Leonard Cohen Makes a Rare Portland Appearance on Dec. 8
Published: Friday, December 03, 2010, 10:40 AM
Updated: Friday, December 03, 2010, 10:57 AM
Jeff Baker, The Oregonian
Before every concert, Leonard Cohen and his band gather in the green room, dressed and ready. Cohen offers them some essential oils that they rub on their wrists. It's a bonding ritual, and it smells nice.
They also sing three lines as a vocal exercise and a way to get centered. The short chant is in Latin, and is translated this way:
"I am a poor person.
" I have nothing.
"I am nothing."
They sing it as a round. Sometimes they sing it when they walk toward the stage. The first song they perform is almost always "Dance Me to the End of Love," with the lovely line "lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove." Another magical evening is under way.
After 15 years of avoiding the road, Cohen has been on tour almost continuously since May of 2008. He's played more than 200 concerts around the world during that time and is wrapping up with three shows, Wednesday at the Rose Garden and next weekend in Las Vegas. There are plans to record an album next year -- Cohen has been performing new songs -- but he's 76 and has been telling audiences he may not pass this way again. It's a fair assumption that this is the last, best chance to see Cohen, and a good time to ask a few questions about one of the most interesting, unlikely musicians of the last 50 years.
Why is he pushing himself so hard, playing three-hour concerts and doubling back to play the same cities twice in three years? Is it renewed energy and inspiration after being away from live performances for so long, or does it have something to do with the lawsuit against his former manager that drained millions from his retirement account?
Where does his legendary discipline and commitment to art originate, in his comfortable Jewish upbringing in Montreal or his later years as an ordained Zen Buddhist monk? How does someone whose vocal range makes Bob Dylan sound like Pavarotti lead a talented band through concerts that leave fans screaming for more after multiple encores? What is it about an artist who's never had a hit in America and never done anything to draw attention to himself that makes people respond so passionately, not only to his music but to what he represents?
The answers to those questions and any others will have to come from someone other than Cohen. He does interviews once in a while but mostly maintains a quiet, calm reserve that is part of his mystique. Everyone who knows Cohen or comes in contact with him describes him as thoughtful and gentle, always courteous while keeping his depths hidden except in his songs. By doing so, he increases curiosity about himself while allowing his fans to project their own often-intense feelings onto him.
"Most singers give us one mood, or one persona with which we can identify or attach ourselves; Leonard Cohen gives us a revolving-door of different selves and levels, and the old man in him is as tonic and bracing in winter as the young seeker was when we were young," Pico Iyer, the author of "The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama," said in an e-mail.
Iyer spent time at the Mt. Baldy Zen Center near Los Angeles with Cohen, who lived there for several years. Cohen was a disciple of Sasaki Roshi, a Japanese monk whose rigorous practice of Zen included sitting zazen 24 hours a day for seven days at a time. A long concert tour must seen like nothing compared to that, and there's no doubt that Cohen's stamina and focus, always intense, have improved with time. He may have come down from the mountaintop, but he brought what he learned with him.
Cohen told Iyer in 1998 that he was too happy at the Zen center to write anymore, and then showed him some new writing. He was a poet and novelist before he started singing at 32, and his love of poetry is so intense that he named his daughter Lorca, after his idol, Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca. For all the brilliant musicianship on Cohen's tours, he is one artist who is best approached through his lyrics. Roscoe Beck, the bass player and musical director in his band, described in an e-mail how he first prepared for a tour with Cohen in 1979.
"The songs, and his books, were a revelation," Beck said. "Prior to that time, most of my work had been in the jazz idiom, and in blues. I was of course familiar with other singer-songwriters such as Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, but most of my attention had been on the harmonic content of the music I was studying or playing. Here with Leonard was something else entirely, and I was immediately struck by the intense depth of his work: songs such as 'Who by Fire' or 'Story of Isaac' made a great impact on me emotionally."
He's not the only one. Cohen has been making emotional connections since 1967, when his album "Songs of Leonard Cohen" was released. The producer was John Hammond, who signed Dylan and Bruce Springsteen to Columbia Records, and the story goes that when Cohen began singing in the studio, Hammond got on the intercom and said, "Watch out, Dylan!"
"Songs of Leonard Cohen" was full of classics, including "Suzanne" and "Sisters of Mercy." "Songs From a Room" followed two years later with "Bird on the Wire" and Cohen was embedded in popular culture, not at its center like Dylan and Springsteen but over on the darker, more melancholy edge. He took his music from straight-up folk to a more sophisticated European sound and freely experimented over the decades, using Phil Spector as a producer and touring with jazz-influenced bands. His fans remained passionate, and his integrity and refusal to follow trends kept his music fresh for younger fans.
"Growing up, our dad had music on a lot of the time, on car journeys and around the house," said Hattie and Charley Webb, who sing in Cohen's band, in an e-mail. "From Joni Mitchell, Simon and Garfunkel, the Beatles, Buddy Rich ... and he also played Leonard Cohen. As we got older and with more life experience, we felt we related more and more to the impact of Leonard's music, the lilt of Leonard's guitar and voice and the conviction of his lyrics."
Cohen is a major star in Europe, particularly Scandinavia and Poland, Israel, and his native Canada. In the U.S., album sales have been modest and until the current tour he hasn't always sold tickets. (The Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall was only one-third full for a 1988 appearance; a review in The Oregonian was headlined "Tiny audience hears '60s pop.") His song "Hallelujah," released in 1984, has been covered by dozens of artists, most notably Jeff Buckley and John Cale, and has been used in numerous movies and TV shows. It is now a centerpiece of his concerts. Jennifer Warnes' 1987 album "Famous Blue Raincoat," produced by Beck and made up of Cohen songs, was one of the first and best of many tribute albums.
Cohen brought what he learned on Mt. Baldy back with him, but the real world turned cold in 2004 when he discovered that what he thought was a $5 million retirement fund was almost gone. He won a civil judgment against his former manager, once a close friend, for more than $7 million but has been unable to collect. Cohen is described by those who know him as calm about the ordeal and say his religious training keeps him grounded.
"When I first got to know him, on those days on the mountaintop, I very quickly forgot that I was talking to a musical star, a heartthrob or an icon; but I was always aware that I was talking with a deeply serious and committed monk and a hugely articulate and engaged writer," Iyer said. "Those of us who meet him only through his records (which is most of us) or in his concerts can easily forget this; his grounding, his first love, his foundation is in literature and the spirit."
As Cohen winds up his tour, the shows are getting longer and the audiences more enthusiastic. Beck and the Webb sisters were responding to e-mails from Australia, where Cohen finished a four-encore performance in Perth with "I Tried to Leave You." Hattie Webb said there is no typical concert because each one is unique and it was hard to explain the experience in words:
"From the anticipation of walking on stage together, the band singing a chant all together as we go on. Listening to the dynamic and mood of Leonard and each other onstage. Feeling the atmosphere in the room and seeing faces in the audience, living the moment with each person. Singing the words from the heart. The concert comes to a climax of energy and emotion, and we all leave the stage undoing our ties and waistcoats with a feeling that it has been a momentous night."
-- Jeff Baker