When you talk about musical geniuses, especially lyrical ones, no one—no one—compares to Leonard Cohen. Not any of the so-called poets of our time—The Boss, Paul McCartney, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, nope, not even Dylan.
Canadian poet/songwriter Leonard Cohen returned to the performing stage last week, after a 15-year hiatus, to wild adoration and critical acclaim from an audience that was treated to three hours of creative brilliance. At Manhattan’s newly, beautifully refurbished Beacon Theater, Cohen held a songwriting master class, as his surprisingly dulcet, gravel-pit voice drove his unyielding, highly melodic songs through the soul, connecting in the way only music can.
You might perceive this artist as an old folkie (Judy Collins was the first to introduce his songs in 1967), but you’d be wrong. Well, old, yes, he’s 75. But folkie? No. The evening’s musical style was unclassifiable—art songs, part Sinatra/part Waits, sweet lullabies sung by a cicada, a seamless and original blend of rock, pop, soul, jazz, and yes, folk that when mixed together created something wholly original. The band—including a flamenco guitarist, oboe/sax player, keyboardist, bassist, drummer and the Cohen-signature way-up-front girl singers (in this case the Webb Sisters and Sharon Robinson, Cohen’s occasional collaborator), whose combined vocals are employed as a prominent instrument—was spot-on. The lighting, the sound, the wardrobe—all dramatic, and Cohen, with a voice wound as tight a rubber band, was taut and studied in stance, but lithe and graceful in execution.
Cohen’s a mix of Old World gentlemanliness, humility, bohemian artiste, rabbinical cantor and Buddhist monk (he was one for a while)—all personas perfect counterpoints to his solemn, fire-breathing songs: intense, nervous and soothing.
OK, I know you’re still gnawing over the Dylan comment, but keep this in mind: Cohen, who wrongly became known as another Dylan wannabe, was already creating beautiful poetry (he was a published poet and novelist, a mainstay of the Canadian ’60s literati) a half decade prior to Dylan appropriating other people’s styles before inventing his own. And while the free-associatin’ Dylan was king of the enigmatic lyric, Cohen was the commander of the most perfectly layered romantic poetry written since…Byron and Shelley.
Cohen seemed enthralled to be on stage again. And by enthralled I mean, the cool-as-a-Canadian iceberg broke a smile a few times, and reverently thanked the audience, who were so moved by his art that they continuously interrupted his songs—mid-song—with standing ovations.
“I was born like this,” he sings in “Tower of Song,” “I had no choice/I was born with the gift of a golden voice” bringing the audience, who knew better, to their feet. But the fact is, while not golden, his voice was still honeyed—more like thick molassesed—as the vocals hit such low registers that it was more the 3 Train rumbling below the theater than an actual vocal.
The key to Cohen’s commercial success is that he accompanies his extraordinary, very approachable poetry with extremely pretty, simple and memorable melodies. If he hadn’t, he would just be our generation’s greatest poet. But as he tries so hard to sing those lilting melodies, with all the restraints of his inflexible frog-voice, one can see him as Stephen Hawking struggling against a handicap that frustratingly restricts his boundaries, but doesn’t diminish his passion. God knows the force Cohen would be if he had a traditionally beautiful voice. But he wouldn’t be Leonard Cohen then, would he?
So, let’s talk cool and hip. Here’s this septuagenarian, driving 20-year-olds crazy in their seats as he travels from song to song that they love as much as their grandparents did. Standing (or kneeling, as he often chose to do) wearing his trademark dapper suit and black fedora, it would be difficult for anyone to match his hipness factor.
Cohen, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Lou Reed in 2008, has influenced an extraordinary amount of musicians, including Bono and Sting, and what it comes down to is those spellbinding songs: As the iconic, familiar first guitar notes poured from his guitar, it was a humbling moment, saying to oneself after waiting on this recluse forever, “I’m actually hearing Leonard Cohen sing ‘Suzanne’ live!” (“Suzanne takes you down to a place by the river, she feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China”), “Everybody Knows” (one of the greatest lyrics ever: “Everybody knows that you’ve been faithful/Ah, give or take a night or two”), “A Thousand Kisses Deep” (“And sometimes when the night is slow/the wretched and the meek/we gather up our hearts and go/a thousand kisses deep”). And then there’s the oft-covered “Bird on the Wire” (“Like a bird on the wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir, I have tried in my way to be free”), “I’m Your Man,” (recorded by many, from the super cool Nick Cave to super uncool Elton John), “First We Take Manhattan,” “So Long, Marianne,” “Sisters of Mercy,” “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye,” the spooky, dirge-like prayer “Who By Fire,” and his elegiac, yet still sprightly gem about betrayal, “Famous Blue Raincoat” (“And you treated my woman to a flake of your life/And when she came back she was nobody’s wife”). There was “Chelsea Hotel #2” (written about Janis Joplin: “I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel, you were famous, your heart was a legend/You told me again you preferred handsome men, but for me you would make an exception”) and the Zen-like “Anthem” (“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”).
Religious themes are prevalent in the Cohen canon. Take “Hallelujah,” an old, obscure song that only diehard Cohen fans knew, that found popularity when recorded by Jeff Buckley in 1994 and further mainstreamed when Rufus Wainwright’s version found its way to Shrek. And lo and behold, it resurfaced on American Idol—the one moment when that show became relevant. In concert, those who loved the song well before Simon Cowell’s seal of approval, rose to their feet and offered one of the biggest ovations of the evening .
On this chilly February night in 2009, this was a young man singing, the so-called ladies man of the ’60s. As he moved from song to song, one could only sit and hope to stay frozen in time to savor—and remember—each word, each note, the meaning of it all.
There’s no guesswork with Cohen’s lyrics; they’re about love and religion, or love as religion. From “Hallelujah”: “Love is not a victory march/It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah.” They’re drenched in discovery, longing, betrayal and hope. Always, passion. They’re about the art of music and a love for music. Again, “Hallelujah”: “I’ll stand before the Lord of Song with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.” They’re about life, when it’s dark and when it’s light, but mostly in between. And they’re most often about the women who made him what he is today.
And the resonance of words, the eloquence of love.
Leonard Cohen on stage. That’s how the light gets in.