The great Canadian song-poet Leonard Cohen is passing through Austin this week, perhaps for the last time, to play shows at the UT Performing Arts Center. He brings with him his fedora, a sense of graciousness, an aura of dignity and sorrow. He brings a searcher’s heart, a love of art, a voice as deep and dark as the ocean floor. And yes: a profound sense of longing.
“Who knows when we’ll pass this way again?” Cohen often says these days, in live performance.
The man is, after all, 78 years old. And he’s spent most of the last five years on a triumphant, open-ended “farewell” world tour — playing more than three hours of music each night. In the spirit of finale, he pushes his body to the limit as if to ensure the audience’s last memory of Leonard Cohen will be the best.
“We were recently in Spain — and we played a first set that was a little longer than usual, probably an hour and 30 minutes,” says Austin bassist Roscoe Beck, the musical director of Cohen’s touring band. “And when we left the stage to take our intermission break, the audience wouldn’t sit down; they wouldn’t stop applauding. They thought we were done! They were asking for the encore!
“Backstage, I turned to Javier Mas” — a Spaniard in the band, who plays archilaud and other string instruments — “and I said, you’ve got to go back out there and tell them in Spanish this is only the intermission.” Spain couldn’t comprehend Cohen had so much more to give.
For the first time in his life, Leonard Cohen is a musical superstar. He’s never been more mainstream, never sold more concert tickets, never toured so long, never made so much money. It’s a sweet, rewarding time for him. For most of his life, Cohen felt ignored – misunderstood – in the world of American popular music. Too weighty. Too dark. Too obtuse. Now: He’s as hip as it gets. No wonder the man skips onto the stage each night.
Cohen’s live show is an event of elegant intimacy. There’s no shouting, no spectacle, even though the content of the music accesses some jagged terrain. “The blizzard of the world has crossed the threshold – and overturned the order of the soul.” Cohen doesn’t really “sing” songs. Rather: He presents poetry within exquisite frames of melody. Through language, he touches his audience “a thousand kisses deep.”
“I see a lot of people in our audiences get broken during the shows,” says Beck — and you could feel it happening, audience members swooning, when Cohen last brought this show through Austin in March 2009. “ They’ll just open up and start sobbing. Something snaps in, say, ‘Anthem’, and something happens in a very profound way.”
Cohen has always wowed (and often provoked) in live performance. Remember the 1988 band? The one that played Austin City Limits? Cohen, then in his early 50s, hit the stage with a jaunty sensual elegance, flanked by two beautiful back-up singers — Perla Betalla and Austin’s Julie Christensen — reeling off a brilliant set referencing devils and the divine, sorrow and beauty, physical longing and spiritual longing. It was arresting.
Twenty-four years later, to the day, Leonard Cohen presents on stage as a courtly gentleman — kneeling, bowing, doffing his hat in respect. He shows the vulnerability of his age. There’s a sense of ritual to the concerts. “Liturgical,” it’s been said. And yet: Cohen’s shows are full of muscle. The mind’s muscle. There’s nothing resigned about his newest songs. They are full of deep questions and direct language.
“Let your audience feel your love of privacy even though there is no privacy,” Cohen wrote decades ago, in “How to Speak Poetry.” The piece very much reflects his on-stage philosophy circa 2012. “You cannot tell the audience everything you know about love in every line of love you speak. Step aide and they will know what you know because they know it already. You are not more beautiful than they are. You are not wiser….
“Avoid the flourish. Do not be afraid to be weak. … Do not work the audience for gasps and sighs. If you are worthy of gasps and sighs it will not be from your appreciation of the event but from theirs.”
Leonard Cohen has always been an “old soul” in the world of popular music, grinding against the trends of his times, even as a young man in Montreal. He was a poet, a writer, a novelist, first. A fraternity man. The president of a debate club. And at the same time: a soul disciple of Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca from the age of 15.
Cohen’s first foray into music was in 1952, as a member of the “Buckskin Boys” — a square dance band at McGill University. He was intrigued by the beat poets, but they never felt he belonged to their club. He was ambivalent to the American folk movement. But Cohen loved country music.
As a young poet, Cohen pledged allegiance to beauty, art, facing darkness — and writing to impress women: “The reason I write/is to make something/as beautiful as you are.” He was always worried that music, the cult of celebrity, would violate the intimacy of his poetry. Talk about a late start: John Lennon was finished with his work with the Beatles before his 29th birthday. In contrast, Leonard Cohen released his debut album (“Songs of Leonard Cohen”) at age 33, in 1967.
In so many ways, Cohen’s life is about journey — his commitment to a life in art, with all its doubt, in all its contradiction. The author Sylvie Simmons lays out many key details in an interesting new biography, “I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen.” Simmons depicts Cohen as a man constantly running away — from love, career, commitment, success — often recklessly. At the same time, Cohen forever pines for solitude. He swoons at the beautiful language of the Bible. He’s drawn to the challenge of living a substantial life, “blackening pages” with poetry.
What a journey! Did you know he once jammed with Jimi Hendrix on “Suzanne”? That was in Havana during the Bay of Pigs invasion? That he wrote his novel “Beautiful Losers” to the soundtrack of Ray Charles “Genius Sings the Blues?” That he opened his first concert in Hamburg, Germany, in 1970, by clicking his heels and making a Nazi salute? That he insisted, in the spirit of empathy and kinship, upon playing shows at mental hospitals in the 1970s?
Cohen has always seen solitude as central to art. He ran away from a great many romantic relationships for the sake of that silence. In his 20s, Cohen bought a house, with inheritance money, on the Greek Island of Hydra — the epitome of peace and simplicity, no indoor plumbing — and held onto it for decades.
At the same time, Cohen embraced Los Angeles. He still lives, as the writer Pico Iyer once described it, “in this tiny house in central Los Angeles that’s so dangerous I’m scared ever to visit it, an area where everyone has barred their windows, you can almost hear sirens and broken glass.”
The actress Rebecca de Mornay once asked Cohen about his preference for L.A. in the early 1990s, around the time of the LA riots, before the birth of his landmark album “The Future.” Cohen’s response, quoted in Simmons’ book:
“This is the place. It’s like the metaphor of the decline. The whole system is coming apart. I can feel it. The future is is grim, and Los Angeles is at the center of it. It has the decay, and some sort of wild hope too, like weeds growing through the asphalt. I want to write from this place, from what’s really going on.”
“It can be quickly divined,” Cohen wrote in the 1970s, “I am no friend of the age.”
Then, in song, in the 1990s: “I have seen the future, brother. It is murder.”
From the mid-1950s to the mid-1990s, Leonard Cohen’s creative quest seemed at times as tranquil as an off-road motorcycle race through mud and rock — fraught with depression and doubt and worry, even as his poetry blazed with truth and wisdom. “I’m Your Man,” written in the 1980s, is a wry masterpiece of psychology, a biting examination of co-dependence. Cohen asks: What do you want from your lover? A boxer? A partner? A pretender? A driver? A daddy? You want me to beg? You want me to crawl? Hey. “Here I am. I’m you’re man.’
Finally, in 1993, Cohen stepped away from music and embarked on a five-year spiritual journey — mostly at a Buddhist monastery in Los Angeles, but also at a Hindu getaway in India. The poetry born of that experience — spare, gracious, vulnerable, little of it destined to be set to music, much of it collected in his “Book of Longing“ in 2006 — is some of his most touching work.
Cohen writes of images in white — sailboats, salt on a lover’s lashes, the world shining — opening him, inward, toward God. He recites “the sweetest” little love song: “You go your way/I’ll go your way too.” Acknowledging his age, the poet calls out longingly to God … or is it his creative muse, or his latest love? “O high one, long-fingered/and deep-seeing/Bend down to this sack of poison/and rotting teeth/and press your lips/to the light of my heart.”
In “My Time,” Cohen worries that the minutes of life are running short, and he has yet to sing his great, true song. He feels a failure of courage. He glances in the mirror, inside of his heart – and sees nothing worthy. “So why do you lean me here/Lord of my life/lean me at this table/in the middle of the night/wondering/how to be beautiful?”
Leonard Cohen has never liked to tour. He suffers from doubt, stage fright, insecurity about his voice. His last big run on the road ended in 1993. Even this triumphant tour, conceived in 2008, was born of necessity. Cohen was broke. His long-time manager, Kelley Lynch, had sold the rights to his music, pocketed the commission and stolen between $10 million and $13 million.
Cohen has recouped those loses — and in the aftermath of that triumph, he now relishes performance. Roscoe Beck, who has worked with Cohen on-and-off for 33 years, on the road and in the studio, believes it’s all about a mutual gratitude exchanged between artist and audience. It’s also about Cohen’s desire to stay sharp, creatively.
“He’s in a very good place right now,” says Beck — who directs a touring band that includes two other Austinites, guitarist Mitch Watkins and drummer Rafael Gayol. “He’s the most popular he’s ever been, and he’s grateful for it. … This is the most genuine I’ve ever seen him before an audience. … The man keeps moving forward. He could easily just relax at this stage and enjoy the fruits of his labors. But he keeps writing, keeps drawing, keeps painting.”
Cohen’s live shows celebrate legacy. He lays out his greatest songs — “Suzanne,” “Hallelujah,” “Bird on a Wire,” “Democracy,” “I’m Your Man,” “Anthem” — in a spirit of celebration and gratitude. “Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack — a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
Yet Cohen’s live set also features songs from “Old Ideas,” a brand new album, a landmark album, but hardly a finale. It’s a spare record, full of songs that sound like hymns or psalms. Cohen lays himself bare in “Old Ideas” — often addressing the heavens, directly, a lump of doubt or pain in his throat, but muscle in the intent — raising questions about faith and justice. In the spiritual realm. In the physical realm. In the natural realm.
Almost every new song utilizes the form of direct address, which serves to enhance the album’s intimacy and quiet urgency. Four different songs, four earnest directives: “Tell me again, when I’ve seen through the horror” … . “Show me the place where the Word became a man” … “Let the heavens hear it, the penitential hymn.” … “Sleep baby sleep, the day is on the run.”
In the end, Leonard Cohen is doing what he’s always done — blending imagery of the physical and spiritual realms in the spirit of longing. “Different Sides,” the album’s finale, echoes the beauty of the first song of his debut record, “Suzanne,” in its elegant ambiguity, juxtaposing fundamentalists and the word of Jesus, referencing the laws of nature and the borderlines of love. “Both of us say there are laws to obey/But frankly I don’t like your tone/You want to change the way I make love/I want to leave it alone.”
“I always describe myself as a writer rather than a poet,” Leonard Cohen remarked 20 years ago, considering his life in the context of labels. “And the fact that the lines I wrote don’t come to the end of the page doesn’t qualify me as a poet. I think the term ‘poet’ is a very exalted term and should be applied to a man at the end of his work.
“When you look back over the body of his work and he has written poetry, then let the verdict be that he’s a poet.”
The celebration of that verdict could wait a little longer, one might say. But who knows when we’ll pass this way again?
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday
Where: Bass Concert Hall, UT campus, 23rd Street and Robert Dedmon Drive
Tickets: $50-$250, limited availability
Leonard Cohen: A Life in Art
Conversation with Roscoe Beck, author Sylvie Simmons, members of the Cohen band
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday (doors 7 p.m.)