Cohen struggles with wine, women and song.
"Give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld," Kurt Cobain sang, "so I can sigh eternally." Well, here's hoping Cobain has reached his peculiar form of nirvana. As for Cohen, he's still among us, singing his songs, practicing Zen, accepting the occasional cup of sugar from a neighborly female. Now past 70, the singer-songwriter-poet-lothario is starting to look like a French diplomat, with that Charles de Gaulle nose and those finely pressed suits. But the face, carved by time, has the hint of a smile, as if Cohen, at any one moment, has just unraveled a particularly knotty koan. He comes by that face honestly. In matters of the heart, mind and soul, the guy has definitely paid his dues. And now it's time for some payback....
Ladies and gentlemen, give it up for Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man, Lian Lunson's musical tribute to the Bard of Montreal, whose oeuvre evokes both an Old Testament prophet and a New Testament savior, not to mention Buddha, Mahatma Gandhi and Hank Williams, and with more than a touch of Barry White. How to do justice to such a spiritual magpie? Lunson starts with a concert that was given in Cohen's honor. Performers as various as Nick Cave and the McGarrigle Sisters wrap their lips around Cohen's carefully chosen lyrics, not so much making the songs their own as making themselves the songs' own. And to this has been added some commentary by Cohen himself, the words just as carefully chosen, poetry on the fly.
Remarkably, his voice continues to deepen, a basso profundo if there ever was one. And one of the great pleasures of Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man is hearing the songs done by other, higher voices ' Martha Wainwright's plaintive beseeching on "The Traitor," Rufus Wainwright's up-tempo tenor on "Everybody Knows," Antony's piercing vibrato on the newly androgynous "If It Be Your Will." Perla Batalla and Julie Christensen bring a folk-music purity to "Anthem," and if there's a problem with the concert, it's that there's a little too much folk-music purity, not enough rock, country, blues, jazz, gospel ' all the genres that Cohen's music has touched on. And where's the irony? Nobody's ever stuck his tongue farther in his cheek than Cohen has.
Speaking of which, I wish there'd been room for "Democracy," Cohen's anti-military salute to the American Dream, which seems more and more relevant as each bomb goes off in the streets of Baghdad. And maybe there could have been a little more of Cohen's supreme ambivalence regarding women ' both eternal disappointment and deliverance from eternal disappointment. The documentary has a soft, meditative glow about it, slighting the rage of the sage. Cohen's chronic depression, which magically lifted when he left his ego behind at the Mt. Baldy Zen Center, is barely touched on. And his recent lawsuit against his former manager, who left him with nothing to retire on, isn't mentioned at all. Too messy, a dharma bummer.
But if anyone ever deserved the hagiographic treatment, Cohen might be the one. Nobody has struggled so mightily with wine, women and song. And nobody has come out the other side with such a serene sense of life's ups and downs, especially its downs. "He finds shades in the blackness that feel like color," U2's Bono says in an interview, a marvelous line that pithily sums up Cohen's entire career. And then, to top things off, Bono joins the rest of U2 and Cohen himself in a rousing rendition ' well, not a rousing rendition ' of "Tower of Song," Cohen's valedictory ode to the art form that's sustained him for so long. I miss the Casio interludes. Otherwise, the song's as depressingly inspirational as ever.