Leonard Cohen reborn in the U.S.A.
The 74-year-old songwriter is touring America for the first time in 15 years. Why now? He felt the flicker.
Reporting from New York -- Bathed in the indigo light, Leonard Cohen leaned forward like a man eager to feel the wind on his face and, as the crowd at the Beacon Theatre in New York cheered, the 74-year-old singer narrowed his eyes and delivered another one of his unhurried, deep velvet threats:
They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom
For trying to change the system from within
I'm coming now, I'm coming to reward them
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin
Ten nights ago, Cohen performed his first U.S. concert since 1993 at the restored and resplendent Beacon, which instantly became the stuff of legend -- at least in the music circles where Cohen is regarded as one of the great living titans of songwriting. It didn't hurt, either, that the Montreal native arrived backstage with tantalizing mysteries tucked in that guitar case.
This is the man, after all, who in the 1990s walked away from show business to wear monk's robes at a Zen monastery near the resort village of Mount Baldy. Then, after returning to his old fedora, he announced in 2005 that he had been robbed blind by his longtime manager.
Either of those life experiences might have led the poet and troubadour to the Beacon stage with a humorless severity. They did not.
"It's been a long time since I stood on a stage in New York," Cohen told the adoring, star-studded crowd. "I was 60 years old then. Just a kid with a crazy dream . . . "
The marathon concert (almost three hours) at the Beacon was the 99th performance by Cohen and his supple band during their recent tour of the world, but just the beginning of a major return to America. The 28 dates now announced include an April 10 show at the Nokia Theatre (tickets for that show go on sale March 9) and, one week later, a performance in an unexpected setting -- the massive Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. There, the dapper songsmith will share a bill with Paul McCartney, Morrissey and Paul Weller, but also with bands such as the Killers, the Cure and My Bloody Valentine.
The day after the Beacon show, Cohen was clearly pleased with the warm ovations from the night before. His hotel suite at the Warwick Hotel afforded him a view of a Manhattan afternoon that was as crisp as his tailored suit and, when a visitor arrived for an interview, he turned down the twangy country music from his laptop computer and offered a cup of coffee.
"It's been a great trip, man, a lovely time," he said. "Have a seat."
Cohen had a considerable contingent of family and friends at the New York show (as well as recognizable fans such as Harvey Keitel, Rufus Wainwright and Richard Belzer) and he said that "all of us felt a sort of special edge on the night, all of us wanted to do good."
Cohen looks fantastic, trim and graceful, which is worth pointing out not just for reasons of chronological age, but because of the previous night's late labors and the long touring road that led up to it -- beginning in Canada and then going on to Ireland; Bucharest, Romania; and other European stops, before a run through New Zealand and Australia. "The next one, in Austin, Texas, in four weeks will be our 100th show," Cohen said, "and it's just grand. And then we'll do another 100."
Finding his niche
The music career of Cohen was a second-chance affair since the beginning. His childhood home in Canada was alive with music and, despite the cultural distance, he found a gripping emotion in the forlorn rhymes of Hank Williams and other Nashville heroes; he had a band as a teen with a sort of buckskin sensibility. But at McGill University in Montreal, his attentions turned to the written page, and he gained national attention for his poems and two novels. When the money didn't follow, he reached for the guitar.
His big break came when Judy Collins recorded his "Suzanne" for a 1966 album and made it one of her signature songs. More followed, but John Hammond, the esteemed music executive with Columbia Records who had been a key figure in the careers of Bob Dylan and Billie Holiday, believed in Cohen not just as a composer but as a performer.
His songbook, though, has towered far beyond his singing, and a staggering list of artists have interpreted his classics, such as "Bird on the Wire," "Sisters of Mercy," "Hallelujah," "Everybody Knows" and "First We Take Manhattan."
Cohen, these days, has the mien of a profoundly centered man. Part of that comes no doubt from his studies of Buddhism, which date back to the 1970s, and the period of time in the 1990s that he was ordained as a Rinzai Zen Buddhist monk so he might serve in an austere setting as the personal attendant to his teacher, Kyozan Joshu Sasaki Roshi.
"The first and most discernible lesson is to stop whining," Cohen explained. "And I don't really need to go much beyond that. It was sort of like boot camp. It's a rigorous life, it's cold and it's above the snow line. Four-thousand feet was the snow line, and we were up around 7,500 feet. A lot of it is involved in surviving the winter. There's a lot of shoveling of snow. There is very little private space. There's a saying in Zen: 'Like pebbles in bag, the monks polish one another.' Those rough edges get smoothed out."
Cohen never went to Buddhism seeking enlightenment, it was more about survival, he said. He came in as a patient, not a pilgrim. "I needed something. Things weren't working in my life. I had drugs and promiscuity, many things. I wasn't happy. I needed a new way. But it wasn't about anything holy." And what about the more recent financial calamity? A court judgment has awarded him more than $9 million -- the touring is not a desperate lunge to pay his bills, and when he holds out his hat on stage there's a smile on his face.
Cohen had a question for his visitor: "I've never been to Coachella. How do you think our band will go over there?" Told that his band will find a smart and eager audience and desert splendor, Cohen smiled but still held on to a bit of distance.
"We'd played festivals in the past, and I'm not crazy about the setup. You're on a roster with a whole lot of other people. You don't have the evening. I like to be in a room with people for three hours, have a beginning, middle and an end. We can't do our whole set, it's not our rhythm. But we have heard it's a special hospitality there. We'll play our best and look forward to it."
He launched into an extended explanation of where the stage magic lies for him, the sweet spot between the practiced and the unexpected. Then, unhappy with the long route to an answer, the poet shrugged and took a four-word path: "There is a flicker."
No fretting over his legacy
Cohen turned to his computer to play some new music, a somewhat ghostly shuffle called "Amen," a song laced with religious imagery and heartache, as so many of his compositions have been through the years. Cohen said he is more interested in the next song than pondering the legacy of his past work. He talked about how puzzled he was by McCartney's decision a few years back to change the credits on certain Beatles classics to "McCartney & Lennon" as opposed to the familiar "Lennon & McCartney," as if anyone didn't know who wrote "Yesterday."
Cohen said he views his work from a different vantage point -- his most famous songs now belong as much to the audience and to other singers as they do to him.
"I find I'm feeling much friendlier to my earliest work than I ever did," he said. "There was a certain time when I knew that the audience wanted to hear 'Suzanne' and 'Hey That's No Way to Say Goodbye,' but I didn't want to play [them]. Now I really do.
"I think that contrary to Sir Paul's experience, my sense of proprietorship weakens as I get older. I'm happy the songs exist and that I know them and I know the chords and how to sing them."
The subject clearly stirred up something for Cohen.
"A poet, one of my closest friends, Irving Layton, probably the best Canadian poet and one of our best North American poets, he was very concerned with his legacy. He was very concerned with his immortality and what would become of his work. I loved the man, so I listened attentively and also with a sense of curiosity. I could never locate that appetite for posterity within myself or think what it means anyhow."
After a pause, he chuckled, his mind considering all the poets that his late friend Layton would have to conquer to achieve his hoped-for perch in the history books. "You're up against some heavy competition. King David, Homer, you're up against Shakespeare, Dante, Donne, you're up against Whitman. It's like going up against Muhammad Ali if you're a pretty good neighborhood boxer, and that's what I think of myself as. I'm just a pretty good neighborhood boxer. Legacy? I never thought that it would mean anything to me when I'm dead. I'm going to be busy."
WELCOME BACK: Cohen connects with his crowd Feb. 19. Photo credits: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times
The above story will appear in the Times' Sunday Calendar.