LEONARD COHEN PROFILED: Life of a ladies' man

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Leonard Cohen: In My Secret Life (from Ten New Songs)
LEONARD COHEN PROFILED: Life of a ladies' man

Even the writer Pico Iyer, who knows him better than most, concedes Leonard Cohen – so melancholy he used to be referred to as “a one man Joy Division” – presents a problem.

"He is for most of us,” Iyer wrote in Sun After Dark, “a figure of the dark, sitting alone sometime after midnight and exploring the harsh truths of suffering and loneliness . . . His songs and poetry have always been about letting go and giving things up, the voluntary poverty of a refugee from comfort”.

So who is this man whose songs have been covered by artists as diverse as Willie Nelson, Straitjacket Fits, Aaron Neville, the Pixies, John Cale, REM and Billy Joel? This Jewish-Buddhist and former ladies' man whose Hallelujah the late Jeff Buckley and others fashioned as a secular prayer?

Cohen – now 76, packs stadiums with thoughtful songs about hearts and souls – but he also wrote Don't Go Home With Your Hard-On (with poet Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan on bawdy backing vocals) and of getting a blow-job in the Chelsea Hotel.

He recorded Death of a Ladies' Man in '77 with Phil Spector, inspired a song cycle by the classical composer Philip Glass and is the subject of many biographies. He's a public performer with a very private life.

Cohen has long been considered enigmatic, a perception enhanced when he went into the Mt Baldy Buddhist retreat in California for five years until '99.

But he was always different, and out of step with history when he released his debut album in '67. This was the psychedelic world of Hendrix, Cream's Disraeli Gears and Sgt Peppers, the air heady with marijuana and anti-war activity.

41b0N8vZjHL._SL500_AA300_Songs of Leonard Cohen delivered intense, monochromatic ballads sung over acoustic guitar.

But he wasn't a folk singer. As Cohen biographer Stephen Scobie observes, Cohen was never interested in the main threads of 60s folk; unearthing old ballads or political protest: “Take these two things away and basically all that's left is the notion of the guy with the acoustic guitar . . . the idea of the singer-songwriter working in a fairly simple musical medium was the aspect of folk Cohen was able to exploit.”

British rock writer Nigel Williamson also notes “his influences were unusual, if not unique, in rock'n'roll at that time.”

They weren't – for the most part – from music at all. And aren't today.

Cohen – 33 when Songs was released – was an established writer in Canada with four poetry collections and two novels behind him. Jim Morrison may have styled himself a poet – but here was the real thing.

Born in Montreal, Cohen – of an English-speaking Jewish family in a predominantly Catholic, French-speaking city – came to poetry in his teens and as another biographer Ira Nadel says, “that was a voice that spoke to him.”

He hung out with local poets (notably the self-promoting Irving Layton) and was profoundly affected by the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca. Cohen would later set one of Lorca's poems to music (as Take This Waltz, '88) and name his daughter Lorca.

And just as Lorca explored themes of identity, sexuality and death, so too would Cohen. Repeatedly.

Lorca was also fascinated by music – notably gypsy song, another later influence on Cohen – and at Jewish summer camp around this same time Cohen picked up guitar.

It wasn't either/or between music and poetry, says Nadel. “He's beginning to write poetry as he's beginning to make some gestures towards being a singer”.leonard_cohen_beacon_theatre_tickets

And when he discovered the Beat movement – Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and others – it was Jewish-Buddhist Ginsberg, the most musical of them all, Cohen gravitated to.

Ginsberg wasn't a poetic influence but showed being a writer was possible, and a poet needn't be bound by conventional behaviour. Openly gay, bohemian and funny, Ginsberg wasn't like the buttoned-down types Cohen encountered in academic Montreal.

Scobie: “Ginsberg demonstrated to Cohen some of the ways in which one could make a very public career of being a poet.” As had Layton.

Ginsberg also became a friend and confidant to another great influence on Cohen, Bob Dylan, who – in increasingly literary lyrics – showed poetry could be taken to a wider audience through song.

Williamson: “By '65 you've got Dylan singing about [poets] Ezra Pound and TS Eliot in Desolation Row. That must have been hugely encouraging to Cohen who had this intellectual depth and literary sensibility which he might have imagined couldn't be satisfied in popular music. Suddenly Dylan proved it could.”

And Cohen was ambitious, as Rolling Stones' Anthony DeCurtis observes: “Having done the work, I think he wanted to find the ways of getting [it] to a larger number of people. As happy as he was with the literary success he enjoyed in Canada, I don't think that was enough for him.”

So amidst the psychedelic guitar noise of '67, Cohen's was the quiet voice people paused for . . . and they've never stopped listening.

Cohen has released more than a dozen albums and his return to performance in '08 after a 15-year absence was greeted with an outpouring of devotion – and necessary income. Cohen had lost most of his money in '05 (around US$5 million) to a former manager.

But Cohen' music today is very different from that spare folk of his earlier years.

Professor Paul Morris, head of Victoria University's school of religious studies, recalls seeing Cohen at the Royal Albert Hall, London in '70, one man and a guitar – and the song Avalanche, a Nick Cave favourite, stood out: “I'd never come across a song so desperate and unhappy, it tore into me, an incredible ragged and raw sound. Then I saw him last year with his nine piece band and it is amazingly smooth.”

Cohen's reframing of his songs is largely down to his band, among them backing singers and multi-instrumentalists the Webb Sisters (Charley and Hattie) who -- although English and from what Charley calls “a choral-folk background” – also have a trans-Atlantic sensibility after working in Nashville.

The Webbs and singer Sharon Robinson -- co-credited on Cohen's Ten New Songs album of '01 which marked his return after Mt Baldy – say Cohen generously listened to the band's suggestions for new arrangements.51244SRYzQL._SL500_AA300_

Hattie Webb: “Leonard was open to everyone bringing their own musicality, but we were aware of honouring the songs. Rehearsals were a process of working together and everyone finding the song within themselves.”

Add in Robinson's diverse background – r'n'b soul to Vegas gigs with Ann-Margaret – as well as Spanish guitarist Javier Mas, keyboard player Neil Larsen and saxophonist Dino Soldo (from jazz backgrounds), Cohen's longtime bassist/musical director Roscoe Beck, session guitarist Bob Metzger and percussionist Rafael Gayol and you have an ensemble of rare depth.

In Cohen's music today there are suggestions of Jewish and gypsy music, Americana, holy folk and more.

Charley Webb: “You can also hear some of the Greek influences from when he lived on Hydra [in the 60s] and how chord changes and melodies were influenced by that time. You can hear his artistic travels in the songs.”

Morris: “The [old] songs are instantly recognisable but have a whole new melodic framework. Although he decries the Spector album, what he's done is a very sophisticated version of that surround-sound . . . although it has gone down a couple of octaves and been rounded off.

“He's like a 20-year old bottle of cabernet sauvignon.”

Robinson – who first wrote with Cohen in '80 and acknowledges Ten New Songs “was more a poet's record, because he hadn't been singing a lot before it” – says Cohen's oblique lyrics allow her to explore musical ideas, such as the use of Spanish guitars at the start of Waiting for a Miracle, that the work of other more literal writers don't.

And Cohen has always been sympathetic to women and the feminine.

“Like Leonard, I've tried to figure out the terms and basis of our existence and the masculine/feminine is an inherent part of that. That's something we both understand and work to incorporate.”

Cohen's music can also be an evolving revelation for the musicians says Charley Webb: “On certain nights some of us can be highly moved by a particular song which before has resonated in a different way. It'll be more profound.”

Perhaps because his lyrics reference Christianity and Buddhism, and that consistent thread of Jewishness.

Morris: “He is Jewish not only by name – 'Cohen' easily identifies you -- but when he became a Buddhist he said he didn't have a new religion because he never gave up the old one.”

Morris notes a large number of Jews of Cohen's generation were drawn to Buddhism – particularly austere Zen -- as an antidote to the worst aspects of modernity. But texts and practices of Judaism – from '69's Story of Isaac (a Vietnam-era metaphor of one generation sacrificing the next) to Who By Fire and If It Be Your Will later which refer to scripture – always informed Cohen's lyrics, even after his embrace of Buddhism.

“Jews come from a highly intellectual, textual tradition and are drawn to the most austere forms of Buddhism, in Cohen's case Rinzai Zen, sitting practice, and it's an amazing strain – but he claims it has kept him sane.”

In an insane world where your fortune disappears overnight, maybe sitting in silence is a valid response?

Morris notes Cohen – of priestly lineage – last year offered the blessing from the Book of Numbers to an audience in Israel: “May God lift his face to you and grant you peace, may God bless you and guard you, may God cause his face to shine on you and be gracious to you.”

“He also made the priestly sign – which was rather perverted by Leonard Nimoy in Star Trek,” laughs Morris. “It is almost identical, that V sign, and Cohen made that.”

Such personal gestures, as much as the diverse and often deeply mystical content of his songs, add resonance to Cohen's life and work. He reaches people in different, subtle ways.leonard_cohen.jpg

“But you kind of think he always just told the truth.” says Morris. “And given the history of his songs he honed that truth into art. Part of his power is his sheer conviction in saying, 'This is my truth, take it or leave it.'”

Charley Webb says certain songs have different effects on audiences, nowhere more so than during that concert in Israel where Cohen guided the political conversation before and during the performance (to 50,000 in a football stadium) to the cause of the concert, the apolitical Bereaved Families for Peace organisation.

“The backgrounds of the countries we visit have an effect on which songs touch people. In Poland or France The Partisan has a rumbling which becomes a roar of feeling from the crowd, not just vocally but emotionally.

“In Helsinki the crowd was reserved and pensive, slowly taking the concert in. By the end you could hear a pin drop when something was being said by Leonard. Compare that with Sligo in Ireland where the presence for them is his music. People were singing along and dancing in the aisles.”cohen

Hard to believe the former “one-man Joy Division” who now skips on stage, a “refugee from comfort” in an expensive suit, could have people dancing in the aisles.

But Cohen has constantly reinvented and re-explored himself and his music. He, and it, are in for the long haul.

At Mt Baldy, Cohen said to Pico Iyer, “To me, the kind of thing I like is that you write a song and it slips into the world, and they forget who wrote it.

“And it moves and changes, and you hear it again three hundred years later, some women washing their clothes in the stream, and one of them is humming this tune.”

If that happens with a Cohen song – and it probably will – it'll more likely be Hallelujah than Don't Go Home With Your Hard-On.

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