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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)

Watching Cohen get dressed, Johnston felt a pulsating fear thudding inside him. He peeked out of the trailer and saw Kristofferson, Joan Baez, and Judy Collins lounging backstage, waiting for their friend to play his set. Cohen, Johnston thought, was nowhere near as tough as Kristofferson, not as determined as Baez, not as well-respected as Collins, and if the three of them were pelted with bottles and booed off stage, what chance did Cohen have? He was 36, nearly a decade older than most of the other performers. With a black T-shirt and a safari jacket, unshaved and unkempt, he looked more like Jim Morrison’s accountant than his peer. He took the stage. It was 2:00 in the morning. His face was blank.

“Greetings,” Cohen said into the microphone, “greetings.” His tone was casual, his voice soft. He continued. “When I was 7 years old,” he said in that same mellow way, “my father used to take me to the circus. He had a black mustache, and a great vest, and a pansy in his lapel, and he liked the circus better than I did.”

Sitting a few feet behind Cohen, Charlie Daniels, a young fiddler Bob Johnston had brought along from Nashville, was amused. Years later, recalling how he felt at that moment, he said he just couldn’t believe Cohen was trying to tell 600,000 people a goddamned bedtime story. But in a near-monotone, Cohen continued.

“There was one thing at the circus that happened that I always used to wait for,” he said. “I don’t want to impose on you, this isn’t like a sing-along … but there was one moment when a man would stand up and say, would everybody light a match so we can locate one another? And could I ask you each person to light a match, so that I could see where you all are? Could each of you light a match, so that you’ll sparkle like fireflies, each at your different heights? I would love to see those matches flare.”

The audience obeyed. For five days, the men and women on stage—organizers, artists, or anarchists—were talking at them. Cohen was talking to them. He seemed like one of them. He seemed to care. Slowly, they took out matchbooks and lighters, and instead of setting things on fire they waved their arms in the air, emitting heat and light. Cohen smiled. “Oh, yeah!” he said softly. “Oh, yeah. Now I know that you know why you’re lighting them.” He strummed a few chords on the guitar and continued his speech, half-singing. “It’s good to be here alone in front of 600,000 people. It’s a large nation but it’s still weak. Still very weak. It needs to get a lot stronger before it can claim a right to land.”

These were heavy words for 2:00 in the morning, but they seemed to permeate. Cohen wasn’t just telling the audience to stop rioting; he was about to give them an alternative. Playing as slowly as he could, Cohen began with one of his most famous songs: “Like … a … bird … on … a … wire …” Whoever was still standing now sat down on the grass and listened.

When the song ended, the audience clapped. Not thunderously, but still. A handful, still hopped up on the adrenaline of the afternoon, booed, but they were soon subdued. The 600,000 wanted to hear what Cohen had to say.

What he had to say was poetry. He had started out as a poet, and his first public performances consisted of reciting verse in smoky, small Montreal coffee houses. He might as well have been in one when he stared into the distance in the way that poets sometimes do when they’re reading out loud and began his soliloquy.

“I wrote this in a peeling room in the Chelsea Hotel, before I was rich and famous and they gave me well-painted rooms,” he said. “I was coming off of amphetamines, and I was pursuing a blonde lady whom I met in a Nazi poster. And I was doing many things to attract her attention. I was lighting wax candles in the form of men and women. I was marrying the smoke of two cones of sandalwood.” Then, he started playing another of his songs, “One of Us Cannot Be Wrong.”

To Murray Lerner, a middle-aged filmmaker from New York whose camera crews had documented every moment of the festival, the effect was hypnotic. Throughout five days of performances, he’d been too busy shouting out orders to stop and listen to the music. But Cohen’s words made him put down his camera and look up at the man on stage. Two hours earlier, Lerner was packing up his equipment, certain that the fires and the violence would lead to a massive stampede. He was ready to run for shelter. But now everything was still, and Lerner had no idea how Leonard Cohen had pulled it off. Standing beside Lerner, Joan Baez was equally baffled. “People say that a song needs to make sense,” she told the filmmaker. “Leonard proves otherwise. It doesn’t necessarily make sense at all, it just comes from so deep inside of him, it somehow touches deep down inside other people. I’m not sure how it works, but I know that it works.” Lerner nodded in agreement as he listened. It reminded him of something he’d once read T.S. Eliot say of Dante—that the genius of poetry was that it communicated before it was understood.

On stage, Cohen was done with the ephemera. He was smiling. He turned to his band mates frequently now, nodding his head encouragingly or saying a kind word or two. In his confidence, he decided it was time to speak honestly. He played a few basic chords and delivered a short speech-song.

“They gave me some money, for my sad and famous song,” he sang. “They said the crowd is waiting, hurry up or they’ll be gone. But I could not change my style, and I guess I never will. So I sing this for the poison snakes on Devastation Hill.” And then came a noisy, joyous rendition of “Diamonds in the Mine,” with Charlie Daniels singeing the strings and Bob Johnston, playing piano, pounding happily on the keys.

“He’s taking them on,” said Kristofferson, standing a few feet away with Lerner and Baez. “He’s taking the fuckers right on.”

Cohen was. He renamed Desolation Hill “Devastation Hill,” and called its occupants poison snakes. As he did, however, the poison snakes—the ones who crawled in through the mud or slung themselves at the fences, the ones who slithered on to the stage to spit out venomous messages, the ones who set the evil fires—they just huddled together and listened. Kristofferson felt something like elation. He clapped along madly.

It was nearly 4:00 in the morning by the time Cohen was ready to end his set. He had played all of his hits and launched into a few more bits of poetry. Someone in the crowd screamed a request, asking Cohen to sing “Seems So Long Ago, Nancy.” Cohen signaled to his band that he’d like to play that one by himself. “It was in 1961,” he introduced the woman about whom the song was written. “She went into the bathroom and blew her head off with her brother’s shotgun.” He pointed at the audience, now lying down, cuddled on top of each other on the grass. “In those days,” he continued, “there wasn’t that kind of horizontal support. She was right where you are now but there was no one else around to light their matches.” He played the song, and when he was finished he put down his guitar.

“I know it’s been cold, and I know it’s been damp,” he said. “I know you’ve been sick all night long. But let’s renew ourselves now. Let’s renew ourselves now. Let’s renew ourselves now. Goodnight.” And off the stage he went. It’s so good to have him back.

Liel Leibovitz is at work on a book about Leonard Cohen, to be published next year by W.W. Norton.

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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.

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