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Leonard Cohen: The hat has its own page on Facebook (credit: Wire Image)

There's a moment near the end of Bird on a Wire, the documentary of his 1972 tour, when Leonard Cohen, exhausted from months on the road and the emotion he has expended in performance, is unable to go out and face another ovation. He's in tears backstage and his tour managers are in despair, fearful that fans might take the place apart if Cohen does not offer them a few words of consolation. 

The moment, filmed by Tony Palmer, exposes the unspoken tension between art and the artist, performer and public. There's a Biblical quotation favoured by Gustav Mahler — "I will not let you go until you bless me" — that captures the ultimate limit of the transaction, when only external validation will allow the music to play on. In this frame we watch Leonard Cohen, a late developer at 38 years old, wrestle with destiny, and reluctantly embrace it. This, or some event close to it, is the moment when the Canadian troubadour emerged from his chrysalis as poet and balladeer and accepted the mantle of prophet and icon. 

Leonard Cohen will turn 80 on September 21. He is still on the road in his battered trilby (the hat has its own page on Facebook), singing the old songs as new, yielding nothing to shifts in taste or fashion. There is some question as to whether the hat is a trilby or a fedora. Jews have no doubt on the matter. They recognise it as a "shul hat", the once-obligatory headgear worn by men on their Sabbath-morning walk to synagogue.

Cohen has no difficulty acknowledging his identity. "I am a Jew," he has stated, time after time when confronted with philosophical speculations. "My father and mother of blessed memory," he wrote to a newspaper in 1993, "would have been disturbed by the [Hollywood] Reporter's description of me as a Buddhist. I am a Jew." 

Consider that word "disturbed". Hear it as Cohen would pronounce it, the vowels blurred by a Francophone Montreal inflection, the whole imbued with Talmudic irony. There, in a word, you have the essence of Cohen.  

"Are you a practising Jew?" he was asked in Jerusalem by an impertinent journalist. "I'm always practising," said Cohen. "Sometimes I feel the fear of God . . . it's part of the Jewish chain to sensitise yourself to that direction."  

His commitment to one faith has been so frank and natural throughout his life that, as he enters what the Jewish sages call his heroic years, it is worth exploring Cohen's work — his words, music and ideas — through a prism of the heritage he so robustly professes. 

Cohen manifests a moral strength rare among the butterflies of ephemeral fame. No musician has maintained a more assured equilibrium through good times and bad, riding the swings and roundabouts of outrageous fortune and misfortune without falling prey to the temptation of an easy fix. Cohen's strength has an obvious source. Orphaned of his father at nine years old, the boy Leonard drew close to his learned grandfather, author of a Lexicon of Hebrew Homonyms — words that look and sound the same but have completely different meanings and etymologies. 

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steve baker
November 30th, 2014
11:11 PM
The concert you mention in the opening sentence is available on YouTube. I have it in my Favorites. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LVDUTAn6Ttg&index=59&list=FLb0gfjoAsXdSz...

amcdonald
September 15th, 2014
9:09 PM
Leonard Cohen`s new album/masterpiece `Popular Problems` is free to hear at the Guardian online. It might seem tenuous to some but Rob Gretton, the manager of Joy Division, lived and worked in an a Kibbutz in Israel. Nice to see Dame Vivienne Westwood supporting the Yes campaign in Scotland. Paul McBeatle and Bob Geldof etc rattling inside the dustbin of history for the No.

Adrian
September 7th, 2014
10:09 PM
The Leonard Cohen Files now lists 567 different recordings of this Leonard Cohen masterwork – that includes all recorded variations: http://www.leonardcohenfiles.com/coverlist.php In pop, rock, folk, jazz and other canons there are other songs which have been covered in greater number – eg. The Beatles’ “Yesterday” counts upwards of 3000 covers, and "Both Sides Now", originally by Joni Mitchell, has been covered nearly 1000 times to date ( http://jonimitchell.com/music/covers-most.cfm ). What matters, though, is the music. Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is a most beautiful song and is a globally-loved standard – a transcendent popular tune that moves countless people in all its forms.

amcdonald
September 3rd, 2014
4:09 PM
Leonard Cohen`s `First We Take Manhattan`, `Everybody Knows` and `The Future` are works of popular great art(Alain de Botton must have a terrible record and book collection if he can`t name any great art in it). Bob Dylan too has made some popular great art. I don`t think Dylan or Cohen have joined the anti-Israel/pro-Hitler-loving Hamas mobs. Some prominent philosophers,musicians and entertainers have lazy-mindedly done so. Cohen`s `The Future` doesn`t explicitly poeticise/predict the present battle between civilisation (Israel and allies) and barbarism (Hamas/Islamic Caliphate)but it certainly raises the spectre of the horror. Souxie &the Banshees have a great song `Israel` (free on Youtube). More artists should be expressing their solidarity with Israel. I`d happily exhibit my paintings there tomorrow.

AnonymousJames
September 2nd, 2014
7:09 AM
Excellent article. One error: Judy Collins is not Canadian.

Yael PULIK
September 1st, 2014
11:09 AM
An enlightening article - I absolutely loved it! Admiring both Leonard Cohen poetry, music and personality and Norman Lebrecht thorough research, his incredible knowledge in music, brilliant style of writing and explaining. Your pride in being Jewish makes me proud too! Thank you for all your generosity in sharing your knowledge for free, it feels good.

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