Waiting for the Miracle: On Leonard Cohen
"You don't really care for music, do you?" For those of us who do, listening to Cohen's oeuvre has been part moping soundtrack, part worship and part kvetching and kvelling. Despite Cohen's acoustic guitar and its early flamenco leanings, there is not a "pure" Cohen with roots in the folk scene or the Pete Seeger songbook. John Hammond did not pluck Cohen from folk clubs, as he had done with Dylan earlier in the decade. In 1966 Cohen was a poet and novelist--he had sold a few thousand copies of his novels and collections of verse in Canada--who was just learning to perform. The poetry world was small, the Canadian one even smaller, and Cohen was seeking a bigger stage. A chance encounter with Judy Collins led to his serenading her, on the phone, with "Suzanne." She recorded it almost instantly. Shortly thereafter, Cohen found himself giving an impromptu performance for Hammond in his room in the Chelsea Hotel. Hammond later pressed Cohen to reproduce in the studio what he had heard in that room, but it didn't work out that way. Cohen needed to be almost hypnotized to be so hypnotic on songs like "The Stranger Song," "Master Song" and, really, all the tunes that ended up on Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967). Cohen was no folkie; according to Hammond, Cohen felt that he needed to augment his voice with strings, with odd distracting timbres and windup toys, and even with amateurish white backup singers who sounded like they were harmonizing in a schoolyard. (Later, the Cohenettes would become sassier and more racially mixed.) It was the artist, not the label, who wanted to sweeten his dark songs with fiddles and studio trickery. The album has endured for more than forty years, and all its eccentric features heralded the shape of Cohen's sonic choices to come.
Despite featuring the much-loved "Bird on the Wire" (a song whose first three lines Kris Kristofferson would like carved on his tombstone) and a boisterous mouth harp, Songs From a Room (1969), recorded in Nashville, was inevitably a letdown from a debut that was also an instant classic. Songs of Love and Hate (1971) and New Skin for the Old Ceremony (1974) were angsty masterpieces--sometimes Cohen's placid drone would spiral into screams. Highlights include the self-laceration of "Dress Rehearsal Rag," which offers suicidal ideation with a twisted imagination, leading to a chorus of children singing, sometimes like a taunt, the refrain, "And wasn't it a long way down"; a morbid rereading of a Yom Kippur prayer on "Who by Fire?" which sounds like a series of coronary reports chanted by a rabbinical Dr. Seuss; and "Diamonds in the Mine," which sounds like an approximation of what would happen if the Rabelaisian Philip Roth of that period decided to write a country and western number.
One of the splendors of the current tour is that Cohen's songbook from the 1980s--the decade when music was often churned into electronic treacle by some of the greatest innovators of the '60s--is played by living, breathing, talented musicians. Like Dylan on Empire Burlesque (1985) and Joni Mitchell on Dog Eat Dog (1985), Cohen was smitten with synthesizers during the 1980s; being his own orchestrator proved too tempting, even if the timbres of the moment sounded ersatz. Would a synthesizer replace the piano the way the piano replaced the clavier? Futurists of the 1980s thought so. "Now, I don't want you to be alarmed, but this goes on by itself," Cohen said at the Beacon in February before flicking on the keyboard and letting the artifice flow. It was "The Tower of Song" sounding like a Ramada Inn lounge on amateur night; the exalted lyrics about life entering its last throes seemed perfectly matched with the coldly automatic apparatus, as if death operated via cheap machinery. Cohen, in a timed joke, told the audience they were "too kind" after he played what sounded like a deliberately amateurish keyboard solo. "The maestro says it's Mozart/but it sounds like bubblegum," Cohen grunt-croons on "Waiting for the Miracle." On "The Tower of Song" he did both voices.
Wagner's music, said Mark Twain, is better than it sounds, and albums like Various Positions and I'm Your Man (1988), both of which feature stellar songwriting and, with Cohen's newly husky voice, haunting singing, boast timeless songs marred by dated production. (Despite the electronic din, one highlight among many was "Take This Waltz," an adaptation of his poetic idol Federico García Lorca's "Little Viennese Waltz," in which the best lines are inimitably Cohen's.) For a while, Cohen's sonic palette seemed to mimic the soundtrack of Miami Vice--a show on which he appeared in 1986, speaking deadpan French. Now, with new arrangements, he has been opening his shows with the majestic "Dance Me to the End of Love." The song sounded ticky-tacky on Various Positions (reminiscent of a low-budget wedding in Prague in the last years of the Iron Curtain); on tour, surrounded by the virtuosic bandurria of Javier Mas and the swinging clarinet of Dino Soldo, Cohen intones his impassioned verse with the stellar musicianship he deserves.
After recording his phenomenal The Future (1992) with a band--in preparation for a tour the next year--Cohen returned to the synthetic side of the street with Ten New Songs, which demonstrated how much better artifice could sound by the twenty-first century, with improved technology that allows fake to sound less fake. Cohen scrawled down the lyrics--some of which appear in his Book of Longing (2006)--and asked the rhythm and blues singer Sharon Robinson to write the melodies, as she had done previously for "Everybody Knows" and "Waiting for the Miracle." But Cohen wasn't quite ready to leave the mountaintop. Aided by millennial studio technology (including overdubs by the harmonizing women who have become expected accoutrements at this point), he growled and crooned all by himself.
Despite being on what seems like the final leg of a long goodbye tour that will feature fall dates at big venues (including Madison Square Garden) and conclude, as of this writing, in San Jose in November, Cohen is the monkish Jikan once more--except when he performs. He still mostly avoids reporters (he's selling out shows with nary a peep to them); he's trying to preserve his voice. His silence is temporary; his afterworld lasts longer. And yet when we leave it, we know that, unlike other afterworlds, it won't last forever. But we try to let it linger. Cohen was aware of Kurt Cobain's invocation of him in "Pennyroyal Tea," and it clearly gave him pause. In the Leonard Cohen Afterworld, Cobain's suicide remained a troubling event. Cohen had known darkness and sang about it many times. "Now if you can manage to get your trembling fingers to behave,/Why don't you try unwrapping a stainless steel razor blade?" he asked, looking contemptuously at his reflection in "Dress Rehearsal Rag." Yes, he had suffered and he had prepared for the end, but he didn't actually draw blood. Now he's serving the muse into his 70s. "I'm sorry I couldn't have spoken to the young man," said Cohen to a Canadian journalist a year after Cobain's death. "There are always alternatives, and I might have been able to lay something on him."