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The godfather of gloom lightens up for third act

Bob Dylan was never enamoured of the term poet. "I'm not a poet -- poets drown in lakes," he said (referring to Shelley drowning in the Gulf of Spezia.) Leonard Cohen, for his part, saw it differently. "I always thought of myself as a competent, minor poet. I know who I'm up against," the high priest of pathos said with his charmingly crooked smile.

Asked what he was up against, exactly, Cohen smiled and replied: "Dante, and Shakespeare, Isaiah, King David, Homer, you know. So I've always thought that I, you know, do my job OK."

With typical humility, he wrote an actual poem about his apparent aesthetic mediocrity, his Okness, called Thousands.

"Out of the thousands who are known or who want to be known as poets, maybe one or two are genuine and the rest are fakes, hanging around the sacred precincts, trying to look like the real thing. Needless to say, I am one of the fakes, and this is my story."

This is, of course, the same fake poet who wrote: "There is a crack in everything/ That's how the light gets in." And this is the same minor poet who wrote: "Show me slowly what I only know the limits of/ Dance me to the end of love."

The self-doubt was perhaps a bit of a shtick. Leonard has said -- possibly with his Canuck tongue very much in his cheek -- that, like other Jews named Cohen, Katz or Kagan, the Cohen family were descended from the Kohanim (a Hebrew priest with a special status in Judaism). A kohen is a direct male descendant of the Biblical Aaron, the brother of Moses. "I had a very Messianic childhood. I was told I was a descendent of Aaron, the high priest," he said in 1967, with the comic timing of a Woody Allen at his best. (Or, as he sang in 1992's The Future: "I'm the little Jew who wrote the Bible.") It is just as amazing that the man with a limited singing voice, only slightly more tuneful than the low rumble of his speaking voice, has created some timeless songs: Suzanne, So Long Marianne, Bird on a Wire, First We Take Manhattan, The Future, Tower Of Song.

Indeed, as he sings, ironically on the latter, "I was born with the gift of a golden voice". It was his sometimes dour voice that added to Cohen's image as the poet laureate of pessimism. Imagining the bleakest place on earth, Kurt Cobain in Penny Royal Tea sang of a "Leonard Cohen afterworld" where he could "sigh eternally".

In reality, Penny Royal Tea is The Birdy Song next to one of Cohen's, according to The Observer, "most rapturously bleak songs" like Hallelujah. "Google despair and melancholy, and my name comes up!" he joked a few years ago. He is no longer the godfather of gloom, the sobering melancholic voice in every lonely boy's bedroom, the Ian Curtis of soul. It is sophisticated to like Leonard Cohen now.

That's why he can sell out shows at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham this June quicker than you can say descended from Moses. Promoter John Reynolds must have been anything but depressed to see the tickets fly out the door.

Cohen was used to his dour reputation and even appeared to be in on the joke. He used to quip that his record company should give razor blades away with his records. Cohen would equally jokingly attribute his melancholia to an unexplained "biological reason" that crept up on him like a tiger in the dark. He doesn't dwell on it and by not doing so, seems to free himself from it around the time of his 1992 album The Future, when the Jewish "dada of sad" surrendered himself entirely to Buddhism.

"When you stop thinking about yourself all the time, a certain sense of repose overtakes you," he said sagely a few years ago. "It happened to me by imperceptible degrees and I could not really believe

it; I could not really claim it for some time. I thought there must be something wrong. It's like taking a drink of cold water when you are thirsty. Every tastebud on your tongue, every molecule in your body, says 'thank you'."

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Cohen had, of course, famously entered a Zen retreat in Mount Baldy, California, where, for many years, he found there was just a certain sweetness to daily life "that began asserting itself. I remember sitting in the corner of my kitchen, which has a window overlooking the street. I saw the sunlight that shines on the chrome fenders of the cars, and thought, 'Gee, that's pretty'."

"I said to myself, 'Wow, this must be like everybody feels'. Life became not easier, but simpler. The backdrop of self-analysis I had lived with disappeared. It's like that joke: 'When you're hitting your head against a brick wall, it feels good when it stops'."

Hitting his head against a brick wall included times like in 1977, when he attempted his first co-written record, called Death of a Ladies' Man with one Phil Spector. "He is a very hospitable man," Cohen remembered. "It was when other people were around in the recording studio that he seemed to move into his Mr Hyde period." Mr Hyde had nothing on Phil. One day he had a bottle of wine in one hand and a 35mm pistol in the other, recalls Cohen. He put his arm around Cohen's shoulder, pressed the muzzle into his neck and said, "Leonard, I love you".

At which point, a somewhat anxious singer-songwriter from Canada answered: "I hope you really do, Phil".

"I was in one of those moments where I really couldn't order my personal life either," Cohen added. "It was a time of great chaos and distress. Had I been in better shape myself, I probably could have navigated the session a little better. Although Phil's an expert in karate, I might have taken him . . ."

He might have needed the karate when he emerged from years meditating in Mount Baldy in 2005, to discover that his manager in LA had, shall we say, unspiritually swindled him to the tune of $5m. He was left with $150,000. The Zen monk returned to Montreal to get his head together. "What can I do? I had to go to work," he said in August of that awful year. "I have no money left. I'm not saying it's bad. I have enough of an understanding of the way the world works to understand that these things happen."

Born to well-to-do middle-class Jewish parents in 1934, in Westmount, Montreal, Cohen formed his first band, the Buckskin Boys, at the age of 19 -- Cohen in a fake ponytail and his father's buckskin jacket. He has claimed that his initial attraction to music came from not being able to do anything else very well.

He found, he says, he had some gift for it and, "with these little songs I wrote", he could impress himself and others -- including attractive members of the opposite sex.

"That's the hormonal rage that cannot be ignored," he remarked. Ah, yes, hormonal rage -- the bard of the boudoir, now 73, who has sung about Suzanne and Marianne and dancing to the end of love doesn't like to discuss his Don Juan image. "I never discuss my mistresses or my tailors," he told The Observer in 2006. "I read with some amusement my reputation as a ladies' man."

"You know," he added, "that reputation has not served me well. There are women whom I have wanted to meet who have declined any interest in my company, simply because of my reputation, simply because they did not want to be a name on a list."

Asked about death a few years old, Bono's favourite poet answered with a wisdom that suggested that perhaps he was descended from the Kohanim after all. "I don't think much about [death]," Laughing Lenny said, " but, in a certain stage in your life, it becomes very clear that your time is not unlimited. Tennessee Williams said: 'Life is a fairly well-written play, except for the third act.' I'm maybe at the third act, where you have the benefit of the experience of the first two acts. But how it ends is nobody's business and is generally accompanied by some disagreeable circumstances."

I'll pray for that fate for your fingers-in-the-til ex-manager, Len.

Third and final date announced for Leonard Cohen at the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham, on Friday, June 13, 2008, with very special guest Damien Rice. Tickets go on sale Wednesday, March 26, at 9am.


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