A Fortnight In The Tower Of Song: Leonard Cohen And The Creative Life

Published on January 30th, 2010 in: Canadian Content, Concert Reviews, Music |

By Ben Sullivan

When my mother approached me with two tickets to Leonard Cohen’s first-ever performance in Columbus, Ohio as a present for my thirtieth birthday, the extent of my familiarity with the man was a much-loved copy of Songs of Leonard Cohen I happily stumbled across a few years back, as an initiate to the pleasures of record shopping.

Outside of the debut, I’d heard a handful of the seemingly countless Cohen covers. And then there was the copy of Songs of. . . I gifted to an ex-girlfriend (which, for shame, subsequently melted in the backseat of her Accord). My enthusiasm for the concert wasn’t predicated on long hours spent under his spell, but rather for the opportunity to sink into his work and discover the tics, irregularities, and strengths of an enduring voice.

cohen 1970 isle of wight
Leonard Cohen, 1970
The Isle Of Wight
From Leap In The Dark

The 75-year-old Cohen released his first album several steps into his fourth decade after promising beginnings in his native Montreal as both a poet and novelist. As a singer-songwriter who likewise has not released an album upon the eve of 30, I felt that seeing the veteran on what might amount to his last string of dates could be as vitalizing as my first time seeing Sonic Youth, touring for Murray Street. And having enjoyed the opportunity to witness a Faust stateside performance no less than a month prior, I needed more flesh-and-blood time with indefatigable creative spirits; trenchant and world-wise iconoclasts; uncompromising visionaries and fires yet burning through the countless compromises one makes under our ever-widening umbrella of pop and rock music.

Cohen, even to dilettantes and peripheral fans as myself, enjoys a reputation bordering on capital-R reverence across generations of listeners. What better means to clarify one’s artistic and musical aspirations than to witness an artist whose career has spanned five decades of significant work? I began devouring his discography in preparation.

Like perhaps too many children of the ’90s, my first truly intimate encounter with Leonard Cohen’s work is the late Jeff Buckley’s rendition of “Hallelujah.” Little did I know upon first blush that Buckley’s soaring interpretation of the song—written by a comfortably mid-career Cohen on his seventh Studio album, Various Positions—is practically an inversion of the original’s stentorian gravity.

Where Cohen barks each “hallelujah” in an almost menacing staccato to underscore the searching desperation of the verses, Buckley ascends into each chorus, each vowel a paean to itself and the stubborn invincibility of young virtuosity. This confidence both artists shared, although Buckley’s appeal to the Tower of Song was indeed a supplication to its draftsmen. And so often labeled “incantatory,” Buckley’s performance falls well short of numinous; Buckley was entranced by the sounds he could produce (refer to his Nusrat Fateh Khan impersonation here) as opposed to the visions he shared.

“Hallelujah” seduces from both the experience and authority of Cohen’s voice and the hungry vanity of youth under the shared guise of revelation. But younger generations, discovering the hugely popular X-Factor and American Idol renditions of the song, understand it only as far as those baffled performers compose their hallelujahs as platforms for vocal performance: melismatic floor exercises and maybe a veneer of sophistication.

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