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Leonard Cohen, hailed 20 years ago as Canada’s answer to Bob Dylan, had slipped into obscurity. It was the mid-1980s, and audiences seemed more interested in carefree pop music than in the modern-day troubadour’s philosophical, often bleak compositions. Then, Jennifer Warnes came along. The Los Angeles singer had begun performing Montreal-born Cohen’s material in 1969 and, later, toured with him as a backup vocalist. In 1986 she used her lush soprano voice to interpret a selection of his songs. The resulting album, Famous Blue Raincoat, sold more than 750,000 copies worldwide. And while that success brought Warnes major stardom, it has also helped rejuvenate Cohen’s musical career. With his latest album, I’m Your Man, the 53-year-old Cohen has a chance to reach a new generation of listeners himself. During an interview in Hollywood, Cohen told Maclean’s: “I’ve been lucky. I’ve been able to survive without having to twist myself in any awkward positions.”
The new record, which features Warnes’s accompanying vocals on four tracks, reaffirms Cohen’s stature as one of pop’s most literate voices. From his earliest hit songs, including “Suzanne” and “So Long, Marianne,” he has enjoyed a reputation for creating emotionally complex albums filled with rich imagery. Although marred by grating synthesizers on some songs and a monotonous disco beat on others, I’m Your Man is no exception. Its best track, “Take This Waltz,” a brilliant piece about the depths of desire, is based on a poem by the Spanish surrealist poet-playwright Federico Garcia Lorca. CBS Records in Spain commissioned the song from Cohen to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Lorca’s death in 1936. The first four lines of “Take This Waltz” offer more passion than a jukebox full of love songs: “Now in Vienna there are ten pretty women/There’s a shoulder where Death comes to cry/There’s a lobby with nine hundred windows/There’s a tree where the doves go to cry.” On the title track—one of three songs about obsessive love—Cohen sings: “I’d howl at your beauty like a dog in heat/And I’d claw at your heart/And I’d tear at your sheet.” His resonant baritone voice, which recalls a bass organ, exaggerates the masculine boast.
Other selections reflect Cohen’s often world-weary outlook. “Everybody Knows” is a particularly cynical number, touching on topics ranging from religion to romance. But I’m Your Man has moments of humor. “I Can't Forget,” a country ballad featuring steel guitar, includes the flippant rejoinder “I can’t forget but I don’t remember what.” And on “Tower of Song,” Cohen asks the spirit of the late country and western singer Hank Williams for advice about loneliness—to no avail. Still, he sings, “I hear him coughing all night long, a hundred floors above me in the Tower of Song.” Both tracks hark back to the 1950s, when Cohen sang in a Montreal country and western group called the Buckskin Boys, and, later, when he recorded two albums in Nashville.
Cohen, who now divides his time between Los Angeles and Paris, still maintains his connection with Montreal, where he has a home. In France, he spends time with his two children, Adam and Lorca, who live with their mother, Cohen’s former companion, Suzanne Elrod. Wherever he is, Cohen—who wrote the novel Beautiful Losers (1966) and whose collections of poetry include Death of a Lady’s Man (1978) and Book of Mercy (1984)—rises early to practise several hours of Zen meditation before beginning to write. But he insists that, despite his success as a songwriter, it never gets any easier. “I sweat over every word,” he said. “My things take at least a year or two to bring to completion.” Cohen describes the musician’s life as a gruelling one: “Great singers like Smokey Robinson and Tina Turner—those people work hard at what they do. I’m just like those musicians. I have the same kind of lifestyle as those guys, hotel rooms, cigarettes.”
Cohen is currently in the middle of a tour of Europe, where I’m Your Man is already a hit with sales of more than 350,000 copies. He said that he hopes to perform later this year in both Canada and the United States. Then, he plans to resume work on a volume of collected poems and lyrics slated for publication next year by McClelland and Stewart. His role as mentor to Warnes continues: in the fall she is scheduled to release another album with at least three more Cohen songs. Meanwhile, Cohen remains philosophical about his new popularity. “There have been better times and rougher times,” he said, “but I think you get tough.” Those survival instincts have helped to earn Leonard Cohen his role as rock’s poet laureate.
—with Marilyn Beker in Los Angeles
Originally published in Maclean’s magazine 9 May 1988