On Leonard Cohen’s gruelling 1972 world tour, captured in Tony Palmer’s documentary Bird on a Wire, an interviewer asked the singer to define success. Cohen, who at 37 knew a bit about failure and the kind of acclaim that doesn’t pay the bills, frowned at the question and replied: “Success is survival.”
By that reckoning, Cohen has been far more of a success than he could have predicted. There have been reversals of fortune along the way but 40 years later he enters an ornate room in Paris’ fabled Crillon Hotel to a warm breeze of applause. Looking like a grandfatherly mobster, he doffs his hat and smiles graciously, just as he did every night of the 2008 to 2010 world tour that represented a miraculous creative revival. The prickly, saturnine, dangerously funny character witnessed in Bird on a Wire has found a measure of calm and, as he often puts it, gratitude.
These days, Cohen rations his one-on-one interviews with the utmost austerity, hence this press conference to promote his 12th album, Old Ideas, a characteristically intimate reflection on love, death, suffering and forgiveness. After the playback he answers questions. He was always funnier than he was given credit for; now he has honed his deadpan to such perfection that every questioner becomes the straight man in a double act. Claudia from Portugal wants him to explain the humour behind his image as a lady’s man. “Well, for me to be a lady’s man at this point requires a great deal of humour,” he replies. Steve from Denmark wonders what Cohen will be in his next life. “I don’t really understand that process called reincarnation but if there is such a thing I’d like to come back as my daughter’s dog.” Erik, also from Denmark, asks if he has come to terms with death. “I’ve come to the conclusion, reluctantly, that I am going to die,” he responds. “So naturally those questions arise and are addressed. But, you know, I like to do it with a beat.”
Cohen falls into the odd category of underrated legend. To his fans, including many songwriters, he is about as good as it gets, but he has never enjoyed a hit single or (outside of his native Canada and, for some reason, Norway) a platinum album. He has said that a certain image of him has been “put into the computer”: the womanizing poet who sings songs of “melancholy and despair” enjoyed by those who wish they could be (or be with) womanizing poets too. These days the database will also note that he wrote Hallelujah, a neglected song on a flop album that, via an unlikely alliance of Jeff Buckley, Shrek and The X Factor, eventually became a kind of modern hymn.
Its creator was born in Montreal on Sept. 21 1934, three months before Elvis Presley. When he first shopped his songs around New York, the ones that became 1967’s Songs of Leonard Cohena, agents responded: “Aren’t you a little old for this game?” By then he had already lost his father while very young, met Jack Kerouac, lived in a bohemian idyll on the Greek island of Hydra, visited Cuba during the Bay of Pigs invasion, and published two acclaimed novels and four volumes of poetry. In short, he had lived, and this gave his elaborate, enigmatic songs a grave authority to younger listeners who sensed that he was privy to mysteries that they could only guess at. He was neither the best singer, the best musician nor the best-looking man around, but he had the charisma and the words, and the eroticized intelligence. Perhaps because his style owed more to French chansonniers and Jewish cantors than American folk, he was always more loved in Europe than north America. An early write-up in folk gazette Sing Out! remarked: “No comparison can be drawn between Leonard Cohen and any other phenomenon.”