Irony flows like a bittersweet river through the poetry and music of Leonard Cohen. The self-styled “patron saint of envy and grocer of despair,” so often satirized as a gloomy merchant of suicidal visions and apocalyptic self-pity, on closer analysis reveals himself as the harbinger of a strange but vibrant optimism. At the heart of Cohen’s bleak vision is redemption and the faith that is truly possible only for one who has experienced the void.

Cohen looks like one who has experienced the void. He stands alone in front of his sidemen, gaunt and pale, enveloped in a darkness and isolation that seem to surround him even when the lights are bright. His voice has lost some of the tormented, acidic bite it had during the late 60s and early 70s, but it’s still the only instrument that does justice to his songs. Hollow and sepulchral, it seems to come from the depths of the weary, haunted spirit that informs Cohen’s unique poetic landscapes, peopled by doomed lovers, wounded heroines, madmen, and saints.

Although his latest album, I’m Your Man, has been hailed as both a return to simple romance and a departure from the barrenness of his earlier visions, his recent appearance at the Park West showed him to be in full command of his entire range, from darkly cynical commentaries (“Everybody Knows”) to absurdist forays into slapstick comedy (“The Jazz Police”) and surrealistic mythology (“Take This Waltz”). For those who may have summarily dismissed Cohen after too many misty-eyed versions of “Suzanne” in coffeehouses of the late 60s, the depth and breadth of his vision come as a welcome surprise.

Part of that surprise is due to the musical sophistication of Cohen’s current show. Cohen’s music has always had a subtlety many of his critics have missed; his first recordings, with their country violins and mandolin accompaniments laid like lace over the drone of a distant accordion, harked back to the French Canadian roots of Cohen’s early days in Montreal’s coffeehouses. Since then his music has become more cosmopolitan, has gained a weary sophistication that sometimes evokes the edge-of-apocalypse gaiety of Cabaret and at other times the ennui of Jacques Brel’s cafe society, as filtered through the smoky resignation of a male Marlene Dietrich.

His current band, comprised of solid session musicians with track records in both pop and jazz, can do justice to all these facets of Cohen’s musical personality. Even the inevitable pair of women singers (currently Julie Christensen and Perla Batalla), who were relegated in the past to ethereal moans and “la-la-la” accompaniment, are given the opportunity to stretch out. They make the most of it, complementing Cohen’s world-weary moan with a life-affirming, bluesy grit. Most impressive, though, is John Bilezikjian. He doubles on mandolin and oud (an Eastern instrument like a lute) with extraordinary facility, and his solos both enhance Cohen’s trademark single-chord arpeggios and provide some of the most musically satisfying moments to be found in any current pop context.

At the heart of the show, however, is the musical and spiritual force that has imbued Cohen’s work since his pathfinding first LP in 1969. He approaches performance with a sense of reverent dedication, which would seem grandiose or just plain silly in anyone else but provides a clue to his appeal. In his poetry, Cohen has described himself as a priest, and his performances are laced with sacramental overtones. He used to begin every show with “Bird on the Wire,” he said, because it was a penitent song that returned him to his sense of duty to his audience, his muse, and himself. The sincerity with which he acknowledges his importance to his fans and the dutiful humility with which he bestows his gifts allow him to express ideas that might endanger the career of a lesser artist.

Consider, for instance, the role played by women in Cohen’s world. When he’s not idolizing them as havens for wandering seekers and gallant soldiers (“Nancy,” “Joan of Arc,” “Sisters of Mercy”), he’s either leaving them (“The Stranger Song”) or cravenly lusting after them (“Take This Longing,” “I’m Your Man”). Yet Cohen’s legendary sex appeal seems to be still intact, even among some of my strong and independent women friends, people one might expect to be offended by Cohen’s carefully crafted musical persona as a sexual adventurer.

The extent to which Cohen will prostrate himself in song for a woman’s favors sometimes crosses the border from need to outright degradation. In “I’m Your Man,” he sings:

I’d crawl to you baby and I’d fall at your feet

And I’d howl at your beauty like a dog in heat

And I’d claw at your heart and I’d tear at your sheet

I’d say please, please, I’m your man.

Part of Cohen’s appeal is his willingness to transform the usual macho demands into expressions of need. Beyond that, however, his vision of love is, at its heart, one of both spiritual and political liberation. He performs these rituals of self-degradation at the feet of his goddesslike women in a spirit of ritual mortification, a self-immolation that’s meant to bring salvation and vision. One thinks here of early William Burroughs and his experiments with sexual humiliation and drugs, especially the connection of parts of Cohen’s novel, Beautiful Losers, to Burroughs’s writing.

Even more vital and unique to Cohen’s symbology of love is a radical political defiance. His greatest love songs, such as the beautiful “Joan of Arc” (a highlight of the Park West show), are peopled with soldiers and warriors and heroic women fighting brave battles and seeking solace from the loneliness of their calling; these are love songs filled with raging fires and a sense of looming oppression.

In this dark and frightening landscape, lovers meet and try desperately to create something of wonder and light, fleeing the oppressors of the spirit to whom power, greed, and glory are petty games to be acted out on the battlefield or in offices of high authority. To Cohen, however, the power, greed, and glory belong to the mutual, sacred struggle fought by lovers, who must both peel away their own predetermined ideas of sexuality. “All our flesh was like a veil / I had to draw aside to see the serpent eat its tail”) and find a haven from a world where love’s supreme role is denied, and where those who seek it above all else are persecuted: “Dance me through the panic ’till I’m gathered safely in / . . . Dance me to the end of love.”

At the heart of Cohen’s romantic vision is the idea of lovers as warriors, in a holy battle against an oppression that chains the spirit. It is here that his key to redemption is found. Even “Suzanne,” for all its misty romanticism, speaks of finding perfection in a lover who’s “half-crazy,” a direct challenge to our notions of propriety, of the conventional bounds of acceptable romantic longing. In “Chelsea Hotel,” written in the 70s about Janis Joplin, Cohen again sees something heroic and subversive in lovers coming together bent on finding beauty in people, attitudes, and situations denied beauty by conventional society. The song’s most memorable scene, where Janis shoots up after some playful sexual bantering, is Cohen at his most tender and revolutionary:

And clenching your fist for the ones like us

Who are oppressed by the figures of beauty

You fixed yourself, you said well, never mind,

We are ugly, but we have the music.

(In light of this, one fervently hopes that the obscene “No Fat Chicks” sticker affixed to Cohen’s tour bus was someone’s idea of a sick joke and had nothing to do with Cohen himself.)

This is not to say that Cohen sees light at the end of every tunnel. When he ventures beyond the mystic spiritual seeking that he considers a sexual encounter to be, Cohen’s vision can be relentlessly bleak. His sense of spiritual burden has lightened up a bit since the wracked “The Butcher” (“I came upon a butcher who was slaughtering a lamb / I accused him there, with his tortured lamb / He said listen to me son, I am what I am, and you are my only child . . .”), but his view of the world remains dark. Outside the realm of love, redemption can be a cruel mistress. “Everybody Knows,” one of Cohen’s more recent songs and another Park West highlight, recites in a bitter chuckle a litany of failed political promises, betrayal, and onrushing doom; in this scenario, the night is dark and inevitable and there is no morning. The only redemption is the gut-wrenching laugh of the cynic, who finds his sole joy in the cruel ridicule of those poor innocents who believed in hope while living in a world past salvation, and who must now be punished. The subversiveness of despair was never expressed with such bitter power.

Likewise, “Who by Fire” is a chilling roll call at the gates of death, categorizing the victims by demise. Cohen’s dry moan of the lyrics in a macabre, nursery-rhyme lilt makes them all the more haunting:

Who by fire, who by water

Who in your merry, merry month of May

Who by very slow decay

And who may I say is calling?

Characteristically, however, Cohen saves his most burning, vitriolic lyrics for failed lovers. “Avalanche,” a twisted, spitting sneer of hatred filled with cripples, hunchbacks, money-grubbing liars, and trapped souls, culminates Cohen’s most vicious expression of rage and torment:

You who wish to conquer pain

You must learn what makes me kind

The crumbs of love that you offer me

They are the crumbs I’ve left behind

Your pain is no credential here

It’s just the shadow of my wound.

Yet even here the spirit of redemption makes itself felt. By the final verse the singer has spent his venom, and he relents, admitting his underlying vulnerability:

I have begun to long for you

I who have no need

I have begun to beg for you

I who have no greed

You say you’ve gone away from me

But I can feel you, feel you when you breathe.

Ultimately, though, Cohen’s message of salvation transcends music. Cohen’s vision is redeemed most purely and simply by the sincere nature of his giving. Although his Park West appearance was in the middle of a grueling tour of over 60 concerts, many of them one-nighters, he eagerly returned for three encores, each consisting of several songs. He still highlights “Bird on the Wire,” with its message of duty and responsibility; by all accounts, it was first written and recorded during a particularly bleak period of Cohen’s life, and he sings it with the subdued strength of the survivor, a man staring wide-eyed and trembling into the void he has just escaped.

The seriousness with which Cohen takes his role (mercifully tempered by an unwillingness to take himself too seriously, exemplified at Park West by his gently self-deprecating intro to “Chelsea Hotel” and many of the lyrics of “The Tower of Son”) extends to his offstage persona. He speaks in measured tones, often giving the most mundane conversation a poetic elegance that recalls the meditation from his prose poem “Lines From My Grandfather’s Journal”: “Prayer makes speech a ceremony. To observe this ritual in the absence of arks, altars, a listening sky; this is a rich discipline.”

This ability to bring poetry to everyday speech is essential to both Cohen’s poetry and performance–as evidenced in the remarkable “How to Speak Poetry,” a lecture to an unnamed performer printed in the program. Few singers could pull off a line like “Giving me head on the unmade bed” in the middle of a tender love song and not destroy the mood. Cohen does it in “Chelsea Hotel,” and it sounds like the most natural thing in the world.

Both Cohen and his audience have matured; he is much more sure of himself onstage now, shouting out directions to his band in a crisp, authoritative voice and breaking into hearty laughter as he banters with the crowd. The fans–though there are still a good number of ethereal women in rainbow garb who look as if they’ve just left Suzanne at her place by the river–no longer gaze in misty-eyed adoration. The Park West gig was as much a happy and informal get-together among old friends as a spiritual event.

Nonetheless, Cohen still bestows his songs and poems like a benediction. “If It Be Your Will” is almost Blakean in its childlike lyric simplicity, in its determination to seek salvation and solace amid the terrors of the modern world, and in its visionary depiction of sinners and sufferers as inheritors of glory:

And draw us near and bind us tight

All your children here in their rags of light

In our rags of light

All dressed to kill

If it be your will.

In the end, the simple generosity of Cohen’s onstage personality provides the most powerful redemption from the bleakness of his world. Like few other performers, Cohen still dares to suggest to us–by example–that our own gifts of being, shared in a spirit of humility and generosity, can provide a key to salvation. Cohen and his listeners seem to stumble through a burnt, dying land, burdened with strange gifts of despair and rage at the chaining of the human soul. But his listeners fend off the chill of the growing darkness with the hope that this giving spirit will provide enough light to make it possible–even if only barely–for them to dare to believe in morning.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.