Waiting for the Miracle David Yaffe
"Give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld/So I can sigh eternally." It has been more than fifteen years since Kurt Cobain groaned those words on Nirvana’s final album, at a time when Cohen was on a tour that could have been his last. Cobain was 26, and with the aid of a shotgun he would soon deliver himself to his own afterworld; Cohen was 59, "just a crazy kid with a dream," as he likes to say these days. In the decade that followed, Cohen would study religious practices and retire from touring; his hair would turn a ghostly white; his longtime (and now former) manager, Kelley Lynch, would misappropriate millions of dollars from his retirement account. In 2006 Cohen filed suit against her in a Los Angeles court and won, but with payment of the $9 million settlement in limbo (Lynch has ignored the ruling and brushed off subpoenas), he decided to earn his keep by embarking on another final tour in 2008 and 2009. The Leonard Cohen Afterworld was going to happen after all. The man who had once been anointed the "prince of bummers" by The New Yorker was soon presiding over a tightly choreographed career retrospective and hopping on- and offstage with a toothy grin.
Despite his bread-and-butter motives, Cohen has approached the tour with anything but cynicism. With self-deprecating humor and septuagenarian angst, and draped in dapper men’s wear, Cohen often delivers his songs on one knee, hat in hand, as if begging or sermonizing, supplicant not only to the audience and his fellow musicians but to music itself. His voice ranges from gruff crooning to keening on the lowest frequencies, and each song he sings, plucked from nearly his entire recording career, going back to 1967, is somehow about a search for beauty, for lust, for wisdom. (The two albums missing from the tour’s playlist, Death of a Ladies’ Man, from 1977, and Dear Heather, from 2004, perhaps journeyed too deep into the valley of sleaze to make the cut.) The songs are about making love or sitting at a master’s feet–or both.
I saw Cohen from coast to coast: New York City in February, Los Angeles in April. In between I caught a performance in Claremont, California, of The Book of Longing, a 2006 collaboration between Cohen and Philip Glass that set poems of Cohen’s to chilly atmospheric music. I walked out of the New York performance at the newly restored Beacon Theatre dizzy with gratitude. Cohen played for three impassioned hours; his band’s musicianship was superb, and he told stellar jokes. He recited lines from selected songs, as if to emphasize that his lyrics were not merely poetic but poetry. From "Democracy": "But I’m stubborn as those garbage bags that Time cannot decay,/I’m junk but I’m still holding up this little wild bouquet." From "Anthem": "Ring the bells that still can ring./Forget your perfect offering./There is a crack in everything./That’s how the light gets in." Garbage, music, stoicism, beauty, truth: Cohen’s signature elements all linked in perfect rhyming couplets. When Cohen recited lines, he slowed down his delivery–even in a night of pop music–to allow the audience to savor every syllable. On one song, alternate lyrics for "A Thousand Kisses Deep," he drew cheers by doing nothing but recite. The audience laughed at the jokes and seemed stunned by the profundities. Live in London, a 2008 performance recorded at London’s 02 Arena (where Michael Jackson was to have launched his comeback), features a set list similar to the current tour’s and lots of patter almost identical to what I heard this year. Just pretend it’s spontaneous.
There was a point in Cohen’s life when singing in public, even talking in private, seemed impossible. It was a lull Cohen sought out and sustained through ritual and adopted practice. In the early ’90s he retreated to the Mount Baldy Zen Center, where he was given the name Jikan, meaning "the silent one." On warm days in California’s Inland Empire, you can see Mount Baldy’s snowy summit, and Cohen was in the thick of it for five years, with his Japanese master, Kyozan Joshu Roshi, who would drink $300 bottles of scotch with his student and dispense whatever wisdom could breach the language barrier. "I not Japanese, you not Jewish," Roshi told Cohen, establishing, as an initial premise, suspended identities.
Ten New Songs, from 2001, was the first album Cohen released after descending from the mountain. Its lead track, "In My Secret Life," hinted at the vibe of the afterworld to come, which when staged in 2008 would command four-figure prices on eBay for tickets to sold-out venues. On "In My Secret Life," Cohen whittled down his lyrics to essential phrases and his voice to a droning lower baritone, creating a Tibetan throat singer oration that is the polar opposite of an operatic upward trill:
I bite my lip.
I buy what I’m told:
From the latest hit,
To the wisdom of old.
The trajectory between the latest hit and the wisdom of old is a long one, and Cohen prolongs it, especially in performances, by singing "ooooooooooohhhhhhhhhhhhld," as if old age is something that might last a very long time. "I was born like this, I had no choice./I was born with the gift of a golden voice," Cohen explains in "The Tower of Song," and while he was singing from an imagined posthumous position when he recorded the tune in his early 50s in 1988, he had grown into it by the time he was performing the song for adoring crowds in 2008 and 2009. Every time he sang it, especially the line "I was born with the gift of a golden voice," he was rewarded with a huge cheer. (During the Mount Baldy scotch sessions, Roshi, who was in his 90s, would say, "Excuse me for not dying." Cohen says he now feels this way himself.) "I’m turning tricks, I’m getting fixed,/I’m back on Boogie Street," he sang on "A Thousand Kisses Deep" when he had taken up speaking and singing again. If he only knew.
The year 2008 proved to be when Leonard Cohen finally became a mainstream figure. Cohen was discovered in 1967 by John Hammond, Columbia Records’ legendary talent scout, who was willing to take a chance on a thirtysomething Canadian poet and novelist who had fallen in with Warhol’s Factory crowd while pursuing a musical career in Greenwich Village. Four decades later, Cohen was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame alongside Madonna, John Mellencamp and the Ventures, and refused to perform. Lou Reed’s introduction, a rambling tribute to the marvel of Cohen’s lyrics, included a statement of uncharacteristic beneficence: "We are so lucky to be alive at the same time Leonard Cohen is." Cohen made his entrance, told a self-deprecating zinger and, in the spirit of Reed’s introduction, he recited "The Tower of Song" before exiting the stage. "I’ll be speaking to you sweetly from my window in the tower of song," he promised in a rasp, perhaps keeping his own afterworld in check.
By the end of the year, Cohen had performed around a hundred concerts and discovered that two cover versions of his song "Hallelujah"–which he had originally recorded for Various Positions (1984), an album that Columbia had at first deemed unworthy of release in the United States–were competing for the top spot on the Christmas charts in Britain. The covers, by British reality-show contestant Alexandra Burke and American singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley, ended the year at No. 1 and No. 2, respectively (Cohen’s original hovered in the mid-30s), making it the first song in more than fifty years to occupy the top two spots on the British charts. In the United States, Buckley’s version peaked at No. 1, a remarkable feat for a song recorded more than a decade earlier, three years before the singer’s accidental death at age 30 in 1997. The tragedy of Buckley’s short life, as opposed to the phenomenon of Cohen’s long one, may have had something to do with the popularity of his cover version. Perhaps listeners preferred Buckley’s opiate beauty to Cohen’s gruff poetry. Maybe they got hooked on the mellifluous chord substitution Buckley added, which sounds like the "secret chord" David plays for the Lord in the song’s first verse. Maybe the sepia-toned video of Buckley lip-synching the song, so fey and self-destructive, was just too swoon-worthy. Or maybe millions of people liked Buckley’s version of "Hallelujah" simply because it sounds like many other covers of the song–especially Rufus Wainwright’s, which appeared on the Shrek soundtrack. "Hallelujah" has become such a pop staple that it was even performed by American Idol finalist Jason Castro, a sensitive young white guy with dreadlocks. Randy, Paula and Simon loved the song, and especially–need it be added?–Buckley’s version.
Mixing sacred and profane verses, "Hallelujah" is about the folly of trying to live a sanctified life in a fallen, imperfect world. The song offers biblical wisdom, sexual healing and haunted, inspired solitude. The singer looks for beauty in every syllable, every stroke of sex, every note that is offered up to the Lord–to G-d, as Cohen writes–but he also realizes, at least implicitly, that it is his lust, his flaws, that cause a stupendous, epic fall. The only version of "Hallelujah" as sublime as Cohen’s is one performed by Bob Dylan in 1988 in Montreal. (It’s available online.) Dylan’s voice, like Cohen’s, is gravelly, and when he sings "there’s a blaze of light in every word," you can glimpse the illumination amid the haze. When Dylan first heard the song, along with the rest of Various Positions, he said that Cohen’s songs were starting to sound more like prayers.
"Hallelujah" took Cohen years to write, and he would continue to sort out the verses after recording it. The germ of the song’s memorable first verse–"You don’t really care for music, do you?" rhyming, inimitably, with "hallelujah"–can be found in the opening lines of a short prose piece called "The News You Really Hate," from Death of a Lady’s Man, a volume of poems released the year after Cohen’s 1977 album Death of a Ladies’ Man: "You fucking whore. I thought that you were really interested in music." The tone is quite different–it would never be mistaken as prayerful–but the sense of devotion is just as acute. For Cohen, music is holy, a prayer. If a lover doesn’t share this with him, presumably, it is a betrayal. This is the same Cohen who, in "Suzanne" (1967), his original signature tune, sang, in the second person, "You’ve touched her perfect body/with your mind." Cohen’s voice leads us to a mind always seeking perfection, not just in an erotic experience but a spiritual one. Like John Donne, Cohen constantly pairs the sacred and the profane–a coupling rooted in deep study. The original lyrics of "Hallelujah" (the word literally means "praise God") were all biblical in origin: the stories of David and the Lord, Samson and Delilah. Cohen was unsatisfied with a wholly biblical saga and added secular verses, but even in them his metaphorical arsenal found religion: "I remember when I moved in you,/and the holy dove was moving too,/and every breath we drew was Hallelujah!"
"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."