Monday 23 January 2012
Leonard Cohen: the maestro who’s made the most of his misery
Even on the release of 'Old Ideas' – his 12th album – the 77-year-old singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen remains happy to be sad, says William Langley
"I’ve got no future, I know my days are few,” gasps Leonard Cohen on his latest album. It’s this kind of cheeriness that has earned the singer-poet the nickname Laughing Len – not to mention the Prince of Pessimism, the Godfather of Gloom and the Maestro of Melancholy. But, while looking on the dark side has served him well over the years, there are worrying signs that now, at the age of 77, he’s getting serious.
To some extent, Cohen’s unhappiness is understandable. He has had a tough life, both before and after he became famous. Anyone who has had a gun held to his head by Phil Spector, had his entire career earnings embezzled by an allegedly crooked manager, and been given the middle name Norman has plenty to feel resentful about.
In London last week, for the launch of Old Ideas, his 12th studio album, he showed few signs of cheering up. The critics were generally agreed that this was a very good thing. One praised the latest work as “a mix of suffering, heartbreak and darkness”, and another as “a characteristically intimate reflection on love, death and suffering”. Cohen, rarely given to commenting on his own work, confirmed: “I’ve come to the conclusion, reluctantly, that I’m going to die. But, you know, I’d like to do it with a beat.”
Perhaps we should be grateful that he has lasted this long. His splendidly unglued life has been largely spent, as one of his support acts has quipped, “sitting in airports waiting for buses”. He has come through breakdowns, bereavements, traumas, court appearances and separations, and sought help through drugs, religion and self-analysis. In the late Seventies, he made an album with the deranged producer Phil Spector, and later recalled: “One night, Phil approached me with a bottle of kosher red wine in one hand and a .45 in the other, put his arm around my shoulder, shoved the revolver into my neck, and said, 'Leonard, I love you.’ I said, 'I really hope you do, Phil.’”
While all this surely eases the job of making music for people to slit their wrists to, it doesn’t make it any easier to be Leonard Cohen. One of the reasons he rarely gives interviews is the difficulty of addressing the core conundrum that he had never intended to be a pop singer – and, having become one, can’t give it up.
This is no trouper’s tale. In her autobiography, the folk singer Judy Collins recalls having to practically manhandle Cohen onstage at his debut American concert in 1967. “I can’t do it,” he said, “I would die from embarrassment.” Halfway through his opening number, Suzanne, Cohen got the jitters, unstrapped his guitar and walked off again. “I can’t do it, I can’t go back,” he told her. “But you will,” she said, and, willingly or otherwise, he has been doing so ever since.
Today, he is a relatively polished stage performer, trim and dapper, with the look of an ageing mob lawyer in his charcoal suit and fedora. The voice – once described as “deeper than a Siberian coalmine” – is now deeper still and roughened by age, but it arguably suits the material. When Cohen needs some vocal variation, he can call on others, as he did in recruiting Britain’s Webb Sisters for a world tour and his Live in London album.
What he hasn’t got much better at is explaining what these dark, reproachful, sometimes caustic songs are really about. Cohen likes to deflect such questions, either by using Yeats’s line about “the foul rag and bone shop of the heart” or arguing that the “sacred mechanisms” of songwriting simply don’t lend themselves to explanation. You can understand his reticence when something like Hallelujah, an oddball song on a flop album, ends up as a soundtrack to The X Factor.
Most fans agree that the repertoire’s central theme is disappointment. It isn’t hard to spot where it comes from. Cohen was born in Montreal, the son of middle-class, observant Jewish parents. He thinks his early years were happy, but, when he was nine, his father, Nathan, who ran a clothing store, died suddenly. The boy took solace in books and especially poetry, and after leaving McGill University set out to become a full-time poet.
The next big blow was discovering the difficulties of making such a career choice pay. His first poetry collections, and two early novels – The Favourite Game and Beautiful Losers – sold poorly, although the latter would gain some fame when its core sex scene was voted the worst in the history of Canadian literature.
Growing disillusioned with the world of letters, he headed to New York with the vague idea of becoming a singer. There, he fell in with Andy Warhol’s Factory, a smacked-out salon of waifs, aesthetes and famous-for-15-seconds nobodies that fortunately numbered some talents, too – notably the Velvet Underground, filmmaker Paul Morrissey, and the poor, doomed model-cum-muse Edie Sedgwick. Cohen could see the difference and understood what it would take to succeed.
The odds remained against him. He was already in his early thirties, and pop promoters tended to ask: “Aren’t you a little old for this game?” He wasn’t good-looking, couldn’t sing very well and had no obvious charisma. The breakthrough came when Judy Collins, whom he had met in a club, agreed to record his composition, Suzanne. In 1967, The Songs of Leonard Cohen was released, keying perfectly into the fashionable singer-poet genre established by Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. Unsettling, literate and beautifully phrased, the record made Cohen a star.
All these years later, he remains one. Each attempt to retire has been thwarted. For several years in the Nineties, he vanished into a Zen monastery in California, but emerged in 2000 claiming that he had beaten depression and was keen to work again. He soon changed his mind, but in 2005 discovered that more than
$5 million in earnings had vanished from his bank accounts. He won a civil suit against his former manager Kelley Lynch, but failed to recover the money, and was forced to return to work. He has never married, listing matrimony as high among his phobias.
However few days he claims to have, they’ll be spent like last week’s – pleasing, teasing and worrying the fans. Success, he says, is survival, and he currently has both ends covered.