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.
The audience arrived, too, and at first, they all looked like decent kids. They had long hair and big smiles, and most of them lived on the dole, the generous unemployment payment the British government handed out to anyone who applied. They bought their ticket for three pounds sterling and rushed into the festival’s fenced-in area to catch a good spot on the grass in front of the stage. They swayed dreamily to the progressive rock band Judas Jump and cheered warmly for the California folk singer Kathy Smith and her two-hour-long set of mellow tunes. A clean-shaven Kris Kristofferson was there, too, but the sound system stuttered, and his set was soon inaudible. The crowd was kind, protesting mildly, clapping when appropriate. The organizers apologized profusely, promising Kristofferson he could play a second set in a day or two. On its first day, the festival looked like it would live up to expectations and become England’s Woodstock.
And then came the troublemakers.
They were there on command, dispatched by a militia of pranksters that called themselves the White Panthers and saw the festival, with its order and neatness and paid admission, as the triumph of oppressive capitalism over the rowdy spirit of the 1960s. They were determined to make the festival their Alamo; they would fight to the end for music’s right to be free.
The festival’s campground, with its makeshift fences and rows of wooden commodes, was designed with a maximum of 200,000 concert-goers in mind. The White Panthers spread the word in London and elsewhere, promising a chance to see rock’s royalty without paying a penny. By the morning of the festival’s second day, its organizers began to notice rows of unpaying spectators gathering on the hill just outside the campground, overlooking the stage; it was named, after Dylan’s anthem to chaos and disillusion, Desolation Hill. By noontime, the throngs on Desolation Hill numbered in the tens of thousands. By nightfall, they made their way downhill toward the fences, demanding to be let in.
In the spirit of peace, love, and understanding, the organizers tried to catch their bees with honey and hired a few dozen men they reckoned were the freeloaders’ ringleaders to mend and paint the campground’s fences, battered by the invaders from Desolation Hill. The following morning, the organizers woke up and realized what they had done: In bright colors, in big letters, were slogans and symbols, covering every inch of the fence. Entrance is everywhere. Don’t buy. Fuck the guards. Commune Free. The organizers’ names next to swastikas. The festival was in free fall. By midday, there were half a million souls surrounding the stage.
Or storming it. Joni Mitchell took the stage around noon, and she barely finished her third song when a shirtless gentleman leaped on stage, wrested the microphone away from the stunned singer, introduced himself as Yogi Joe, and began his speech.
“Power to the people, motherfuckers!” he shouted. “I’ve been to Woodstock, and I dug it very much. I’ve been to about 10 fucking festivals, and I love music. I just think one thing: This festival business is becoming a psychedelic concentration camp, where people are being exploited! And there’s enough of that! What is all that peace and love shit when you have police dogs out there! What about that? That reminds me of a lot of bad things, you know? I don’t like police dogs!”
Security guards leapt on stage and seized Yogi Joe. Mitchell looked shocked. “Listen a minute, will you?” she pleaded. “Now listen! A lot of people who get up here and sing, I know it’s fun, it’s a lot of fun, it’s fun for me, I get my feelings off through my music, but listen, you got your life wrapped up in it, and it’s very difficult to come out here and lay something down when people … .”She was greeted by thunderous boos.
Backstage, the organizers were panicking. Less than 10 percent of those in attendance paid for their tickets. At this rate, there would be no way to recover expenses and pay the artists. Even worse, the crowd was getting unruly: With all the trashcans overflowing and all the toilets clogged, they started hurling rubbish at the stage. Kris Kristofferson was the first hit. Immediately after taking the stage for his promised repeat performance, a bottle came whirring by, hitting him in the shoulder. He stopped for a moment, then started again. Some cans rained down on his band. And the shouting. And the smell of burning garbage. “We’re going to do two more in spite of everything except rifle fire,” Kristofferson said, not trying to hide the disdain in his voice. “I think they’re going to shoot us.” He decided to try his most famous song, “Me and Bobby McGee.” Maybe that would soothe the mob. “Busted flat in Baton Rouge,” he sang, “headin’ for the train, feelin’ nearly faded as my jeans.” By the time he got to the part about freedom being just another word for nothing left to lose, the boos were too loud to ignore. Kristofferson stopped playing, gave the crowd the finger, and stormed off stage. One organizer took the stage, enraged.
“That was Kris Kristofferson,” he said when the music finally died down. “Now, I just want you to hang on one minute. I want you to hear something, and I want you to hear it fucking good! There are some good people out here, and you are insulting their intelligence! And if you come to this country at our invitation, and we have to charge you, through no choice of our own, three pounds, if you don’t want to pay it, don’t fucking well come!”
That only made the Desolation Hill crew angrier. They assailed one artist after another. Sly and the Family Stone tried appealing to reason and failed. Mungo Jerry canceled his set. The Doors insisted that all of the lights be turned off; they played in the dark for nearly two hours, and their sepulchral music, emanating from the black emptiness on stage, drove the mob into a frenzy. The audience wanted to see Jim Morrison, so they tried to burn down the stage.
By the time Jimi Hendrix came on, they succeeded. It was after midnight, and Hendrix was wearing tight orange pants and a pink-and-yellow tie-dye shirt, looking like a flame himself. Something, probably a makeshift Molotov cocktail, had hit the scaffold above his head, and soon it caught on fire. This seemed to amuse Hendrix. He held his Stratocaster guitar as if it were a machine gun, pointed it at the crowd, and fretted fast. The riffs were high-pitched, difficult to take. A few security guards rushed onto the stage to try and put out the fire, and their walkie-talkies interfered with the amplifier’s frequency. The howling of Hendrix’s guitar flickered, sounding otherworldly. In three weeks’ time, the musician—ravaged by stress and sleeping pills—would asphyxiate on his own vomit in the basement of a posh London hotel, but that night on Wight he seemed more exuberant than he’d been in months. He played faster and faster, and anyone in the audience who was in possession of a lighter flicked his thumb on the flint and went searching for something to burn.
Watching the campground catch fire, most artists scrambled for safety and talked feverishly about getting off the island as soon as was possible. Standing not far from the stage, Leonard Cohen turned to Bob Johnston, his producer, and with what Johnston thought was the beginning of a smile said, “Wake me up when it’s time, Bob. I’m going to take a nap over there, by the fire.” A few hours later, one of the festival’s organizers woke him up and asked him to take the stage. Unless someone plays, he said hurriedly, blood will be spilled.
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.
Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.