Inductee: Leonard Cohen: Into the consciousness

Into the consciousness

Cohen at his Montreal home
Photo: Tina Tyrell

Montreal living legend Leonard Cohen takes his place among the greats

When Lou Reed inducted Leonard Cohen into the American Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008, he described Cohen as belonging to the "highest and most influential echelon of songwriters."

"There are few artists in the realm of popular music who can truly be called poets, in the classical, arts-and-letters sense of the word," the U.S. Rock Hall explains. "Among them are Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Joni Mitchell and Phil Ochs. Leonard Cohen heads this elite class."

But Cohen’s musical roots are inextricably linked with his hometown Montreal where he attended Herzliah High School (where his literary mentor, poet Irving Layton, was a teacher) and Westmount High (today home to the Leonard Cohen Poet-in-Residence program).

Cohen published his first book of poetry in Montreal in 1956 and his first novel in 1963, and Montreal native and Canadian folk icon Penny Lang told Hour in 2006 about the time she got a phone call from Cohen asking her to teach him how to play guitar.

"Not today," Lang – who is bipolar – replied to Cohen. "I’m very depressed."

But Cohen learnt without Lang, found an early supporter in Judy Collins (her cover of Suzanne became a hit) and was later signed by legendary A&R man John Hammond to Columbia Records. His first record was 1967′s Songs of Leonard Cohen. The rest, as they say, is history.

"I’ve loved Leonard’s music beginning in my teens," says Montreal promoter Rubin Fogel, who promoted "20 warm-up dates for Cohen’s [current three-year] world tour," which winds down Dec. 10 and 11 in Vegas.

"I began working with Cohen when I promoted [his protégé] Anjani’s concert at Cabaret in 2007," Fogel recalls. "When [American concert promoter AEG Live] wanted to book warm-up dates in Canada, they said [to Leonard], ‘What about Rubin?’"

Those warm-up dates included five nights in Halifax where, Fogel says, Cohen and the crew bonded into one big family. "And I don’t think Leonard’s [Canadian] audiences wave the Canadian flag – they recognize him more as a universal citizen, even though his music touches on places where we grew up and identify with."

Fogel continues, "With Leonard what you see is what you get. He’s humble, he’s professionally and spiritually generous and he’s thoughtful to all the people around him."

Which reminds me of the time I actually stepped inside Cohen’s Plateau home to interview Anjani to preview her concert Fogel was promoting at Cabaret.

Cohen’s home was spartan, which made sense, since Cohen once spent several years in a Zen Buddhist monastery. When I asked Anjani if she was getting a rough ride from the Montreal media, she replied, "Leonard and I were talking about this – what press was – just the other day. Leonard said, ‘Remember when [my album] Various Positions [with the song Hallejuah] was released [in 1984], CBS didn’t even release it in the States. And 20 years later [it's considered a] masterpiece… You know, it takes 20 years for my stuff to get into the consciousness.’"

Today over 2,000 renditions of Cohen’s songs have been recorded, including two versions of Hallelujah that famously placed No. 1 and 2 in the U.K. Christmas singles chart in December 2008. Cohen has been inducted into both the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame and is a Companion of the Order of Canada.

"Over the few thousand shows that I’ve produced in my lifetime, in 35 years in this business," Rubin Fogel says, "I’ve worked with some of the greatest singer/songwriters alive, and Leonard’s show is the closest to perfection I’ve ever seen, if not perfection."

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