Leonard Cohen – Old Ideas
Let’s get this out of the way right up front:
Leonard Cohen could sing the text from a Dairy Queen menu and it would sound like something written by a prophet who spends his life trudging up a mountain, battling who knows what along the way, then spends innumerable years waiting on God who eventually reveals himself and has a face to face dialog with the sage who then descends the mountain, much wiser and wearier to try and relate his experience to all of us commoners, living in oblivion by keeping ourselves busy with completely mundane and unimportant things.
I saw Leonard Cohen live in 2009. I’ve said many times that I can only describe the experience as, “Biblical”. It truly was like I was sitting at the foot of that wise old sage. My wife was with me, but had never heard of Cohen or any of his music before that night. She first asked if he was lip-syncing. Within a few minutes, when you could tell that she realized that she was in fact hearing Cohen’s voice – one of the most unique and divisive in all of recorded music – she said, “He’s kind of dramatic. A little goofy.” She wasn’t sure about his melodramatic gestures, his falling to one knee repeatedly, and his “if anybody else said this stuff, it would sound unbearably over the top” stage banter. Another song or two later, “Is he gay?” No, my dear, he most assuredly is not. Another song, “Wow…he’s kinda sexy. His vibe is kinda hot. Even for an old guy.” Once we had addressed all of those concerns, she settled in for the rest of the three-hour show and by the end, just like me and everyone else in the room, her jaw hung wide open in the realization that we had witnessed something very special.
That was before, though.
Before his “people” embezzled all of his money and he declared bankruptcy. Before he embarked on a massive multi-year world tour to generate enough of a nest egg that he could live on again. Before all of this somehow turned him into a jovial old man who enjoyed the spotlight again.
We used to have to go a long time without hearing anything from Leonard Cohen. He seemed to like it that way. He’d go ten years between albums. It was almost like he spent as much time as he could accumulating pain and worldly experience before finally expelling them in one document of a few songs and retreating again.
He used to retreat to remote places in the Mediterranean between albums and tours. Sometimes he retreated to Buddhist monasteries.
Leonard Cohen is not like artists you know. When I think of Cohen, I always think of one picture I saw of him. He’s in a wide open room in a structure made almost entirely of stone with open windows. The only furniture in the room is a bed, a wooden chair, and a small table/desk. The location appears to be somewhere like Italy or Greece. There’s a vintage European-looking guitar leaned against the unmade bed, which is dressed in perfectly white linens. Cohen, dressed in white pants and a thin, mostly-open linen shirt, is unshaven, tired looking, and barefoot, sitting at the desk, typing. At the far end of the room a beautiful dark-haired woman sits, completely naked, on the chair, staring intently at Cohen as he labors; inspiring him. She is obviously his muse. At least for that phase of his life. For that album. That song.
Other artists fabricate scenes that look like that. When you watch movies that try to be “artsy”, this is the kind of scene you see. Except, this scene is real. This is how Leonard Cohen lives. Or did for a long time, anyway.
Ryan Mifflin is the host of Dirty Roots Radio, a “Quentin Tarantino-ization of a spaghetti western style old-school record show” featuring renegade country, vintage gospel, raw blues, greasy soul, punk, and funk. Tune in to Dirty Roots Radio every Thursday night from 8 to 10 p.m. (central) on WGRN 89.5 FM. Listen online from anywhere in the world at www.wgrn.net.