We live in an age where the first generation of pioneers of what could be loosely called popular music or rock and roll are lauded as gods and icons. Thus, the likes
of Bob Dylan are given exhaustive retrospective TV
documentaries and Johnny Cash is bestowed with
the ultimate American honour: a Hollywood movie on his life.
This is as it should be but whatabout Leonard Cohen?
His contribution to music is certainly
on a par to that of Dylan's, for example; indeed,
such is his influence on other singers that over a 1000 covers of his work have been recorded. But more importantly, no-one, but no-one, possesses
his 'golden voice' which once heard will never be forgetten by friend and foe alike.
Ah, the voice. Yes, Cohen is a renaissance man.
Gifted songwriter, poet, novelist, performer,
a man with an intellect capable of describing man's deepest fears and
sorrow ... but it's that voice which expresses
the aforementioned intellect in so compelling a way
and breathes life into his songwriting.
What a voice! How could anyone have a voice like that,
or how could anyone get his voice to sound like that,
as, surely, a ballerina must train hundreds of hours
for a certain routine, Cohen must
have smoked 60 cigarettes a day for years to get it that gruff! But boy, every last drag on every last cigarette was worth it!
To experience the voice at its
best you would have had to see him live.
Sure the CDs are great and his body of work
(especially, for me, from the mid-80s to early-90s)
is second to none. But it doesn't prepare you for
the majesty of his voice when you hear it live
for the first time. I saw him in the early-90s
in concert in the beautiful splendour of the
Royal Albert Hall in London.
The sumptuous surroundings certainly
befitted so great a performer.
But beyond the sheer pleasure of seeing the
guy going through his back catalogue, the voice is what stayed with me, and, I suspect, the rest of the audience. Every low-pitched speaking-singing utterance
he made that night lived on in me as his lyrics and the way he expressed them, seemed
the words of the wisest, oldest sage, who knew not only of the despair of life that would be in front of me, behind me and beyond me, but also the joy of life that was hand-in-hand with that despair. A zen thing, I suppose, but then again it isn't.
The highlight of that concert and the moment the crowd went
wild was during the song Tower of Song,
where Cohen, probably ironically but then probaly not, uttered:
I was born like this
I had no choice
I was born with the gift of a golden voice
That night Cohen was in top form. Nudging 60, I wondered whether that would be his last tour and that would be the one and only time I would see him live.
He was touring to promote the album The Future (1992) and as he was well known for working and recording soooo slowly (by that stage you were lucky if you got a new album every four or five years), I knew I would be in for a long, maybe hopeless, wait at the very least.
So I waited. And waited. A live album was
released but it seemed inadequate compensation.
Where was the new material? Then I found out that
after the tour Cohen had retreated to the
Mount Baldy Zen Center, near Los Angeles,
to train as a Rinzai Zen Buddhist monk. Then it went quite
again until 1999 when he left the seclusion of the center.
Two albums followed, Ten New Songs
in 2001, and Dear Heather in 2004,
a colloboration with his current partner Anjani Thomas. A new album is pencilled in for release in 2006 as well as a new book of poetry and drawings
(Book of Longing). Oh, and a tour is in the offing.
So why all the sudden activity? Well, money, or lack of it,
is behind the comeback. Cohen
thought that he had $5 million in his
retirement fund. That $5 million turned out to be $150,000
so Cohen has had to file suit against his
then manager of 14 years and on-off again
partner Kelley Lynch for gross misappropriation of funds. Unsurprisingly, Cohen was under new manangement by 2005.
The case has all got extremely messy and nasty. Cohen
is in turn being sued by other former
business associates. There is talk of Lynch
needing money to fund a gigolo;
of a Los Angeles Police Department SWAT Team
descending on Lynch's home and
arresting her in her bathing suit; of Lynch
being involuntarily admitted to a psych ward and drugged.
Lynch, in turn, has suggested that it was
Cohen's own lavish spending that was the problem. Looking from the outside I would think this improbable as Cohen
had spent five years (1994-99) at Mount Baldy Zen Center
and I wouldn't have thought Cohen could have committed lavish spending in that environment even if he had wanted to! Furthermore, one of the
business associates suing Cohen, Neal Greenberg,
suggests that Cohen and his attorney, Robert Kory,
had conspired to falsely blame him for Cohen's financial woes and had threatened to use Cohen's celebrity to extort money from Greenberg.
Come on! Cohen the guy who lived for five years as a Buddhist monk threatening extortion!!! Well, to me, it sounds far-fetched to say the least.
But whoever is right one wonders how much of his money
Cohen will see even if he wins the case. It does seem heartbreaking that a guy who is now 71
has to go through this and who may not even see the financial rewards that at the end of the day are his due. When you hear he has had to re-mortgage his home to fund the suit you
begin to wonder about the very people around him who were responsible for looking after him.
The deal does seem rotten.
Cohen once said: "I didn't want to write for pay. I wanted to be paid for what I write." I just hope that he isn't now inverting this, that the new work is a result of a need of money and the result of that alone. I can't say I'm a big fan of the new work though I hope it grows on me as his work has done in the past.
To me, at the end of the day just a fan, the biggest crime this case could commit would be if it were responsible for Cohen releasing sub-standard work.
His legacy deserves better.
© Paul Page - February 2006
Leonard Cohen was born on the September 21, 1934 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada into a Jewish middle-class family. His father owned a big Montreal clothing store and his childhood was spent in Montreal. When he was nine his father died.
As a teenager he formed a country-folk group called the Buckskin
Boys. His father's will left him a modest trust income which meant
that Cohen was fortunate enough to
be able to pursue any artistic ambitions
with the safety new of that income; something most of us can only dream of ever having.
In the 1950s, he pursued a career as a poet.
His first book of poetry, Let Us Compare Mythologies
was published in 1956 and the follow-up, The Spice-Box of Earth, in 1961.
After a move to the Greek island of Hydra, he published
the poetry collection Flowers for Hitler
in 1964. He also wrote two novels, The Favourite Game
and Beautiful Losers in 1966.
By 1967, he had re-located to New York
to work as a folk singer-songwriter. Judy Collins
had a hit with his song, Suzanne, and he was soon
signed to Columbia Records.
He released his first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, that
year, followed by Songs from a Room in 1969 and
New Skin for the Old Ceremony in 1974.
Death of a Ladies' Man was released in 1977
and the following year he released a
further book of poetry, Death of a Lady's Man. Phil Spector
produced the album and his elaborate 'wall of sound'
technique hardly suited Cohen's minimal technique.
The recording was, er, fraught, to say the least,
if you can call having a gun pointed at you as Cohen
suggests Spector did on him, fraught! The album is generaly
considered by Cohen's fans to be his weakest.
He returned to some kind of form with his next release, Recent Songs.
But it was really the follow-up, Various Positions (1984), which cemented his reputation in Europe especially. Columbia declined to release
it in the US where interest in Cohen's music seemed to be on the decline. It was a haunting album and, I for one, thought he had reached the pinnacle of his career.
I was wrong. Various Positions turned out to be just the
precursor. 1988's I'm Your Man release was Cohen
at his best. It was critically acclaimed
and did well commercially. It was even released
in the US where Jennifer Warnes had released a
Cohen tribute album, Famous Blue Raincoat,
the year before and that had help revive his career there.
I'm Your Man was followed by The Future in 1992.
The Future was a good album but
not in the same class as I'm Your Man.
Thereafter, Cohen retreated to the
Mount Baldy Zen Center near Los Angeles.
Cohen has never married. From his relationship with artist
Suzanne Elrod, he fathered two children: Adam,
born in 1972 and a daughter, Lorca, born in 1974.
The song So Long, Marianne is about his relationship with
Marianne Jensen which occured in the 60s when he lived in Hydra.
Around the time of the release of the album The Future
(1992), he was romantically involved with the much
younger actress, Rebecca De Mornay. I recall her, maybe wrongly, as executive producer on the album, though what executive producer actually means is anyone's guess.
He is currently involved with Anjani Thomas.
Cohen lives in Los Angeles.