A crowd of thousands took to the streets of downtown Toronto one afternoon in May, 2006, cramming the intersection near Bay and Bloor Streets. Some climbed lamp posts or mailboxes for a better view, jostling for position and I attempted to weave my way toward the front. Not long after the man in the dark suit and fedora appeared on the makeshift stage and approached the microphone. We roared in applause. Live for the first time in more than a decade, Leonard Cohen was going to sing a song....
Until that moment 10 years ago, Cohen had no reason to tour or perform live. In fact, he'd spent a good part of the previous decade in a Zen Centre atop Mount Baldy, going by the name Jikan, meaning "Silent One." While away he was cherished by fans in the way that one maintains affection for a favourite uncle who lives abroad—you still love him, but he's not around much to tell him in person.
A hail of "Hallelujah" covers and a 1992 album, The Future, which went double platinum and won Cohen the Juno Award for Male Vocalist of the Year, kept his name current as he meditated and tended to dinner for his Mount Baldy hosts.
Then, in 1999, Cohen, 66, came down from the mountain. He surprised fans with two albums—Ten New Songs (2001) and Dear Heather (2004)—which marked the extent of his public activity. Ironically, the latter offered a more optimistic Cohen, largely free of the melancholic undertones that traditionally weave themselves through his music. Shortly thereafter, when Cohen learned that his manager had nearly bankrupted him by stealing from his personal fortune for years, the Silent One suddenly got loud.
The courts sided with Cohen but it proved little relief—his former manager didn't have the funds to pay him back. And so Cohen was forced back to work, a desperate attempt to earn back, in his mid-60s, enough income to take him through his golden years.
It was this very predicament that brought Cohen to a stage on the streets of Toronto. There to promote his new poetry tome, Book of Longing, and flanked by musician Ron Sexsmith and members of the Barenaked Ladies, Cohen steadied himself while the band hit the opening chords to "So Long, Marianne." The crowd grew noticeably giddy as the time came to croon those opening lines, "Come over to the window, my little darling/I'd like to try to read your palm." At that moment, Cohen came close to the mic, opened his mouth, and stumbled through the verse, barely remembering the words…
Next: Leonard's new album
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