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A VOICE THAT SPANS GENERATIONS
Sunday, October 25, 2009
Plain Dealer Reporter
Leonard Cohen never had a hit.
Then again, he never wanted to be a pop star -- or even planned on being a musician.
Yet Cohen is one of the great songwriters of our time. "Our," as in all who believe in the poetry of song.
You see, the 75-year-old Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, who hits the Allen Theatre in PlayhouseSquare tonight, is among the very few artists who have transcended generations.
Since 1967, when he released his brilliant debut, "Songs of Leonard Cohen," his music has been a rite of passage for serious music fans, no matter the age.
"We've been touring the world for a year and a half," says Neil Larson, a Lyndhurst native and keyboardist in Cohen's backing band. "And I can't believe the ages in the crowd, everyone from people in their 60s to 20-year-olds, even younger."
Part of the reason, says Larson, comes down to the covers.
There are more than 2,000 recorded versions of Cohen's songs. And he's been covered by artists ranging from U2, Roberta Flack, Johnny Cash and R.E.M. to Nina Simone, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, the Pixies and Judy Collins.
But it's the poetry -- the delivery of it, how it's sung, in that low baritone, and how the songs are arranged -- that has made Cohen one of the most idiosyncratic voices in rock.
"Leonard has this hidden special talent to write songs about drinking or girls or religion without making them advice' songs," says Larson. "He has these accessible melodies, but the songs are like little stories."
Cohen was telling stories years before he stepped up to the microphone.
By the early 1950s, he already was immersed in the poetry scene of his native Montreal. He published his first book of poetry in 1956 and his first novel in 1963.
By 1966, he was heralded as the Next Big Thing in literary circles, thanks to "Beautiful Losers." The novel, written while Cohen was living in Greece on the isle of Hydra in the Aegean Sea, not only became a best seller, it also established a style that would later reappear in song.
By 1967, Cohen had moved to New York -- to hang out in Andy Warhol's Factory scene and pursue a career as a folk singer.
"Songs of Leonard Cohen" is anything but a folkie offering.
Considered one of the most influential albums in rock, it's a collection of moody, melancholic ballads woven together with Cohen's delicate, deep voice and whimsical words. It's crafted but never slick, poetic yet never precious, and a musical mix of European cafe sensibilities and pop.
"People focus on Leonard's words and don't realize what he's doing on guitar," says Larson. "He learned to play from a flamenco musician and likes to tune his guitar down so it's not in a standard tuning -- it's really unique."
Cohen's idiosyncratic appeal has spanned his entire career, on- and off-stage.
Albums such as "Death of a Ladies' Man" offer up tales of wounded romanticism par excellence. "Death" also mocks Cohen's public image as a modern-day Casanova, which he debunks in the 2005 film "I'm Your Man."
"My reputation as a ladies' man was a joke," said Cohen. "It caused me to laugh bitterly the 10,000 nights I spent alone."
Cohen, who didn't speak for this story because he doesn't do interviews, spent months virtually alone in the 1990s, while studying with a Japanese Zen master.
In the film, he exhibits a Zenlike modesty that's rare among stars.
"I had the title poet, and maybe I was one for a while," he says. "Also the title singer was kindly accorded me, even though I could barely carry a tune."
It's a trait Larson has seen firsthand while touring the world with the master.
"People hang on every word he says, even when we're playing in countries where his fans don't know English," says Larson. "And yet there's no ego in Leonard. He talks with everyone on tour with him, whether they're musicians or stagehands."
And what does Cohen prefer to talk about?
"Well, anything. It's always an interesting conversation," says Larson. "But he'd rather just talk about, you know, girls."
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