Rock's Last Romantic

Leonard Cohen still walks the line

Was there ever a singer so world-weary yet seductive as Leonard Cohen? Has there ever been less likely an icon? Despite his esoteric nature, Cohen, who at 75 is at an age some consider dotage, is at his peak, proving that poetry, that least lucrative of professions, can pay off.

Cohen's first major tour in 15 years generated headlines in September when he collapsed from food poisoning during a concert in Spain and performed for 55,000 in Tel Aviv, ignoring a Palestinian call for a boycott of Israel.

While the record business is dying, this most unlikely matinee idol is thriving. The web is abuzz with Cohen news, old videos have been unearthed and reviews of his recent double CD, Leonard Cohen Live in London, are gushy. (Another double-live set, Leonard Cohen Live at the Isle of Wight 1970, just came out, proving that Cohen's no stranger to crowds. This one numbered 600,000, as Cohen followed Jimi Hendrix.)

Strange that an artist so rarefied should be so adulated. But Cohen — who might have achieved Dylan-level popularity had he not diffused his energy among music, poetry and spirituality (an observer of Judaism, he's also a Zen Buddhist who spent five years in a California monastery in the '90s) — is unique, his work commanding.

Born in Montreal into the comfortable class, Cohen seemed destined to be a poet. He might be the last romantic in rock 'n' roll, though some call him a folksinger rather than a rocker. In 1967, when he released his debut album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, his poetry and fiction had already gained him a following in his native Canada. Cohen's voice, which experience has distilled into a burred bass, snares the listener like a lover, confidentiality and intimacy at its core.

His approach, captured on the live CDs and video, is gentle, almost courtly. On Live in London, he sports a fedora and a natty, double-breasted suit, makes intelligent small talk and treats the audience as if they were in his living room. He's your genial host bearing messages of great import.

Cohen's early songs — "Suzanne," "So Long, Marianne," "Bird on the Wire," "Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye" — cemented his image as the Lord Byron of rock. They're complex songs of yearning and regret, and they're sexy. Affairs with the likes of Joni Mitchell and Rebecca De Mornay heightened his laconic roué luster. Cohen's songs have been covered by artists spanning Joan Baez, Tim Buckley, Nick Cave, Cobra Verde, Jarvis Cocker, early champion Judy Collins, even Bob Dylan (on a bootleg, of course).

Still, Cohen, that affable concierge of Hotel Armageddon, never transcended cult status. Releasing 20 albums over 42 years didn't keep him in the public eye, perhaps because many are anthologies and/or live. And he rarely toured. But Cohen seems to have caught up with himself. Not only has he released six albums since the turn of the century, his brackish voice has sunk into a unique, sepulchral vehicle. Bilked of more than $5 million by his former manager, he's touring to make money, forced back into the spotlight.

In tunes like "The Future," the jaunty, despairing "Democracy," the stirring "First We Take Manhattan" and long-time associate Sharon Robinson's ravishing "Boogie Street," the oracular Cohen lashes images of social decay to ones of sexual battle, masterfully blurring the personal and the political. The music is vaguely martial, most tunes mid-tempo. In regard to women, Cohen is both supplicant and ravisher. When it comes to politics, he's subversive, even anarchic.

On the stunning London set, the 2008 Rock and Roll Hall of Famer fronts a large band with unique instrumentation. It's a continental group featuring satiny backup singers Sharon Robinson and the Webb Sisters, Middle Eastern spicing courtesy of Spanish plectrist Javier Mas, the seasoned guitar of Bob Metzger and the arrangements of bassist Roscoe Beck. At 26 tunes and more than three hours, there's not a dull moment; even Cohen's kibitzing is gallant and funny as he carefully walks the line between the sacred and the profane, the spiritual and the salacious.

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