Sunday 22 April 2018

Leonard Cohen: the legend returns

Ahead of more Irish shows this week, Nick Kelly looks at why we can't get enough of this brooding Canadian troubador

He's our man: Leonard Cohen is back to wow adoring Irish audiences once again this week
He's our man: Leonard Cohen is back to wow adoring Irish audiences once again this week

Nick Kelly

Like lust-filled lovebirds who can't keep their hands off each other, Leonard Cohen and his Irish fans are set for another passionate rendezvous tomorrow and Thursday.

Having frolicked al fresco for four nights last September in the grounds of the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, Cohen and his frisky Emerald harem have decided to get a room this time around – namely The O2 in Dublin's docklands.

The flame was originally kindled in the historic Kilmainham setting back in 2008, when the twinkly-eyed sage of Montreal seduced us with amid-summer night's dream of a show (actually, there were three shows; I caught the first one, when the warm June sun made a rare guest appearance).

I had gone along that evening with a certain amount of trepidation: how could a man in his mid-70s coming out of retirement be much cop?

I was not alone in my initial scepticism. At the time, the reclusive Cohen hadn't toured or been in the public eye for more than a decade, and only re-emerged because a former business manager (and ex-lover) Kelley Lynch defrauded him out of millions of dollars by emptying out certain bank accounts, an offence for which she was convicted and imprisoned in 2012. The word was Cohen was now a pensioner without a pension.

So was he only in it for the money? The answer was an emphatic no. The figure who skipped on to the stage in a tailored suit and trademark snazzy Fedora was clearly still a bona fide star, who exuded extraordinary presence and gravitas. Not to mention wit and charm. And there was that rumbling voice that age had ripened, not withered.

And the same applied to his songs – the classic paeans to love, loss, sex, death, faith and, er, Chinese oranges he wrote in the '60s and '70s still had a timeless appeal. Cohen had always seemed possessed of a wisdom far in advance of his years; now that the years had caught up, he seemed to inhabit his material even more completely, but now there seemed to be layers upon layers of deliciously dark irony and mordant, gallows humour to the lyrics.

If some of his fans take Leonard Cohen too seriously, the man himself certainly doesn't. On his most recent studio album, last year's outstanding Old Ideas, he mockingly refers to himself as "a lazy bastard living in a suit".

The other thing that really struck me was that for an artist with such an incredibly rich and potent back catalogue – whose songs have been covered by everyone from Judy Collins to Jeff Buckley to Jarvis Cocker (but the less said about desecration of 'Hallelujah' on The X Factor the better) – there is a palpable lack of rock-star ego.

Perhaps this humility is a result of those years practising Buddhism in the Mount Baldy Zen Centre outside Los Angeles in the 1990s.

Not that he has always lived like a monk. Many women have come and gone in his life, but he is currently in a relationship with blues/jazz singer Anjani Thomas and previous girlfriends include the actress Rebecca de Mornay.

He also had a long relationship throughout the 1970s with Suzanne Elrod - a different Suzanne to the femme fatale of his famous song, who was actually Suzanne Elrod, the then girlfriend of his friend, the sculptor Armand Vaillancourt.

In the '80s, his main squeeze was Dominique Isserman, who shot the black-and-white video for 'First We Take Manhattan' on Normandy Beach.

Despite the string of lovers, Cohen has never been married, although he has a daughter Lorca – named for the Spanish poet – and a son Adam, who himself is building a reputation as a sensitive singer/songwriter of some note.

I interviewed two of Leonard's celebrated band's female backing singers for the Irish Independent ahead of the equally feted shows he played in the grounds of Sligo's Lissadell House in 2010.

Charley and Hattie Webb – known as The Webb Sisters – have been a mainstay of his touring band since his live comeback in 2008.

"Leonard has this magic of somehow being able to sing a song that applies to each person, and you feel like he's written it for you," Charley Webb told me. "And he's so honourable and gentlemanly on stage – whether you're on stage with the band or sitting in the audience. It's an honour to be around him. There's a sense of greatness."

Completing the trio of backing singers is the graceful Sharon Robinson, Cohen's long-time friend, musical collaborator and former lover

Sharon first sang with Leonard in 1979. I asked her what it was like to work creatively with Leonard – she co-wrote and produced his album Ten New Songs in 2001, appearing on the cover alongside him, and also collaborated with him on 1988's I'm Your Man.

"Leonard enjoyed the contrast between the organic sounds of the voices and the electronic background.

"It would usually start with the words – he'd give me a verse or a few verses, or sometimes a whole completed lyric, and then I would take it away and come up with ideas for melodies.

"For the album Ten New Songs, we ended up not really bringing in musicians much. Bob Metzger played guitar on 'In My Secret Life' but mostly it was my own work in the studio using sampling."

Though the mammoth tours of the past six years have spanned the globe from Tel Aviv to Toronto, those concerts under the watchful eye of Ben Bulben in Lissadell House are particularly treasured by Cohen. He has often spoken of how WB Yeats was his literary hero as an aspiring poet in 1960s Montreal.

Indeed, as a kid, Cohen had an Irish nanny, so even though he came from a proudly Jewish family, he claims to have been brought up partly as an Irish Catholic.

And to perform in the back garden of the Big House where Yeats himself regularly took refuge from the world with his friends, the Gore-Booths, meant a lot to him, as he told the audience from the stage: "I never knew my steps would take me to this place, and that I would receive such a welcome sheltered in the spirit of the great master."

I wonder if this helps to explain the intensity of the Irish love affair with Leonard Cohen: we really do hold great wordsmiths dear (just look at the outpouring of emotion at Seamus Heaney's passing).

That we travelled in our thousands to hear him perform in the heart of Yeats Country only deepened the great romance. No wonder he keeps coming back for more.

Leonard Cohen plays The O2, Dublin, tomorrow and Thursday.

Irish Independent

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