Wednesday, February 25, 2009
On the Road, for Reasons Practical and Spiritual
By LARRY ROHTER
Published: February 24, 2009
The day after his first American concert in more than 15 years, Leonard Cohen sat in a Manhattan hotel suite warily submitting to an interviewer’s questions, including one about the music in his laptop’s iTunes. In response, he played a klezmer-style Hebrew hymn, then followed it by singing along with one of George Jones’s weepy country morality tales.
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Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
Leonard Cohen will embark on a two-month North American tour in April.
Music Review | Leonard Cohen: Pop Music’s Perpetual Old Man, Now 74, Is Back on the Road (February 21, 2009)
Times Topics: Leonard Cohen
From npr.org: Leonard Cohen Beacon Theater Concert
“I’ve had choices since the day that I was born,/There were voices that told me right from wrong,” Mr. Cohen crooned in his stern baritone. “If I had listened, no, I wouldn’t be here today,/Living and dying with the choices I’ve made.”
Religious devotion weighs heavily in both music and life for Mr. Cohen, and it takes many forms. After a five-year stint in a Zen Buddhist monastery and various legal distractions, he is back on the road: an undertaking that seems to combine his quest for spiritual fulfillment with an effort to regain his financial footing, lost when his former business manager made off with his money while Mr. Cohen was living as a monk on a mountaintop above Los Angeles.
“It was a long, ongoing problem of a disastrous and relentless indifference to my financial situation,” Mr. Cohen said on Friday of the resulting legal proceedings, which awarded him $9.5 million — money he has yet to collect. “I didn’t even know where the bank was.”
So on April 2, for reasons both practical and aesthetic, Mr. Cohen will embark on a two-month North American tour, including a performance at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival on April 17 and an appearance at Radio City Music Hall on May 16. In addition, Columbia Records on March 31 will release a live CD/DVD of a show he did in London last year, and songs from the concert he played last Thursday at the Beacon Theater will begin streaming online on Thursday on the National Public Radio Web site (npr.org/music or nprmusic.org).
Mr. Cohen’s world tour, which actually began in May 2008 in his native Canada, is scheduled to continue through the end of this year, a feat of endurance for a man his age. At 74, Mr. Cohen is nine years Mick Jagger’s senior and two years older than John McCain. But he is remarkably limber, skipping on and off the stage during his three-hour show and repeatedly dropping to his knees to sing.
Roscoe Beck, Mr. Cohen’s musical director, says that even on the longest flights Mr. Cohen sits cross-legged and straight-backed in his seat, in a monk’s posture. Asked whether he also does yoga to build strength and agility for his stage shows, Mr. Cohen, his demeanor courtly but reserved, smiled and replied, “That is my yoga.”
In fact, Mr. Cohen appears to see performance and prayer as aspects of the same larger divine enterprise. That may not be surprising, coming from an artist whose best-known songs mingle sacred concerns with the secular and the sexual and sound like “collaborations between Jacques Brel and Thomas Merton,” as the novelist Pico Iyer put it.
“There’s a similarity in the quality of the daily life” on the road and in the monastery, Mr. Cohen said. “There’s just a sense of purpose” in which “a lot of extraneous material is naturally and necessarily discarded,” and what is left is a “rigorous and severe” routine in which “the capacity to focus becomes much easier.”
Mr. Cohen said he stopped touring in 1993 partly because he was drinking “too much red wine” between shows. But even with his money problems, he had to be persuaded to go out on the road again, said Rob Hallett, the promoter of the tour, in which Mr. Cohen performs with a nine-piece band.
“For three years, every time I’d go to Los Angeles, I’d try to convince him to do it,” Mr. Hallett said. “But he didn’t think anyone cared.”
After 99 concerts in places as far-flung as Bucharest and Auckland, Mr. Cohen now knows that is not true. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008, but unlike many other pop music figures who emerged in the 1960s he never overexposed himself, and he has maintained an air of mystery around his person and his songs.
“In the years he was away, the work was still there to be found, and people caught up with him,” said Hal Willner, the music producer responsible for “Came So Far for Beauty,” a Cohen concert tribute that toured the world in 2004 and 2005. “The records always kept surfacing, being talked about as influences on the young kids coming up, like Kurt Cobain and Jeff Buckley, and those who listened found themselves being drawn into the songs, in a Venus’ flytrap sort of way.”
Thanks to that new generation of artists and listeners, more recent songs like “Hallelujah” have now become as widely known as “Suzanne” and other compositions from Mr. Cohen’s early years. “Hallelujah” has been recorded almost 200 times, with two different versions reaching the Top 10 in Britain late in 2008, and was even sung by a contestant on “American Idol” last year, which gave it another boost.
Because so many of Mr. Cohen’s songs have been recorded by others, many of his new admirers associate his work mainly with the artists who have popularized them, like Rufus Wainwright and Mr. Buckley. But Mr. Cohen dismissed the idea of reclaiming possession of his songs as one of the motives for going back on tour.
“My sense of ownership with these things is very weak,” he responded. “It’s not the result of spiritual discipline; it’s always been that way. My sense of proprietorship has been so weak that actually I didn’t pay attention and I lost the copyrights on a lot of the songs.”
About the meaning of those songs, Mr. Cohen is diffident and elusive. Many are, he acknowledges, “muffled prayers,” but beyond that he is not eager to reveal much.
“It’s difficult to do the commentary on the prayer,” he said. “I’m not a Talmudist, I’m more the little Jew who wrote the Bible,” a reference to a line in “The Future,” a song he released in 1992. “I feel it doesn’t serve the enterprise to really examine it from outside the moment.”
Mr. Cohen said he hoped to make a new record when the tour ends, and offered to play one of his newer compositions. Tentatively called “Amen,” it features a Farfisa-style keyboard, a trumpetlike solo played by Mr. Cohen on his synthesizer and lyrics like this: “Tell me again when the filth of the butcher is washed in the blood of the lamb.”
Jennifer Warnes, the singer whose 1986 recording of “Famous Blue Raincoat” helped revive interest in Mr. Cohen at a time when he was out of critical favor, said: “He has investigated a lot of deities and read all the sacred books, trying to understand in some way who wrote them as much as the subject matter itself. It’s for his own healing that he reaches for those places. If he has one great love, it is his search for God.”
Mr. Cohen is an observant Jew who keeps the Sabbath even while on tour and performed for Israeli troops during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. So how does he square that faith with his continued practice of Zen?
“Allen Ginsberg asked me the same question many years ago,” he said. “Well, for one thing, in the tradition of Zen that I’ve practiced, there is no prayerful worship and there is no affirmation of a deity. So theologically there is no challenge to any Jewish belief.”
Zen has also helped him to learn to “stop whining,” Mr. Cohen said, and to worry less about the choices he has made. “All these things have their own destiny; one has one’s own destiny. The older I get, the surer I am that I’m not running the show.”