IT SEEMS PERHAPS a little unlikely, in an occupation dense with more than its fair share of messianic personalities and Christ-posturing, that pop's most sanctified figure would come in the body of a dour, self-deprecating Jew from Eastern Canada. Now a spry and clear-eyed 76, Leonard Cohen has been many things: the po-faced poet laureate, the bourgeois intellectual playboy, the zealot, the prolific ladies' man, the humble monk, the gallows humorist—along the way humbly personifying basically every rock and roll cliché imaginable (drug addiction, religious conversion, Hollywood starlet girlfriends, a '70s-era Phil Spector record, etc.), and even inventing a few new ones (attempting to enlist in the Israeli army, sodomizing Janis Joplin in song form, etc). Still, amid all of the images routinely batted about by his critics and his cult alike, the most pervasive picture of Leonard Cohen always seems to be that of some Divine Prophet: a singer/songwriter whose body of work is routinely revered in near-biblical language. From his obsessive following to the well-publicized, Job-like financial devastation that's returned him to the spotlight, it doesn't feel entirely hyperbolic to suggest that Leonard Cohen might just be the closest living thing popular music has to a religion.
It's no accident: A master mythmaker in his own theatrically humble way, Cohen has spent over four decades cultivating and reshaping himself in uniquely religious terms—from fiery Old Testament protagonist to humble apostle, from Moses to Judas—his modest discography contriving the sum total of human relation as just some massive playground for theological metaphor.
Following a celebrated (by Canadian standards, anyway) career as a poet and novelist, Cohen was already in his 30s (and looked to be about 50) when he moved to New York to try his hand at songwriting—stumbling into the post-Dylan Greenwich Village folk scene, and lingering around the periphery of Warhol's sprawling Factory crowd. Re-imagining himself as a folk troubadour, Cohen mined his decade-plus catalog of verse—a catalog mostly concerned with the sacred-profane dichotomy—and refashioned it into an apostolic, theologically dense kind of pop mysticism. His monotonic delivery and stark, spare arrangements only served to intensify the message: Leonard Cohen's words resonate with the kind of biblical authority usually reserved for stone tablets. As the years have passed, Cohen's narrative role has gradually shifted from young apostle to that of the apocalyptic prophet—his sporadic records throughout '80s and '90s transforming his trademark austere folk sound into a nightmare of synthetic cabaret, lurching ominously beneath his increasingly deathly growl. The transformation culminated in 1992's acclaimed The Future, with Cohen in straight-up seer mode—a record he followed with five years in exile at a Buddhist monastery on Mt. Baldy.
In spite of the increasing lurid improprieties suggested throughout his discography, Cohen's lifelong bachelorhood, his reclusive tendencies, and reputation as a patient, long-suffering laborer to his craft have only served to further stretch the metaphor: his is the image of the dutiful monastic within the Tower of Song. Seemingly satisfied with a lifetime of biblical self-mythology, the septuagenarian singer/songwriter had been enjoying what seemed to be a gradual decline into retirement when, in 2004, God decided to drop some classic fourth-quarter wrath and totally Job'd the poor guy. Turns out, Cohen's business manager of 16 years (a former lover, naturally) had gone completely batshit—first brokering deals to sell off all of his publishing rights and projected royalties, then defrauding him of close to $5 million, before falling off the grid—leaving his retirement fund frozen with only $150,000. (Though ultimately awarded a $9 million settlement, it's unlikely that Cohen's manager will ever pay him back.) In financial ruin, Cohen had no choice but to hit the road for the first time in 15 years—an undesirable circumstance that has nevertheless turned into something of a worldwide victory lap for the humble old monk: The shows have been tremendously well-received, a live album became his biggest chart success in decades, and the tour itself raked in $9.2 million in 2009 alone.
Every religion needs a good resurrection myth, and it seems that, in the winter of his years, the dapper old Jew finally found his: a world tour through pop music's storied churches, preaching nightly to thousands of enthusiastic converts, and generally basking in the kind of eulogistic honors a pop musician has to be dead before being bestowed with. For a mythmaker of Cohen's caliber, it's a narrative that all seems a little too convenient—is this some kind of divine intervention?