Singing the blues

Som­bre prophet, mor­dant wise­cracker, repentant cad: Leonard Co­hen re­turns with a great new al­bum, Ol­dideas, and more wit and wis­dom.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - MUSIC - By DO­RIAN LYNSKEY Ol­dideas,

ON Leonard Co­hen’s gru­elling 1972 world tour, cap­tured in Tony Palmer’s doc­u­men­tary Bird On A Wire, an in­ter­viewer asked the singer to de­fine suc­cess. Co­hen, who at 37 knew a bit about fail­ure and the kind of ac­claim that doesn’t pay the bills, frowned at the ques­tion and replied: “Suc­cess is sur­vival.”

By that reck­on­ing, Co­hen has been far more of a suc­cess than he could have pre­dicted. There have been re­ver­sals of for­tune along the way, but 40 years later he en­ters an or­nate room in Paris’s fa­bled Cril­lon Ho­tel to a warm breeze of ap­plause.

Look­ing like a grand­fa­therly mob­ster, he doffs his hat and smiles gra­ciously, just as he did ev­ery night of the 2008-10 world tour that rep­re­sented a mirac­u­lous creative re­vival.

The prickly, sat­ur­nine, dan­ger­ously funny char­ac­ter wit­nessed in Bird On A Wire, has found a mea­sure of calm and, as he of­ten puts it, grat­i­tude.

These days, Co­hen ra­tions his one-on-one in­ter­views with the ut­most aus­ter­ity, hence this press con­fer­ence to pro­mote his 12th al­bum, Old Ideas, a char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally in­ti­mate re­flec­tion on love, death, suf­fer­ing and for­give­ness.

Af­ter the play­back he an­swers ques­tions. He was al­ways fun­nier than he was given credit for; now he has honed his dead­pan to such per­fec­tion that ev­ery ques­tioner be­comes the straight man in a dou­ble act.

Clau­dia from Por­tu­gal wants him to ex­plain the hu­mour be­hind his im­age as a lady’s man.

“Well, for me to be a lady’s man at this point re­quires a great deal of hu­mour,” he replies. Steve from Den­mark won­ders what Co­hen will be in his next life.

“I don’t re­ally un­der­stand that process called rein­car­na­tion, but if there is such a thing I’d like to come back as my daugh­ter’s dog.”

Erik, also from Den­mark, asks if he has come to terms with death.

“I’ve come to the con­clu­sion, re­luc­tantly, that I am go­ing to die,” he re­sponds.

“So nat­u­rally, those ques­tions arise and are ad­dressed. But, you know, I like to do it with a beat.”

Co­hen falls into the odd cat­e­gory of un­der­rated leg­end. To his fans, in­clud­ing many song­writ­ers, he is about as good as it gets, but he has never en­joyed a hit sin­gle or (out­side of his na­tive Canada and, for some rea­son, Nor­way) a plat­inum al­bum.

He has said that a cer­tain im­age of him has been “put into the com­puter”: the wom­an­is­ing poet who sings songs of “melan­choly and de­spair” en­joyed by those who wish they could be (or be with) wom­an­is­ing po­ets, too.

These days the data­base will note that he wrote Hal­lelu­jah, a ne­glected song on a flop al­bum that, via an un­likely al­liance of Jeff Buck­ley, Shrek and The X Fac­tor, even­tu­ally be­came a kind of mod­ern hymn.

Its cre­ator was born in Mon­treal on Sept 21, 1934, three months be­fore Elvis Pres­ley.

When he first shopped his songs around New York, the ones that be­came 1967’s Songs Of Leonard Co­hen, agents re­sponded: “Aren’t you a lit­tle old for this game?”

By then he had al­ready lost his fa­ther while very young, met Jack Ker­ouac, lived in a bo­hemian idyll on the Greek is­land of Hy­dra, vis­ited Cuba dur­ing the Bay of Pigs in­va­sion, and pub­lished two ac­claimed nov­els and four vol­umes of po­etry.

In short, he had lived, and this gave his elab­o­rate, enig­matic songs a grave au­thor­ity to younger lis­ten­ers, who sensed that he was privy to mys­ter­ies that they could only guess at.

He was nei­ther the best singer, the best mu­si­cian nor the best-look­ing man around, but he had the charisma and the words, and the eroti­cised in­tel­li­gence.

Per­haps be­cause his style owed more to French chan­son­niers and Jewish can­tors than Amer­i­can folk, he was al­ways more loved in Europe than North Amer­ica. An early write-up in folk gazette Sing Out! re­marked: “No com­par­i­son can be drawn be­tween Leonard Co­hen and any other phe­nom­e­non.”

Two nights af­ter the Paris play­back, Co­hen ap­pears at one in London, hosted by Jarvis Cocker. A fan since ado­les­cence, Cocker keeps run­ning up against Co­hen’s re­luc­tance to delve too deeply into the “sa­cred me­chan­ics” of song­writ­ing, lest they stop work­ing. Songs come painfully slowly to him and when he has a good idea he per­se­veres with it: Hal­lelu­jah took around two years and 80 po­ten­tial verses.

Dur­ing the play­back, a screen shows pages from his note­books, full of scrib­bled amend­ments and dis­carded verses.

“There are peo­ple who work out of a sense of great abun­dance,” he says.

“I’d love to be one of them but I’m not. You just work with what you’ve got.”

Co­hen’s mod­est star be­gan to wane with 1977’s rau­cous Death Of A Ladies’ Man. In the stu­dio a crazed Phil Spector held a gun to Co­hen’s head and the pro­ducer han­dled the songs just as roughly. Columbia Records mogul Wal­ter Yet­nikoff de­clined even to re­lease 1984’s Var­i­ous Po­si­tions (the one with Hal­lelu­jah), re­port­edly ex­plain­ing: “Look, Leonard, we know you’re great, but we don’t know if you’re any good.”

But his next al­bum, I’m Your Man, was both. Armed with syn­the­sis­ers, acrid wit and a voice that now sounded like a seis­mic dis­tur­bance, he was rein­vig­o­rated just in time to en­joy an avalanche of praise from younger ad­mir­ers, in­clud­ing Nick Cave and the Pix­ies. But on songs such as First We Take Man­hat­tan, Ev­ery­body Knows and The Fu­ture, his de­pres­sion took on geopo­lit­i­cal pro­por­tions.

He told jour­nal­ist Mikal Gil­more: “There is no point in try­ing to fore­stall the apoc­a­lypse. The bomb has al­ready gone off.”

In Paris some­one asks him what he thinks about the cur­rent eco­nomic cri­sis and he replies sim­ply: “Ev­ery­body Knows.”

In 1993, resur­gent and wellloved but in a dark frame of mind, Co­hen dis­ap­peared from the public gaze. He spent the next six years in a monastery on Mount Baldy, Cal­i­for­nia, study­ing with his old friend and Zen mas­ter Ky­ozan Joshu Sasaki, whom he calls Roshi and who is now a re­silient 104 years old.

“This old teacher never speaks about re­li­gion,” Co­hen tells the Paris au­di­ence.

“There’s no dogma, there’s no prayer­ful worship, there’s no ad­dress to a de­ity. It’s just a com­mit­ment to liv­ing in a com­mu­nity.”

When he came down from the moun­tain, his life­long de­pres­sion had fi­nally lifted.

“When I speak of de­pres­sion,” he says care­fully, “I speak of a clin­i­cal de­pres­sion that is the back­ground of your en­tire life, a back­ground of an­guish and anx­i­ety, a sense that noth­ing goes well, that plea­sure is un­avail­able and all your strate­gies col­lapse. I’m happy to re­port that, by im­per­cep­ti­ble de­grees and by the grace of good teach­ers and good luck, that de­pres­sion slowly dis­solved and has never re­turned with the same fe­roc­ity that pre­vailed for most of my life.” He thinks it might just be down to old age.

“I read some­where that as you grow older cer­tain brain cells that are as­so­ci­ated with anx­i­ety die, so it doesn’t re­ally mat­ter how much you ap­ply your­self to the dis­ci­plines. You’re go­ing to start feel­ing a lot bet­ter or a lot worse de­pend­ing on the con­di­tion of your neu­rons.”

Can it re­ally be that sim­ple? Can the mood of his clas­sic songs re­ally be ex­plained by un­for­tu­nate brain chem­istry?

He re­cently told his bi­og­ra­pher Sylvie Sim­mons that in ev­ery­thing he did, “I was just try­ing to beat the devil. Just try­ing to get on top of it.”

As well as Ju­daism and Zen Bud­dhism, he briefly flirted with Scien­tol­ogy. He has never mar­ried but has had sev­eral sig­nif­i­cant re­la­tion­ships, in­clud­ing Joni Mitchell, ac­tor Re­becca De Mor­nay and the woman with whom he had two chil­dren in the early 1970s, Suzanne El­rod (no, not that Suzanne). He was a se­ri­ous drinker and smoker, who ex­per­i­mented with dif­fer­ent drugs. On his 1972 tour, as doc­u­mented in Bird On A Wire, he chris­tened his band The Army and they in turn dubbed him Cap­tain Man­drax af­ter his downer of choice.

In that film, he ap­pears frac­tious and ex­hausted; a “bro­ken-down nightingale”, ad­dress­ing au­di­ences with ir­ri­ta­ble hu­mour.

Yet on his come­back tour he looked pro­foundly grate­ful for ev­ery cheer or clap.

“I was touched by the re­cep­tion, yes,” he says.

“I re­mem­ber we were play­ing in Ire­land and the re­cep­tion was so warm that tears came to my eyes and I thought, ‘I can’t be seen weep­ing at this point’, then I turned around and saw the gui­tarist weep­ing.”

The tour was partly trig­gered by fi­nan­cial ne­ces­sity af­ter his busi­ness man­ager si­phoned off al­most all of his sav­ings. Was he reluc­tant to go on the road again? “I don’t know if re­luc­tance is the word, but trep­i­da­tion or ner­vous­ness. We re­hearsed for a long, long time – longer than is rea­son­able. But one is never re­ally cer­tain.”

He hopes to play more con­certs and to re­lease an­other al­bum in a year or so. He is al­ready older than Johnny Cash was when he re­leased his final al­bum; soon he’ll cre­atively out­live Frank Si­na­tra. On the back of one of his note­books he has writ­ten: “Com­ing to the end of the book but not quite yet.” – Guardian News & Me­dia n Leonard Co­hen’s Old Ideas is re­leased by Sony Mu­sic.

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