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43 years of skepticism: Christgau on Cohen

August 18, 2009 | 11:45 am


Robert Christgau is a legendary rock critic -- on his website, he calls himself the Dean of American Rock Critics -- and as he's been writing about music a long, long time, he's got the kind of experience and knowledge to bring to a review of the performance CD/DVD sets by 75 year-old Leonard Cohen.

But sometimes history can work against you. Christgau's column for the Barnes & Noble review begins:

As someone who admired poet Leonard Cohen's second and last novel "Beautiful Losers" in 1966, before Cohen was a recording artist or I was a music critic, I followed Cohen's musical career with admiration from the beginning. But the admiration was always cut with skepticism -- a skepticism that the focus and reach and three-hour duration of his February 19 comeback concert at Manhattan's Beacon Theater blew away.

If I read that right, Christgau has followed Cohen's career with admiration/skepticism since 1966.That's 43 years.

Is it that Cohen has suddenly changed? Perhaps -- Cohen has a constantly-evolving persona, and Christgau outlines his recent evolution from well-heeled troubadour to surprisingly broke monk to hardworking road performer.

But maybe it's because as a critic, Christgau has begun to want something different from Cohen. Later in his piece, he explains:

Rock and roll has produced a surprising bounty of old men with something to say. Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Lou Reed, Randy Newman -- rather than credibly courting eternal youth a la Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney, these seniors explore the aging process with an edge that's been rare in pop music, where nostalgia is such a staple. Cohen fits this paradigm, with two significant differences. The first is that he's rock and roll only by association. He's really a Gallic chansonnier, in it for the lyrics rather than the liberating musical intensity even Dylan has made a vocation. The second is that he was always old -- older than Elvis and also more sophisticated, the kind of artist you'd look up to at 24 only to find yourself surprisingly, alarmingly entering his age group four decades later.

Not to say that Cohen was in his 60s when Christgau was 24 (his age in the aforementioned critical year of 1966). But it seems that, four decades later, Christgau has caught up to Cohen, who really isn't that much older than him at all.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Leonard Cohen performs in Italy, Aug. 3. Credit: Andrea Merola / EPA