Cohen, born three months before Elvis Presley in the autumn of 1934, has played 191 sold-out shows around the world since returning to the stage two years ago. Spin magazine named him the big comeback of 2009, which, after a hiatus of 15 years, seemed like a gross understatement. To his fans, the tour was something far more special and unexpected: many had written off the chance of ever seeing him perform live again.
Halfway through the Manchester Opera House concert last June, he stopped to quip: “The last time I was [touring], I was 60 years old . . . Just a kid with a crazy dream.” Cohen, like Tom Waits, has always fetishised old age. His peripheral presence among the Warhol set during the 1960s seemed an odd fit; he was clearly far more at ease in the boozy, intellectually rigorous company of his mentor and friend Irving Layton (who was 22 years his senior).
In the 1965 documentary Ladies and Gentlemen . . . Mr Leonard Cohen, he makes for a curious spectacle — a self-conscious young artist, brash among his contemporaries and easily crushed by television interviewers who see through the pose. A charmer though he was, his long digressions into paraphrasing passages of his second novel, Beautiful Losers, say, in response to a question about art, are a far cry from Bob Dylan’s razor-sharp epithets.
That’s because Cohen isn’t — and was never — a hipster. Hipsters, like Dylan and Lou Reed, are concerned with mapping out the future. Even when they appropriate cultural artefacts from the present or the past, they are making manifestos for new ways of living and seeing. Dylan might sing “Don’t follow leaders”, but what he really means is: “I know you’re going to follow me.”
Cohen, on the other hand, has built a career on the art of saying goodbye. He’s seen the future, he once mumbled, but “it’s murder”. Many assumed that Cohen’s 2004 album Dear Heather was an elaborate farewell. In that record, melodies from earlier albums were appropriated and rewritten; an old live recording of the country standard “Tennessee Waltz” reminded us of his younger voice; and backing singers were allowed to replace him on lead vocals. “To a Teacher”, a musical setting of one of his earliest poems, completed what looked like the full circle of his career.
But his return to live performance was an awe-inspiring reaffirmation of his powers. Every night, he literally ran on to the stage and growled out his songs with almost religious conviction.
While fans are no doubt concerned about the singer’s health, they should take comfort in the knowledge that, according to the official press release, it was a “sports-related injury” that felled him. Some might comment on how the notorious ladies’ man has injured his “lower back”, but I, for one, won’t.