Leonard Cohen fans gather this weekend to celebrate his work and return to the limelight
Published 07/08/2014 | 15:33
When Leonard Cohen's life turned to silent retreat, his fans from all over the world filled the void with a festival of his music. This weekend they gather in Dublin to honour his work and return to the limelight.
In the 1940s a young Irish rugby player - about to be ordained as a Church of Ireland minister - worried about whether his vocation and sporting career were compatible. "I won't find Jesus in Lansdowne Road," he told the Irish captain, who sagely replied: "No, but you'll hear a lot about him."
Likewise, while you may not actually find Leonard Cohen in Dublin this weekend, you will certainly hear a lot about him.
Aficionados of his music from across the globe are gathering for the 2014 Leonard Cohen Event, which takes place for the first time ever in Ireland. This bi-annual event run by fans began at the start of the millennium, when a hundred Cohen fans gathered in his native Montreal to honour his music.
Back then nobody expected to hear Cohen sing again, because in 1994 - around the time Ireland embraced the embryonic Celtic Tiger - Cohen embraced Buddhism and entered the Mount Baldy Zen Centre to live in seclusion as a Rinzai monk, taking the name Jikhin, which means silence.
His fans tried to fill this silence by continuing their bi-annual gathering, simply known as the Leonard Cohen event. It has since been staged in Hydra in Greece, in New York and Berlin.
While the number of participating fans have soared over the years, the spirit of the gathering remains the same: academics explore Cohen's oeuvre, writers and musicians perform in his honour, and people - drawn together by his work - share anecdotes and reminisces late into the night in local pubs.
One big change between the first gathering in 2000 and the Dublin event (which runs from this evening until Sunday) is that almost everybody who gathers will have seen Cohen perform live, lured out of monastic seclusion and retirement by financial necessity.
Cohen's fate turned out to be rather like Ireland's. At roughly the same time as our economy collapsed, and we realised the Celtic Tiger was an enormous con job through which bankers had swindled us out of our wealth and frittered away our pension funds, Cohen discovered that his former manager had similarly frittered away the funds put aside for his old age.
Suddenly Cohen was as broke as an unemployed couple in negative equity in Kinnegad. However he had one considerably more valuable asset: an extraordinary back catalogue of songs suddenly being acclaimed by a new generation of musicians.
Considering the universal popularity of Cohen's song, Hallelujah, it is hard to believe that in 1984 his record company refused to release the album this came from in America. Columbia Records explained to him: "Look, Leonard; we know you're great, but we don't know if you're any good."
In 1988 the release of a new album, I'm Your Man, brought Cohen to Dublin, where I saw him play for the first time.
Back then a three bedroom terraced house cost £33,000, Ireland was embracing a new craze called the National Lottery and our most classy venue was our draughty National Boxing Stadium. Cohen was acclaimed in Dublin that night, immaculately black suited, appreciating our tumultuous applause, yet puncturing any reverence with a wicked understated humour.
In that freezing boxing stadium, he soared in a class of its own. But Cohen always had a style that nobody can impersonate. When his friend, Kris Kristofferson, once told a backing musician that he wanted to re-create Cohen's mood, the session musician shook his head and replied: "Boss, Cohen is an angst poet: you're an alcoholic."
But 1988 wasn't the first time Cohen played Dublin. In 1972 he began a chaotic World Tour here, where his fragile state of mind was captured so honesty by a filmmaker, Tony Palmer, that almost forty years passed before Cohen consented to the film's release.
I don't know if anyone who saw him in Dublin in 1972 will make it to Liberty Hall where fans will gather this weekend.
But if they do, they can tell visitors of the epic journeys that Dublin and Cohen have undergone since those days when our excuse for a venue was a cold boxing stadium and he was a troubled 38-year-old poet, hesitantly stepping into the spotlight in Dublin, with the music industry already writing him off as too old to survive.
I thought I had seen the last of him when he disappeared into that monastery in 1996, but the sudden discovery that you are broke can have a cathartic effect on an artist and a nation.
In 2008 he strode on stage at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, now a 74-year-old kid with a crazy dream as he put it.
At a time when both Ireland and Cohen were virtually bankrupt, he lifted us out of the trough of despair hanging over Dublin back then.
Both Cohen and Dublin are still standing, older and wiser.
This weekend we'll tip our hat to him, in his 80th year, knowing that - wherever he is - he is tipping his hat to the fans who kept his music alive during the years when record executives knew he was great but just didn't know if he was any good.
Dublin always knew. This weekend we're going to have fun saluting him.
The Leonard Cohen Event Dublin 2014 runs from this evening until Sunday. See www.leonardcohenfiles.com for details