03/26/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Leonard Cohen Live: Nothing On His Tongue But 'Hallelujah'

I couldn't blame my wife for her sudden ambivalence when a guy outside the theater offered us $1,000 for each of our front-row balcony seats -- we'd had to get our Leonard Cohen tickets from a scalper, and for what they cost, we could have bought several hundred shares of Citigroup.

A year ago, I wouldn't have given a second's thought about that sidewalk offer. Leonard Cohen appearing on an American stage for the first time in 15 years? No-brainer: we're there. But Cohen was performing at the end of a week when George Soros was saying the financial system had collapsed and there's "no sign that we are anywhere near a bottom." In that world, $2,000 in cash just doesn't drop in every night.

But...Leonard Cohen. Now 74 years old. The author of songs made for tough times. The last time I saw him, five encores.

The impulse to sell passed very quickly.

If you don't care for that near-monotone of a voice or think his songs are uniformly depressing, the high regard I have for Leonard Cohen is as incomprehensible as, say, admiration for Dick Cheney. If you're in the cult of Cohen, however, you know a Cohen appearance is not just a concert, nor can Cohen be reduced to "singer-songwriter." For the faithful, Cohen is more than a musician -- he's our intimate stranger, the poet laureate of our secret lives, our personal bard.

Try this: In my life, women have come and gone, but I've been faithful to Leonard Cohen for 40 years.

I grant that is hyperbolic. But in 1968, when I was in the kindergarten of professional writers, I had a book published by The Viking Press. That season, Viking also published Cohen's second novel, Beautiful Losers. In the ads, our books leaned against one another -- such a small thing, but even the faintest connection brought great pleasure.

I was dazzled and confused and threatened by 'Beautiful Losers'. I went back and read Cohen's first novel, The Favorite Game, which I liked much more. That winter, I got an early copy of his first CD, Songs of Leonard Cohen, and became an enthusiast of his music. And ever since, it's for his music that I've been interested in Cohen.

Why have I never tired of a guy who is, in his songs, mining a very small patch? Because the subject of almost all of Cohen's songs is love, or, more correctly, the "war between the man and the woman" that may take the form of an incurable disease we call love. That strikes me as the most important topic in music (and every other medium), and so, over the years, I've subjected lovers to his CDs. Reactions have varied, and I have slowly, and sometimes painfully, learned that a woman's affection for Cohen does not predict that she'll have long-term affection or understanding for me.

When our kid was a colicky baby, Cohen's was one of two deep bass voices -- George Jones was the other -- who could calm her. My wife, for her part, has endured my praise and admiration for Cohen, read my appreciations of Cohen, even listened to him. Along the way, she's collected recordings of "Hallelujah" ---- especially Rufus Wainwright and kd lang and Jeff Buckley. But how do you prepare someone for a three-hour-plus immersion in the man himself?

Cohen made it easy. It's not often said about him, but he's a great showman. And at the Beacon Theater, he put on a great show.

He wore a sharp black suit, gray shirt, and black patent leather shoes, and topped off that boulevardier outfit with a black fedora; if he'd had a cane, he would surely have twirled it. Old? Frail? Spry? None of the above. The adjective to describe Cohen is timeless. He's a ladies' man who will be attractive to women of every age until he takes his final breath -- and he knows it.

Cohen dropped to his knees for some songs. For others, he stood stock-still, knees touching and feet apart, like the young Frank Sinatra. When he wasn't singing, he gave his full attention to whoever had the spotlight. That wasn't just showmanship. His three backup singers and the members of his band executed at such a high level the concert was like watching a beautiful machine -- from the inside. You had to watch every little thing because small bursts of theatricality went off like fireworks at unexpected moments: acrobatics from the backup singers, Manet lighting on the Spanish guitarist.

Oh, the songs. All the greatest hits, served up so you could see why this is, with Dylan's, the most significant North American catalog of the last half-century. As a writer, no one's more audience-friendly than Cohen; his lines are short, declarative, essential. And -- something else rarely noted -- he can be very funny, both in his songwriting ("You told me again you preferred handsome men/but for me you would make an exception") and his banter ("Hard times are coming. Some people say it will be worse than Y2K.")

This concert and Cohen's tour are only happening because Cohen's longtime manager had ripped him off for more than $5 million, leaving him with only $150,000 to show for four decades of recording and touring. "That person did the world a favor," my wife said afterward. Want proof? Watch the DVD of the concert, hear the live CD. See if, as Cohen says, a mature, sophisticated cheerfulness doesn't keep breaking through.