Leonard Cohen: Secrets of a poet-balladeer

In Concert

Leonard Cohen — Old Ideas World Tour

Where: Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre

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When: Wednesday, 8 p.m.

Tickets: $39.50 to $250250-220-7777

Leonard Cohen, now 78 years old, seems still to be full of vim and vigour.

That’s a good thing for devout fans of the fedoraed poet/balladeer. Recent concerts clock in at three hours. And this time out, Cohen — who played Victoria in both 2009 and 2010 — has a newish album to promote, last year’s acclaimed Old Ideas.

Cohen’s first studio recording since Dear Heather (2004), Old Ideas contemplates mortality, relationships and memories. The singer’s sing-speak baritone — sounding deeper and craggier than even — gives the album an impressive, sermon-on-the-mount feel. Angelic backup vocals provided by female singers, often in gospel-influenced call-and-response style, conspire to make the music seem even more biblical.

His winking humour is still intact, however. Cohen’s song Going Home opens with: “I love to speak with Leonard, he’s a sportsman and a shepherd/He’s a lazy bastard/living in a suit.”

Cohen is the subject of a well-researched biography, I’m Your Man — The Life of Leonard Cohen, by music journalist Sylvie Simmons. To help prepare for the concert next week, here’s some Cohen facts gleaned from this book and a variety of sources.

You are getting very, very sleepy: As a young teen, Cohen bought a book titled 25 Lessons in Hypnotism: How to Become an Expert Operator. Using newly acquired powers, he persuaded the family maid to undress. Later, Cohen — renowned for his way with the ladies — would require no such ruse.

See the man with the stage fright: While you can’t drag him off the stage these days, early on, Cohen battled performance jitters. At his official New York debut in 1967, he managed to sing four lines of Suzanne (“unbelievably flat”) before fleeing. Judy Collins persuaded him to return to the stage, and they finished the song together.

For the well-heeled collector: The Avenue Gallery in Oak Bay is hosting an exhibition and sale of limited edition Cohen prints, taken from his illustrations. Each is signed and comes with “Mr. Cohen’s personal seal.” An opening reception happens Friday from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the gallery. And if you’re so inclined, you can purchase one of these — some selling for as much as $7,500.

Iggy Cohen: Cohen once read a personal ad from a woman who desired “the raw energy of Iggy Pop with the elegant wit of Leonard Cohen.” For a joke, he replied, sending her a Polaroid of him and Pop together. Cohen also phoned her. “But,” he added, “there was no personal involvement.”

Cowboy Cohen: In the early 1950s, a teenaged Cohen was in a trio called The Buckskin Boys. They played country-and-western music, including Red River Valley and Turkey in the Straw. Cohen pursued his cowboy fantasies further as an adult, renting a cabin outside Nashville. He bought a rifle and a steed that was impossible for him to ride. “That horse,” he observed, “was mean.”

Everyone loves Hallelujah: You can pretty well bet Cohen will play one of his most beloved (and often performed) songs, Hallelujah, in Victoria. It ranks as one of the most covered tunes in pop music — more than 300 artists have interpreted it. For many, Jeff Buckley’s version is a favourite. Hallelujah has also been sung by Hawaiian ukulele king Jake Shimabukuro, Justin Timberlake … and an a cappella outfit called Conspiracy of Beards.

It’s not just about the cash: In 2006, Cohen won a civil suit against ex-manager Kelley Lynch after it was revealed she’d siphoned millions from his retirement fund. He was awarded $9 million but was unable to collect. That’s mostly why Cohen returned to touring after a 15-year absence, despite being in his early 70s.

He needed the money.

Cohen recently told Rolling Stone magazine he’s managed to restore his “tiny fortune” after several years on the road. So now it’s for fun. He’s even hinted at touring into his ninth decade. Last April, he half-joked to a New York Times reporter: “I would like to take up smoking again when I’m 80. I may be on the road then, and it’s one of the things that invites me to tour again — smoking on the road.”

High old times: His days of pharmaceutical hijinks are no doubt long behind him, but in Simmons’ biography, Cohen is candid about his enthusiastic drug use back in the day. He took Maxiton (speed), Mandrax, hashish, opium and acid. Cohen told Simmons: “My [1966] novel Beautiful Losers has a bit of acid in it and a lot of speed.”

Holy man: Most fans are aware that Cohen, raised as a Jew, has a long interest in Buddhism. In 1996, he was ordained as a Zen Buddhist monk. At the ceremony, he was given the name “Jikan.” Less known is the fact Cohen was, for a period in the late ’60s, also deeply interested in Scientology. He supposedly even attained the level of Senior Dianetic, Grade IV Release, in the Church of Scientology.

Mental asylums: Early in his career, Cohen and his band played mental hospitals, such as Henderson Hospital in London. Bandmate Ron Cornelius was unenthused at first.

“[Cohen said] ‘I want to go and play mental institutions.’ I said, ‘What, I’m not going in a nuthouse to play. Yes, count me in for the Albert Hall, but count me out for the nuthouse.’ [But] after seeing what the music did for those people, I ended up enjoying many of those and we played a lot of them, all over Europe, Canada and even in America.”

These days, a Leonard Cohen concert is regarded by many as an almost religious experience, the passing of years making him even more of a sage extraordinaire.

Journalists in Britain (where Cohen is hugely popular) are a touch less reverent than North Americans in their coverage. But everyone appears to admire Old Ideas. In its review, the Independent opined, “If this is to be his last communiqué, at least the old smoothie’s going down swinging.”

achamberlain@timescolonist.com

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