Reprinted from Issimo Magazine - www.issimomag.com
By Ted McDonnell
Two harrowing and life-defining moments propelled Leonard Cohen back on the stage and touring the world, writes Ted McDonnell.
Hasn’t anyone told legendary poet, songwriter and singer Leonard Cohen octogenarians aren’t supposed to be dancing around on stage day after day and performing for almost four hours? Obviously not.
For a man who once quoted Truman Capote’s famous line about life and the inevitable: “life is a moderately good play with a badly written third act’’, it appears Cohen is now re-writing the so-called final act of his life.
The notoriously shy performer gave Issimo exclusive access to his ever-evolving world, plans for a new album and what propelled him back to the stage. A series of email exchanges took place over many months through his lawyers.
For the past six decades, Cohen has known only two things: words and performance of those words. And, while most people approaching their 80th year are shuffling around nursing homes and looking for their slippers, Cohen’s spirit has been reinvigorated and his most recent past has oddly given him new meaning and a new beginning.
In June in Paris, Cohen opened his second European tour in as many years in front of 17,000 fans at Bercy Omnisport stadium. Omnisport is not an intimate venue, more a place suited to One Directioners or Beliebers. Cohen’s, sell-out audience, however, was left mesmerised by a three-and-a half-hour performance that most people half Cohen’s age would have struggled with.
Cohen, and his team including Sharon Robinson and the Webb Sisters sang nearly every number in their six-decade songbook and for the last half hour, and three encores, thousands danced in the aisles of France’s largest concert arena. Cohen’s sexy, blues-styled husky voice churned out the lyrics with a passion that enshrines him as one of the world’s master performers.
And fans downunder did not miss out either when his Old Ideas tour landed in Australia and New Zealand a few months back.
Now approaching his 80th birthday in September, Cohen has worked non-stop since returning to the stage in 2008 after a 15-year ‘hiatus’ and is currently in the midst of a two-year world tour of his current album Old Ideas. In all, he has worked through more than 50 concerts in North America and Europe in 2012 and having just wrapped up another exhausting US sojourn, he has now embarked on his second European tour beginning in Paris.
According to Billboard, his concerts over the past 12 months have grossed just over $US50 million in front of audiences totalling more than 500,000 people.
A member of Cohen’s close-knit coterie reveals his touring regime over the past five years has been simple: Sleep, exercise, rehearse, meditate, perform, sleep. “He is more focused than ever and just doesn’t want to let go of his passion for life and words,” she adds.
But readily Cohen admits two remarkable incidents, decades apart, have helped twice redefine his life, career and in more recent times, his return to the stage. The first incident involved a madman with a gun, the second an ex-lover who became a thief.
The first life-defining moment harks back to the ’70s involving award-winning producer and latter day convicted murderer Phil Spector. Spector’s love of Cohen is the reason the Canadian-born troubadour is around today. It was Spector’s infamous gun antics that put Cohen’s life in peril when they were making Cohen’s much forgettable album Death of a Ladies Man.
To this day, Cohen avoids long discussions about the album that proved the only flop of his long career and just refers to it as a ‘catastrophe’.
However, he readily remembers the night in 1977 that Spector literally changed his outlook on life and his career. It was one booze-filled evening, in a year of booze and drug-filled evenings, when Spector, who Cohen says had previously threatened him with a crossbow, held a Colt .45 to Cohen’s neck. Cohen, who was in his early 40s at the time, sobered up very quickly as he saw his life instantaneously flash before his blurred vision.
As Cohen remembers, Spector leaned into him muttering: “Leonard, I love you.” To which Cohen slowly and cautiously answered, “I sure hope you do, Phil.”
Luckily, for Cohen and the music world, Spector did not pull the trigger. Death of a Ladies Mandid not become a miserable epitaph. After the dismal reaction to the Spector collaboration that almost curtailed his life, and put a temporary black spot on his early career, Cohen promptly ended the ‘one-album’ affair with Spector, and refocused his energies on his writing and the production of his own records.
Ironically, two decades later, in 2003 Spector, did pull the trigger with deadly consequences. The gun-happy record producer was convicted of second-degree murder of actress Lana Clarkson, who was found dead in Spector’s Los Angeles home with a single gunshot to the mouth. Spector testified Clarkson committed suicide. However, the jury in Spector’s second murder trial in 2009 did not believe the 70-year-old’s story. He was sentenced to 19 years to life.
Having escaped Spector’s dysfunctional madness, Cohen for the next 20 years steeled himself to making a string of successful albums including I’m Your Man, The Future, Ten New Songs, and Dear Heather.
Off the back of his enduring success, Cohen, in the early 1990s, decided to stop touring and devote himself to his teacher – the Za-Zen master Old Roshi. Cohen would spend more than a decade at the Buddhist retreat of his master on Mount Baldy, not far from his LA home. The drugs, both illegal and medicinal, were ditched and Cohen finally found his true self by “not thinking about myself every given minute” as he had done in the previous 40 odd years.
He revealed at the time: “When you stop thinking about yourself all the time, a certain sense of repose overtakes you. 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 taste bud on your tongue, every molecule in your body says thank you.”
However, in 2005 Cohen’s second life-defining moment came at a very inopportune time in the midst of semi-retirement as he sat on Mount Baldy meditating.
At the age of 70, Cohen suddenly found himself virtually penniless. He was forced to come down from his mountain retreat and face the shattering reality that his manager of 17 years and one-time lover Kelley Lynch had stolen almost every cent from his bank accounts. Over a number of years, Lynch drew down on Cohen’s savings accounts. In all, more than $5 million had been stolen. A broken and broke Cohen sued Lynch, who was ordered to pay him $9.5 million. Lynch’s lawyers claimed she was “unreachable”. She failed to repay a single cent and never faced criminal fraud charges.
For Lynch, stealing Cohen’s money was not enough. For more than six years, starting in 2005, on a virtual daily basis, Lynch phoned and emailed Cohen in a campaign of hate. One of the many thousands of emails in court documents stated that Cohen “needed to be taken down and shot”.
He says he truly feared for his and his family’s lives such was Lynch’s crusade of fear and loathing. “It started with just a few now and then, but it eventually accelerated to 20 or 30 a day,” Cohen said of the barrage of vile voice messages and emails he, family and friends received.
“Some were 50 pages long,” he recalls. In one she wrote: “You are a sick man … You are a thief … You are a common thief.” The words could easily be lyrics from a Cohen song.
Just over 12 months ago, Cohen finally gained some closure to this most ugly episode with Lynch being sentenced to 18 months jail in a Californian prison and five years probation after being found guilty of harassing the singer.
Cohen sums up Lynch’s conviction as only a poet could: “It is my prayer that Ms Lynch will take refuge in the wisdom of her religion, that a spirit of understanding will convert her heart from hatred to remorse, from anger to kindness, from deadly intoxication of revenge to the lowly practices of self reform.”
Lynch is now out of jail and the Cohen clan is mindful of the need for her to “stay away”.
Cohen is a family man through and through. His love for his son Adam, an accomplished performer himself, and daughter Lorca, named after famed Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, who he says to this day ‘inspired his being’, has now extended to his grandchildren. Adam has a two-year-old son, Cassius, and Lorca with singer Rufus Wainwright only last year brought a “beautiful girl” into the world named Viva Katherine Wainwright Cohen.
The impact of Lynch’s betrayal has changed Cohen much like the near-death experience with Spector, says one close friend. “He’s more guarded and not as open to new friendships. He’s just far more suspicious of people of business and their intentions.But he continues to adore his fans as he has always done.”
Cohen now surrounds himself with a bevy of minders headed by brilliant Los Angeles lawyer Robert Kory. By the end of the six years of legal wrangling with Lynch the few pennies Cohen had left were gone. So, in 2008, 15 years after he stopped touring, Cohen and his close-knit musical entourage, including long-time collaborator Sharon Robinson and the Webb Sisters, climbed aboard the bus again, and have not stopped touring averaging 50 concerts a year.
His first album in almost a decade, Old Ideas released last year was borne out of harrowing experiences of recent years and as one friend puts it Cohen’s need to “deal with his past in the only way he knows, through words”.
After a series of negotiations with his management, Cohen agreed to answer some questions through his lawyers. When asked about Old Ideas he typically avoids the discussion treating his album as a close friend, who is not in the room to defend himself, a friend he has put long hours into by mentoring and nurturing its being. He says it’s not a good idea to do an “autopsy on a living thing” when questioned on Old Ideas, which has reached number one on the charts in 11 countries, from Belgium to Poland to Canada. Fair enough, but this new collection strings together words so poetic that he could have very well have written them 50 odd years when he was considered more a poet than a singer and songwriter.
The lead track of Old Ideas – Going Home appears to encapsulate what he has endured in recent years and his return to touring:
Going home with my sorrow;
Going home sometime tomorrow;
Going home to where it’s better than before;
Going home without my burden; going home behind the curtain;
Going home without the costume that I wore…
Cohen is quick to point out Old Ideas is by no means an epitaph. This has been reinforced by the plaudits to Old Ideas by his fans and the critics. Last year he pipped fellow Canadian Justin Bieber for Album and Songwriter of the Year in Canada’s top music awards, the Juno. It was his fifth Juno. Amusingly, Twitter immediately went into meltdown as Beliebers asked “Who is Leonard Cohen?”
A typical tweet of confusion: “I’m afraid to ask what you’re RTing. It appears Justin Bieber lost something to Leonard ‘Who’s that?’ Cohen?”
No doubt, Cohen would have quietly enjoyed the moment of beating someone a quarter of his years, and if he knew how to tweet he probably would have said: “Is that the future of humanity?”
Cohen’s number one worldwide fan and aficionado, Allan Showalter, who runswww.1heckofaguy.com, a site devoted to everything Cohen, says Cohen’s dedication to his words and music are a true reflection of one of the world’s great artists.
“Leonard Cohen offers us the possibility of living with grace, dignity, and integrity, without submitting to illusions, without succumbing to indifference, and without indulging in denial of our own failures and flaws, in a world that is too often corrupt and malevolent.”
And as for that third act, Cohen has already begun to pen its first words. He confirmed exclusively to Issimo Magazine he is working on a new album, in between travelling the world. Life for Cohen is endless world tours once his newest yet to be named album is released some time next year.
And what of the constant rumours of retirement?
“Retirement?” Cohen wryly queries. “What’s that?”
To quote Leonard Cohen’s own words back to him – “ Mr. Cohen, If it be your will”.
© Ted McDonnell Words & Pictures 2013
Reprinted from Issimo Magazine October 2013 - www.issimomag.com