If you suddenly became aware of a man whose life experiences had taken him from trust-fund baby to poet to novelist to acclaimed songwriter and eventual cult figure, would you take the time to give him a listen?
If you heard that a self-professed "Ladies' Man" had followed up rumored trysts with women from Janis Joplin to Rebecca De Mornay by becoming a Zen Buddhist monk living on a mountaintop, would it pique your interest? What if Kurt Cobain, in an attempt to describe the ideal afterlife, simply invoked this man's name and allowed the connotations to make his statement?
If those reasons don't do it, maybe a plug from the world's biggest rock band will: There would be no U2 if there hadn't been a Leonard Cohen.
"He's an extraordinary talent, and anyone who's interested in music has got to be interested in him," Bono insisted while discussing a preview of "Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man," a concert film/documentary that will provide a crash course on the legendary artist's career in its limited release to theaters next month. "Anyone who's interested in words needs to be interested in him.
"He's the original rapper, you know, if you're interested in hip-hop," the frontman continued. "He's a sexy man who made sexy music, who made music asking questions about God and girls and everything.
"Any question that I've wanted to ask," he added, "I've found in his mouth first."
Over his five-decade career, Cohen has pondered the weightiest issues, emerging with lyrics that frequently take years to craft — oft-covered classics like "Suzanne," "Waiting for the Miracle," "Closing Time" and "Bird on a Wire" easily stand the test of time. It was only natural, then, that "Man" director Lian Lunson would capture an impressive cast of admirers (also including Nick Cave, Pulp's Jarvis Cocker, Rufus Wainwright and Antony of Antony and the Johnsons) covering Cohen's work so he could offer it up to a new generation.
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"I first discovered Leonard Cohen's music back in 1978 when I was 17 years old," recalled U2 guitarist the Edge. "In those days we were listening to exclusively punk music. ... I don't know he managed to make his way under the radar into our circle of friends. He was different. He was welcomed, even though very few other artists were, and he stayed with me. And that's the thing about his work, it stays with you. If you become a Leonard Cohen fan, you never stop being a Leonard Cohen fan."
His influence has remained with the band throughout its career. "I think the obvious one is 'The Fly,' " Bono confessed, citing U2's 1991 hit single.
Indeed, U2's lyrics to that song ("It's no secret that a conscience can sometimes be a pest/ It's no secret ambition bites the nails of success") are written in a structure that's strikingly similar to the deep, memorable verses from Cohen's "Everybody Knows" ("Everybody knows that the dice are loaded/ Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed").
"It's a couplet device from Leonard," Bono divulged with pride. "There's many more that I would never admit."
"To understand Leonard's work, you've got to understand his quite unusual process for writing," the Edge added. "He might spend five years on one song, coming back to it, rewriting it. And it's not necessarily a passive five years; he'll write multiple verses. He will whittle it down until it's almost a crystalline, pure form of words, like some kind of perfect song."
"I feel all kinds of unusual feelings in his company — like humility and modesty," Bono revealed. "Very few people walk this particular piece of ground that Leonard Cohen walks, and I'm aspiring one day to get close. I know I'll never get there."
It was with humility and modesty, then, that Bono and his bandmates went into a tiny New York establishment called the Slipper Room to accompany the 71-year-old maestro for a one-song performance that was filmed for "I'm Your Man" in May of last year. Following a series of remembrances and live performances, the resulting footage brings "Man" to a powerful, cool crescendo.
And although selling the iPod generation on a 71-year-old poet is no small challenge, Bono has an answer for that as well. "That's like asking somebody why they should care about oak trees or beautiful skies or music in general," he responded. "[Cohen's work] is an extraordinary thing that we still have to make a fuss over. This amazing talent, a beautiful lyricist with his haunting melodies — Leonard's just a rare, rare bird."
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