan has Tin Pan Alley throwing a large shadow over his work. Cohen, in turn, is next to a very large bottle of ink and a quill.
"'The Greatness of Leonard Cohen.'"
Trosa Music! by admin, February 10, 2012
There may have been many singer/songwriters over the years, but few have had quite as much impact as Leonard Cohen. He has been writing and recording his music for the better part of half a century and there is no sign of this changing anytime soon! He may now be at the ripe old age of seventy-seven, but this has not slowed him down one little bit. In fact, Mr Cohen has just released his twelfth studio album... to great critical acclaim.
Now a lot of people will immediately link the name 'Leonard Cohen' with depression, loneliness or suicide... and this is a tad unfair. After all, this singer has penned some of the world's most beautiful songs and he has inspired countless other musicians, writers and poets. His words may be a little dark in places, but that is simply because they concern life. And we all know this is far from being a perfect world.
It would be quite difficult to accurately describe Cohen's lyrics to someone who is unfamiliar with his music. They are deeply poetic and thought-provoking (without a shadow of a doubt), but they are also extremely intimate. This makes listening to Leonard Cohen's songs something like listening to the voice of a very wise and wonderful friend. And that is one of the main reasons why his tunes have always remained on the outside edges of the music scene. After all, so many singers will prefer to sing about anything rather than 'the real'; from Barbie dolls and milkshakes to sports cars or office furniture London.
Whichever way you look at it, Leonard Cohen is one of the most influential figures of all in modern music. His songs are deeply personal, his lyrics are utterly amazing and he has an intuitive understanding of our mortal journey.
"Who's King Of Pop Now?"
New York Times by Jesse Kornbluth, February 11, 2012
There are things that do not happen in the real world. Noam Chomsky becoming president. Unflattering photos of Jennifer Aniston. Apple doubling the price of iPhones so its Chinese assemblers can work a 40-hour week.
Or Leonard Cohen, at 77, occupying the No. 1 position in music at Amazon.com for his just-released "Old Ideas."
And yet Mr. Cohen not only vaulted to the top of Amazon music last week with his new collection of songs, he stayed there for a week, until Adele -- who has already sold 7.5 million copies of her latest release in the United States alone -- got a second wind and sent him reeling down to No. 4.
Nothing about Mr. Cohen's late-life success readily computes. His range as a composer is limited; as he has noted, "People said I knew three chords when I knew five." His vocal range is even more limited. A fan got it exactly right when he said, "No one can sing a Leonard Cohen song the way Cohen himself can't." The dirge-like songs and midnight voice that result are an easy target for reviewers. He's "the poet laureate of pessimism." "The grocer of despair." "The godfather of gloom." "The prince of bummers." And, inevitably, "music to slit your wrists to."
And this codger is, however briefly, the King of Pop?
Yes, and the joke's on Pop. Our absurd political and media squabbles have created a vacuum of gravitas. That has turned Leonard Cohen into a trending topic, and for the simplest of reasons: he's an authentic seeker. And Mr. Cohen's not the only musician with a fan base that spans decades. Look at the Amazon music best-seller list: Adele is 23 years old, but just behind her are Paul McCartney (69), Eddie Van Halen (57), Mr. Cohen, an Amnesty International tribute to Bob Dylan (70) and Bruce Springsteen (62). Further down the list: 85-year-old Tony Bennett's collection of duets. Honorable mention: Paul Simon, now 70, for his 2011 collection, his best in 25 years.
Until the last century, there was no expectation that artists would constantly change styles and messages. It was enough that they did something well. Over time, with work and grace, they saw more, went deeper, gave their audiences greater satisfaction. Now art is like fashion. Careers have stages. Novelty and astonishment are now synonymous with art.
The musicians who top the Amazon list are fully formed. In 1962, Mr. McCartney began writing his generation's best pop songs; he still has the touch. Mr. Springsteen has been standing up for the forgotten since the mid-'70s. Mr. Dylan says he now has to work conscientiously to produce songs that used to drop into his hands, but he gets it done.
These are our elders, making mature music for an audience hungry for maturity. And one of the oldest of these elders leads the pack. The last, best laugh is Leonard Cohen's.
"Conor Oberst, Ron Sexsmith Pay Tribute To Leonard Cohen"
NPR by NPR Staff, February 17, 2012
Who'd have thought a 77-year-old Canadian singer-songwriter would be hovering near the top of the pop charts? Leonard Cohen was a poet and fiction writer who, in the 1960s, wrote songs like "Suzanne," "So Long, Marianne" and "Bird on a Wire." His unmistakable voice lulls you into a hypnotic spell on his new album, so we asked two fellow singers and Cohen fans to talk about what they hear on Old Ideas: Conor Oberst, best known for his band Bright Eyes, and Ron Sexsmith.
"I picked 'Crazy to Love You,'" Oberst says of one of his favorite songs from the album. "To me, it was one of the more immediate songs that struck me on the album. It's so sparse. It's just guitar and vocal. It reminded me of some of his older material. It's a very simple but powerful melody. The thing about this song and all his music is the way it expresses the human condition and the duality of our perversions and our flesh, and also our higher self -- the thing that's interested in reasoning and philosophy and language and how those things coexist inside of all of us. That's a major theme through all his music.
Then there's that voice, which feels like it's coming from inside your head.
"It's getting lower and lower over the years. It's a really powerful instrument," Oberst says in an interview with All Things Considered host Melissa Block. "I mean, it's strange with his music. I don't necessarily listen to it from the standpoint of the production value or even the performance, necessarily. It's his ideas that make him so amazing, and that's what I'm attracted to."
Speaking of instruments, Cohen's guitar in "Crazy to Love You" is just a little bit out of tune, but Oberst says he's glad that wasn't fixed, "especially in this day and age where, you know, twist a knob and all that goes away. It's nice that they left the human side."
Oberst says he also likes the closing track on Old Ideas, "Different Sides."
"It's a very cool song," Oberst says. "His delivery is so, you know, kind of pitch perfect. You just picture him in his little fedora in the smoky alley or whatever and, obviously, the lyrics are phenomenal. But the chorus is also pretty fantastic. It's, 'You want to change the way I make love / I want to leave it alone.'"
It's hard for Oberst to pick just a few favorites from Old Ideas, but he adds, "There are probably a few people that are as good as him, but there's nobody better for my sensibilities."
A Fellow Canadian Pays Tribute
Ron Sexsmith is a songwriter from St. Catharines, Ontario. When he first heard Cohen around the age of 15 of 16, Sexsmith says, he didn't understand it -- "how you could have a career and not be a great singer or whatever."
"But when I was 19 or 20, I went back to it. Something compelled me to check him out again, and then it was like a bolt of lightning," Sexsmith says. "I just fell in love with everything that he's done. [He's] definitely one of the biggest influences on me -- up with all of my other favorites, for sure."
"The first thing that comes to mind is just how amazing it is that [the album] exists at all, you know?" Sexsmith says. "I mean, there was that period where he didn't make any records for a long time, and as a fan of Leonard Cohen, you're always thinking every record could be his last or something these days. So just the fact that there's a new Leonard album out is just remarkable for me."
Old Ideas is stripped down, but Cohen has had his brush with synthesizers and lush production.
"I've always been really good at sort of making a bee line through the production straight to the songs, but, you know, this album is a nice marriage of -- you know, because he's playing guitar a bit more," Sexsmith says. "I always feel that he sings better when he plays the guitar.
"If you've been a fan as long as I have, there's a trust that's been built up over time. It becomes this thing where you're getting a phone call from someone you haven't heard [from] in a long time. You're getting his perspective and what he's been up to. It's just this intimate thing that you can't get from anybody else."
'The Present's Not So Pleasant'
It's natural for Cohen to think a lot about mortality near the end of his life, but Sexsmith says Cohen has never sung about "frivolous things."
"The very first time I saw Leonard in concert was in 1985, and I think he must have been in his early 50s. I remember thinking, 'Wow, that's just so old. How can he carry on?' Sexsmith says, laughing. "I mean, I'm going to be 50 in a couple years now, you know? The thing with Leonard, he's not singing about frivolous things. He never has, you know? It's just great to have someone like him in this world that is very focused on the juvenile sort of things -- to have someone that's writing from that place. What's that line in 'The Darkness'? 'I have no future / The present's not so pleasant.' You're not going to get that from Justin Bieber.
"He's always very conversational, too," Sexsmith says. "Obviously, he's a poet, but you never get the condescending thing or the high-brow feeling. It's very simple language. The words he uses -- they penetrate because they're very simple, and you never have to scratch your head and wonder what he's singing about."
"You know, when you're listening to a Leonard record, it's like all the great songwriters. You're in the Leonard zone, you know? You're going to hear the female singers, you're going to hear the old-world instruments and all that kind of stuff. It's all those things that you hope for when you get a new Leonard record."
People either love or hate Leonard Cohen's voice. There doesn't seem to be much middle ground.
"Some people can't get past the singing," Sexsmith says. "I've always loved his voice, and some people will never comprehend it, because it is such an intimate thing."
"Leonard Cohen: Old Ideas in New Wineskins"
Every generation has its poet.
The one who, when young, speaks and writes in the idiom of the young and sustains his connection for both of their lifetimes.
The one who reaches beyond the chattering intelligentsia to a commoner audience.
The one who, in Canada, writes in the idiom of this empty land, its fragile romances, its illusive gods, its defiance against the odds and its solitary turn of mind.
The one who demonstrates that this country's writers carry their literary weight in the world as easily as we send actors to Hollywood and singers to the Grammy's.
Leonard Cohen is such a poet for my generation.
In the autumn of 1967, when I entered university, we read his first book "Let us Compare Mythologies".
It resonated with our inchoate dissatisfactions, our polite and timid sit-ins, and our sense of possibility.
To this young kid who had just buried his teen-aged brother, the first poem of that book struck like a lightning bolt:
"Do not look for him
In brittle mountain streams:
They are too cold for any god . . ."
In the spring of 1968, the season of Pierre Trudeau's rise to power and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, we listened to the record album: "The Songs of Leonard Cohen".
Suzanne takes you down
to her place near the river
And she feeds you tea and oranges
that come all the way from China . . ."
"All Sisters of Mercy
they are not departed and gone,
They were waiting for me
when I thought that I just can't go on . . ."
One afternoon we trekked down to the National Film Board library in Calgary's federal building to borrow the 1964 film documentary "Ladies and Gentlemen, Leonard Cohen".
If you loved Canadian poetry that winter, there was more than Leonard Cohen.
In Montreal there was Irving Layton and F.R. Scott and in Toronto, E. J. Pratt, Margaret Atwood, Al Purdy, Gwendolyn MacEwan, Margaret Avison, and Jay Macpherson.
Their writing encircled the music of Joni Mitchell, Ian and Sylvia Tyson, and Gordon Lightfoot.
Every city had its coffee house with poets, folk singers, checked table clothes and candles in squat, straw-covered Chianti bottles layered with wax drippings.
Toronto's Bohemian Embassy was the destination of choice for poetry aficionados and the Coach House, which had a reputation for self-published chapbooks, was the small-press reminder that there was a printer for every poet.
Literary journals abounded -- Tamarac, Fiddlehead, Prairie Fire, Malahat Review, the list goes on . . .
It was the publisher Jack McLelland who started the gold age of Canadian poetry.
McLelland and Stewart's aggressive Canadian publishing - fiction, non-fiction and poetry -- was considerably helped by University of Toronto professor Northrop Frye.
Frye was a scholar of Shakespeare and the King James Version of Bible, and instigator of good Canadian writing and appreciation through his circle of acolytes and writers.
He took the writing of Canadian literature to a new level simply by according it respect when it deserved respect.
Like other Canadian poets and writers since Confederation -- Bliss Carmen, Charles Roberts, Arthur Hailey -- Cohen knew that, in spite of the generosity of the Canada Council, unless he had a university teaching post, he could not make an adequate income in Canada.
His first record albums -- "Songs" and "Bird on a Wire" -- launched his bid to make a living in the United States.
It is said that poetry is written to be heard.
Cohen's poems are written to be sung, as a life-long string of albums, CDs and his recent 274-performance world tour testifies.
Every Canadian generation has its poet.
The first settlers to Grey County brought poets such as Alfred Lord Tennyson and Robbie Burns.
One evening in 1880, a callow freshman at the University of Toronto, William Wilfred Campbell who had just graduated from Owen Sound Collegiate, read a new book of poems called 'Orion and Other Poems' by a 20-year-old New Brunswicker named Charles G. D. Roberts.
The words of the title poem galvanized Campbell:
"Two mighty arms of thunder-cloven rock
Stretched ever westward toward the settling sun,
And took into their ancient, scarred embrace
A laughing valley and a crooning bay . . ."
He sat up all night reading Roberts' poetry and thinking, "Canadian poets can carry their weight!"
Roberts had self-published the book with $300 borrowed from his future father-in-law, George Fenety, the Queen's Printer of New Brunswick.
In 1880, 'Orion' was a remarkable achievement for a young man far removed from the literary influences of London and New York.
Roberts became the founder of the Confederation school of poetry -- which included Bliss Carman, Archie Lampman and Duncan Scott - and the first internationally-recognized Canadian man of letters.
His admirer, William Wilfred Campbell, also became a noted Confederation poet, and editor of the 1912 Oxford University Press book of Canadian Poets.
Campbell wrote lines memorized by generations of Canadian students:
"Along the line of smoky hills
The crimson forest stands,
And all day long the blue-jay calls
Throughout the autumn lands . . ."
At the time Toronto, the magnet of rural Ontario's bright young men, was sardonically dismissed by British poet Rupert Brooke as "a clean-shaven, pink-faced, respectably dressed, fairly energetic, un-intellectual, passable, sociable, well-to-do, public-school and 'varsity' sort of city.
Wrote Brooke, after a quick visit to Canada en route to the fairer climes of Tahiti, "In these trifles of Art and 'culture' (Toronto) is much handicapped by the proximity of the States. For her poets and writers are apt to be drawn thither, for the better companionship there and the higher rates of pay."
Leonard Cohen said that if he knew where poems came from, he'd go there more often.
He has been on a lifetime odyssey looking for that lost fountain of literature in places like New York, Greece, Japan and a California Buddhist monastery, where he was ordained as a Zen monk taking the ironic name "Jikan" -- which means silence.
In Montreal he grew up in the modest home of a single parent surrounded by the language and stories of the Judaic culture of his uncles, rich in mythology, history, traditions, and religion and a source of metaphor and language that still influences his work.
When he entered the University of McGill and established himself as a poet prodigy, he hovered between New York and Montreal as an observer on the fringe of other people's circles: Irving Layton, Andy Worhol, Bob Dylan.
In the 1970s, a Buddhist monk, Geshe Khenrab Gajam, immigrated to Montreal to care for other Tibetan refugees and Cohen invited him to use his house as a place to hold retreats, initiations and seminars.
When I heard the voice of Leonard Cohen singing on his new CD, "Old Ideas" this winter, the 45 years since I first read him evaporated like a morning mist:
"Show me the place
Help me role away the stone
Show me the place
I can't move this thing alone
Show me the place
Where the word became a man
Show me the place
Where the suffering began . . ."
The mellowness of Cohen's voice on this album matches the mellowness of his spirit.
He still has deep longings expressed in a profoundly aesthetic voice.
But he has connected the dots of his life and has accepted his own mortality.
At the end of his life, Johnny Cash went back into the studio and produced a handful of albums, some of his best work -- work that his fans had been waiting all their lives for.
Leonard Cohen has taken better care of himself so his voice is younger but he shares a common treasury with Cash of hard-won personal wisdom.
Every Canadian generation has its poet.
Cohen is not just mine but Cody Woods' generation too.
Cody is the guy at HMV who sold me "Old Ideas".
On one of my repeated calls this January to see if the CD had arrived yet, Cody told me that lots of customers were asking about it.
"My age," I asked? (I will be eligible for the Canada pension this year.) "No," Cody replied. "I like Leonard Cohen, too."
Cody is a young man with nifty tattoos, shaven head and a black hoodie.
If you want someone to track down a CD or a DVD, you want a guy who looks and dresses like Cody.
But you are surprised when, across the generations, he likes what you like.
John Keating, the literature teacher in the film Dead Poets' Society tells his students: "We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for."
The poetry of Leonard Cohen is what Keating meant.
"Leonard Cohen's Zen Sensuality"
The New Yorker by Ariel Levy, February 23, 2012
"Going Home," the first song on Leonard Cohen's new album, "Old Ideas," comes from the perspective of his inner self, or, as Cohen--who lived for five years in a Zen monastery--might call it, his Buddha nature. It is this spiritual Higher Leonard who is looking forward to "going home without my burden, going home behind the curtain, going home without the costume that I wore" as he moves through the latter decades of his life. That costume is the Earthly Leonard, in his suit and fedora, "who knows he's really nothing but the brief elaboration of a tube." It is Higher Leonard, we learn--without surprise--who is the craftsman and seer behind Cohen's twelve mostly brilliant studio albums: Earthly Leonard "only has permission / to do my instant bidding / which is to say what I have told him to repeat."
But Earthly Leonard is a smooth and dapper creature, and even Higher Leonard is not immune to his charms: "I love to speak with Leonard / He's a sportsman and a shepherd." Earthly Leonard is not only essential to Cohen's creative process as a vessel and a scribe; it is this Leonard--racked with longing and "living with defeat"--who has the misadventures his inner counterpart requires to mold into music. The Earthly Leonard is still, thankfully, dancing around the wheel of desire, like the rest of us, eluded by enlightenment.
Despite the title of Cohen's 1977 album "Death of a Ladies Man" (an unfortunate collaboration with Phil Spector; Cohen later deemed it "grotesque"), we get the sense that, at seventy-seven, Earthly Leonard remains the prowling, problem-causing wolf of his youth, at least in his fantasies. In "Anyhow" he pleads, "Have mercy on me baby, after all I did confess / I know you have to hate me, but could you hate me less?" Though Cohen laments, "I'm old and the mirrors don't lie," on songs like "Crazy to Love You" we hear the same corporeal yearning that he has been singing about since "Chelsea Hotel No. 2," his 1974 ballad about an intimate encounter with Janis Joplin. (He would come to regret having revealed the identity of that song's subject, calling the admission "the sole indiscretion in my professional life.")
Ardor can be exhausting, and at one point Cohen quietly howls, "I'm tired of choosing desire, I've been saved by a blessed fatigue." But I hope and suspect that he wrote that line when he was simply in need of a solid nap. A few years ago, I went with The New Yorker's music critic Sasha Frere-Jones to see Cohen perform at Radio City Music Hall, and I was struck by how much passion that suave septuagenarian can still convey and elicit. He was understated, but irresistible. Listening to Cohen's raspy tenor live convinced me that his genius lies as much in his sensuality as it does in his profundity.
Sadly, Cohen has yet to announce any shows to promote this new album. Four years after Cohen left the Mount Baldy Zen Center, where he'd pursued the transcendence of Earthly attachment, he discovered that a former manager had detached five million dollars from his life savings. (Cohen sued, and won, but has been unable to recover his money.) A few months after we saw Cohen perform at Radio City Music Hall, his bassist and musical director Roscoe Beck told Sasha, "I asked him, 'Are you going on the road just because you're broke?' And he said, 'Well, that might have something to do with it.'" The material world has its consolations.
World Magazine by Arsenio Orteza, March 24, 2012
Leonard Cohen's Old Ideas deserves its place on the charts
It's strange that in a music scene increasingly dominated by younger and younger-seeming youth, a 77-year-old man should have debuted at No. 3 on Billboard's album chart in the same week that the 25-year-old Lana Del Rey debuted at No. 2.
But with Old Ideas (Columbia) Leonard Cohen did just that. And stranger yet--given his advanced years and sacramental obsessions--he deserved to, if "deserved to" means having the right to reap as his aesthetic reward the fruition of seeds he first planted 45 years ago.
Whether Old Ideas (a title representative of his dry sardonicism, as his ideas have always been old) turns out to be his last aural offering or not, it's clear that he thinks it is. The first song is called "Going Home," and it's about dying. Another is called "Lullaby," and it's about dying too.
Then there's the pervasive world-weariness of his gruff, old-man's-whisper of a voice. His was never a rich instrument, but now it's as arid as the desert, with ultimate, even eternal, concern its only oasis.
At this point it's as necessary to separate Cohen the artist from Cohen the man as it was, for instance, to separate Ingmar Bergman the man from Ingmar Bergman the filmmaker. Like Bergman, Cohen has fallen short of the glory of his religious ideals (Jewish in Cohen's case, Lutheran in Bergman's). Also like Bergman, Cohen has approached his work as if it and it alone might expiate his sins.
Although his "Hallelujah" has sadly outworn its welcome after being covered by everyone from John Cale and Bon Jovi to k.d. lang and the late Jeff Buckley, in its original 1984 version--before Cohen himself besmirched it with unnecessarily randy revisions--it expresses at least a fraction of the awe that saints surely feel in the presence of the holy.
And, believe it or not, on Old Ideas Cohen goes "Hallelujah" one better. And it's neither "Amen" nor "Come Healing," although both live up to their titles. It's "Show Me the Place," and it goes "Show me the place / where the Word became a man. / Show me the place where the suffering began."
Two recent tributes to Cohen's body of work deserve mention. One is called The Songs of Leonard Cohen Covered, a Mojo magazine exclusive featuring 10 artists recreating Cohen's 1967 debut album and five more recreating later Cohen classics, "Bird on a Wire" (by Marc Ribot & My Brightest Diamond) and "Famous Blue Raincoat" (Diagrams) among them.
There have been other Cohen tribute albums, and there will almost certainly be more. But the mostly obscure and young contributors to The Songs of Leonard Cohen Covered imbue their recordings with a sense of discovery bred of the humility they no doubt feel at arriving (through no fault of their own) late to the party. And what they've discovered is that, aside from some extra echo and instruments, Cohen's songs don't need to be "interpreted" so much as simply sung.
The other Cohen tribute, Like a Man, comes courtesy of Cohen's 39-year-old son Adam. It won't be out in the States until April, but it's been out in Canada and floating around the internet since last October. What makes it special is that, amid a career of his own during which he has assiduously avoided sounding anything like his father, he has finally embraced his birthright and run with it, eerily and affectionately recreating his father's early sound.
A more euphonious example of family values during this election year it will be hard to find.
When the filth of the butcher
Is washed in the blood of the lamb
Tell me again
When the rest of the culture
Has passed thru' the Eye of the Camp
Tell me again...
--"Amen," Old Ideas (2012)
After 60 years of publishing and recording, seventysomething Leonard Cohen has something else to say; and, lo and behold, the "Camp"--the Bergen-Belsen of the remembered newsreels of his childhood--comes up. He also gets the "Eye"--Jerusalem's Eye of the Needle--in there, a Jewish metaphor from the Talmud and the New Testament. Add in the "butcher" and the "lamb," which appeared on his 1968 second album, Songs from a Room (where we also heard about ritual sacrifice in "Story of Isaac"), and he manages to get a lot of morbidness out of the era of the internet and reality TV. But does the man have an edit button?
Actually, editing is a defining thread through Cohen's career. He claims to write very slowly, and his images appear and fade like recurring characters. Cohen's latest album is Old Ideas. This piece is not a review of the album; there have been plenty of those, all positive, if sometimes showing a little bit of special pleading for a grand old trooper. Rather, it tries to suggest the pleasures of tracing some of Cohen's evolving ideas back to the source.
Old Ideas is typical of Cohen's constant recycling of his oeuvre and experience. When he was a graduate student at Columbia in the 1950s, he arranged a course for himself consisting of a study of his own first book of poetry. Early on, Cohen said he only wanted to be a "minor poet." He wrote both poetry and novels to critical acclaim, but they didn't pay the bills. In mid-1960s, inspired by Bob Dylan, Cohen decided to become a singer-songwriter.
His success was instant. His material was wordy and well-annunciated, largely secular yet conspicuously Jewish, as opposed to, say, Dylan's Americana. Cohen's song writing has been uncommonly substantial (his first hit "Suzanne" contains perhaps the most comprehensive four-note theme since Beethoven's Fifth) and his songs now increasingly play out the overtly Jewish themes--including his pioneering Ju-Bu attachment to Zen, covered perhaps more substantially in his poetry and books.
Poems or songs, Cohen lends himself to close analysis. You could sit in a Jewish studies seminar in most English-speaking universities--and many more besides--and analyze the rich content of Cohen's lines as if they were Kafka's or Bialik's. People do. You could also do this with Paul Simon or Carole King or Gene Simmons or Serge Gainsbourg or David Broza or Bob Dylan; but as exemplary as these individuals' Jewishness is, they're not exactly poets (I'd duel Christopher Ricks with maddened bifold album covers over that, should he accept). Cohen is good like that; accessible but not too obviously lightweight.
And Cohen has engaged in such a study himself, a lifelong task the fruit of which is largely available on the public record.
Cohen has continually worked and reworked his songs--and his old poems as songs--in palettes of images and themes. Cohen's 1970 recording of "Joan of Arc" is what he called a palimpsest, made up of overlaid edits, spoken word, and singing. He slipped out of fashion somewhat in the 1970s (although his 1975 Greatest Hits album was an instant classic), with his 1977 Phil Spector collaboration Death of a Ladies Man pitched well beyond marketability. His 1979 album Recent Songs is loved in those places, like Scandinavia and Israel, that really "got" him; but by then there was a sense that his career was faltering.
Today, Cohen's most famous song is "Hallelujah," from his 1984 Various Positions; but the song became a pop culture fixture only after it was featured in Shrek. The album contains more Jewish content than his previous recordings, with references to his entertaining the Israeli Army during the Yom Kippur War and his Kol Nidrei-like song "If It Be Your Will." The album's immediate success was modest. Around this time, the hippie character Neil on the BBC series The Young Ones laments, "I feel like a Leonard Cohen record. Nobody listens to me."
Cohen's real comeback came with his 1988 I'm Your Man, in which Cohen assumes the role of Jeremiah to the MTV generation. In doing so, he went very Jewish indeed. The hit "Everybody Knows" lifts its chorus from Oliver; the Cockney-Yinglish "That's how it goes/Everybody knows," embroidered with an oud, an Arabic lute, perfectly summarizes Cohen's bleak observations. "First We Take Manhattan" is a fantasy in which The Protocols of the Elders of Zion meets Inglourious Basterds-style urban partisan, workers-in-song-unite! imagery ("First we take Manhattan/Then we take Berlin").
But there is also a critique of the increasingly deadening media hand. In the 1960s, Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, decriminalizing homosexuality, had announced, "There is no place for the State in the bedrooms of the nation." In "Tower of Song" we hear, "Of this you may be sure/The rich have got their channels/ In the bedrooms of the poor." The positive freedoms of sexual liberation have, consensually, receded into the thrall of TV.
When it comes to politics, Cohen is impenetrable (he's against abortion, but try lining him up on other issues); but when it comes to our culture, Cohen is a member of the Allan Bloom and Theodore Darymple school of curmudgeonly zest. His money-making medium (and he's had to refill his coffers in the past few years) is a kind of pop--upper-middlebrow to lower-highbrow, to be sure, but pop nonetheless. And, as a creature of the shadows of popular culture, he has special credentials when he snipes at the dumbing-down of culture. He's no snob, often fondly referencing the popular culture of his youth. But at some point he seems to have formed a sense that culture overall has gone to the dogs.
Leonard Cohen, with liberality of editing and economy of phrase, has become a cultural icon. Through his work, it is possible to get a decent feel for his time on earth and the culture on which it has built. Don't expect to find the source of his ideas any time soon, but it's still worth looking.
Peodair Leihy studied the works of Leonard Cohen at the Universities of Melbourne and Oxford, and was doing pretty well on an Australian television quiz show with the special topic of "The life and work of Leonard Cohen" until he was overrun by a Doctor Who nerd.
"A Master of Living in the Moment"
McGill Alumni Magazine by Bernard Perusse, BCL'76, LLB'77, Spring-Summer 2012
As the honours and accolades continue to flow for Leonard Cohen, BA'55, DLitt'92, his latest album offers further proof that the world's smoothest septuagenarian will never go out of style
Over the years, I wondered whether I was on some kind of blacklist.
In my job covering music for the Montreal Gazette, I had tried everything to interview Leonard Cohen. At different times, I had faced weary publicists with requests, pleas and demands for just a bit of time with the beloved poet and singer-songwriter. During the past five years or so, I had written about every significant player who has worked alongside him or shared his life as he returned to the public stage from a low-profile period.
Interviews with Cohen popped up here and there in other publications, but I got no farther ahead.
When I attended a private listening session for his 12th studio album, Old Ideas, last December at the Canadian Consulate in Los Angeles, I watched, admittedly with the awe of a fan, as the 77-year-old legend arrived, thanked the 100 invitees - mostly music business people and friends, with only a few journalists - and took his seat.
Cohen took only four questions from the guests after highly enthusiastic applause for the new album had died down. To my delight, I got one in. As people filed out for a drink at the bar, I stood in line for a brief audience and watched as a dapper and amiable Cohen posed for pictures with well-wishers and chatted leisurely with guests. Colleague Alain de Repentigny of La Presse and I finally got our turn and I introduced myself.
"Thanks for coming, man," Cohen said. I expressed a wish that we might sit down at some point in the future for a proper conversation. His disarming answer: "Sure, why not?" His broad smile was warm and encouraging - as if nothing could be simpler.
But, of course, it's not simple at all. Or it is. If you pick your moment right. Things with Cohen, I have been told more than once, generally happen spontaneously, not through some prearranged timetable. Somehow, I haven't yet managed to be in the right place at the right time. When I gave it the old college try for this piece, for example, his manager, Robert Kory, replied that Cohen was helping tend to his ailing zen master, Kyozan Joshu Sasaki Roshi. The interview wouldn't work out this time.
Cohen, by more than one account, lives perpetually in the moment.
A gift for intimacy
Hattie Webb has been a backup vocalist in Cohen's touring band since he went back on the road in 2008. Cohen generally introduces her and her sister Charley onstage as "the sublime Webb Sisters." One of Webb's most enduring memories of the tour confirms his life in the ever-present.
"There's a sort of gravitas being on stage with Leonard, being in the moment and enjoying the dynamic between him and his fans," she says. "That was really special, to witness that. I almost felt like there wasn't necessarily a separation between anyone. There was a dynamic of everyone thrown into an intimacy - which, I think, is one of Leonard's gifts: to create intimacy."
During the Old Ideas listening session, Cohen, commenting on his 2009 appearance at the Coachella Festival in the California desert, alluded to the immediacy factor. "When I'm in the midst of it - the musicians, myself, the crew - we're all just right at the front line of our lives, so there's no moment for reflection. There's no perspective on the actual note-by-note, song-by-song delivery," he said, adding that he only grasped that 40,000 people had been singing "Hallelujah" with him when he was told about it later.
Montreal singer-songwriter NEeMA (Nadine Neemeh, BCom'96) knows all about the Cohen spontaneity. She introduced herself to him on the Main, in the neighbourhood where they both have homes. Casual conversations during chance encounters and random emails about her songwriting evolved into a friendship and a professional relationship. She was helped by Cohen when she was writing songs for and recording her 2010 album Watching You Think. He also contributed the disc's cover art. Typically, nothing was ever planned or mapped out.
NEeMA also said she was struck by her mentor's focus. "It's beautiful to see and to learn from," she says. "If he's doing the dishes, he's really doing the dishes. If the light bulb needs to be changed, he'll say 'OK, that needs to be attended to.' Everything is in its place, and attention is brought to so much of what he does and how he lives."
Apart from living in the moment, a recurring theme in conversations about Cohen is his generosity of spirit. One recent example revolves around the Glenn Gould Award, a $50,000 prize that recognizes its recipients for having "enriched the human condition through the arts" (past winners include Yo-Yo Ma and Oscar Peterson). Upon receiving the award in May, Cohen promptly donated the prize money to the Canada Council for the Arts.
Acclaimed singer-songwriter and Juno Award winner Ron Sexsmith spoke of attending a launch in Toronto for Cohen's 2006 poetry collection Book of Longing. Sexsmith was invited to perform at the event, but says he felt too shy to barge in on a jam session with Cohen that was already in progress when he arrived.
"He saw me, came over, put his arm in mine and walked me over," Sexsmith remembers. "Someone passed me the guitar and I played a bunch of Leonard songs."
Donald Johnston, BCL'58, BA'60, LLD'03, a former cabinet minister in Pierre Trudeau's government, co-founder of the law firm Heenan Blaikie and grants committee director of the Geneva-based McCall MacBain Foundation, was Cohen's roommate at a Stanley St. apartment in 1957 and 1958. They first met in the McGill law faculty, where Cohen had spent a semester after receiving his BA in 1955. His memories of the young poet paint a similar picture.
"My habit was to study at night. He'd go out and come back at God knows what hour," Johnston says. "I liked Leonard very much. I found him extremely gracious - a perfect apartment mate, in a way. And I learned things from him. He was older than I was. He had many friends. He was certainly a ladies man, no doubt about that."
Mentored at McGill
English professor Brian Trehearne, BA'79, MA'81, PhD'86, who has taught a full senior course on Cohen at McGill (the course will be offered again next year) speculates that McGill was fertile ground for Cohen to develop his art. "It was in the heart of a vibrant metropolis, with a lot of great coffee houses," Trehearne says. "And through Louis Dudek, he could quickly get into a vibrant literary community. Louis was launching revolutionary courses - courses the English department didn't even want him to be teaching, on the great works of European literature and how we move from the 18th century to modernism. These must have been incredibly stimulating for Cohen." Dudek would oversee the publication of Cohen's first collection of poems, Let Us Compare Mythologies, in 1956.
Trehearne said he rates Cohen as one of the major poets of the second half of the 20th century, up there with two of his most highly-regarded, P.K. Page and A.M. Klein.
But music writers wouldn't be chasing Cohen if his work had been limited to poetry. Cohen's influence expanded dramatically with the release of his first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, in 1967.
"Song, songwriting and performance seemed to release him from something poetry couldn't release him from," Trehearne says. "He found his place there in a way that allowed him to express himself most fully. It wasn't the kind of difficult poetry a lot of people were writing in the sixties, that maybe a couple of hundred people across the country could appreciate. It was songwriting, based on a desire for a broad audience."
The master craftsman
Sexsmith certainly heard it loud and clear before he started devoting life to music, when he bought a Cohen anthology on cassette.
"It just completely changed everything," Sexsmith says. "It informed what kind of songwriter I was going to try to be. And it made me focus on words for the first time, because I was always a melody guy. When I got into Leonard, it made me wonder whether it was still OK for me to like Harry Nilsson and Ray Davies. This seemed like really serious music. But after a while, I realized they're all great. I didn't have to pick and choose."
NEeMA benefited from a more direct and personal influence. Cohen, she says, taught her to search inside for her true feelings and to let what is already there be uncovered - "allowing the story that wants to be told to come to the surface," as she puts it. "It's extremely challenging when you want to control the situation or just get the song done or think you know exactly what you're writing about. It doesn't mean to just sit around and do nothing until a song emerges. On the contrary, I learned to work harder at my writing than I ever had before."
She also gained a new appreciation of the singer's oeuvre through working with him, she says. "I started to study his work again in a way I hadn't before. He's able to capture all these paradoxes and contradictions we live with all the time, in our emotions, in our daily lives and in the way we experience the world."
On the road with Cohen, Webb also found new levels of understanding in songs she sang night after night, she said. "Famous Blue Raincoat" was a personal highlight. "I began to relate more and more to the dynamic between people that are connected in the heart, but not necessarily in the circumstance," she says.
"First We Take Manhattan" and "Dance Me to the End of Love" were also favourites for Webb. "There's a real depth within that darkness, which I'm really attracted to," she says.
But in spite of his undeserved reputation as the guru of gloom, darkness is far from the defining element in Cohen's work. As he so memorably wrote in the song "Anthem" (1992), "There is a crack in everything/That's how the light gets in."
To fully understand the arc of Cohen's career, Trehearne says, one should also look at the spirituality that becomes more explicit in works like the 1984 poetry collection Book of Mercy and other pieces written when the singer entered his fifties.
At that point, Trehearne says, the singer "stops and addresses himself to something that looks an awful lot like God.
"In the course of Cohen's lifetime, religion has lost its place at the centre of North American life, Trehearne notes. "Cohen is able to express and fulfill a kind of spiritual longing we've all been left with when we decided to jettison religion as an explanation for our feelings."
It's not a stretch to suggest the spirituality might even be connected with the stamina Cohen has shown in performing three-hour-plus shows during a physically demanding tour that is still going on after four years. Artists 50 years his junior would probably balk at the schedule. Asked about it during the Los Angeles listening session, Cohen said he had been well-trained by Kyozan Joshu Sasaki, his 104-year-old Zen teacher.
Webb said she saw it from the moment rehearsals for the tour started. "He was very diligent and hard-working, but nothing was ever rushed," she says. "Everything was done at a very balanced pace. I think that's part of how he does it."
Johnston, who still divides his time between Montreal and Geneva, cites Cohen's level of activity to explain why he's nowhere near ready to slow things down himself. "I'm only 75, for goodness sake. Look at Leonard! He inspires me."
Cohen clearly didn't get there by buying into the Peter Pan syndrome some of his fellow members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame have fallen into.
Cohen's take on life has "always been from a kind of grown-up, old-world perspective that's always been at odds with a world that is youth-oriented," Sexsmith observes. "Even when his first album came out, he was 33. Kind of like me: I was 31 when my first record came out."
But as Trehearne points out, Cohen appears to have no interest in passing on the wisdom of age to the younger generation. "The temptation of every 70-year-old or, dare I say, 40-year-old to start telling young people how to live their lives is not Leonard Cohen's temptation," Trehearne says, citing Cohen's line from "Closing Time": "I lift my glass to the Awful Truth/which you can't reveal to the Ears of Youth/except to say it isn't worth a dime."
As the L.A. session drew to its own close, I stood there beside my colleague, with Cohen grasping both of us by the hand, still smiling widely and serenely. "Thank you for coming, friends," he said.
And I did feel like a friend. I got a tiny glimpse of the intimacy Webb had referred to. I was, for a few seconds, in precisely the right moment.
Old Ideas Strikes Fresh Chord
You'd be hard pressed to find many artists in the rock 'n' roll era recording their highest-charting album at the age of 77, yet Leonard Cohen accomplished that feat with the January release of Old Ideas.
The disc hit No. 3 on the all-important Billboard 200 chart and debuted in the Top Five in 26 countries, 17 of which ranked it as a No. 1 album. In Canada, Old Ideas hit the top position and was certified platinum.
Reviews for Old Ideas were mostly raves, pretty much settling in the four and five-star range across the board.
The album, Cohen's most consistent and satisfying since Various Positions in 1984, found him confronting mortality with good-natured resignation. The music on the album broke slightly from the obsession with synthesizers and Casio keyboard sounds on his last few albums. While the machines were not entirely absent, there were plenty of real instruments, with one song, "Crazy to Love You," featuring only Cohen and an acoustic guitar. A few years on the road, it seems, had brought back a warm, human touch.
Among Cohen's peers, only Bob Dylan has had such artistic and commercial success late in his career. Dylan will be 77 in six years, and it would be foolish to bet against him working at the same level. Like Cohen, he shows no signs of slowing down.
In six years, Cohen will be 84. And the smart money says he still won't be done, either.
Bernard Perusse is the Montreal Gazette's music columnist. He remains a believer in the magic of rock 'n' roll.
Additional Articles related to Old Ideas
"Leonard Cohen, singer of singers", Globe and Mail (Toronto),
February 3, 2012.
"Columbia Records Teaches Kids Who Leonard Cohen Is (VIDEO)" by Alexandra Marvar, Huffington Post,
February 15, 2012. Youtube.
"Leonard Cohen: Die Lust am Frust" by Marcel Anders, Eclipsed (Germany),
March 2012. Photo.
"Der Lang Weg ans Licht" by Dorian Lynskey, Rolling Stone (Germany),
March 2012. Photo.
"Zen im Gästehaus" by MB, Rolling Stone (Germany),
March 2012. Photo of Patrick Leonard.
"Interview with Leonard Cohen" by Marcel Anders, Classic Rock Magazin (Germany),
"Alte Ideen -- neue Aspekte" by Christof Graf, Good Times (Germany),
February 2012. Photos by Prof.Dr. Christof Graf and H. Henning.
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