Facebook R&B crooner Mario has been relatively quiet on the music front for…
- Posted on Jan 29th 2010 12:00PM by Joshua Ostroff
Cohen's Grammy 2010 Lifetime Achievement Award arrives at the height of the iconic septuagenarian's umpteenth comeback. A wildly acclaimed two-years-and-counting world tour has seen Cohen storm the gates of popular culture as crowds clamoured for sold-out tickets and artists increasingly name-dropped his influence.
Right this moment, the top iTunes download is Justin Timberlake's cover of Cohen's 'Hallelujah,' which the pop star performed with Matt Morris at the recent Hope for Haiti telethon, quietly using Cohen's songcraft to outshine a superstar collaboration between U2, Rihanna and Jay-Z.
JT's just the latest in a winding line of singers covering that classic, including baroque-pop star Rufus Wainwright, country legend Willie Nelson, folk hero Bob Dylan, 'American Idol' wannabe Jason Castro, pop-punks Fall Out Boy, X-Factor winner Alexandra Burke and, most famously, the late singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley. The latter pair even simultaneously nabbed the top two spots on the UK charts in Christmas 2008 while Cohen's own version also entered the Top 40 for the first time. (Though when the song subsequently appeared in 'The Watchmen' last summer, Cohen echoed many fans' thoughts, telling CBC Radio "I think it's a good song, but too many people sing it.")
Ironically, 'Hallelujah' appeared on Cohen's 1984 album 'Various Positions,' a synth-fuelled record which Columbia refused to release in America despite it also containing such now-classic songs as the achingly romantic 'Dance Me to the End of Love' and mournful ballad 'If It Be Your Will.' That temerity would be unlikely to occur again as Cohen is rumoured to be prepping a new album of material after road-testing a few new songs last year. If that record does see a 2010 release it will be arrive more than a half-century after Cohen first began shaping our culture.
Cohen, known by some as the prince of pessimism, came by his musical darkness naturally. His father, a clothier, died when he was nine and brought the illogical nature of death, and of the world, into stark relief early on. That perspective would serve Cohen well as he came of age during the Beat Generation, becoming a hero poet in the mid-'50s Montreal coffee-house scene with the release of his first poetry collection, 'Let Us Compare Mythologies.' In 1961, his second book of poems, 'Spice Box of Earth,' made him an international presence.
Though he'd always been interested in music, having formed the country trio Buckskin Boys at age 17, Cohen spent the early '60s in seclusion on the Greek island of Hydra, writing poems and books (including 'Beautiful Losers,' which has since sold about 800,000 copies) and living with his muse Marianne Jensen until 1966 when he split for Nashville to start a music career. Even before he released a single song, he'd already sold 'Suzanne' to Judy Collins, who recorded the first of a reported 2000 (!) Cohen covers.
By the summer of 1967 he was working the folk festival circuit and that winter released his debut, 'The Songs of Leonard Cohen,' which included 'Suzanne,' 'Sisters of Mercy,' and his ode to Jensen, 'So Long, Marianne.' His next two albums, 'Songs from a Room' and 'Songs of Love and Hate' cemented his iconic status with tracks like 'Bird on a Wire' and 'Famous Blue Raincoat.' As Lou Reed would say when inducting Cohen into the Rock&Roll Hall of Fame, he had entered the "highest and most influential echelon of songwriters."
Though never a chart-topper -- his songs were ultimately too weighty to float in the mainstream -- Cohen created an enduring, multi-generational and international cult following. Combining Serge Gainsbourg's Euro sexuality, Elvis Presley's innate charisma and Bob Dylan's pop poetics, Cohen added his own deep rumbling baritone to give an aura of prophesy to every lyric, be it biblical or boudoir based.
Though his influence waned in the 1980s, he came back with a force at the turn of the decade with 1988's blackly comedic 'I'm Your Man' and the apocalyptic techno-pop of 1992's 'The Future' ("I've seen the future, brother," Cohen intones. "It is murder.") These arrived just as the alt-rock revolution was gearing up to take over music and Cohen was being introduced to a younger audience via Hollywood.
In the 1990 teen cult classic 'Pump Up the Volume,' a high-school pirate radio DJ began each of his phony-exposing shows by lighting a cigarette and dropping the needle on Cohen's midnight-black anthem 'Everybody Knows,' a sonic exercise in cultural cynicism whose only true equivalent is the late J.D. Salinger's book, 'Catcher in the Rye.' (It has recently been used to similar anti-establishment effect as bumper music for Alex Jones' hyper-conspiratorial radio show.)
The following year came the tribute album 'I'm Your Fan,' which included covers by R.E.M., the Pixies, John Cale and Nick Cave, giving Cohen further cred with the Lollopalooza generation. (A second covers album in 1995, 'Tower of Song,' aimed a little older with the legendary likes Billy Joel, Elton John, Peter Gabriel, Don Henley, Sting and Bono).
In 1993, Oliver Stone snagged three songs from 'The Future' for his agit-pop tour-de-force 'Natural Born Killers,' including giving the ballad 'Waiting for the Miracle' a prominent spot on the smash soundtrack.
After touring 'The Future,' Cohen went into seclusion again, this time at a Zen retreat on Mount Baldy, California. He spent five years out of sight -- becoming a Buddhist monk and going by the name Jikan, or 'silent one' -- only emerging in 1999. Though he released a couple of albums in the 2000s, as well as the new poetry collection, 'Book of Longing,' the biggest news came mid-decade when Cohen announced he was nearly broke after his manager Kelly Lynch embezzled $5 million from his savings (which has yet to be repaid).
But this dark cloud for Cohen had a silver lining for his fans as it lay the groundwork for his triumphant tour -- including now-legendary headlining performances at Glastonbury and Coachella -- and late-career revival.
When he accepts his Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award on Sunday, we should remember that the lesson of Leonard Cohen -- a man whom Angelica Huston once aptly described as "part wolf, part angel" -- is ultimately the opposite of his bleak 'Everybody Knows' worldview. Even if the fight is fixed, the poor stay poor and the rich get rich, Cohen has now taught us that sometimes the good guys do win.