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Friday, February 20, 2009

Thoughts on the Hardest Working (and most Self-Serious) Septuagenarian in Showbiz

Leonard Cohen at the Beacon Theatre. (Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

Leonard Cohen at the Beacon Theatre. (Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

'Dance Me to the End of Love'
Last time Leonard Cohen played in New York, a decade and a half ago, he was 'just a young kid with a dream.' Or so the 75-year-old Canadian singer told a packed house last night at the recently reopened Beacon Theater. In the 15 years he's been gone, Cohen said, he studied religion, sought cheerfulness, and took a lot of Prozac and Tylenol Full Strength. 'I know the hard times are coming,' Cohen told the audience, one of the few times he spoke between songs. 'A lot of people say it's gonna be worse ... than ... the Y2K.'

To watch Bruce Springsteen is to marvel at his physical energy and hope you can move half so good at age 60. To listen to Leonard Cohen is to be in awe of his pipes and hope that at age 75 your voice could have a fraction of his timbre and vitality. His bass still rumbles fierce, the edges are there, and those deep, rich tones seem NOT to have softened and mellowed over time the way people are always describing fine wine and Scotch.

And then there's the songs.


I saw Nick Lowe last summer, and he, too, is now silver-haired and more buttoned-down dapper than in his youth (though his slacks and sport coat can't compare to the natty Cohen, who in a black suit and fedora, is currently melding Savile Row with Guys n' Dolls). But while Lowe's classics, like "Cruel to be Kind" and "(What's So Funny 'bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," have grown up into something something more than the well-crafted pop tunes they were in the 70s (see: wine, Scotch -- mellowing), Cohen's songs were always the expression of an old soul looking back on life, often wistfully. Now that he's 75, instead of 25 or 35, they make more sense than ever. And while they always had elements of playfulness -- "you told me again you prefer handsome men but for me you'd make an exception" gets 'em every time -- that dimension was never very convincing, amid all the gloom.

It's still tough for me to take a whole bunch of Leonard Cohen songs at one sitting. He just doesn't have the emotional range or the sudden, surprising imagery of a Paul Simon or Bob Dylan, or even a Springsteen or Elvis Costello. And this comes from someone who's a sucker for a certain kind of coming-of-age self-flagellation. Don't tell anyone, but I still have a soft spot for J.D. Salinger.

But the die-hard Leonard Cohen fans who surrounded me at the Beacon -- man, they must be in a whole different league, when it comes to the morose self-seriousness that, forgive me, I associate with adolescence.

One Aussie sitting near me told an ecstatic thirty-something woman with a vast, unruly Jewfro that he wept during the song "Everybody Knows."

Said the Aussie, of Cohen: "He must be one of the coolest cats ever."

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