WHEN Leonard Cohen was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year, he appeared at the podium with the serenity of a Zen monk and humbly declared: "This is a very unlikely occasion for me. It is not a distinction that I coveted, or even dared dream about. So I'm reminded of the prophetic statement of Jon Landau in the early '70s. He said, 'I have seen the future of rock & roll and it is not Leonard Cohen.'"
The audience, including Landau, cracked up and then Cohen recited a few verses from his tune, "Tower of Song," which he wrote 23 years ago, beginning with: "My friends are gone, and my hair is gray/ I ache in the places where I used to play."
Landau, of course, was the famous music critic who in 1974 declared Bruce Springsteen the future of rock. He then went on to manage the Boss and now heads the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee.
Cohen, on the other hand, actually is a Zen monk and, being a Montreal native, has already been inducted into both the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. In 1991, he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada and, in 2003, a Companion to the Order of Canada, the latter of which is that country's highest civilian honor.
In 2006, his most recent volume of poetry, Book of Longing, was the first book of verse ever to hit No. 1 on the nonfiction bestseller list in the Great White North. And just three weeks ago, a few hundred fans gathered outside the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan to witness an unveiling ceremony for a plaque celebrating Cohen's famous tune about his interlude with Janis Joplin in the hotel, the one that goes like this: "You told me again you preferred handsome men, but for me you would make an exception."
Cohen's 50-year-long oeuvre of novels, poetry and music exploring the interrelations between sex, religion, loneliness, longing and loss has inspired artists and lovers the world over—some even joke that every woman in France owns one of his albums—but, except for one forgettable appearance on Miami Vice, he never managed to penetrate the American pop-culture milieu.
He's far too Eurocentric, paradoxical, mysterious, well-dressed and funny. So it was no surprise when most of the audience at the Hall of Fame ceremony didn't even realize that Cohen was finishing the acceptance speech with his own lyrics: "Now I bid you farewell, I don't know when I'll be back/ They're moving us tomorrow to that Tower down the track/ But you'll be hearing from me, baby, long after I'm gone/ I'll be speaking to you sweetly from my window in the Tower of Song."
Cohen's current tour began in May of 2008, two months after he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The final leg concludes in San Jose this Friday, Nov. 13. Even though Cohen hasn't toured in 15 years, he found himself close to broke after learning that his former manager had drained a few million from his bank account during the years that Cohen spent in a Zen Buddhist monastery. As a result, he needed to hit the road.
© Marguerite-Bourgeoys Museum
OUR LADY OF THE HARBOR: The church in Leonard Cohen's 'Suzanne' is a beacon for Montreal visitors.
Hero of Solitude
Born in 1934 in Montreal's Westmount neighborhood, Cohen put out three poetry books and two novels before he even started making records. Even though he brought international acclaim on himself as a writer, he wanted to pursue a musical career instead. With his first three albums—Songs of Leonard Cohen, Songs From a Room and Songs of Love and Hate—he established himself as a commanding spokesman for the mortified, the lonely, the forlorn and the hopeless.
Above all else, Cohen, who wound up in the monastery, near Los Angeles, from 1995 to 1999, is a man attempting to resolve his own inner conflicts through his songs and poems, especially if the endeavor involves a little meanness and black humor.
For decades, critics have pilloried him with soubriquets like, "the godfather of gloom," the "poet of pessimism" or the "architect of angst." Many of Cohen's songs serve as soundtracks for failed relationships, romantic disaster, heroes of solitude or, at the least, the merging of the sacred and the profane.
Whenever anyone goes through a tumultuous breakup or bottoming-out and needs something on the turntable to dovetail with their own sorrows, there always seems to be a Cohen lyric or 50 that perfectly describes the situation, no matter who or what is involved.
One particular messed-up disciple, Kurt Cobain, famously wrote in the Nirvana tune "Pennyroyal Tea," from In Utero: "Give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld/ So I can sigh eternally." And we know what happened to him.
But these scenarios are sadly unfortunate, because, to the contrary, Cohen is actually quite a hysterically funny writer. In a 2001 article for GQ, John Leland celebrated Cohen as a "badass of dark verse," fully acknowledging the humor of it all.
This is important, as no matter how wretched Cohen's words may be on the surface, one always seems to hear a snarky self-deprecating laugh buried somewhere within. Even when he inhabits the bottom of the misery barrel, you always get the feeling he's secretly winking at you between the lines, every single one of which exhibits multiple layers of meaning. In that regard, he's a natural.
When it comes to badasses of dark verse, it takes one to know one, and Nick Cave has always declared that, for him personally, it all began with Leonard Cohen: "[He's] been decried as depressing, but he's one of the funniest writers we have," Cave told Leland in the GQ story. "I can't think of a lyric that doesn't have a sexy smile hidden in the lines. There are two things going on at all times: warmth and a wicked wit. I wish I had that."
During the current touring show that hits San Jose this Friday, Cohen reads his poem "A Thousand Kisses Deep" awash in indigo and magenta spotlights. His trademark from-the-depths groveling whisper resonates throughout the venue. Those in the know cannot hold back smiles with passages like this: "I loved you when you opened like a lily to the heat/ You see, I'm just another snowman standing in the rain and sleet/ Who loved you with his frozen love, his second-hand physique/ With all he is and all he was/ A thousand kisses deep."
At another juncture in the gig, Cohen banters that since his last tour 15 years ago, he has "taken a lot of Prozac, Paxil, Wellbutrin, Effexor, Ritalin and Focalin." And that he has also "studied deeply in the philosophies and religions, but cheerfulness kept breaking through."
And then the band appropriately kicks into "Ain't No Cure for Love," one of many classics from 1988's I'm Your Man album. Including other now-famous tracks like "First We Take Manhattan" and "Everybody Knows." I'm Your Man sold millions outside America and went to No. 1 all across Europe but never even charted in the United States.
Photograph by MJ Kim
SHEPHERD'S CRY:: Javier Mas (right) works the golden 12-string guitair for an appreciative Cohen.
Long Time Watching
During my last two visits to Montreal, I ambled through a few of Cohen's neighborhoods—always my preferred method of voyage when I need to vicariously experience another author's inner conflicts. After all, world travel should involve continuous transpersonal renovation rather than giddy guidebook-driven sightseeing, I say.
Montreal has at times been an embattled city above and beneath the surface; conflicts of language, politics and heritage still percolate, even if things are indeed much better these days than before.
Cohen's experimental 1966 novel, Beautiful Losers, was a postmodern exploration of the city's three-pronged ethnic and political history—that of the Anglophones, the Francophones and the indigenous peoples. It is filled with promiscuous sex, countless biblical references, Quebecois political strife and chaotic free-improv musings on Catherine Tekakwitha, the first Native American woman baptized Catholic in New France. Even though the book is about Quebec, Cohen wrote it while living on the Greek isle of Hydra.
In 2006, a Chinese translation was released, with Cohen penning a new introduction for the Chinese readers. He said: "Beautiful Losers was written outside on a table set among the rocks, weeds and daisies behind my house on Hydra, an island in the Aegean Sea. I lived there many years ago. It was a blazing hot summer. I never covered my head. What you have in your hands is more of a sunstroke than a book."
Beautiful Losers might be a difficult read for linear-minded folks, but it functions as a great precursor to Leonard's musical catalog and also provides some insight into the history of Quebec itself.
Cohen never hails Montreal by name in a song, but its scenery famously appears in "Suzanne," his first definitive hit: "Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river/ You can hear the boats go by."
The river in question is the St. Lawrence, which rolls up to the harbor, right at the oldest part of the city (Vieux-Montréal). The Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel, commonly referred to as the Sailors' Church, one of Montreal's oldest churches, dating back to 1771, faces the cobblestone streets of old town area.
When "the sun pours down like honey on our lady of the harbor," Cohen is referencing the statue of Mary at back of the church, whose arms are outstretched, facing the St. Lawrence River and the harbor. Inside the church, replicas of ships hang from the ceiling, as sailors would often come here to pray.
Even better, and especially if you're traveling by yourself and your haircut resembles that of Jesus, it's pretty fun to climb the observation tower, knowing it's the one Leonard mentioned in the song: "And Jesus was a sailor/ When he walked upon the water/ And he spent a long time watching/ From his lonely wooden tower." The tower provides a breathtaking view of Old Montreal, the harbor and the ships. The lyrics to "Suzanne" are scribbled on the wall, in French, as you make your way to the top.
It doesn't stop there, however. Over in one of Montreal's more bohemian Francophone neighborhoods—the Plateau as it's called—Cohen still owns a house in the vicinity of Parc du Portugal, and he spends a few months there every year. In the same neighborhood, there's also a legendary bagel shop he frequents and a Zen center he owns. I walked down the street where he lives, but in no way would I have bothered the guy, had he actually been there. I did not even look for a doorbell.
Last spring, Cohen's tour stopped by the Paramount Theatre in Oakland. In my own lonely tower, I spent a long time watching from a seat in the back row.
The three-hour gig features hits spanning 42 years of Cohen's career. Several times during the evening, he removes his trademark Fedora hat and acknowledges the other musicians, as his band is one hell of a tightly knit unit.
Spaniard Javier Mas dominates on the ethnic string instruments, adding a European Gypsy flavor to tunes like "Who by Fire" and "The Partisan." With the utmost reverence, Cohen introduces him as "the sweet shepherd of strings." Drummer Rafael Gayol receives comparable praise as "the prince of precision." Rounding out the instrumentalists, we find the "impeccable" Neil Larsen on the Hammond B3, plus Bob Metzger on guitars, Dino Soldo as "the master breath on the instruments of wind" and longtime Cohen sideman Roscoe Beck on bass. Since Beck did all the arrangements, Cohen introduces him as the "guardian sentry."
And no Cohen live enterprise would be authentic without the obligatory female accomplices/angels on vocals. Sharon Robinson, who co-wrote his hit "Everybody Knows" and produced 2001's Ten New Songs, joins the Webb Sisters—Charley and Hattie—in providing a trilateral force of ethereal backup harmonies. Even if they exist partly to compensate for Cohen's voice, the "angels"—as he always refers to them onstage—are essential components of any Cohen performance.
When Hattie Webb breaks out the harp for Cohen's legendary prayer song "If It Be Your Will," it only gets more angelic. The entire venue turns into a cabaret chapel of the sublime.
This is precisely why folks who only know Cohen's work from the more sparse early albums, who haven't owned the last few live releases or who never watched one of the hundreds of YouTube clips, will emerge from this show thoroughly converted.
Those who never penetrated the outer layers of gloom will see Cohen at his most humble and reverent. In fact, you can't avoid it. Many times, he sings form his knees or while gazing up toward the ceiling with a rapturous look on his face, as if he is communicating directly with the Goddess.
At 75 years young, Leonard Cohen is finally arriving in San Jose—a show originally scheduled to be the last one of the tour. But just a week ago, tickets went on sale for a series of March 2010 dates in France. Again. So Cohen is not at all hanging up the fedora. He's not moving to that tower down the track just yet. In fact, on this last leg of the 2008/09 tour, he's already playing at least one new number.
Has Cohen finally resolved 75 years' worth of inner conflicts? Judging from the sheer beauty and grace of this show, it definitely seems that way. At least on the surface.
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