Leonard Cohen

by John Boland

Leonard Cohen, can you believe it, will be 73 this September, more cool now than he’s ever been, with the soul of a poet and the soulfulness of the greatest singers. Just as hard to credit is that it’s almost forty years ago since he recorded his first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, from whose cover he stares at us with mournful reproach.

Before that he had written two good novels, The Favorite Game and Beautiful Losers, and four fine books of verse and was something of a literary celebrity in his native Montreal, but for those of us in this country who were students at the time and knew next to nothing of Canadian literature, this album came out of nowhere and astonished us.

We had been wallowing in 1967’s fabled summer of love and though most of us in the backwaters of Dublin were sadly missing out on its more interesting excesses – certainly on its carnal and mind-altering aspects – nonetheless we felt we were somehow part of a mysteriously exciting time as John Lennon told us of a guy who blew his mind out in a car and Bob Dylan thrilled us with that wild mercury sound of his as the ghosts of electricity howled in the bones of his lover’s face.

And then suddenly, amid the raucous drawl of Dylan, the caterwauling of the Stones and the blissful harmonies of the Beatles, we heard through the ether this other mysterious sound, the whispered baritone of a man who seemed somehow older and wiser and more world-weary than his musical contemporaries and who, to the minimalist strum of a rumbling acoustic guitar, was content to let his words carry most of his meaning.

He sang of Suzanne feeding you tea and oranges that came all the way from China as you touched her perfect body with your mind, and of a stranger who, leaning on a window sill, would say one day you caused his will to weaken with your love and warmth and shelter, and of those sisters of mercy offering shelter and solace when you thought you just couldn’t go on – all of these semi-mystical ephinanies delivered in a voice that was suffused with erotic longing and regret.

From quite early on he was dubbed Laughing Len by critics who sneered at what they regarded as his gloominess, thereby missing the point that many of his songs are shot through with sardonic humour. “I was born like this,” he wryly noted in the 1988 Tower of Song, “I had no choice. I was born with the gift of a golden voice.” The observation is double-edged. No, he’s not a conventionally gifted vocalist. “You guys aren’t singers,” he recalled his agent telling him in the early days. “If I want to hear singing I’ll go to the Metropolitan Opera.” But yet there’s no one in the world who sounds like him or who can shape a lyric so powerfully, even today, when his vocal chords can manage little more than a breathy croak and his female backup singers have to fill in some of the musical gaps.

Unlike many of my contemporaries, I kept faith with Leonard Cohen, even through his most barren years when the muse seemed to have deserted him (Death of a Lady’s Man, grotesquely over-produced by Phil Spector, is gruesome stuff). But I liked his style, I liked his old-world courtesy and modesty in interviews. Most of all, I liked his poetic integrity, I always thought he was the real thing.

And I still do. It’s been very cheering in the last decade or so to observe Cohen coming into his own once again and finding a new, and indeed much bigger, audience without ever feeling the need to compromise his vision or betray his muse. In fact, the newer songs are even more heartfelt and suggestive and sardonic than the earlier ones, proving that popular music doesn’t have to be inimical to the true poetic spirit and that those with ears will recognise the real thing when they hear it.

Columbia records have just released remastered versions of his first three albums – Songs of Leonard Cohen, Songs from a Room and the very underrated Songs of Love and Hate, which contains two of his greatest lyrics, Famous Blue Raincoat and Love Calls You by Its Name. If you’re not already a convert, do yourself a favour and buy all three. I’m Your Man, he told us in his 1988 album of the same name. Well, he still is. Hallelujah.

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