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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.

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Leonard Cohen. (Margarita Korol)

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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It is so good to have more of Leonard Cohen:
Listen to
Think about
Feel his spirit
See his sweet smile

bette tiago says:

Beautifully written, evocative tale of a moment in history, a poet,
the strength of speaking from your soul, your self, TO, not AT, an audience.
How do you calm the violence of a mob? What power the power of integrity and sense of self? What power the ability to convey your ‘knowing’ that every human being has a place where s/he can be ‘reached.’ How many Leonard Cohens are out there? Who is the Leonard Cohen of this generation?

This article evokes more of Leonard Cohen than anything I’ve ever read. Thank you, Liel. I look forward to reading your book.

carter bise says:

Thank you for a lovely interlude for a long day. I am 58. “St. Leonard” has long spoken to my soul. I am also happy that my son now listens as well.

I’ve been waiting for this piece of writing to arrive. Wonderful Liel!

This is the story of a great teacher.

Iconoclast Leonard Cohen has always had a solid following drawn to his brilliant poetry. I named one of the best paintings of my career “I Came So Far for Beauty.” When I was asked to pose for a portrait of Joan of Arc, whose swollen appetite never resonated for me, I agreed because the artist was a kindred Leonard Cohen fan. Listeners discomfited by Cohen’s singing voice should find Jennifer Warnes gorgeous album of Cohen songs “Famous Blue Raincoat.” They might well convert and become a “Cohen by Choice.”

If the illustration that accompanies Liel Leibovitz’s review of Leonard Cohen’s new album is typical of her work, I’d more than welcome seeing additional graphics of any type by Margarita Korol. Just stunning…

Bill in AZ says:

Wonderful piece…thanks for it.

I only got to see him once but I still remember his introduction to “Sisters of Mercy”. In telling how the song cams about he started with…”I’d just been asked to leave this Chinese restaurant…”

I don’t find Leonard Cohen’s music iconoclastic. I find it realistic.

Odin Alfather says:


There have been many Messiah’s over the years, each one unable to fulfill the prophetic requirements needed to fit the profile.

I say, change the requirements to fit the Messiah.

(1) We all know that every religious scripture has been manipulated over the years by the hand of man, regardless of implied spiritual influence. So, change scripture.

(2) What the world needs at this very moment is a redeemer, a savior who will stop the madness that is developing around the world as we speak.

(3) This leader will need followers from around the world, willing to stand behind the Messianic Government and its leadership.

4) This leader will need people like you and me, who see change coming, which no man has been able to enact to date.

(5) If you want a free world, a world without secrets or borders, wars or famines, poverty or corruption, illness, or lack of anything to sustain a standard of living, you need me.

(6) I am prepared to accept all people into the Messianic Government, as members and shareholders of this world class corporation.

(7) Membership will include: (a) “Indefinite – Lifetime Passport” for entry to all countries, to live and work where you chose, without immigration issues.

(7), (b) Being an advocate for the Messianic Government, and influencing people worldwide for the betterment of all.

(8) If you truly want change, you must change yourself and become one with all. Become one with the Messianic Government.

(9) To voice your opinion, leave comment on U-tube. For contact, via e-mail:

Tkorin says:

Thanks God for Leonard Cohen and thanks for this beautiful story about him

Thank you for writing about Cohen. My favorite song: “A Thousand Kisses Deep”. My take on his poetry: Cohen mixes religious imagery with sex, drugs to create urban epiphanies. His voice and his bass line are hypnotic.

Ahh, what wonderful warm glowing nostalgia by Leil about the hippies.

The article really speaks for itself.

Reminds me of the present day “Occupiers.” Thank G-d it is just a few of them now, instead of hundreds of thousands of unbelievably self absorbed baby boomer immature spoiled little children.

Leil, you could not have summed up better (atlhough accidentally I am sure) the grotesque excesses of that cohort group. They have all grown up now…and given us every social ill we suffer to this day.

I hate hippies.

Ann arbor says:

Lovely, nostalgic, true. I wish I had written this article.

Thanks Liel, you do Leonard proud. I was at one of the concerts on his recent tour. His generosity and grace were matched by his soaring artistry. His humility, his respect and love for his band members, for the audience, for music and language were breathtaking. Thank you for this amazing story of LC at 36.

I saw Cohen here in Helsinki a couple of years ago with my wife a couple of years ago before she died. Cohen has the alien power to grasp life through the same hall of twisted beautiful mirrors that comes with Lewis Carroll and his wild fantasies and it is beautiful and horrifying and astonishing and mysterious and very real. A great piece of writing.

Thank you for sharing this illuminating, satisfying, and detailed article on this grandmaster of poetry and memorable music.

This article reads like a made-for-TV movie.

annie morgan says:

Long before he set his work to music, he made the music with his words.

Enjoyed the Isle of Wight story. No use overhyping Cohen though, he was always a peripheral participant in pop music. For every good song he recorded he wrote 20 dogs. You kept hoping for another Suzanne or Bird on a Wire, but the waits were very long

george says:

Drug-fueled paranoia and neuroses channeled into music. Cohen made it work for him. Nice work if you like a steady diet of downer songs.

Fantastic article about Leonard Cohen who is, YES…. a brilliant poet. Many thanks.

wonderful piece, thank you Liel.

Maybe I’m dreaming, but as far as I recall it was Jennifer Warnes’ Famous Blue Raincoat in 1990 that showed the world what a great song writer Leonard Cohen is. Until her recording, a lot of people couldn’t seem to get past his voice to the words.

Graham Combs says:

Fine piece. In the 70s I used to drive up to Toronto from Detroit to buy the Canadian editions of Mr. Cohen’s lps. The first 3 are nothing short of classics. I may not share his politics or his religion (Buddhist Judaism?) but evoked something if inexpressible for me. His sly Catholic references were a guilty pleasure for this Catholic. But the article does explain why I never enjoyed “festivals.”

beejeez says:

Wonderful story. YouTube has some of the footage from that show, and it’s worth checking out.

I’m sure the many artists who’ve covered Leonard Cohen’s songs think they’re doing him, the world and listeners a favor. But I feel sorry for people who don’t see how his voice illuminates their dark corners better those of his well-intentioned admirers, however stronger and more polished their voices are.

Wow. Well told.

I yield to no-one in my love for Cohen’s music, lyrics and respect for his audience. So I am sure he did a good show at the Isle of Wight. However, Mr Leibovitz favours a rather lurid tone. While any rock festival has its moments, this festival was not quite the eye of destruction he portrays.

From Wikipedia (don’t make that face!):

Chief Constable, Hampshire Constabulary, Douglas Osman emphasised the peaceful nature of the event in his evidence given to the Stevenson Report, 1971, (submitted to parliament as evidence in favour of future Isle of Festivals) “. . . By the end of the festival the press representatives became almost desperate for material and they seemed a little disappointed that the patrons had been so well behaved.”

Back to me. If you want to find a zone where things go too far, don’t go to the Isle of Wight. Just go to Cohen’s lyrics. Blake was thinking of Cohen when he wrote “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”

Connie says:

I feel as though I have wasted so much time – not knowing the gifts of Leonard Cohen – and, like him, I am not getting any younger but this journey has allowed me to discover so much. I am praying for his good health and a generous (heaping helping) portion of joyful peace topped with outrageously contagious laughter!! and the next time you see him, please give him a big hug for me.

Susie Desmond says:

I respect Leonard. I love most of his thoughts and his poetry. I ordered the new album without previewing it. I listened once. I felt so depressed. I understand facing the end of life because I am near to that as well. Over and over I heard his dirge on each selection. It only made me sad. Very sad. Too sad to listen often as I do to his earlier work. Take care Leonard! Love you lots. Each day is a gift.

It was a quieter and more peaceful crowd at the Isle of Wight, from where I saw that festival in the centre of the crowd, though the mythology has come to tell otherwise in the intervening years. I remember Leonard, looking slightly bemused as we called him back for his 4th encore, and saying, “Well, I guess it’s good music to make love to.”

It was. It still is.

Shirley Herbert says:

What a beautiful, well-written tribute to the magic of Leonard Cohen and how moving the description of how he mesmerized an angry crowd on the Island of Wight back in 1970. I eagerly await Leibovitz’ book on Cohen after being given the disappointing unproof-read 2010 bio by Anthony Reynolds.

Miha Ahronovitz says:

” like Jews he believed that salvation was nothing more than a lot of hard work and a small but sustainable reward”

That is “parnasah”. This is ‘Yiraat shamaim” and it is the most satisfactory retribution from Gd

There’s a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
All set with my tickets for 12/18…MSG. Have 2 left, anyone interested???


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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.