It hasn’t exactly generated a media blitz, but 1967 is notable not only for the blossoming of the Summer of Love, but also the concert debut at the Newport Folk Festival of singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen. Why does that matter 40 years down the road? Though his most recent recordings have been uneven at best, the 72-year-old Cohen continues to satisfy music lovers with a stout draft of what Dostoevsky delighted in calling “the stinking brew” of human emotions.
The subject of a recent award-winning film documentary and a new reissue series, Cohen remains a cult figure whose melancholy, folksy songs blend cutting barbs and finely crafted melodies, sex and suicide, Biblical imagery and a dry, dark sense of humor, all sung in a slow confessional tone.
It was folksinger Judy Collins who discovered Cohen, already a celebrated poet; the Boston Globe once likened him to James Joyce. Over the past four decades, his recording career has had its share of ups and downs. He once even chucked it altogether to live in a Zen monastery.
Yet Cohen’s mystique has never dimmed.
The 1980s British Goth band Sisters of Mercy lifted their name from one of his songs. His haunting ballad “Suzanne” has been covered by everyone from Collins to Neil Diamond. In 1988, pop diva Jennifer Warnes recorded the critically acclaimed Cohen tribute album Famous Blue Raincoat, spurring one of Cohen’s periodic comebacks. The album has just been reissued as an expanded 20th-anniversary edition. It features Cohen singing duets with Warnes and boasts several knockout performances. While the disc’s overly pristine 1980s production values can sound dated, Warnes’ unaffected vocals shine as she embraces this deeply emotional material. Add four bonus tracks and this new anniversary edition is well worth searching out.
But Warnes’ homage wasn’t the only project to help resuscitate Cohen’s career at the time.
In 1990, Allan Moyle’s movie Pump Up the Volume introduced Cohen to a new generation of fans. That quirky film starred Christian Slater as Hard Harry, a lonesome teen-turned-DJ who operated a pirate radio station from the garage of his parents’ suburban home. Harry spun a lot of early punk platters and, oddly enough, opened his nightly broadcasts with the twisted title track from Cohen’s 1988 comeback album I’m Your Man, which featured the acid-tongued lament to the music industry “Tower of Song.”
Now Cohen’s back yet again.
He has popped up as producer and co-composer of the new Anjani CD/ DVD set Blue Alert, featuring the sultry Hawaiian singer-songwriter Anjani Thomas, who sang backup on Cohen’s 1984 masterwork “Hallelujah.” Anjani draws undeserved comparisons to Madeleine Peyroux and this disc never soars the way Warnes’ tribute does. The Anjani recording arrived on the eve of a new evening-length concert work, Book of Longing, composed by Phillip Glass and based on Cohen’s poetry. It premiered on June 1 in Toronto and also was staged in early June at Spoleto Festival USA in South Carolina.
The prickly poetry that launched Cohen’s career was never deemed “pleasant”; it always had an unsettling edge. In April, Columbia/Legacy reissued brilliantly remastered versions of his first three albums: 1967’s Songs of Leonard Cohen, 1969’s Songs from a Room and 1971’s Songs of Love and Hate, classic folk-based recordings that were snapped up hungrily at the time of their release by the angst-ridden offspring of the dying American Dream.
Of course, Cohen’s latest comeback owes a debt of gratitude to Lian Lunson’s exceptional 2005 film documentary Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man, which interspersed interviews with the reclusive singer-songwriter talking about his life and art, with concert footage of U2, Nick Cave, Rufus Wainwright, Teddy Thompson and others performing Cohen’s songs. The film, newly released on DVD, and an accompanying CD soundtrack are a testament to the enduring nature of Cohen’s material.
If I’m Your Man and all these other releases leave you pining for even more, seek out the now out-of-print CD I’m Your Fan, the 1991 Cohen tribute that gathered R.E.M., Velvet Underground co-founder John Cale, the Pixies, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, That Petrol Emotion, Lloyd Cole and a bevy of Brit-pop acts, performers who were still in diapers when Cohen began exploring the dark and corrupt regions of the soul. It’s yet one more brick in the artist’s mounting tower of songs.