St. Leonard’s Passion
Leonard Cohen releases his 12th album, Old Ideas. The troubadour and poet hasn’t always been popular, but he is always profound.
Leonard Cohen releases his 12th studio album, the profoundly moving Old Ideas, today. None of his records has ever cracked the top 50, and his last album, 2004’s Dear Heather, peaked at No. 131 on the Billboard charts. Those few of his songs that are well-known—particularly the ubiquitous “Hallelujah”—are well-known for being covered by other musicians. He is 77 years old, and his peers are either nostalgia acts or four decades dead, icons of a church that’s fallen into sad disrepair.
But not Cohen: He’s featured on the album’s cover, dressed in a suit and a tie, donning his trademark fedora and wearing dark shades, sitting on a blue wooden chair in a Los Angeles backyard, grinning slightly, and reading a book. It’s a fitting pose for the man he’s become, the kind and pensive dispenser of profound truths who earns in acclaim what he lacks in raw popularity; he’s the only entertainer around who looks as natural receiving Spain’s top literary award from Prince Felipe as he does sharing the dais with Madonna and John Mellencamp at the 2008 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony that honored all three. Even that almanac of cool, the Financial Times, recently saw fit to lionize St. Leonard, calling him “a sage for the post-crisis age.”
It wasn’t a role he was preordained to play. Throughout his life, it often seemed as if Cohen’s greatest talent was for falling out of step. In 1965, when Dylan plugged in and Jim Morrison spent the summer subsisting on LSD and baked beans and forming the Doors, Cohen, then still a poet, appeared on Canadian TV. “I wake up every morning and check if I am in a state of grace,” he told a television crew. “If not, I go back to bed.” He was in his mid-thirties when he first stepped out on stage with a guitar, an experience so traumatic that he fled after a few bars and only came back when Judy Collins, his friend and patron, soothed him and accompanied him back into the limelight. When his career finally took off, mainly in Europe, he realized that the musical milieu with which he most firmly belonged, the singer-songwriters, was rapidly becoming passé. Young fans now wanted their music loud and spirited; Cohen’s was sad and soulful.
Many also found it depressing. In one of his songs, “Field Commander Cohen,” he poked fun at his public image, calling himself “the patron saint of envy/ and the grocer of despair.” An attempt to market him as a mainstream singer led to a collaboration with Phil Spector that ended with Spector holding a gun to Cohen’s head, hijacking the master tape, and releasing his version without Cohen’s consent. Spector’s arrangements took Cohen’s music from folk to funk; the singer, enraged, called the album “a catastrophe,” and the public and the critics agreed. This was in 1977; Cohen released another album, the largely forgotten Recent Songs, two years later, but by 1984 he felt ready for a breakthrough. He submitted nine new songs to his label, Columbia Records, including “Dance Me to the End of Love,” “If It Be Your Will,” and a biblically themed anthem he had hoped would catch on, “Hallelujah.” The label’s boss, the notoriously abrasive Walter Yetnikoff, listened to the tracks, took a long look at his 50-year-old artist, and said, “Look, Leonard, we know you’re great, but we don’t know if you’re any good.” He seemed to be speaking for the music industry in general; the album was shelved and eventually picked up by a much smaller label.
How, then, to explain Leonard Cohen’s unlikely third act, and the accolades he now enjoys from the same people who had once dismissed him as too grim for public consumption? Working on a book about Cohen, I asked myself this question frequently, and the best answer I found is right there in the title of his new album, Old Ideas. Although he’s rightfully celebrated for his grace with notes and his dexterity with lyrics, his ideas are the true engine of Cohen’s survival. In a pursuit like rock ’n’ roll, which is entirely devoted to redemption, Cohen’s ideas were not only old but radical. His peers all insisted that salvation was at hand. To go to a Doors concert was to stare at the lithe messiah undressing on stage and believe that it was entirely possible to break on through to the other side. To see Cohen play was to gawk at an aging Jew telling you that life was hard and laced with sorrow but that if we love each other and fuck one another and have the mad courage to laugh even when the sun is clearly setting, we’ll be just all right. To borrow a metaphor from a field never too far from Cohen’s heart, theology, Morrison, Hendrix, Joplin, and the rest were all good Christians, and they set themselves up as the redeemers who had to die for the sins of their fans. Cohen was a Jew, and like Jews he believed that salvation was nothing more than a lot of hard work and a small but sustainable reward.
The Jewish messiah, it turned out, was a gaunt poet with a guitar who promised not to whisk us away to some other, better world but to teach us how to come to terms with this one. Cohen’s peers all generated heat, but it was Cohen we’d always turned to for light, sometimes literally, like in the summer of 1970, in the English Isle of Wight, the former home of Queen Victoria and Alfred Lord Tennyson, and a favored retirement spot for naval officers and other assorted Empire types. The island, with its salt-stricken limestone cliffs, looks like the footprint of some enormous animal long extinct, and a few cool cats from London thought the primordial spot could be the British equivalent of Yasgur’s farm. They obtained the necessary permissions and invited the usual suspects. One day, late in August, they arrived: Hendrix and the Doors, Joni Mitchell and Miles Davis, Jethro Tull and the Who all set up in trailers just behind the enormous makeshift stage and awaited their turn to play.
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