We love Leonard Cohen

The most gifted songwriters of our time are paying tribute to the Godfather of Gloom this weekend. Fiona Sturges celebrates his enduring appeal
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The Independent Culture

There's a lot of love for Leonard. These days, you'd be hard-pushed to find a singer-songwriter who doesn't claim to be Cohen's biggest fan. As well as being a poet of iconic status, the self-anointed Godfather of Gloom is a musician's musician, a primary influence on generations of new artists.

Among the more distinguished covers of his songs are those by Willie Nelson ("Bird on a Wire"), Jeff Buckley ("Hallelujah") and REM ("First We Take Manhattan"). There have been tribute albums, too, first from Cohen's former backing singer Jennifer Warnes with 1987's Famous Blue Raincoat and then, four years later, by alt.rock stars including REM, Nick Cave and John Cale with the shamelessly titled I'm Your Fan. The Sisters of Mercy took their name from a Cohen song (he really should have sued), while pop noirists such as Morrissey and Echo and the Bunnymen's Ian McCulloch have both acknowledged his influence. In Krakow, Poland, there is even an annual Leonard Cohen Festival. All this for a man who has the indecency still to be alive.

This weekend the beatification continues with a concert at the Brighton Festival entitled Came So Far For Beauty. Curated by the producer Hal Willner, it sees a host of luminaries including Cave, Laurie Anderson, The Handsome Family, Linda Thompson and the folk siblings Kate and Anna McGarrigle performing versions of their favourite Cohen songs.

Significantly, the line-up also includes Teddy Thompson (son of Richard and Linda) and Rufus Wainwright (offspring of Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III), two artists who weren't born when Cohen was at the height of his powers. Wainwright, a 30-year-old singer-songwriter whose music references such diverse artists as Bob Dylan and Cole Porter, remembers hearing Cohen's records emanating from his sister Martha's bedroom. "I was about 14 or 15 at the time and headlong into an opera addiction," he recalls. "She would play, 'First We Take Manhattan' and 'I'm Your Man'. It really stuck with me. As I became more involved in songwriting and searching for influences I turned back to my roots, which is the city of Montreal, and studied his work."

For 27-year-old Teddy Thompson, Cohen is "as influential as Bob Dylan, even though our styles are very different. To me, he's almost like a great movie star - Marlon Brando maybe. He's so cool and talented that you can't help adoring him."

The child of affluent middle-class Jewish parents, Leonard Cohen was born in Montreal in 1934. At 15 he started playing guitar and writing songs; two years later he went to Montreal's McGill University to study English. After graduating in 1956 he began publishing poetry, and wrote two novels, The Favourite Game (1963) and Beautiful Losers (1966). Cohen's destiny was sealed in 1967 when he supported the folk singer Judy Collins at an anti-Vietnam concert. When he opened his mouth to sing, his nerves got the better of him and he walked off stage. Eventually he was coaxed back, whereupon the crowd fell at his feet. Cohen was swiftly signed up by John Hammond, the man who had signed Dylan, and the following year recorded the much-lauded Songs of Leonard Cohen.

It's Cohen's songwriting, say his most ardent fans, that sets him above his contemporaries. "He writes songs that are dense with images," explains Rennie Sparks, one half of the alt.country duo The Handsome Family. "They read like short stories. There's a whole history before and after every song. They're like little snapshots, like a lost photo on the beach all battered and curled up at the sides."

It was during his years hobnobbing with New York bohos that Cohen found his principal muse: women. He famously wooed the Velvet Underground vamp Nico and, as he indelicately revealed in "Chelsea Hotel", bedded Janis Joplin ("You gave me head/ On the unmade bed/ While the limousines waited in the street"). Yet Cohen has claimed he didn't have as nearly much success with the ladies as was rumoured. In an interview three years ago he said his reputation proved a hindrance in forming lasting relationships. "They did not want to be a name on a list," he grumbled.

Still, it is love, requited or otherwise, that has sustained his songwriting, from Songs of Leonard Cohen through to Songs of Love and Hate, Various Positions and I'm Your Man, to name but a few. "The emotional longing in his songs is almost religious," says Sparks. "His songs are prayers to God, prayers to himself, prayers to the beloved. I'd love to be able to write in that way. I think of them as nourishing and comforting, they offer something very spiritual." Cohen's not for everyone of course. There are those who regard his songs as painful dirges, to be listened to with whisky and bottle of aspirin close to hand. Even Cohen once said that his record company should give razor blades away with his records.

"Well that's fine with me," Sparks remarks. "There are many happy songs that I find alien and cold. Cohen writes songs that understand how hard it is to be alive. If he was happy-go-lucky Leonard skipping down the sidewalk, it wouldn't offer the same kind of comfort. I think he's one of those poets that needs to be unhappy, that needs a longing for someone. To me, the expression of that longing is true poetry."

The irony is that, while Cohen remains the crown prince of pain, he has found much to be happy about in his twilight years. "When you stop thinking about yourself," he said recently, "a certain sense of repose takes over you." In 1996 he was ordained a Buddhist monk and assumed the name Jikan, "the Silent One". Nowadays he's to be found in a Zen-like state on the top of a Californian mountain and, word has it, rises at two every morning to indulge in some lengthy meditation. Remarkably, despite his rigorous regime, he is still free to indulge his twin passions: women and booze.

"Sure, you could say he had his cake and ate it," muses Wainwright. "But the fact is, he's a true legend. I really believe he is the greatest living poet on Earth." Is the prospect of singing his idol's songs daunting? "No, not at all," replies Wainwright. "In terms of lyrics, Leonard wins the arm wrestle but let's just say that my voice is a force to be reckoned with."

Hal Willner's Came So Far for Beauty: An Evening of Leonard Cohen Songs, Brighton Dome, Saturday and Sunday (www.brighton-festival.org.uk)

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