Why Leonard Matters

Cohen’s late-career tour is the real deal

by Stephen LaRose

Leonard Cohen’s performance in Regina is part of a world tour (the show was rescheduled from the winter after his band members were struck by a flu bug) that coincides with the release of a new album. After this, he’ll take a couple of months off; his next show is in late June, in Paris.

When artists of Cohen’s vintage take to the road, it’s usually for one last cash grab, hoovering out  fans’ bank accounts the way Ray Stevens or Yakov Smirnoff do when the yokels come to Branson. The artist in question usually has nothing to say and no new way to say it: he or she is just allowing the audience to enter a time machine for a couple of hours to relive their youth.

How is Leonard Cohen’s tour different? Well, one could argue that at the age of 78, he still needs the money. In 2005, he sued Kelley Lynch, his former manager, for $9 million, accusing her of misappropriating almost all the money that he had made in his career (at the time of the lawsuit, Cohen was down to his last $150,000). Though he won the lawsuit in a California court, she’s never paid a dime.

But Cohen’s career has never been about the money, at least as a guiding principle.

Secondly, Cohen has always seemed a world apart in popular music. The guy followed The Doors’ performance when he played at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970, for Pete’s sake — the same outdoor festival where The Who played. And in the early 1990s, the guy beat Neil Young for the Best Male Vocalist at the Junos. Either rock fans — and Cohen fans — possess a strange sense of the absurd, or they understand that the direct line from his music to our emotions transcends mere genres.

It’s as if Cohen carves out love, lust, jealousy and rage from life the way a sculptor carves out a statue from a solid block of rock —except that statues aren’t alive; Cohen’s songs are.

Think of the song “Hallelujah”, for example. When he recorded it for the album Various Positions, his record company nixed the album. Said it wouldn’t sell. Since then, the song has been covered by 300 different performers, shown up on at least a dozen movie soundtracks and is ranked as one of the top 10 greatest tracks of all time in a poll of songwriters for the British music magazine Q. Wonder what that record company executive in 1984 is thinking today?

Cohen’s never been ‘trendy’ in the sense that, say, boy bands, heavy metal or disco are trendy. Nobody who mixes Romantic-era poetry, the Old Testament and maybe a little Sigmund Freud should expect a long career in music in the age of Justin Bieber. To be a Belieber, all you need is money: for the downloads, for the t-shirts, for the tours. There’ll be t-shirts for sale and the tickets are kind of expensive for some of his fans, but Cohen’s music requires more from fandom than just sitting back and waving the credit card. It requires being old enough, or mature enough, to know the regrets of life, the sorrows and fleeting joys, and to understand that you’re not alone in the way you feel.

Cohen’s music, like Cohen, has aged well because he never was trendy in the first place. That’s probably why Cohen is the bohemian/romantic CanCon version of Stompin’ Tom Connors — someone who’s been around for so long that we consider him part of the musical furniture. It’s only when he’s gone (from our lives, not to Paris or elsewhere on his tour) that we will be able to fully understand just how great an artist Leonard Cohen is.

Hopefully, that understanding is still a long way off.

2013-04-18