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So Long, Leonard Cohen

It was the sort of autumnal, oh, what the hell, apocalyptic, week that Leonard Cohen could’ve written a brilliant verse about, in one of his many black-hued, black-humored songs. All about how a coarse, over-moneyed, totalitarian type, who should have been locked away years ago, somehow appealed to peoples‘ worst instincts, and improbably, was chosen to become the most powerful man in the world. Leonard Cohen would’ve made it much more succinct, melodic and metrically-precise than I just did. But you will have to accept my poor take on the hellish period we have just entered. Leonard Cohen can’t sit down and write something suitably grim and narcotically-funny about it all.

Because Leonard Cohen has died. He was 82.

And as incisive, fearless and oddly-comforting a songwriter as the world has ever known. But before we deal with the music, first, a brief bit of the man’s literary history.

Born in 1934, in the ritzy area of Montreal known as Westmount, Cohen came from a distinguished family, that was openly, proudly Jewish and he seemed headed for a more traditional, bourgeois career than the one he finally found in his 30s. With a gift for verse and a fine education, he published his first book of poems, Let Us Compare Mythologies, in 1956. No doubt his loving, smothering mother (his father died when Leonard was a boy) figured he would eventually become a professor, or maybe a rabbi. But more books of poetry came. Then two novels. Drugs, travels, beautiful women. In other words, beatnik yearnings. Soon it was clear that Cohen was not going to settle for the life of a nice Jewish boy. Things went well for him, except in that all too impossible-to-understand world of money. The prose and poetry were praised, but they didn’t “pay the rent,” as Cohen put it. Having always written songs and sung them (even if many, many, many people who heard him wished he hadn’t), Leonard discovered Bob Dylan one day, figured you didn’t have to be Caruso to make it as a vocalist and headed to the states to join that strange new tribe of hybrids: the singer-songwriters.

After a little starving in Manhattan, Judy Collins finally heard Cohen’s song, “Suzanne,” and recorded it and a couple of other songs by this darkly handsome, brooding artist. Who sort of resembled Dustin Hoffman’s more mystical brother. And who no matter what stage he was in his career, was simply irresistible to women.

John Hammond, the man who signed Bob Dylan (the two Jewish hep cats would eventually develop a deep, mutual respect), sat on Leonard’s bed in The Chelsea Hotel one night, heard this almost tuneless singer, who nonetheless wrote great tunes, sing several of them, and exhorted, “Leonard, you’ve got it!”

Cohen said he wasn’t sure if that meant talent or a contract with Columbia Records. Both, of course.

He was, at 33, sort of an old dude for the youth-obsessed hippies, when he released his self-titled debut in 1967. But somehow, Cohen connected with the counterculture. The record featured his version of “Suzanne,” with its hypnotic visions of the St. Lawrence Seaway, a woman both seductive and dangerous and Cohen’s lifelong obsession with the suffering and loneliness of Jesus Christ. It also sported “Sisters of Mercy,” which was used to bleak perfection in Robert Altman’s masterpiece, McCabe and Mrs. Miller.

It was a strange, paradoxical situation at first. Cohen was popular, he developed a devoted cult following, but rock critics of the time, most notably the usually insightful Greil Marcus, simply hated the guy. They thought Cohen too precious, precise, sad, hypersensitive, annoyingly erotic. In other words, everything that had nothing to do with rock and roll. By the ‘70s, the audience seemed to agree with these simplistic assessments. He seemed, like, oh, Donovan. A indulgent little trifle from the past, an embarrassing artiste, who was only good to listen to when you were stoned and had incense burning, or as background music when you were about to slash your throat. Still Phil Spector made an odd, wonderful record with Cohen in 1977, that had to be one of the weirdest collaborations in music history.

Then, in the ’80s, on his way to obscurity, something very strange happened. Cohen’s spiritual children, who included Nick Cave, Morrissey, Michael Stipe and others, began to sing the praises of this sex-and-death obsessed, deep-voiced avatar. They loved his dark take on things, his wicked wit, his tailored suits, his openness about being suicidally depressed, his periodic stays at a Zen monastery in Northern California. With his 1988, synth-drenched I’m Your Man, Cohen started having….Dance hits (like “First We Take Manhattan”) and he became exceedingly hip. Not long after that, a song he had recorded in 1984, “Hallelujah,” was covered by Jeff Buckley and John Cale. When it was used in Shrek, it became a global sensation. Then, years later, the bane of American Idol judges and Bar Mitzvah attendees everywhere.

By then, it didn’t matter. Big fame affected the Zen-calm Cohen about as much as his faltering cultishness had. He went about his business and made several more superb records, the most recent (and, most likely last) You Want It Darker, just about a month ago. Although Cohen was rumored to be be quite ill, he insisted there would be another disc or two. Still ‘Darker,’ has the the feeling of a valediction. Or would, if our man from Montreal hadn’t been literarily preparing for his death since he was a boy.

It’s become a terrible, imprecise cliche, back in the day, to call every singer-songwriter who can warble a bit about love or drugs or the moon, a poet. But Cohen really was one. When he wrote his poetry or when he sang it. His sense of cadence, his startling rhymes, his wisdom, his profundity, have now affected millions of people. There are many examples of these traits. But what keeps playing in my ears today, are a few lines from “Sisters of Mercy” — a song Cohen wrote about two teenage girls who slept in his hotel room one snowbound night. And one which he wrote uncharacteristically fast, finishing it by morning.

Coming at the end of this heartbreaking, infuriating, stupid, tragicomic week, these lines seem so healing:

If your life is a leaf / That the seasons tear off and condemn / They will bind you with love / That is graceful and green as a stem.

It’s not just this stupid fucking election, of course. Life tears us up, pulls us off our vines and scatters our leave-like selves no matter what is happening in the world. But you know what makes up for it? Leonard Cohen’s words. Which gracefully put us together, and allow us to grow and blossom once more. At least, until the next rough season, when we are windblown and ravaged once again. But don’t worry. Leonard Cohen has a song for when that time comes too.

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Leonard Cohen

As a near octogenarian, Leonard Cohen has become surprisingly ubiquitous. Between last year’s new album, Old Ideas, and his surprisingly rigorous touring schedule, an in-depth biography by Sylvie Simmons came out, Adam Sandler parodied the Canadian poet’s “Hallelujah” at the 12-12-12 concert, and author Alan Light put out an insightful book about the history of that particular song. Now, just a few months after his December concerts, he’s returned for another breathtaking round of songs of love and hate. Kurt Cobain once sang, “Give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld”; we should be so blessed.

Sat., April 6, 8 p.m.; Sun., April 7, 8 p.m., 2013

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How Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ Went From Obscurity to Ubiquity

Back in September 2010, noted music journalist (and former editor in chief of SPIN and Vibe magazines) Alan Light was among 4,000 people sitting in the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center for Yom Kippur services when the Congregation Beit Simchat Torah choir took the stage to conclude the solemn proceedings with a stirring version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

“I just thought, ‘Man, this song is really in a very different place now,'” Light says. “Obviously, it’s attained a different status in the world if here at the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, at the climax of the service, that’s the song they come out and sing. And this was the same year Justin Timberlake had sung it at the Hope for Haiti Now telethon, and K.D. Lang had sung it at the Winter Olympics, so I just started to think of what I knew of the story of the song and that it was not a quick or easy road to get to that kind of place.”

Or, as Light writes in his new book, The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah”: “How did this unconventional song attain such popularity, in such an incremental fashion, over such an extended period of time? Why did it go from being a forgotten album cut by a respected but generally unknown singer-songwriter to a track on Susan Boyle’s 2010 Christmas record?”

An absorbing read, The Holy or the Broken traces the song’s fascinating journey chronologically—starting with Cohen writing and recording the track in the early 1980s—and places Light’s critical examination of the touchstone recordings of “Hallelujah” (by Cohen, John Cale, and Jeff Buckley, particularly) alongside interviews with scores of folks who were either involved with those recordings or who have recorded or performed their own covers of the tune since (Bono, Timberlake, Amanda Palmer, Jon Bon Jovi, Brandi Carlile, Rufus Wainwright, and American Idol contestants included).

“I certainly wanted to know what it meant to all these people who had done it,” Light says. “And while it took some time to get people like Bono or Timberlake to talk about it, they all wanted to do it. And what was really striking, over and over again, you talk to American Idol contestants or Michael Bolton or whoever, and you might expect them to say, ‘Oh, I sang it because my manager told me to,’ but everybody had thought about it, everybody had ideas about it. Some more profound than others, but you just get the sense that nobody blithely does this song. They know they’re doing something important, and they’re aware of the legacy.”

One person who didn’t add his two cents to the book—though his public quotes about “Hallelujah” are sprinkled throughout—was Cohen himself. “I didn’t expect that Leonard was going to talk to me,” Light says of the notorious recluse. “I wanted his blessing and his support for it, which he gave me. He has kind of told the couple of stories he’s gonna tell, and if he was gonna say, ‘Oh, I thought of that line while brushing my teeth,’ that’s probably not gonna help the aura or myth of the song, so I totally understand that.”

In the book, Light expertly unwinds the song’s long, strange journey to ubiquity, beginning with Cohen’s struggle to compose the sprawling verses. Cohen—who had wrested the lyrics from their biblical moorings and shoved them into a secular world of broken hearts and cruel fates—records the song, replete with synthesizers and a gospel choir, for his ill-fated 1984 album Various Positions, which was rejected by CBS Records and instead issued in the U.S. that year by a small indie label, PVC Records.

Bob Dylan heard the song, loved it, and began covering it occasionally on his 1988 tour. He not only kept it alive but also played around with the arrangement (as Dylan is wont to do). Cohen, too, tweaks the arrangement during his mid- to late-’80s live performances, giving it a “much darker and more sexual edge,” Light writes.

Yet before we get to the beautiful and doomed Jeff Buckley, who nudged “Hallelujah” into the stratosphere when he covered it on his one and only studio album, 1994’s Grace, Light lingers for a bit on one of the most pivotal (and often overlooked) moments in the song’s journey—Velvet Underground alumnus John Cale’s stripped-down, vocals-and-piano version of “Hallelujah” on the 1991 Cohen tribute album I’m Your Fan.

Writes Light: “Cale created a more perfect union out of Cohen’s unnerving marriage of the divine and the damaged, but it came at the cost of a spiritual payoff. Between the reassembled lyrics and the simple arrangement, he truly humanized the song, arguably flattening out the emotional ambiguity but allowing it to retain the mystery and majesty of its imagery. NME called Cale’s recording ‘a thing of wondrous, savage beauty.'”

According to the book, a couple of years later, while hanging out at a friend’s apartment in Park Slope, Buckley pulled I’m Your Fan off a shelf and heard “Hallelujah.”

“I think it’s really interesting—the passing of the baton from Leonard as the writer to Cale as the editor to Buckley as the interpreter. There’s this linear progression between those versions, each of which opens it up to a different and larger audience,” Light says.

Certain circles celebrated Buckley’s version, but it was by no means a mainstream hit. And then he drowned in a Mississippi River tributary in 1997. Light writes: “After Buckley’s death, ‘Hallelujah’ took on an almost mythic stature. It was an insider’s secret for those who already knew about him and an accessible pop song if it was functioning as an introduction. It now served as an elegy that went above and beyond actual words and music.”

The popularity of the song quickly snowballed: It’s spotlighted in Shrek; it becomes the go-to anthem after 9/11; every singer-songwriter on the planet—from household names to coffeehouse nobodies—begins covering it live. And here we are.

Light ponders the question of whether we’ve hit “Hallelujah” fatigue, whether the song has lost its potency through ubiquity: “It seemed like it slowed down for a minute, but then it was fascinating to see Adam Sandler spoof it on the 12/12/12 show [to benefit Hurricane Sandy victims]. As I wrote in the book, it’s been taken seriously for so long, it’s kind of begging for someone to pop the balloon. And then there’s Adam Sandler doing it. So I was like, ‘Well, maybe that will slow it down for a while,’ and then two days later were the shootings in Connecticut, and that’s the song everybody turned to again.

“It was a testament to the fact that the song has reached that place, and it’s not vulnerable to something like [a spoof], that it’s bigger than that, and it can take the hit of the joke and still work the way that it’s continued to work. When Paul Simon talks about it, that song was ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water,’ and he saw ‘Hallelujah’ come along and become the next song that does that. So now, until something else rises up and takes it away, it’s still holding that spot.”

Why? At the conclusion of The Holy or the Broken, Light offers his own eloquent explanation: “A venerated creator. An adored, tragic interpreter. An uncomplicated, memorable melody. Ambiguous, evocative words. Faith and uncertainty. Pain and pleasure. A song based in Old Testament language that a teen idol can sing. An erotically charged lyric fit for a Yom Kippur choir or a Christmas collection. Cold. Broken. Holy.”

The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah” is out now.

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Sing Another Song, Leonard Cohen

Thursday night at Webster Hall, the Brooklyn act Cults celebrated a homecoming of sorts. The gloom-pop band’s set included what frontwoman Madeline Follin claimed was a rare encore (assisted by the Indiana MC Freddie Gibbs) and a heap of songs that danced across the line separating the feeling of being totally crushed out and the feeling of crushing romantic disappointment. Reverb-swaddled guitars filled the room, Follin’s hair swinging in the wind as she swayed in time with the music.

At one point, the band took a breather from playing songs from its 2011 debut to bring a cover into the mix: “Everybody Knows,” Leonard Cohen’s stormy track from 1988. “Everybody knows the good guys lost; everybody knows the fight was fixed,” Follin sang bleakly while keyboards chimed behind her. The power of the Canadian troubadour’s statements about a cruel world caused the room to collapse into something more intimate. Follin’s band is as notable for somehow managing to be an enigma in the Internet age as it is for its hummable, glockenspiel-assisted pop jewel “Go Outside.” And she had clearly practiced this Cohen tune a lot—at home, alone, feeling the weary sentiment underlying its blackest lyrics.

The next afternoon, a clutch of people—some of whom had traveled from as far as Montreal and Los Angles—were invited to Joe’s Pub to hear the latest from Cohen, Old Ideas (Columbia). The album, Cohen’s 12th, arrives in record stores Tuesday. Its 10 songs are edited down to only the most necessary musical elements. In contrast to the heavier arrangements of his earlier work, the minimalism is so stark at times that the aftermath of a single string being plucked turns into its own sort of instrumentation, thanks to it having so much room to breathe. Cohen’s bottomless voice curls around sardonic phrases and lamentations about loves lost; the voices of his female collaborators, including longtime foils Sharon Robinson and Jennifer Warnes, swoop in and out, serving as airy counterpoints.

Label-mandated listening sessions for important new records can be sterile affairs, often set in conference rooms or disused offices. Setting the first listen to Old Ideas at the smartly renovated Joe’s Pub was a savvy move, because as the album played through on Friday, the feeling was not unlike being in church: The mid-winter dusk filtered through the windows of Joe’s Pub in such a way as to give the low-lit room an added glow; attendees had their heads bowed in concentration, only looking up to glance around the room or sip from the drinks in front of them; the lyric sheets strewn on each cocktail table served as hymnals, full of Cohen’s sly rhymes and self-lacerating observations. (The reference to a stone being rolled away on “Show Me the Place” and the cross-splinter imagery on the hymnlike “Come Healing” only added to that atmosphere.) “I love to speak with Leonard/He’s a sportsman and a shepherd,” Old Ideas begins, and as if to bring that opening line full circle, the formerly reclusive singer was, in fact, in the building and ready to answer questions.

In 2009, I saw one of Cohen’s Beacon Theater shows, his first concerts in the United States after about 15 years. The performance didn’t show any signs of rust: He ran through his catalog with aplomb and inspired at least 10 standing ovations, and throughout, he was charming and gracious, going so far as to thank even the woman who took care of his hats. Friday’s appearance was no different. Even the most hard-headed journalists in the room seemed to be holding their breath, rapt with attention and asking questions with keen attention paid to each word he uttered in his singular voice. Which actually sounded a bit different than it had in previous years, he noted: “My voice is getting lower and lower because I gave up smoking. I expected it to rise. It went the other way.”

Cohen, seated at a table just below the stage, talked about the album, the goings-on in his own world (“My own personal life is as shabby, dismal, and uninteresting as the rest of ours,” he said at one point), and memories of his time living at the Chelsea Hotel, when things were so rough that he “believed in these powders . . . and bought a book on candles.” The book on candles proved to be a somewhat useful conversation piece with fellow Chelsea Hotel resident Edie Sedgwick. In an attempt to chat her up, he blurted out that the arrangement of candles in her room would probably catch fire one day, and, he claimed, that “one day” wound up being the day after he’d blurted out his warning.

It almost didn’t matter if the story were true or apocryphal. The room shook with laughter, the assembled collectively thrilled that they were hearing this tale of The Lost New York That Probably Won’t Be Coming Back Anytime Soon from as expert a storyteller as Cohen. Old Ideas, with its blend of lyrics old and new (including “Banjo,” a mournful tune about love and instruments lost that, Cohen said, was inspired by the imagery coming out of New Orleans post-Katrina) and its foregrounding of Cohen’s basso profundo, is similarly intimate, its 10 songs speaking to the heartache that everybody knows in a way that simultaneously enthralls and causes heartbreak.

mjohnston@villagevoice.com

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Galeet Dardashti

With the High Holy Days rapidly approaching, there’s a limited time before the Book of Life is officially sealed, and when that happens, who will live and who will die, who will perish by fire, and who by water, will be decided by the big man upstairs. Supposedly. If you believe the Leonard Cohen song. It’s all a little grim, but spend a night leading up to the Days of Awe with Persian Jewish cantor-scholar Galeet Dardashti, and prepare for something approaching rapture, the type that rouses slumberers from their sleep, turns swords into ploughshares, and spears into pruning hooks.

Sat., Sept. 10, 9 p.m., 2011

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The Low Anthem

Performing more seance than concert, these latter-day troubadours conjure the ghosts of hitchhikers, vagabonds, and hapless dreamers, those lonely hearts who measure their lives by the exit signs on Guthrie’s ribbon of highway and whose names only the wind remembers. On Smart Flesh, they paint a sweeping tableau of pastoral Americana from the inside out that eschews the obvious totems–Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Townes Van Zandt–and finds their voice in lovelorn, dirge-like elegies that evoke rainy days and summer ennui. Get ready to step into an Andrew Wyeth watercolor that knows how to rock. With These United States and Daniel Lefkowitz.

Wed., June 15, 9 p.m., 2011

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Susanna & the Magical Orchestra

Whether performing their own material or covers of such well-known tunes as Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” this Norwegian duo sounds likes Goldfrapp minus the glittery disco beats or Björk with a case of the blahs.

Tue., June 29, 10:30 p.m., 2010

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Daniel Lanois’ Black Dub

U2’s producer was better off as an instrumentalist on 2005’s hypnotic “Belladonna,” subtly toying with the pick articulations of strums and slides, but he nonetheless went into Texas-sunset, singer-songwriter mode with 2007’s “Here Is What Is”—think Leonard Cohen topped with diced chipotle peppers. With this glistening new rock quartet, fronted by 22-year-old gritty blues princess powerhouse Trixie Whitley, he wisely sticks to the former role even when the regal material suggests the latter.

Wed., Feb. 17, 8 p.m., 2010

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A BEAUTIFUL MIND

You know he’s half-crazy, but that’s why you want to be there—although it’s easy to forget that before singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen was the elderly, messianic folk statesman of today, tipping his fedora benevolently and crooning, “Hallelujah” out into the rapt, swooning pews, he was as twisted as a corkscrew. Exhibit A: His novel Beautiful Losers, one of the most experimental novels of the ’60s, remains the most bizarre, hysterically priapic string of syllables ever printed, an endlessly detonating confrontation of the racial and sexual ambiguities of the Beat era. Revisiting it today, the book cleanly links to the sinister politics behind some of his most famous songs—including “Everybody Knows” and “First We Take Manhattan”—and reminds us that Cohen frequently wrote gorgeous, loving poetry but equally, and eloquently, embraced animosity. Now, at age 75, he’s a wonderful, heartrending performer with that glint of disobedience in his eye; absolutely do not miss him.

Fri., Oct. 23, 8 p.m., 2009

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Torche+Harvey Milk+Pollution

Torche and Harvey Milk are the twin totems of sludge-pop, two bands who’ve ushered Melvins-style bludgeon into exciting new arenas of woofer wreckage. Torche use doom-metal textures to make Beach Boys harmonic pop—a joyous, major-key, heavens-gazing bombast that takes on a religious quality when blasted out into a writhing sea of the faithful. Harvey Milk have been at it since the early ’90s, a metal band as quick to jettison into Polvo-style angularity as they are into bummed out Leonard Cohen covers. With Pollution.

Sun., July 26, 9 p.m., 2009