Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Unbeautiful Winner: Leonard Cohen

Circumstances rarely afford artists the chance to leave a testament. Live in London comes pretty close.

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. My conversion experience was far from the only one that night, and proved replicable--when Cohen stopped in Seattle two months later, a friend walked in with my level of show-me and left with my level of holy-moley. Having kicked off the U.S. phase of a world tour already nine months old, the Beacon concert was soon followed by Live in London, a double-CD and/or DVD vividly documenting pretty much the same songs and stage business I'd witnessed. It prepared the way for two sold-out May concerts at NYC's much larger Radio City Music Hall, which will be followed in turn by, holy moley, an October 23 appearance at Madison Square Garden. Tickets begin at $113 and top out at $4,800. Crave a little conversion? Pony up.

Scheduled to turn 75 September 21, Cohen is on a roll that began five years ago, when he found out his money was gone. The somewhat murky story begins in 1994 after his last previous tour, which left him so exhausted that, as is his wont, he decided to transform his life. So he relocated for five years--five years!--to a Zen monastery on Mount Baldy in California, where he assisted his longtime guru Joshu Sasaki Roshi and was ordained a monk in 1996. Cash flow much diminished, he was persuaded by his manager and friend Kelley Lynch to sell his catalogue to Sony in 1997, and once off the mountain set up a foundation to protect his assets from the taxman. In 2004 he learned by happenstance that the foundation had been drained of funds, and although Cohen eventually won a $9.5 million judgment against Lynch, who by 2005 was claiming she was homeless, he hasn't been able to collect.

Cohen clearly got screwed. But if it's hard not to sympathize when the creator of a lament as gorgeous and profound as "Bird on the Wire" will never see another penny from it, it's also hard not to snicker when a tax shelter goes belly up. The just plain sympathetic part came with this tour, as Cohen, having envisioned an old age of comfortable seclusion, transformed himself into a public workhorse. A rabbi's grandson who still keeps Sabbath yet has always been fascinated by the redemption myths of the Catholics who dominate his primordial Montreal, he was born again by going back to work.

Cohen never intended to shut down altogether. In early 2001 he released Field Commander Cohen, a circa-1979 live CD sprucer than 1994's Cohen Live!, and then, shortly after September 11, put out his first studio album since 1992's The Future. In historical context, the brave pessimism and sage metaphysics of Ten New Songs seemed so prophetic that it should have been called The Future II. But Cohen's unbeautiful voice proved so sere it was swamped by the attendant women on 2004's Dear Heather, where a Lord Byron cover and "Tennessee Waltz" outshone originals so paltry that not one was deemed worthy of the tour four years later. In 2005, awash in lawsuits, Cohen talked up Blue Alert, his collaboration with jazz singer Anjani Thomas, who happened to be his attorney's ex-wife as well as his own current consort. But it barely sold, and only the title track belongs in the same sentence with any number of songs Cohen has composed with backup-singer-turned-producer Sharon Robinson. In a long, eloquent 2005 interview for Norwegian radio--the Marianne of "So Long, Marianne" comes from Norway, and he's a chart-topper there--Cohen reported that he'd begun a new album, which, unsurprisingly, never materialized: "I'm scraping the bottom of the barrel. I need ten songs, you know, I have to fill up 50 minutes, and you want it to be good."

In the same interview, Cohen explained with practiced humility, "I just keep working until something arises that is better than me. . . . Sometimes the songs are really good, sometimes they are okay, I hope." One hopes that after this tour is over, Cohen will invest his accumulated wealth circumspectly and that by late 2010 the impressive snatches he's played visitors will add up to a really good album. His voice has revived--exercise has been good for it, and where in the '90s he was still learning how to sing loud after decades of milking his refined croak for intimacy, now he can declaim in moderation. He's had more trials not involving the nearness of death than anyone past 70 should bear. And the evidence suggests that he was ordained for cause--that he's finally achieved equanimity without peacing out.

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.

These disjunctures only strengthen Live in London. Cohen launched his recapitalization armed with a decades-spanning body of really good songs that his cult deserved to hear. Spirit calmed, voice weathered by exposure, arrangements honed by wisdom and practice, he was positioned to revisit this oeuvre without risk of generational grotesquerie, because he'd written from the vantage of maturity to begin with. As always, the DVD provides neither the full social immersion of the concert nor the provocative abstraction of the sound recording, but at least you get to see Cohen trot on stage (at my show, he skipped off), and the worshipful close-ups of concentrating soloists are less banal than usual because the songs reward that kind of attention. The CDs, however, are definitive. There's more really good Cohen out there, and individual albums going back to 1968's Songs of Leonard Cohen remain very much worth hearing. But the thoughtfulness of everyone involved renders the new recordings aurally consistent and verbally definitive. Circumstances rarely afford artists the chance to leave a testament. Live in London comes pretty close.

In someone of Cohen's long-term accomplishment, that's plenty. But it leaves the content of the bequest open to scrutiny. The standard objections cite Cohen's bummer quotient--his supposedly terrible voice and his supposedly unremitting pessimism. Me, I've always enjoyed his sprechgesang, which he shares to some extent with all the old men on my short list except the goy (who oddly enough is Canadian). True, God gave Dylan, Reed, and arguably Newman more physical voice. But not even the Reed of "Candy Says" has better simulated the one-on-one whisper, and at his most clownish Newman can't match Cohen's deft self-mockery. That's why Cohen's pessimism has never bummed me. Of course this isn't party music. But the best of the darker songs are so well-stated they're bracing too--the poet's version of Gramsci's optimism of the will--and in album format they share time with a Jewish-Buddhist fatalist's spiritually advanced form of gallows humor.

Musical and philosophical questions remain, however. Hardly a master tunesmith, Cohen has nevertheless created, rejiggered, reappropriated, and partnered into existence a body of melody without which his songwriting would mean little. But just as he never aims for rock and roll release, he maintains a distance from that melody--he doesn't inhabit a song like his beau ideal Hank Williams or his formal counterpart John Prine. Crucial to the distance are the backup girls on whom he so skillfully, respectfully, and obsessively relies. This is limiting, and Cohen knows it: "I ran with Diz and Dante/But I never had their sweep," shrugs the Zen poet who situates Hank Williams 100 floors above himself in the tower of song. And thematically there are also limits, as Cohen's female helpmates make manifest.

There are Cohen chroniclers, especially literary ones, who prove how worldly they are by treating his interest in sex as an amusing side issue. But even up against Mick Jagger and Marvin Gaye, Prince and Madonna, Cohen qualifies as a devout erotomane. For its fleeting moment Beautiful Losers was radiantly graphic, and I challenge anyone to name another songpoet so fond of the word "naked." In one of his few stupid public pronouncements, Cohen told the New York Times in 1968 that only after sharing an orgasm with a woman did he believe he'd met her, and at 50 he was still averring that only women kept him sane on the road. At the Beacon, my sense of oneness with my fellow communicants was disrupted by the knowing cheers that greeted two raunchy lines: "giving me head in the unmade bed" and "if you want a doctor I'll examine every inch of you."

Now, I think intellectuals underrate sex myself, and to each her or his own. Cohen loves women, and women often love him back--fine. But I sense that many of Cohen's male fans get a vicarious kick out of his multifarious affairs that doesn't bring them any closer to the goal articulated by his most crucial backup singer, Jennifer Warnes, whose 1987 tribute album Famous Blue Raincoat helped revive his career: "the place where God and sex and literature meet." The only friend I've ever had who was a major Cohen devotee is also the only friend I've ever had to make a play for my wife. That's not what I mean by to each his or her own. I want to take sex seriously my way, not Leonard Cohen's way--much less his fanmen's way.

Striking, isn't it, that even musician Warnes brings up literature. Granted, her quote arrives via Cohen's biographer, Canadian English prof Ira B. Nadel, whose valuable if unexpectedly dated 1994 Various Positions could be hipper musically. But I've been reading Cohen as well as listening, and it's been a pleasure except for my second pass through Beautiful Losers, which for all its serial orgasms and multivocal texts lacks narrative generosity. "Skip over the parts you don't like," Cohen advises readers of the new Chinese translation in 2006's Book of Longing, a self-illustrated miscellany billed as his first poetry collection since 1984--a delightful profit-taker that includes droll reports on the monastic life; an erotic appreciation of his May-December love object Rebecca de Mornay; a "Thank You Ruler of the World/Thank you for calling me Honey" for a waitress seen in a double mirror; and such epigrams as "oh and one more thing/you aren't going to like/what comes after America" and "life is a drug that stops working."

There are also a few lyrics, including a Dear Heather quickie that begins "Because of a few songs/wherein I spoke of their mystery/women have been/exceptionally kind/to my old age," gets better, and has it all over the recorded version. Due to envy, snobbery, and the devotion to rhyme and scansion that impelled him toward the pop charts, Cohen gets small respect as a poet, but unlike most song lyrics, his do read. Unfortunately, the best proof isn't for sale in the U.S.: Omnibus Press's alphabetical Lyrics of Leonard Cohen, 113 all told, and fascinating to down in that arbitrary order. Known masterpieces like "Dance Me to the End of Love," "Famous Blue Raincoat," "Anthem," and "A Thousand Kisses Deep" demand and reward instant rereading. Songs from a Room, Death of a Ladies' Man, and Dear Heather read as flat as they'd always sounded. Songs from 1984's Various Positions suggest that maybe Columbia refused that album because the performances didn't do them justice.

Most interesting, however, was to then read Yeats, who Cohen loves. Yeats smoked him, of course--Yeats smokes everybody. Still, the evolution from the lissome flow of "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" to the steely reassessment of "Vacillation" certainly paralleled the shifts in tone and line I'd felt as old Cohen lyrics followed hard upon newer ones. Cohen went up the mountain to learn how to cast a cold eye, then came down and found himself compelled to tell us about it. And without losing what had been learned, his eye warmed a little. That's a long-term accomplishment worth cheering.

Barnes & Noble Review, Aug. 17, 2009