The death of poet/songwriter/singer Leonard Cohen last November came just weeks after releasing his coolly caustic, spiritually searing final album “You Want It Darker.” If anything, the Canadian singer’s brand of melancholy, introspective folk rock has only gotten more popular since he began making music in 1967 with “Songs of Leonard Cohen.”
Cohen’s sensual monotone may be gone, but he’s now the subject of tributes and even a never-before-shown lost film documentary. Believed to be lost, director Tony Palmer’s documentary “Bird on a Wire” that captured Cohen on a long intimate tour throughout Europe in 1972 gets its first screenings this month at Film Forum (through Jan. 31). At the Music Hall of Williamsburg, “Sincerely, L. Cohen: A Celebration of Leonard Cohen” brings together 18 artists of differing genres covering their favorite Cohen tracks. There are elders of punk rock and urbane folk (Lenny Kaye, Richard Thompson), distant family members (Teddy Thompson, Lucy Wainwright Roche), nu-Appalachian music makers (Amy Helm, Elvis Perkins) and more on hand for an evening of tribute to arguably America’s finest songwriter.
We asked “Sincerely” performers Lee Ranaldo of ’90s punk-rockers Sonic Youth, Adam Weiner of Barack Obama-recommended band Low Cut Connie and Americana singer Josh Ritter to share how Leonard Cohen has influenced them.
Ranaldo is best known for his ‘80s rock-punk roots in Sonic Youth, but he’s gone solo and will stop by with Brooklyn guitarist Steve Gunn. Their new album, “Electric Trim,” is due out in May.
“You may not be able to pinpoint the influence of Cohen [in Sonic Youth], but Leonard’s influence has been absolutely huge — I’ve loved his records forever and the early ones in particular are a deep part of my musical life. His life story has fascinated me forever. Last year my family and I were on the Greek island of Hydra where Leonard famously bought an old house for $1,500, which is still in his family today. We sought the place out just to stand outside it on the narrow alley where it sits.
When I started exploring acoustic guitars again and revisiting my love for the singer-songwriters of the ‘60s, ’70s, ’80s and beyond, Leonard’s music once again proved a big influence. I love the pictures of his life and his world, the way his songs were a reflection of his experiences and his thinking — I hope to be able to approach that level of insight in my own work.”
Pianist of rock band Low Cut Connie, whose new album is due this spring
“Leonard has been described in almost shamanistic high priest terms, as if he descended from a mountain flush with wisdom and genius. I do not agree. In my estimation he was the ultimate craftsman, working slowly and steadily, crafting works of great beauty and humanity. He wrote his life and his experience with humor and feeling for the human condition that his songs seem to transcend time. Isn’t that the greatest thing an artist can aspire to? That he could take an ugly hunk of rock and whittle it down to a figure that will stand and be felt for generations? Leonard sat at a typewriter with his Spanish guitar and did just that.
His 2008 comeback shows were easily the most powerful concert I’ve ever attended; total gravitas. Light and dark in equal measure. Total connection to his own words from the bottom of his shoes to the top of his fedora. He inspired me to be always connected to your words. Don’t just wear them as a mask, but live them and be truthful for your audience.
I’m singing “Everybody Knows” from “I’m Your Man.” The song is a masterpiece, a craggy column of fire; it could have been written in Roman times or yesterday, and it will tell the tale every time. Leonard really achieved a deep level of truth-telling in that song. And I think it’s a truth we need to hear right now. ‘Everybody knows the good guys lost / Everybody knows the fight was fixed / The poor stay poor, the rich get rich / That’s how it goes / Everybody knows.’ We all know the score, we all know what time it is, things change — but so many fundamental things do not change.”
“I love Leonard and have since the beginning of my life and my career. He certainly inspired me from the beginning. I think his music stands on its own from word one. It even lifts off the page by itself. I try and write songs because I desire his. His way with a graceful phrase, his foresight and his wit are each worth aspiring to. There are many songs of mine that have come from moments of looking to Cohen. I am lucky to have drawn breath at the same time as him. To quote Cohen himself: ‘There is a crack in everything / that’s how the light gets in.’”