Over the years, Leonard Cohen has been labeled the "poet laureate of pessimism," the "maestro of melancholy," even the "Bard of the boudoir." But passing the iconic Canadian songwriter off as merely morose is misleading. Though Cohen is legendary for his often uncomfortable candor--in "Chelsea Hotel No. 2" he recounts his affair with the recently dead Janis Joplin, singing: "I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel / you were talking so brave and so sweet / giving me head on the unmade bed / while the limousines wait in the street"--there is a thoughtful beauty underlying the sadness.
Cohen has inspired countless musicians with his prose since he began penning music in the '60s--more than 150 artists have covered his work, including Bono, Willie Nelson and Jeff Buckley. On Thursday, Nov. 11, seven Boise bands will pay tribute to the still-touring 76-year-old troubadour with a special benefit concert for the City Light Home for Women and Children at Neurolux. Spearheaded by Gia Trotter, from The Very Most and Larkspur, the tribute will feature Leonard Cohen covers performed by The Well Suited, Larkspur, With Child, Field Guide, A Seasonal Disguise, How's Your Family and Tim Andreae.
"He's obviously kind of special. You either love him or you hate him is what it comes down to," said Trotter. "[The tribute concert] sparked a lot of interest with a lot of people when we mentioned it."
For Brenton Viertel, Trotter's bandmate in Larkspur and fellow tribute organizer, Cohen's music has been an acquired taste.
"I'm 32, and I think that when you start listening to him when you're younger, you don't really get him ... his voice is horrible. Then you live a little bit and you're like, 'Man, I understand that.' And then like five years go by and you're like, 'Wow, I understand this more,'" said Viertel.
In fact, Cohen himself didn't begin his musical career until he was 32. By the mid-1960s, Cohen was already an established poet. He had published two novels, The Favourite Game (1963) and Beautiful Losers (1966), along with a few collections of poetry before he decided to make the jump to songwriting. When Cohen's deep baritone rumbled the first lines of the song "Suzanne" to singer Judy Collins over the phone--"Suzanne takes you down / to her place near the river / You can hear the boats go by / You can spend the night beside her"--she immediately knew he had something special.
Local singer/songwriter Tim Andreae has also long been impressed by Cohen's unparalleled prose.
"I just think Leonard Cohen is just a brilliant songwriter, he's been an inspiration for me ... he really joins music and poetry in a way that I aspire to," said Andreae.
Viertel seconds that: "Musicians, in general, really enjoy Leonard Cohen. I think that his music is incredibly intelligent, and I think it's so hard to be a real poet and be a songwriter. And I think most people really fail at it when they try to do it. But I think he's one of the only guys who does it and is just so great at it."
Though there's no connection between Cohen and the City Light Home for Women and Children, Viertel, who is a school teacher, insisted that the tribute benefit the homeless shelter.
"I really have a lot of respect for that organization. They really help out a lot of families," said Viertel. "At my school, they'll come in and they'll help kids out and they'll make sure that the mom and the daughter are doing what they're supposed to be doing ... they really do great things for the community."
In 2009, City Light served 97,341 meals and provided 27,696 safe nights of shelter. It costs the nonprofit $17.84 per night to feed, clothe and house just one person. According to the Boise Rescue Mission Ministries website, individual contributions--like money raised at this Leonard Cohen tribute concert--make up the majority of the 501c3's income.
And though organizers hope to draw a wide array of folks down to the benefit, the tribute won't just be a greatest-hits-a-thon. Each band will perform two covers and one original song. Field Guide will take on Cohen's most well-known song, "Hallelujah," Andreae will cover the hits "Chelsea Hotel No. 2" and "Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye," The Well Suited will do a version of "Everybody Knows, " How's Your Family will perform "Story of Isaac," and Larkspur will tackle the tracks "Tonight Will be Fine" and "Fingerprints."
"They're choosing some pretty obscure Leonard Cohen songs, which is pretty rad," said Trotter. "We wanted to choose songs definitely that people would know of Leonard Cohen, but I don't think anyone realizes how wide his playlist is ... A lot of these songs are kind of in that back catalog."
For Elijah Jensen, who plays in The Very Most and With Child, this tribute is an opportunity to put his own spin on some Cohen songs, including the classic, "So Long Marianne."
"Everyone wants to cover [Cohen's] songs, and my theory about that is so much of his music was recorded so poorly ... he's an amazing songwriter, but just didn't give the songs the justice they deserved."
Whether you love Cohen's songs for their latent potential or revere them for their heartbreaking candor, any fan will tell you the "prince of bummers" isn't nearly as sullen as he's made out to be. A line from Cohen's 1992 song "Anthem," more succinctly sums up his perspective: "There is a crack / a crack in everything / that's how the light gets in."