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Mad about the man
Imagine a fan base quantified not just by number of fans, but total amount of ardor. If you measure it that way, Leonard Cohen might be the most popular artist alive right now. While he's never been more than a good-sized cult figure, the cumulative rabidity of his fans is something to behold.
You can hear that love on Cohen's new in-concert album, "Live in London" (Columbia Records), on which the audience cheers rabidly at every opportunity and sometimes erupts mid-song at particularly piquant lines ("I was born with the gift of a golden voice"). And it will no doubt be on display Tuesday at the Durham Performing Arts Center, where the 75-year-old Montreal native plays as part of his first U.S. tour since the mid-'90s.
Show reviews have been stellar, which is ironic when you consider that this tour was initially motivated by mostly mercenary reasons: Cohen is broke and needs the money. But it's been just as much an artistic success as a financial one.
George Holt, who books shows at the N.C. Museum of Art Amphitheatre, traveled up to Merriweather Post Pavilion near Washington, D.C., to see Cohen perform earlier this year. He describes that show as "a totallovefest."
"I have to say that his near-bankruptcy - from that period of time when he was on a mountain meditating with a Zen master and his manager apparently made off with most of his savings - turned out to be kind of a blessing in disguise," says Holt. "Given his age, he probably would not be doing this tour if not for that. I'm guessing he had no idea it would be extended as it has been, and I think it's because he's having a ball. I don't know how anybody could not be buoyed by the kind of reception he's been getting, which seems consistently intense at every stop along the way."
Cohen made his name as a novelist and poet before turning to music, and he's an unlikely pop idol. And yet that's what he has become, belatedly, covered by a wide range of unlikely artists drawn by his conjuring of Old World decadence. The iconic "Hallelujah" is Cohen's most-covered song, in versions by everyone from Rufus Wainwright to the Swedish metal band Pain of Salvation.
His voice - a sonorous croak longer on expressiveness than range - is admittedly not for everyone. But it's the sonic equivalent of a character actor, and exactly the sound you'd expect to emerge from his hangdog face.
"He's not to everybody's taste," Holt says. "My wife considers him to be morose, but I happen to be a great fan of the timbre of his voice. I like his mature voice more than his younger voice. It's deeper and gravellier, but it suits him so well. And I've always loved his melodies. So many of his songs have this simple but richly melodic feeling about them."
Still, Cohen's songs ultimately come down to words, usually evoking the nuances of doom in devastating detail. His best songs, from "Suzanne" to "Hey That's No Way To Say Goodbye," roll along at a stately pace with each and every syllable perfectly placed.
Django Haskins, frontman for the local band The Old Ceremony, goes back and forth on his favorite Cohen lines. He cites 1992's "Democracy" as a current favorite:
I'm stubborn as those garbage bags
That Time cannot decay.
I'm junk but I'm still holding up
This little wild bouquet.
"It just doesn't get any better than that," Haskins says. "He's like laser-focused as a lyricist. He manages to be very emotional, while also maintaining this kind of amused, quizzical distance from the experiences he's talking about. That's an unusual combination, probably from years of Zen meditation and growing up in an incredibly cold climate. You get pretty introspective."
Haskins named his band after a Cohen album title, 1974's "New Skin for the Old Ceremony." So of course, he'll be on the second row at Cohen's Durham show.
"Tickets were ridiculously expensive, but he's one of those people where just being in his presence will be worth it," Haskins says. "This will sound like I'm a crazy stalker, but it's not just about the performance of the song. It's about the general wisdom he has accumulated in a long life as an artist. To be able to observe someone who has spent his life so well, that's a thing I'm really looking forward to. He's consistently been on a path of searching for some special meaning, not just a commercial enterprise."
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