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Leonard Cohen rare concert tour has fans crying 'Hallelujah"
By Jim Harrington
Updated: 04/12/2009 05:35:44 AM PDT
He's never recorded a smash radio hit. Never come close to cracking the Billboard Top 40. Never had any of his albums certified platinum in the U.S. His biggest-selling studio release, 1967's "Songs of Leonard Cohen," eventually went gold stateside, but it took more than 20 years.
Even though he's fared better commercially in his native Canada and the U.K., an accountant might look at his sales figures in this country and yawn.
Yet, tickets for Cohen's North American tour, which includes shows Monday through Wednesday at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, have been as hard to come by as ducats to see Britney Spears, Phish, the Dave Matthews Band, Coldplay or any other pop/rock juggernaut that you want to mention.
"The response has been amazing," says Gary Bongiovanni, editor-in-chief of the concert industry trade publication Pollstar. "This will be the biggest tour (Cohen) has ever done."
Why the fuss?
Bay Area fans certainly have led the way. They snatched up tickets for the first Paramount date that went on sale so quickly that promoters added a second, then a third, show. In total, about 10,000 tickets have been sold for the three-night stand — and that still hasn't satisfied demand. (Some good news for fans originally shut out on purchasing tickets: Promoters say they will be releasing more prime seats, particularly for the Tuesday show, so keep checking with Ticketmaster for availability.)
So, what is it about Cohen that's causing so many thousands of people to fight for the chance to drop upward of $250 on a ticket?
Several factors are involved. There's the infrequency in which he tours (this jaunt is his first in 15 years). There's the mystique that surrounds the man. But mainly it's that many worship Cohen, 74, as one of the finest writers of his generation, worthy of comparison to such greats as Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson, Smokey Robinson and Lennon/McCartney.
Cohen is, however, a vastly different kind of songwriter from those others. Some believe he's not really a songwriter at all, but a poet who sets his words to music, and, in that sense, perhaps his true comparison group can't be culled from the pop-music world.
"This is our Keats. "... This is our Shelley," comments U2's Bono in the Cohen documentary/concert film "Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man."
Early love of words
To get a sense for the difference between songwriting and poetry, turn off the stereo and simply read the lyrics to a Cohen tune. Tracks like "Suzanne," "Bird on a Wire" and "Famous Blue Raincoat" don't need the guitar, bass, drums or even vocals to work. Now try doing the same thing with a songwriter, even a great one like Dylan, and it's not quite the same deal — the lyrics to, say, Dylan's "Masters of War," as finely crafted as they are, clearly benefit from musical accompaniment.
It helps that Cohen was an accomplished poet long before he was a recording artist.
Born in Montreal in 1934, Cohen was drawn to words at an early age. While at McGill University, he studied Yeats, Whitman and Henry Miller and published his first collection of poetry, "Let Us Compare Mythologies," in 1956. His second book of rhymes, "The Spice-Box of Earth" (1961), made him something of a star in Canadian poetry circles.
He would latter follow with a pair of novels, "The Favourite Game" (1963) and "Beautiful Losers" (1966). The second book is now championed by many as a postmodern Canadian classic, although critics were far less kind to it at the time — the Toronto Globe and Mail called it "verbal masturbation" while the Toronto Daily went so far as to say "this is, among other things, the most revolting book ever written in Canada."
That kind of ink didn't help book sales, and Cohen, short on cash and long on words, decided to move to the U.S. in 1967 to try his luck in the burgeoning folk scene.
"In hindsight, it was like a mad decision that I was going to rectify my economic situation by becoming a songwriter," Cohen reminisces in the film "Leonard Cohen Under Review, 1934-1977." "I thought I'd go to Nashville and cut a record and that would take care of things."
Instead, he moved to New York City, became well known through his association with Judy Collins (who scored a hit with Cohen's "Suzanne"), and landed a deal with Columbia Records. His first offering on the label, "Songs of Leonard Cohen," was released in 1967 and made a modest showing on the charts, topping out at No. 83. Yet, the highly literate record also served notice that a new and important voice was on the scene.
"There is an authority to that first Leonard Cohen album," Rolling Stone editor Anthony DeCurtis says in "Under Review." "In a sense it's not like a debut — it's like the next collection of stories or poems. It didn't have that tentative feel that even great '60s debuts have. This was somebody who clearly had an established voice as an artist."
Some of that, of course, can be credited to his background as a professional writer. But it's not as simple as that, or else every struggling poet and writer would be cutting classic albums. Something about Cohen's writing style, an ability to take deceivingly simple lines full of concrete details and combine them into vastly meaningful stories that touched on universal human experience, really worked in song.
That first album was no fluke. He followed it up with three more releases — 1969's "Songs From a Room," 1971's "Songs of Love and Hate" and 1974's "New Skin for the Old Ceremony" — that many consider among the best albums of the era. His later works, while not championed with quite the same passion, have produced excellent songs, ones that many believe could come only from the mind of Leonard Cohen.
"Leonard is this almost prophetic voice in music for me," U2's the Edge says in the film "I'm Your Man." "He's got this almost Biblical significance and authority, which, I think, definitely comes from his unique approach to working on songs, where a song can take years to mature."
One factor helping his cause has been the obvious high regard that other great songwriters have for him. Lou Reed seemed to sum up the feeling best as he inducted Cohen into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year, when he said that the honoree ranks among the "highest and most influential echelon of songwriters." Countless other musicians have shown their respect by covering Cohen tunes.
Cohen also has cultivated, intentionally or not, an undeniable mystique. People hear all the stories — how he did much of his writing in the '60s while living on a secluded Greek island, or how he left regular society for five years in the '90s to study Buddhism high atop a mountain — and it conjures up an iconic image, one that places Cohen closer to Hemingway and Kerouac than Lennon and McCartney. He's also lived a fairly private life, and goes years without being in the public eye.
"I doubt he would be able to command such a big dollar if he toured regularly," comments Rob Evans, editor-in-chief of the music-news site LiveDaily.com. "The average ticket for a Bob Dylan show, for instance, probably runs about $65, while Cohen is averaging well more than $110 per head. That's probably not sustainable over the long term."
There's also something about Cohen's canyon-deep voice, which many initially dubbed commercially unviable, that some find so mysteriously appealing.
"How do you describe why it is that Leonard Cohen makes you feel intimate with him? But he does," noted rock critic Robert Christgau says in "Under Review." "So, you want to engage him when you hear his voice coming out of the speakers."
All that combines with a musical approach that owes much to folk tradition, draws heavily from classical music and early 20th century popular song, yet seems so curiously detached from most of rock 'n' roll. It's the kind of music that only an unlikely superstar could produce.
"There's a place for my kind of music, although it can never be in the mainstream," Cohen said in 1972. "It's a sanctuary for me and for the people who use it that way. That's what I use it for "... a sanctuary."
Reach Jim Harrington at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his Concert Blog at blogs.mercurynews.com/aei/category/concerts/.