The second coming: Leonard Cohen's timeless appeal and his resurgence in 2008

Leonard Cohen forsook poetry and novels for songwriting, yet we undermine his fine lyrics in insisting they are poetry. Picture: Evening Standard/Getty Images
Leonard Cohen forsook poetry and novels for songwriting, yet we undermine his fine lyrics in insisting they are poetry. Picture: Evening Standard/Getty Images

LEONARD Cohen returns to Dublin next week to perform two concerts at the O2.

Since 2008, when he resurfaced after a lengthy period of inactivity, he has been a regular visitor to these shores. Cohen’s comeback was inspired by financial worries — his manager had siphoned off his pension fund — but his continued touring cannot surely be motivated by money; he earned more in 2008/09 alone than he had earned in all the years before.

What has kept Cohen on the road is the reception he has had around the world. In 2008, he doubted there would be an audience for a singer/songwriter in his mid-seventies who had foresworn the spotlight for a six-year sojourn as a Buddhist monk. No one seemed more surprised than he by the wave of warmth that greeted him when he ran on stage in Kilmainham in June that year. That wave has not abated since.

Cohen’s songs are timeless. For many years, the single track that defined his oeuvre was ‘Suzanne’, a poetic paean to Suzanne Verdal, the girlfriend of his friend the sculptor Armaud Vaillancourt, who would, in her place by the river in Montreal, bring him “tea and oranges that came all the way from China”. It was typical of Cohen that his best-loved song brought him so little income; he gave up the rights for a pittance in the early days of his career.

The popularity of ‘Suzanne’, though, has been surpassed by that of ‘Hallelujah’. The track first appeared on his 1984 album Various Positions, but languished in obscurity until it was covered by the late Jeff Buckley in 1994. The song gained an extra poignancy on Buckley’s death from drowning, aged just 31, in 1997. It has since been covered by at least 300 artists, but anyone who has been to a Cohen concert will know that he still sings it better than anyone; indeed, his age lends greater authority than ever to its Biblical lyric and imagery.

Cohen’s journey as an artist has been unique. He enjoyed an early career as a poet and novelist, and came relatively late to music; he released his first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, in 1967, when he was already 33, and he did not tour until 1970. Never a prolific songwriter — he famously labours over his lyrics for years — he has released just 12 studio albums in all, including last year’s Old Ideas. Rumour has it he is working on another, but Old Ideas was his first album in eight years, and the next might well be as long in coming.

The years have been kind to Cohen. His immersion in Buddhism coincided with a parting from cigarettes and alcohol, and he seems remarkably fit for a man who turns 80 next year. As a young man, he dressed in suits, and spoke in a kind of learned prose that made him seem older than his years. Now the man has finally caught up with his persona. He is the most elegant and eloquent of interviewees, delivering finely wrought answers to the most inane of questions with a mordant wit.

At a press conference in Paris last year, it required the patience of a saint to put up with the queries being put to him.

One journalist asked what Cohen would be in his next life. “I don’t really understand that process called reincarnation,” he replied, his eyes twinkling, “but if there is such a thing I’d like to come back as my daughter’s dog.”

Another writer asked if he has come to terms with death. “I’ve come to the conclusion, reluctantly, that I am going to die,” he responded. “So naturally those questions arise and are addressed. But, you know, I like to do it with a beat.”

Even in the autumn of his life, Cohen enjoys a reputation as a ladies’ man. In the 1960s, he had a long relationship with Marianne Jenssen Ihlen, for whom he wrote ‘So Long, Marianne’. There was also a dalliance with Janis Joplin, for whom he wrote ‘Chelsea Hotel’.

He has never married, but in the early 1970s he fathered two children, Adam and Lorca, by the Los Angeles artist Suzanne Elrod. He later had long relationships with the French photographer Dominiquee Isserman and the actress Rebecca de Mornay.

Cohen seems surprised by rumours of his prowess as a lover, remarking in one interview that “my reputation as a ladies’ man was a joke that caused me to laugh bitterly through the ten thousand nights I spent alone”.

Cohen’s appearances in Dublin — he performed in the city in 2008, 2009, and 2011 — were all memorable experiences. But more remarkable again were his brace of concerts in Sligo in 2010. There, in the grounds of Lissadell House, he quoted from WB Yeats, the poet he idolised in his youth. Yeats was a regular visitor to the house when it was owned by the Gore-Booths, and is buried nearby, in Drumcliffe.

He quoted the poet:“The light of evening, Lissadell, Great windows open to the south,

Two girls in silk kimonos, both Beautiful, one a gazelle.

“I learned those verses over 50 years ago in my hometown of Montreal, which is covered in snow six months of the year. I never thought my path would lead me here, to be sheltered in the spirit of the master whose lines I’ve just quoted. We’re privileged to be in such an elegant place,” he said.

Cohen’s concerts in Dublin next week may well be his last in this country, but don’t bet on it. He shows no signs at all of slowing down. As long as the adulation keeps coming, he may well keep touring forever.


Leonard Cohen: The Poet of Pathos

By Alan O’Riordan

The wonderful 1965 documentary, Ladies and Gentlemen... Mr Leonard Cohen, opens with the enfant terrible of Canadian letters reading his poetry in a lecture hall. Cohen is like a stand-up, his deadpan pauses making the audience laugh, as he tells of a visit to a friend in a mental hospital: “I asked him, for he was still lucid, ‘Where can I get a coffee?’. He said, ‘Downstairs’. That was one of those famous last words.”

Two hospital security guards mistake Cohen for a patient. A shouting match ensues, and, Cohen gives a suitable impression of a patient, as he protests too much. Eventually, he arrives back to find that the real patient, his friend, has eaten his jacket. It’s hard to see how Cohen’s minimalist verse could follow this act, but it does, and that, after all, is what brought in the crowd.

The film takes us back to a time when poets and avant-garde novelists — Cohen was both — appeared on chat shows to be asked by the war generation why they were so unserious. Cohen was then in Canada, wintering-out on a book tour, as he had done annually before retreating to his house on the Greek island of Hydra to write. It was a good deal — and lucrative too. Cohen made $17,000 in 1964, or $140,000 in today’s money. Yet Cohen grew disappointed with the rewards of even a well-remunerated poet, and he became a singer. It was a career move as inspired as James Joyce’s decision to forsake music for literature.

Because of Cohen’s literary origins, it remains common to call him a poet, and his lyrics poetry. But his lyrics are seen in a most flattering light when considered just that — lyrics. And, as a poet, it is probably fair to say that Cohen’s decision to become a songwriter turned his weaknesses into virtues. Cohen’s early verse is direct and plain, yet reticent. It has not aged particularly well.

Because the lines are so mannered and careful, they feel poetic, but they lack the qualities of great poetry: that sense of satisfying knottiness, of counter-pulling tensions, of language under pressure: “A kite is a victim you are sure of. You love it because it pulls gentle enough to call you master, strong enough to call you fool.”

This kind of thing is fine as it goes, but there is, typically, no drama in it. There is no compression of time, no daring in the rhythm; the words are not forced to do anything above their normal station.

WB Yeats said poetry was the argument we have with ourselves, but there’s never any real sense of argument with Cohen, no sense of interrogation, of finding out and reconciling by the very act of the poem, like Yeats did at his best.

Cohen’s words work best when they are married to his voice. When he sings, on ‘I’m Your Man’, “If you want a lover…. if you want a partner… if you want a boxer…” it doesn’t pall, but gains by its insistence. The song, though slow, builds a momentum that is controlled and effective and, above all, rhythmical, in the way Cohen’s verse on the page seldom is.

When Cohen is this good as a songwriter, why do we ask him to be a poet, too?

Is it the guilt of an unlettered generation? Perhaps. But it may also be because he does what a poet is supposed to do: he makes the mundane mysterious; he elevates common experiences; he sings about sex and relationships and crises of faith, in a way that allows us to feel we have lived more deeply.

Cohen is world-weary, sardonic, yet wry and able to take comforts where he finds them.

How very unlike the Rolling Stones he is.

Cohen is not a great poet — though a good one — and, no, his lyrics are not great poems. But they are special because they flow from a poetic sensibility, from a writer whose own poetry only found its full voice when it came dressed as ‘song’.

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