Tower Of Song: The Enduring Appeal Of Leonard Cohen

Thomas Storey

A towering artistic figure, Leonard Cohen — Canadian singer, songwriter, musician, painter, poet and novelist —emerged in the 1960s, exploring the areas of religion, politics, isolation, sexuality, and personal relationships, developing a following that would last over four decades. Known for his intellectual lyrics and uniquely ruminative and sorrowful persona, like Bob Dylan, Cohen is said to be one of the most influential icons of his time, and has delved into various musical genres from plaintive folk to smooth synth driven pop.

Well my friends are gone and my hair is grey,
I ache in the places where I used to play,
And I’m crazy for love but I’m not coming on,
I’m just paying my rent every day,
in the Tower of Song.

Leonard Cohen – Tower of Song
Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, born September 21, 1934, has led a successful life punctuated by songs of an effervescent and inimitable brilliance and wit, but rather than rest on his laurels and withdraw into retirement, Cohen has managed to stay well and alive in the music industry. He spent the summer of 2013 touring across Europe at the age of 80, heading to cities like Ljubjana all the way to Cardiff, and many places in between. Tickets have remained highly prized for this musical legend, and his fan base has not withered.
Cohen’s recent resurgence has surprised some who thought that 1992’s The Future, with its post-apocalyptic mutterings and late-night, bottom of the bottle atmosphere, was representative of the end of his career for the always mournful songwriter. Cohen’s famous intonation on that album’s title track, ‘I’ve seen the future baby, and it is murder,’ seemed to mark a nadir of nihilism which some imagined would lead to Cohen’s subsequent retreat from public life, despite the fact that it was delivered with that typical ruminative chuckle he is known for.
Back when Cohen was associated with more melancholy than wit, the epithet ‘music to slit your wrists to’ was describable of his music and it began to stick rather too firmly. Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain infamously, and in retrospect poignantly, sang ‘give me a Leonard Cohen after world, so I can sigh eternally’, and for a generation Cohen was reduced to being the ‘prince of bummers’. In the late 1990s, he spent several years at Mount Baldy Zen Center, a Buddhist monetary in California, where he was ordained as a Zen Buddhist monk and served as a personal assistant to the presiding monk, Kyozan Joshu Sasaki Roshi. Many had the impression that Cohen had given up on being the bard of melancholy and was withdrawing into the type of profound contemplation which had always underpinned his best work. This period of calm was interrupted by a protracted legal wrangle with Kelley Lynch, Cohen’s former manager, who was discovered to be spending Cohen’s money without his knowledge. He ended up winning the legal battle against her, in what he described as a devastating personal experience, and returned to public life shortly thereafter. Whether it was these financial difficulties, or the possible return of his song writing muse, in the early 2000s, Cohen returned to music. He released a string of acclaimed ‘synth and soul’ albums and hit the road on a regular basis, touring more than he had in the past few decades.

Leonard Cohen was born in Westmont – an English speaking part of Montreal, Quebec – into a Jewish family of Lithuanian and Polish descent. Cohen’s maternal grandfather, a rabbi, was the author of a 700-page thesaurus of Talmudic interpretations and his upbringing was steeped in the Old Testament. After completing his university studies he devoted himself to his literary career, publishing a series of poems and several novels, and living on the Greek island of Hydra for much of the early 1960s. He turned to music in his early 30s apparently as a means of boosting his income, and was discovered by John Hammond who viewed him as another Dylan figure. His early work is often considered his best, with three albums of heartfelt, earnest meditations of love and loss which encapsulated something ephemeral about the counter-culture movement of the 1960s. Songs such as ‘Suzanne’, ‘So Long Marianne’, ‘Bird on a Wire’ and ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ were imbued with a poet’s sense of resonance, and addressed the amorphous desire for freedom and transcendence amongst the youth movement, whilst also marking the origin of Cohen’s reputation as a ‘ladies’ man’. This was followed by a string of unsuccessful musical experiments, culminating in the maligned Various Positions album in the early 1980s. But his reputation was reaffirmed by a critical renaissance in the late 1980s, when Cohen released I’m Your Man, still one of his most loved albums. Replacing the plucked guitars with synths and backing singers, Cohen was seen as the epitome of weather beaten charm, resigned to his fate but romantic until the end. His recent return has seen him marry the two strands of his career, giving voice to the young troubadour of such songs as ‘Suzanne’, whilst crafting more elegiac and ruminative meditations, which have allowed him to encapsulate the particular brand of longing, loss and self-deprecating wit that is so unique to Cohen. This distinct attribute is epitomised in the opening track of his 2012 album Old Ideas:

I love to speak with Leonard

He’s a sportman and a shepherd

He’s a lazy b*stard

Living in his suit

Leonard Cohen

By Thomas Storey

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