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Leonard Cohen, what happened?

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Wednesday, May 3, 2006

I love Leonard Cohen—New Skin for the Old Ceremony never ceases to startle me; even now I’m surprised by shades of meanings in the lines of those songs, though I’ve heard them hundreds of times. His published works of poetry (The Energy of Slaves especially) and his two novels are pretty great too, in my opinion, though I can’t say I would have read them if I wasn’t already an admirer of his music. But last night I got a Film Forum flier in the mail, and it prompted me to do some unexpected hard thinking. On the back of the flier was an extremely annoying ad for an upcoming documentary, Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man. There’s a photo of the white-haired Cohen, gazing straight at the camera with something of a sneer (“Yeah, I’m him, who the fuck are you?”), next to a blonde woman who looks more than a little self-satisfied (“Check me out, I’m with Leonard Cohen and Bono”), and yes, Bono, who took some time off from partying with IMF economists to participate in this film, is also in the picture, wearing his standard ridiculous Vegas Elvis shades and apparently looking down the blonde woman’s shirt. The photo seems to want to communicate some kind of celebrity decadence, a smarmy insider smugness that presumably Cohen’s fans are supposed to appreciate, associate with his reputation and his often cynical lyrical pose, and want to participate in vicariously. The ad tries to make him cool the way Franz Ferdinand is supposed to be cool. “The enigmatic, dapper poet-musician” is how the copy on the ad describes him. Dapper? Are there really people out there who listen to Leonard Cohen because of his fashion sense? It’s an image that cries out for inclusion in a celebrity glossy magazine; you have expect Lindsey Lohan to be in the photograph as well.


So I was forced to confront some unpleasant truths. First, Cohen is something of a has-been. He has released three terrible albums in a row now and hasn’t made a listenable song since 1988, when I’m Your Man came out. Consider The Future—an interminable instrumental, covers of Irving Berlin’s “Always” and a flat, unperceptive song called “Be for Real”, a few strident political songs that seem kind of hackneyed despite good intentions, and some turgid ballads that meander along with no urgency or insight. The music sounds as rinky-dink, as if conceived by a mall organist for his bravura demonstration, the arrangements are marred with intrusive backing vocals of the fake-gospel variety, and Cohen’s croaking cannot really be differentiated from talking and it lacks the shading that made his delivery so rich on past albums. And this is the best of the three post-1988 works. The next record, 10 New Songs, has a song called “Boogie Street”. What more needs to be said? If your shit detector lets that through, and the toadies around you don’t say, Hey, Leonard, that sucks. What is that, a place where used Kleenexes go to dry? then it might be time to retire. But on he goes: Dear Heather,his most recent effort, seems a sentimental farewell, but it sounds tossed off rather than valedictory, almost amateurish. He reads some poetry, covers some more pre-rock pop songs, does a lame September 11th-inspired song and is generally made by his collaborator Sharon Robinson (whose singing mars most every song here, as it did on the previous record; her presence looms so large on these records, they should probably be considered Sharon Robinson albums rather than Leonard Cohen albums) to sound like a doddering old man, coasting on his legend.


Second, his whole Zen Buddhist shtick is sort of annoying, especially when it is boasted of in the lifestyle media with which he and his publicists choose to work. I’m sure his spirituality is sincere, but I wish he’d stop using it as a selling point. Third, I hope he doesn’t make any more pronouncements like this one, which is used as a tagline on the ad: “Poetry is just the evidence of life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash.” That seems profound for a minute, until you realize what stylish nonsense it is. It’s supposed to create the illusion that Cohen is too romantic a figure to be troubling himself with the craft of poetry and that those poor hacks who work at it just aren’t living very deeply or richly. Just sleep with enough women, do enough fancy Zen retreats in the Himalayas and cavort with Bono and his ilk enough and poetry will simply ooze out of you (since you never sweat, something else has to come out). And if you are taken in by his poetry, you’ve become caught up in the effluvia, you’re obviously not living much yourself; you’re sucking on dust. He talks as if he never meant to establish himself as a poet, as if he meant to jet-set through life like a modern-day Lord Rochester, with poetry a casual hobby that a paramour naturally adopts.


It seems as though he is on a calculated mission to alienate his admirers, and refuse them the pleasure of identifying with the figure he used to cut, of a romantic outsider tortured by disappointment in love and carnality. Am I alone in finding something selfish and weirdly contemptuous in all this, making documentaries (funded by Mel Gibson) about yourself and putting out crappy albums and apparently buying into your own hype? Is this ad an accurate picture of what Cohen thinks of his fans? It’s hard to accept that. It’s only a matter of time before his songs, which once were breaking my heart, will be selling Volkswagens.

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