Leonard Cohen (Profile) | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Leonard Cohen (Profile)

Leonard Cohen is backstage at Hamilton Place, having just performed an epic concert for an ecstatic audience. He's still wearing the hat, and with the double-breasted suit that threatens to engulf his slight frame, the rakish fedora lends him the air of a gangster from a lost age.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on June 23, 2008

Leonard Cohen (Profile)

Leonard Cohen is backstage at Hamilton Place, having just performed an epic concert for an ecstatic audience. He's still wearing the hat, and with the double-breasted suit that threatens to engulf his slight frame, the rakish fedora lends him the air of a gangster from a lost age. Or William Burroughs. He tucks into a buffet of bread and cheese, urging food on me with his usual compulsive hospitality, then presses the band's "sommelier," his long-time guitarist Bob Metzger, to pour me a glass of wine. But he grabs a can of root beer for himself. Leonard Cohen may be the poet laureate of wine, women and song. But at 73, and touring for the first time in 14 years, he now seems stoically devoted to song.

He leads me back to his dressing room. The cinder-block walls are adorned with offerings from fans. A long-stemmed rose, a spray of bamboo. Love notes. A tea light burns on a small table draped with a velour cloth. Leonard keeps his hat on.

"I've never performed with a hat before," he says. "But I've been wearing a fedora for a long, long time. I stopped after 9/11. It didn't seem appropriate."

"Why not?"

"It seemed to be too dressed up for mourning. I always wore a suit, but I stopped wearing a fedora. I switched to a cap. A few years ago, I started wearing the fedora a lot around the house. I don't go out much. But I usually get dressed every day."

"Now you're going out a lot."

"Now I'm being sent like a postcard from place to place. It's really wonderful."

The show begins the way you'd expect it to end, with a long and rapturous standing ovation, and a deep bow from Cohen. It's a rite of adoration and supplication that will be repeated again and again throughout the night. The first standing ovation is automatic, the rest are earned, half a dozen of them in a concert that will last three hours.

The hat proves to be an invaluable prop. As Cohen performs, angled over the mike, it works like a mask, imparting a vaguely sinister authority. Between songs, as he doffs it to his musicians, to the crowd, and holds it to his heart, the gangster of love becomes a humble paisano in his Sunday best, paying homage.

"People have gone to some geographical and financial inconvenience to come here," Cohen says at the top of the show, making droll reference to ticket prices that run as high as $250. "We hope you won't be disappointed." Then the band unrolls the Persian-rug rhythms of Dance Me to the End of Love, and by the final encore, there is no end to the love between artist and audience.

Embraced like a lost prophet returning from years of seclusion - and the brink of financial ruin - Cohen is riding a wave of adulation that has been gathering for half a century. In the campfire trinity of Canadian troubadours that includes Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, he remains the tribal elder, the sage as pop star. No Canadian icon since Pierre Trudeau can elicit as much reverence, and stir such long-standing sentiments, as this singer-poet whose Montreal roots go back to the same era of romantic possibility that gave rise to Trudeaumania.

Cohen's world tour - which began in Fredericton on May 11 - has the emotional pull of both a triumphant comeback and poignant last hurrah. Three years ago, a Maclean's story revealed that Cohen was broke and suing his former management for millions of dollars in lost revenue. Since then, there's been a string of costly legal battles - most won, some lost - but elements of his case are still in litigation. Cohen admits that a prime motive for returning to the road after such a long absence was "that pesky little financial situation, which totally wiped me out." But on the positive side, "it got me out into the world. I was retreating. I don't recommend losing everything as a spiritual discipline. But if it happens to you, there are some features that are quite nourishing."

Yet money was not the sole motive for his return to the stage, he says. "I thought if I didn't tour this year. I'm not going to do it when I'm 75, or 77, or 80. It was now or never. And it was hard for me to say 'never.' It was like, 'Wait a second, this is what you've spent your whole life doing, what you're trained to do.' "

The man who ushered Cohen back into the spotlight and salvaged his finances is entertainment lawyer Robert Kory, who worked with the Beach Boys for a decade. Kory, 58, took charge of the lawsuit and set up the tour. "He deferred his fees," says Cohen, "which is not just unusual but unheard of for a lawyer in Los Angeles. He was somehow able to right the shipwreck." What's also unusual is that Kory was briefly married, in 1988, to Cohen's partner and protege, singer Anjani Thomas. Now serving as Cohen's manager - and appearing at gigs wearing his own fedora - Kory is fielding requests for the singer from around the globe. London's 16,000-seat O2 arena sold out in just five hours.

Cohen expects this will be his last tour, and for a man his age it's an ambitious undertaking. In Ontario, he performed seven concerts in eight days. Next he flies to Ireland and England for a week, then doubles back to Montreal (June 23, 24, 25), then returns to Europe. Expecting to cover the U.S. and Western Canada next year, he promises to be on the road for a while: "As the Irish say, with the help of God and two policemen, the tour may last a year and a half, or two."

Cynics might expect a nostalgia act by a faded artist trying to sing his way out of the red. But aside from "paying the rent in the Tower of Song," Cohen is clearly paying a more profound debt, to his audience and his music. He has reanimated his repertoire with astonishing vigour, wit and musical finesse. He's also performing sober. By the end of his last tour, in 1994, he says, "I was drinking about three bottles of wine before every concert. And I was smoking two packs a day. This is the first tour without coffee, cigarettes, or anything resembling heavy drinking."

Cohen's well-cured baritone has acquired a more supple range. "I lost a note or two in the bass register when I gave up smoking," he says, "but I can go higher." Backed by a crack band of six musicians and three exquisite female voices, he's also performing with a new spring in his step, sprinting from the wings for encores. He's even developed ... moves. The last time I saw him perform was in 1993 at Toronto's O'Keefe Centre. He stood motionless, singing with eyes closed, gripping the microphone stand like a pole on a subway train that might derail at any moment. Last week in the same auditorium, which has since undergone two name changes, he joked to the crowd, "It's been a long time since I stood on this stage. Fifteen years. I was 60 years old, just a kid with a crazy dream." But to watch him move, he seems younger now: clasping a hand-held mike, he bends his body into the music, feet apart, knees knifed together, and carves out the notes with a predatory focus.

Occasionally he'll slip in a little dance. In Hamilton, as he sang the line "a white man dancing" from The Future, his feet zigzagged in a sly shuffle, and from the cheer that went up from the crowd, you'd think he'd scored a winning goal in overtime. It's odd what arouses an audience. In the same song, when Cohen hit the line "I'm the little Jew who wrote the Bible," a group of girls screamed as if to say, "Yeah, you're the man!" That wasn't repeated in Toronto. But his ironic boast in Tower of Song invariably gets a huge cheer:

I was born like this, I had no choice /

I was born with the gift of a golden voice.

It's a voice that has aged like vintage port. "I've never thought of myself as a singer," Cohen insists. "Over the years, so many people told me I don't have a voice I kind of bought that. Just getting through a song, that's the challenge." But that's also what makes his performance inspiring. It's one thing to watch k.d. lang paraglide through the updrafts of Hallelujah - easy for her - but to watch Cohen hurl his broken voice through the song's vaulted crescendos is even more impressive. Yet, when I ask which song is most daunting for him, he says, without hesitation, "The tough one for me is Suzanne."

Cohen treats Suzanne as a sacrament. He performs it solo on an amplified acoustic guitar, conjuring the lost timbre of his youth with aching tenderness. "It's hard to enter it," he says. "It's a serious song. And in my own curious magical universe, it is a kind of doorway. I have to open it carefully. Otherwise what's beyond is not accessible to me. It was never about a particular woman. It was about the beginning of a different life for me, my life wandering alone in Montreal."

Suzanne, he says, requires a guitar chop that took a while to remaster. After his last tour, he didn't touch a guitar for many years. "When I was in the monastery at Mount Baldy [1993-1995], there were times when I would ask myself 'Are you really never going to get up on a stage again?' From time to time I'd see my guitar. I was still writing songs. But the idea of performing was starting to recede further and further back." His guitars had sat idle for so long he had to restring them. Then, after much practice, he says, "I got my chop back - I only have one chop."

Always self-deprecating about his gifts as a singer or musician, Cohen has begun to take the music more seriously. "The music became really important on this tour," he says. "I'd never really thought of touring as a musical event. It was life on the road. It was temptation. Drinking, camaraderie, the feeling of being in a motorcycle gang."

His Zen mentor, Roshi, now 101, tried to warn him about alcohol long ago. "It was the '79 tour. He was in the dressing room with me drinking cognac. He taught me to drink cognac. But I was drinking a tumbler of cognac like it was water. He hit my thigh very hard and said, 'Body important.' "

On his last tour, Cohen became hooked on Château Latour, a fine Bordeaux. "It's curious with wine," he says. "The wine experts talk about the flavour and bouquet and whether it has legs and the tannins and the fruit. But nobody talks about the high. Each wine has a very specific high. Château Latour went with the music. I tried to drink it after the tour was over and I could hardly get a glass down. It had no resonance whatsoever. It needed the adrenalin of the concert, the desperate atmosphere of touring - desperate because I was drinking so much."

He says he didn't enter a detox program. "I lost my taste for it. Just like cigarettes. I find I can't even drink a glass of wine. It interferes with my mood. On Friday night when we celebrate the Sabbath with my family [his daughter, Lorca, lives downstairs], I'll have a sip or two. Occasionally I'll take hard liquor, but I can't drink wine."

Decanting songs that have been cellared for so long has brought its own rewards. "One of the surprises was getting to know these songs again," he says. "I hadn't looked at them for a long time. They hold up, and you can enter them. There really is a place to live in them." Although Cohen has no new album to promote (he's working on one), he performs tracks from his 2001 album, Ten New Songs, for the first time, in delicate duets with singer-composer Sharon Robinson. And the old songs, like their master's voice, have ripened with age. In an Obama world, Democracy (is coming to the U.S.A.) now rings out as an anthem of real hope, not dystopian despair. And I'm Your Man becomes a burlesque flirtation, with Leonard offering himself to the audience as a full-service septuagenarian.

Cohen combines the poet's solitary grace with the populist wit of a Jewish comic - as if a monk, a rabbi and a priest walked into a bar and turned out to be the same guy. He's fond of saying "we don't control the show" (in the cosmic sense), but his stagecraft is assiduously plotted. He spent three months rehearsing with his band before launching the tour in Eastern Canada, road-testing it in such far-flung burgs as Glace Bay, N.S., and Saguenay, Que. In St. John's, Nfld., he played three nights right after a two-night stint by Bob Dylan. Although they didn't end up on stage together, Cohen watched Dylan's show from a private box.

"I'd never been in a private box," he says. "That was fun. But it was very loud. Fortunately our drummer had earplugs. Dylan has a secret code with his audience. He had his back to them and was playing the organ, beautifully I might say, and just running through the songs. Some were hard to recognize. But nobody cared. Something else was going on, a celebration of a genius that has touched people so deeply all they need is a symbolic unfolding of the event: remember that song and what it did to you."

Although Cohen is a far more generous and meticulous performer than Dylan, he too serves as a decoder ring for a vanished age. So many of his songs are addressed to some secret flame, but in concert that lover becomes the audience, reunited with the singer for one last fling. And when it's time to put the crowd to bed - advising them to "drive safely and don't catch a summer cold" - he has just the lyrics to do the job:

Good night, my darlings, I hope you're satisfied / The bed is kind of narrow, but my arms are open wide / And here's a man still working for your smile.

Backstage, I ask Leonard if we'd be sitting here if it were not for his financial ruin. "Probably not," he says. He concedes that "this is every musician's dream, to stand in front of an audience and not have to prove your credentials - to come into that warmth." But before financial catastrophe struck, he was quite content working alone in a room, and collaborating with Anjani Thomas. He produced her solo album Blue Alert, with her singing his lyrics to her own accompaniment on piano. Anjani, who spent many years recording and touring with Leonard, remains in L.A., working on a new album.

For Cohen, touring now seems to be another kind of monastic discipline, one performed in public. Between concerts, to save his voice, he tries not to talk. He likes to go straight from the stage to his hotel. "The devil laughs if you say there are no temptations," he says. "But I never did like going out much. I really cherish that moment when I close the door of the hotel room."

Leonard is happy to flirt with the crowd. When a voice from the dark shouts, "I love you," he'll say, "I'm very fond of you too." But backstage there's no trace of the old rock star lifestyle. In Hamilton, one of the crew mentions the young female fans who ran up to the front of the stage late in the show and were shooed away by security guards. The 73-year-old master offers a rueful smile: "If only I were two years younger."

Maclean's June 23, 2008