Johnny Black explains how the world's pre-eminent septuagenarian Jewish Buddhist singer-poet staged the year's most remarkable comeback.
Bob Dylan's recent return to prominence as a major international artist came as a surprise even to seasoned veterans in the industry. So who would have laid odds on another heritage act of similar vintage not only pulling off the same trick, but actually outselling the spokesman of his generation?
Rob Hallett of AEG Live, that's who.
While his peers were headbanging to Black Sabbath, the 12-year-old Hallett found himself enraptured by Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, the maestro of magnificent melancholy. "His music was saying more to me," recalls Hallett. "There are lines in his songs and poems that I have lived my life by."
So, on October 8, 2005, when it emerged that Cohen's former manager, Kelley Lynch, had misappropriated over $5 million from the artist's retirement fund, plus publishing rights to his songs, Hallett was saddened. "Rumor had it that even his cash card wouldn't work. That was a sad thing to me, that my childhood hero was reduced to that state."
Paradoxically, though, it was Cohen's financial plunge that triggered his current reversal of fortune, making him more successful now--in his 70s--than ever before.
"I went to meet him in his lawyer, Robert Kory's office in Beverly Hills," explains Hallett. "I started the conversation by coming out of the closet and admitting that I was a lifelong fan, I own all his albums and books, and I can quote lyrics from all his songs."
Having captured Cohen's attention, Hallett made his pitch, explaining that he believed Cohen had become a sleeping giant, one of the few artists that people wanted to see but couldn't.
Cohen, financially bereft, pointed out that he didn't have a band, hadn't played in fifteen years, and was doubtful that he still had an audience. Determined to work with his lifelong hero, Hallett offered to pick up the tabs for musicians and rehearsals. "I said, 'When you think you've got a band, and you feel ready to go out again, I'll put it together. Then we'll do a deal on the back end, recoup our costs and you'll get the rest'."
Hallett says he then went further and promised not just to recoup everything that had been taken from Cohen, but to try to double it.
With the deal in his pocket, Hallett admits that he then faced an uphill battle to convince not just the rest of the business, but some of his own associates at AEG Live, that Cohen could deliver the goods.
If Hallett was having any doubts, he must have been heartened by the extraordinary workings of fate over the following weeks.
First, Jason Castro performed Cohen's classic song, "Hallelujah," on the seventh season of American Idol, exposing the song to a whole new audience. The result? On March 7, 2008, Jeff Buckley's version of Cohen's "Hallelujah" went to number 1 on the iTunes chart.
A mere three days later, Cohen was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in recognition of his status among the "highest and most influential echelon of songwriters".
If it reads like a build-up that had been coordinated with military precision, Hallett insists, "All of that was serendipity. I planned none of it, but all those things made Leonard more aware of his own worth."
Cohen set off on tour for the first time in 15 years when he stepped back onto the stage of the 700-capacity Playhouse Theatre in the university town of Fredericton, New Brunswick on May 11.
Cohen had insisted on eighteen small warm-up dates to restore himself to peak performing capacity. "We kept it off the internet as far as possible," says Hallett, "and just advertised it in the local paper."
The good burghers of Fredericton gave Cohen a standing ovation before he had sung a note and he rewarded them with a three-hour show. "He's 73," points out Hallett. "We were all stunned."
It wasn't until they reached Toronto's Sony Centre For The Performing Arts on June 6 that Hallett invited the world's media along. "It's a 3,500-seater and we sold out three nights in a day and a half."
The reviews were almost uniformly glowing and Cohen was back with a bigger bang than anyone other than Hallett had anticipated.
Tour manager Mike Scoble has spent 25 years looking after everything from the opening of the Welsh Assembly to the last Mika tour, but even he sounds taken aback by Cohen's achievement. "We have to try to keep up with him," says Scoble. "If he's onstage for three hours, the rest of us can't pretend we're tired. The age range of the audience is amazing. It really is from 18 to 80."
This was all heartening, but how might the venerable troubadour fare in front of a non-Canadian audience? Hallett chose Dublin as the testing ground. "I knew Dublin was Leonard's spiritual home, him being a poet," he points out. "I'd been doing some work with John Reynolds at POD Concerts, and he came up with the idea of building an arena in the grounds of the Museum of Modern Art."
To make this ambitious plan economically viable, Hallett realized, they'd have to play three nights but Reynolds was doubtful if the potential audience was big enough. "When the first two went on sale," chuckles Hallett, "they sold out in half an hour so we added the third. We did 36,000 tickets in Dublin. Just amazing. They actually rushed the stage...women running up the aisles screaming...They were singing, dancing, cheering, clapping and just sharing in it. When he sang, 'Democracy is coming to the USA' the whole crowd jumped up and started shouting 'Barack!'. And to see Leonard's smile, it was just a joy."
"It's a very simple production," points out Mike Scoble. "The lighting is very understated and there are no special effects except for Leonard running on and off the stage. What makes it special is the songs, Leonard's personality and the sheer quality of the band."
The choice of imaginatively appropriate venues for the European jaunt didn't stop with Dublin's Museum. In Manchester Cohen played four nights at the Opera House, and would go on to European and Scottish castles, medieval Italian towns and French olive groves.
"There will never be anything better than Leonard Cohen's performance that night for me," says Glastonbury founder Michael Eavis." I had been trying to get him here for almost 40 years and I never could. Then, the only time I didn't try, his agent rang up and offered him."
Cohen's Pyramid Stage tour-de-force on June 29 elicited a rapturous reception as the strains of 'Hallelujah' rang out into the sunset." People say he's grumpy and depressed but he's nothing like that," adds Eavis. "He's such a lovely man. After every song he took his hat off and bowed to the audience. When he got to 'Hallelujah,' people were just lifting off the ground."
Glastonbury, however, delivered a more sobering lesson to Hallett. "It was a great performance, and the audience loved it," he says, "but Leonard is a perfectionist and he wasn't completely relaxed because he hadn't been able to do a soundcheck. We made sure to sort that out on the other festival dates."
The first European mainland date followed on July 1 with 18,000 devotees at Oslo's Aliset Stadium. "I had the Bon Jovi tour at the same time so I was running around between the two, one day with Leonard, one day with Bon Jovi," reveals Hallett. "The lovely thing is that Jon Bon Jovi is a huge Cohen fan, he does 'Hallelujah' in their encore, and whenever I went to one of his dates, the first thing he'd ask me was 'How was Leonard?'"
July 5th brought the first of the castle dates, promoted by Concerts DK at Copenhagen's Rosenborg Castle. "The audience for Leonard Cohen is unique," reckons Kim Worsoe of Concerts DK. "His show is as close as you can get to a religious experience. Our first two dates, in July, sold 21,000 tickets, and for the upcoming October dates, we've sold out 12,000 tickets at Hartwall Arena in Helsinki and 8,500 for the Forum in Copenhagen."
The Paris-based Gerard Drouot Productions handled Cohen's first French dates. "The festival in Lyon on the 9th sold out very quickly in 3 or 4 days (4,000), says Drouot." At Nice he was playing a part of the Nice Jazz Festival, and we did the largest attendance of the entire festival that night with over 7,000 tickets sold. Being Canadian, he speaks good French, and he uses it to introduce most of his songs with a short translation of the main lyrics."
Three members of U2, Bono, The Edge and Adam Clayton, turned out to see Cohen in Nice. "It's a beautiful setting, in an olive grove," says Hallett. "Bono had seen Leonard in Dublin and loved it, so he brought the others along to Nice."
After Lyon, Cohen moved on to Bruges, a concert promoted by Pascal Van De Velde, who founded his own company, Greenhouse Talent, after leaving Live Nation in 2004. "The Cactus Festival site is an 8,000 capacity park in the medieval city centre," he reveals. "It sold out in under two weeks. We had rain until 7 pm and then the sun came out. The show was outstanding on every single level: the magic performance, the quality of the sound, the gentle artiste ... pure magic."
Barry Wright, whose Edinburgh company Castle Concerts enjoys a unique relationship with Historic Scotland allowing them to stage rock events in Scottish castles, was delighted with Cohen's showing on Edinburgh Castle Esplanade on July 16. "This year we had five shows over the summer period--including Girls Aloud, Boyzone and the Proclaimers," says Wright. "They all sold out but Leonard Cohen was our fastest sell out ever."
For Wright, Cohen's resurgence underlines the long-term importance of nurturing top quality talent. "If you write your own songs, create your own music and you have talent, you can have a 20-year career," he feels. "If you're created by some TV talent show, you've probably got three and a half years."
The biggest gamble of the tour was, undoubtedly, Hallett's decision to put Cohen into London's 16,000-capacity O2 on July 17. "Everybody had questioned my sanity on that one, but we sold out in 24 hours and the show was a revelation. Leonard's charm turned it into a club. It was incredible. You could hear a pin drop, even when he recited a poem." Inspired by this triumph, AEG Live put another O2 show on sale for November. "It sold out in 24 hours, so we added a third."
At Benecassim on the 20th, says Hallett, "We'd learned our lessons from Glastonbury. We arrived well in advance so Leonard could have a soundcheck and I think Vince Power will confirm it's one of the best performances he's ever seen."
The tour moved into Italy on the 27th for Lucca's Summer Festival, a gig promoted by D'Alessandro E Galli, which Hallett rates as his personal favourite. "7,000 people in a beautiful medieval town in the heart of Tuscany," he recalls. "The promoter, Domenico D'Alessandro, sold tickets for that show in Mozambique, London, Zimbabwe, Washington, all over the world. It was a very special gig because of that."
The first leg of the tour ended with another triumph, when Cohen won over the youthful, dance-oriented crowd at the Big Chill in Ledbury, UK. Founder Katrina Larkin, however, professes no surprise. "It's because he is a genuine person who Big Chillers have admired and loved for years--it was almost beyond our dreams that he was able to perform at the festival. He added a magical moment that I don't think any of us at the Big Chill will ever forget."
Remarkable as Leonard Cohen's comeback has been, Rob Hallett is convinced the end is nowhere near. "We'll start up again in Hawaii in mid-January, go down through New Zealand, into Australia, back out via Japan, then South Africa, have another break, then do the United States of America. After that, who knows? He could tour in Europe until he no longer wants to."
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