On October 31, 1988, a brooding figure
dressed in black and resembling a handsomer Dustin Hoffman stopped in
Texas to tape an hour long segment of Austin City Limits, a popular public
television concert series showcasing country music. In a sense, the
producers were playing trick or treat with the audience on this Halloween
night. The music to be played that evening wasn't country, even though
the guest artist recorded an album or two in Nashville. Instead of twangy
guitars and ten gallon hats, the audience witnessed a musical marriage of Bob
Dylan and Charles Aznavour (or maybe Paul Simon and Jacques Brel).
In the following months, as the program aired in different cities
throughout the United States, the enthusiastic feedback from the often
finicky fans of country music took the producers by surprise. A priest who
saw the show when it aired in Cleveland, Ohio praised the broadcast as not
only the best Austin City Limits he had seen, but the best hour he had
ever spent in front of the television, period. Mainstream America had met
Leonard Cohen and they loved him.
Born in Montreal, Canada in 1934,
Cohen was already an acclaimed poet as well as a novelist of some note
when Judy Collins recorded his haunting ballad 'Suzanne' in 1966. A year
later, Columbia Records released his first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, and
though there would be further collections of poetry, Cohen was now a pop star, a singer/songwriter with the kind of voice that could be excused with
the admonition, 'Well, he did write the song, so why shouldn't he sing it,
Cohen's style found favor in Europe, but it may have been
too subdued for America where he maintained a small but faithful following.
Introspective and concerned more often than not with love of the
gone wrong or unrequited kind, the dominant mood of Cohen's work is
melancholic, hence his reputation as the 'poet laureate of pessimism.' The
opening lines of 'Famous Blue Raincoat' ('It's four in the morning, the end
of December') set a definite mood, one that is less then cheery, but far
from being 'music to slit your wrists by' as one critic claimed, Cohen's best
songs are the perfect companion for the lonely and broken-hearted. Like a
shoulder to cry on, or an outstretched hand offering a lifeline of hope, they
are warm and comforting. As he sings in 'Sisters of Mercy,' 'I've been
where you're hanging, I think I can see how
limited vocal abilities only lent credibility to his earlier recordings. The
sometimes whiney monotone of his tenor voice suggested this was not
a 'performer' acting out a script punctuated with musical notes, but a
poet with feelings too intense for words alone to express. Later, as age and
one cigarette too many took their toll, Cohen's voice actually improved.
By 1988's I'm Your Man, his voice had morphed into a sensual baritone as
thrilling as Barry White's but with considerably more class.
album also displayed something his critics consistently overlook: his sense
of humor. True, it tends to be dark and fatalistic, but it is there,
most notably in the self-deprecating lyrics of 'I Can't Forget' ('I can't
forget but I can't remember what') and 'Tower of Song' ('Well, my friends are
gone and my hair is grey. I ache in the places where I used to play').
It also reminded them of Cohen's ability to attract world class musicians to
his cause. John Bilezikjian's ode playing on 'Everybody Knows' is
as spooky as it is tasteful, and Jennifer Warnes' beautiful falsetto on
'Take This Waltz' will break whatever piece of your heart that the song
I'm Your Man and his appearance on Austin City
Limits improved his commercial standing in America, and
now Columbia/Legacy have given Cohen a place in their
series, alongside Bob Dylan, Neil Diamond, Barbra Streisand, and other
on the Sony owned label.
The Essential Leonard Cohen
is a two-disc, 31 song set compiled by the artist himself, and it offers
a generous sampling of Cohen's work through the years, stretching back to
his debut album for the dreamy 'Suzanne,' to four selections from last year's
Ten New Songs. Also included are no less than six of the eight cuts from
I'm Your Man, still his most accessible album, and perhaps his most
It speaks well of Cohen's work that even though
he has only released ten studio albums in more than three decades of
recording, this collection still leaves out some of his truly 'essential'
work. The absence of 'Last Year's Man' and 'Joan of Arc' from 1971's
Songs of Love and Hate, arguably his most affecting album, prevent this
collection from being truly definitive. No matter. Once Leonard Cohen has
seduced your ears you will likely seek out everything he has committed to
tape anyway. Like the man says, there 'Ain't No Cure For Love.'