Leonard Cohen wouldn’t make it past the first round of “American Idol.” His droning baritone displeases the ears of an autotune culture, and the uninitiated might write him off in the sex appeal category the minute they discover that he’s pushing 80 years old. He’s the unlikeliest of 21st-century showmen, a methodical poet in an industry dominated by pop tarts and Lady Gaga-ism.
But little of this matters to the Cohen fans who will fill the Fox Theatre to see him Friday night or to the legion of Cohen devotees around the world.
If the Canadian novelist and poet turned musician has been relegated to the role of “cult legend,” he seems as comfortable with it as he is with the black fedora that adorns his graying brow. In fact, it was as his career was experiencing a sort of second-act renaissance, with a pair of highly praised albums (1988’s “I’m Your Man” and 1992’s “The Future”) and an extensive world tour, that Cohen went off the grid, taking five years off to live in retreat at California’s Mount Baldy Zen Center.
Unfortunately, when he re-entered the outside world, he learned that his longtime manager had taken advantage of the singer’s time in isolation to bilk him of upwards of $5 million, leaving Cohen nearly destitute. Whether from inspiration or necessity, the last few years have put Cohen back in the studio and on the road, with a new album (2012’s “Old Ideas”) and a series of major tours. And though he probably wishes the circumstances were different, he told The New York Times that being forced to go back on the road was “a most fortunate happenstance because I was able to connect … with living musicians. And I think it warmed some part of my heart that had taken on a chill.”
That warmth has certainly been rekindled, and a man who has acknowledged battles with depression seems simply euphoric to share his verse with what are now multigenerational audiences. Even with the spectral theme of facing one’s mortality recurring throughout “Old Ideas,” Cohen approaches his shows with fortitude and even, dare I say, a sense of buoyant joy.
His shows clock in at close to three hours long, with set lists nearing 30 songs. The repertoire is vast, covering the breadth of his career, from the early years (“Suzanne,” “Bird on a Wire,” “Who by Fire”) to more current fare (“Anthem,” “A Thousand Kisses Deep” and a handful of songs from “Old Ideas”).
Cohen has long laughed at his reputation as a ladies’ man, even as he has been associated with several stunningly beautiful women and once wrote a song called “Death of a Ladies’ Man.” But it is his commingling of the sacred and the sensual that has earned him a reputation as both an existential troubadour and “the Byron of rock ‘n’ roll.” As Tom Robbins once remarked, “Nobody can say the word ‘naked’ as nakedly as Cohen.”
He’s one of the handful of musical artists who can rightly be anointed a poet rather than a mere songwriter, his writing more apt to be compared with Baudelaire’s or Rimbaud’s than Woody Guthrie’s or Bob Dylan’s. Those attending his Fox concert can expect audible sighs from women in the audience and the defeated cries of pedestrian poets muttering “why do I even bother?” as Cohen guides his guests through his majestic tower of song.
He’s one of the most recorded songwriters in modern music, with everyone from Beck and Bono to Emmylou Harris and k.d. laing attempting to do justice to his estimable canon. Judy Collins, the first other artist to record his songs, and Jennifer Warnes have devoted entire albums to the Cohen songbook. One of his most enduring anthems, “Hallelujah,” has been recorded so often, and been the object of such speculation and scrutiny by fans and critics, that an entire book about the song, Alan Light’s The Holy or the Broken, was recently published.
In concert, Cohen’s songs shine through with crystalline detail, his well-suited baritone a perfect vessel to deliver such apocalyptic anthems as “The Future” as well as the darkly mystic “Take This Waltz” and the prayerful “If It Be Your Will.” His tours have devout followers, a subculture of devotees who travel great distances to see him. But, unlike others with such committed fans (the Grateful Dead and Bruce Springsteen come to mind), Cohen’s shows are not improvised jams with malleable set lists and rock hall admission prices. They are symphonic suites of pristine precision, with tickets topping out at nearly $300. If Springsteen’s shows are like an evangelical church revival, a Cohen concert is more akin to a Zen retreat. It’s a glimpse into a sacred cathedral, but by way of a lingering pass through a Parisian boudoir and perhaps an overnighter at the Chelsea Hotel in New York City.
At 78, Leonard Cohen has stumbled, by fate or loss of fortune, upon a hard-earned iconic plateau that he almost certainly neither anticipated nor dared hope for. For a man who once famously remarked that “success is survival,” he has exceeded his own expectations with an abiding sense of gratitude and his wicked wit well intact.
As Cohen passes through Atlanta, he’ll bring all that he is, and all that others have proclaimed him to be, along with a suitcase full of vintage elegies and bluesy ballads. For those willing to listen, and those who’ll enter the shrine of his showmanship, the rewards are as enlightening as the truths Cohen sought at the Zen Center that inadvertently put this third act into motion.