Around the World in 82 Years—The Leonard Cohen Renaissance
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.
It’s likely that, had his manager not wiped out his bank accounts, the Leonard Cohen renaissance of recent years would never have occurred. We’d celebrate his 80th birthday today in the fashion of other artists who’ve settled in to a quiet retirement – some kind words, old video clips, and a hearty “Happy Birthday” sendoff.
There would, however, have been no world tours. Perhaps not even any new albums, let alone discs that break the benchmark for critical and commercial acclaim he’d set earlier in his career. And there wouldn’t be an entirely new generation of Cohen fans discovering his music (including Justin Bieber fans trying to figure out just who the heck this old man is), or the opportunity for longtime fans to say “thank you” in person.
“Financial necessity of course arose in a very acute manner a few years ago,” Cohen told Rolling Stone magazine recently, when discussing the post-2004 period. “I thought I had a little bread, enough to get by. I found I didn’t—for which I’m very grateful because it spurred a lot of activity.”
He continued the thought in The Telegraph, noting that touring, “renewed my interest in the whole enterprise. Besides, this and washing dishes are the only things that I really know how to do.”
Since 2008, Cohen has circled the globe multiple times, playing to sell out audiences on nearly every continent.
“We’ve been on the road for a while now,” he told the crowd during a concert at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre last year. “I hadn’t sung for about 15 years and now you can’t get rid of me.”
The show was part of his latest world tour, in support of his 2012 album Old Ideas—a critical smash, a commercial hit, and the highest charting album of Cohen’s career. It also proved that Cohen wasn’t simply a nostalgia act, trying to rake in a few bucks by touring the world crooning “Hallelujah.”
In an age of social media, selfies, viral music videos and reality TV battles for pop supremacy, a 78-year-old Montreal singer with a hoarse voice and a fedora rose above it all to cap one of the most brilliant comebacks in music history. He was Elvis in black leather in 1968. He was Sinatra singing “My Way.” It was an encore to rival the entire first act of his career.