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Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Songs of Leonard Cohen

The enduring significance of a great writer

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Leonard Cohen emerged as a recording artist in the 1960s, but even then, he seemed to be in but not of his era. The memorable songs he authored in those years, including “Suzanne,” “Bird on a Wire” and “Sisters of Mercy,” make few discernable references to anything that could be sold as nostalgia. More than any songs of the ’60s, they deserve to be called timeless. And all these years later, Cohen remains a viable presence in music, rather than a ghost from the past.

Cohen returns to Milwaukee after nearly 40 years with a March 15 performance at the Milwaukee Theatre. His previous concert in our town took place in 1975 at the Performing Arts Center, as the Marcus Center was once called. He was in seclusion for much of the ’90s at a Zen Buddhist monastery and sporadically returned to recording in the ’00s. After 2004, when he was shocked to discover that his manager had stolen much of his money, Cohen embarked on a series of lengthy international tours, filling a stadium in Israel and the Royal Albert Hall in London and drawing some of the largest audiences of his career.

Circumstances may have forced him onto the road, but Cohen took to the challenge with aplomb. Clad in dark suit and Fedora, the 78-year old singer performs before tall, moodily lit curtains and a large ensemble of musicians and singers. The sonic palette of Cohen’s live shows draws from the tonal hues of the Near East and the Deep South, invoking prayer as well as evoking the funk. Performing in a craggy voice with a stony face, the hard edges of his performance are softened by the sweet accompaniment. With a dozen studio albums behind him, from Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967) through Old Ideas (2012), he has plenty of songs to choose from for his three-hour concerts.

Unlike virtually any other important singer-songwriter, Cohen was already recognized as a significant poet and novelist before he debuted as a recording artist. Cohen grew up in Montreal and gained recognition in Canada’s supportive cultural milieu. By the early 1960s he was considered an accomplished young poet for collections such as The Spice-Box of Earth and Flowers for Hitler, and for a pair of novels, The Favorite Game and Beautiful Loser. Steeped in Yeats and Whitman as well as Henry Miller, Cohen was fed by the cultural lions of an earlier generation; unlike Bob Dylan, he bypassed Ginsberg, Kerouac and the Beats, and leapt from literature to the concert stage. Cohen skipped Woodstock but was featured at Britain’s mud-bath rock fest on the Isle of Wight (1970). While some particle of organization within the apparent chaos kept the upstate New York event from spinning out of hand, the Isle of Wight turned to debacle as the rampaging crowd broke down fences, set fires and disrupted performances. Stepping on stage at 4 a.m. wearing 5 o’clock shadow and a safari suit, Cohen calmed the mob with a childhood recollection and held them captive through a set of grave yet hopeful songs intoned with ragged authenticity.

Cohen was never a rock musician but was marketed to the highbrow edge of the rock audience, where he found listeners for his often-mordant poetry of spirit entwined with flesh and the sardonic leavened by the biblical. Gravity always clung to Cohen as he spoke his lyrics, written along the road of excess but with eyes fixed on the rearview mirror of his rabbinical forebears. His younger peer, the aspiring rock poet Jim Morrison, was determined to “break on through to the other side.” Cohen was already there.

The moody spirit of his early albums, with their poetic search for wholeness in a broken world and exploration of the shoals between desire and fulfillment, has moved many ambitious singer-songwriters. The 1991 tribute album I’m Your Fan included contributions by R.E.M. and Nick Cave; more recently, Conor Oberst and other younger songwriters have cited Cohen as an inspiration. And by the measure of ticket and album sales, Cohen has never been more popular than he is today. Reaching the Top-10 in the U.S. and many other countries, his most recent album, the pointedly titled Old Ideas, is a whispery meditation on the themes that have always preoccupied Cohen—love and sex, God and pain, ecstasy and oblivion.

Leonard Cohen performs 8 p.m., Friday, March 15 at the Milwaukee Theatre.