The ‘Stoned Gallantry’ of Leonard Cohen

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Leonard Cohen, Royal Albert Hall, London, May 1976


Leonard Cohen’s songs mix the sleazy and the sacred in ways that break down both categories. This music, delivered in Cohen’s nasal non-voice, often played on cheap synthesizers, shoddily produced, sometimes badly recorded and unreliably distributed, nevertheless finds unlikely access to words like “holy,” “saint,” and “prayer” as though to transcend its origins in the gut and the loins. Cohen has attracted many disciples and inspired many conversions. He is one of the most beloved figures in modern pop, but everyone who listens to Cohen feels he has bailed him out of impending obscurity.

He is a kind of permanent alternative to whatever it is you’ve been listening to: I came to him after I’d listened too much to the Nineties West Coast band Pavement, with whom he has zero in common. Somehow I felt I’d been making a mistake, all this time, listening to other bands and singers. The feeling passed, but it’s a common one: Cohen inspires not just loyalty but a weird monogamy.

Cohen has the ubiquity of Waldo or Zelig, turning up on the fringe of every picture. People who have never even heard of Cohen have heard his songs. He is a regular on movie soundtracks of all kinds. His songs created much of the power of Robert Altman’s marvelous Seventies western, McCabe & Mrs. Miller. In another vein, “Hallelujah,” his most famous song, played at the end of Shrek as the two computer-generated ogres embraced. This was an odd choice, considering the fact that the most famous lyrics from that song are “remember when I moved in you/the holy dove was moving too”: I don’t need to picture Shrek and his girl in that kind of detail. Cohen is a figure out of the movies—more Altman than Shrek—and his songs, which create the ambience they describe, are essentially cinematic. When you see him on stage, his soulful mien framed by a trilby and a tie, Cohen does more than perform his songs: he stars in them.

He has had a nomadic life, moving from Montreal to New York to London and Greece to Mumbai and Singapore and back again. He is not identified with any one place or scene. He hung with Andy Warhol and Judy Collins in the same day. His music is the work of a man constantly entering new milieus, making the new appeal. His lyrics are a species of banter or rapport, unlike, say, Dylan’s, which exist in a hermetically fused chamber of their own brilliance when they do not practice outright exclusion or even accusation. This ambivalence, approaching disdain, for his audience is Dylan’s genius; Cohen, who was called “the Canadian Bob Dylan” when he appeared on the scene in the mid-Sixties, could not be more different. Cohen’s music assumes admiration from his listeners and assumes,…

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