His was one of the least likely victory laps in music history.
In 2005, it was discovered that Leonard Cohen's longtime manager, Kelley Lynch, had embezzled more than $5 million from the 71-year-old's accounts, while also surreptitiously selling many of Cohen's publishing rights. In the previous decade, Cohen mostly had been residing in a Zen monastery and had released only two albums - 2001's Ten New Songs and 2004's Dear Heather, neither of which reached the top 100 on the chart. To pursue his case against Lynch, Cohen ultimately had to take out a new mortgage on his Los Angeles home. So on the heels of his induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007, the singer-songwriter announced that he was going to generate some income the old-fashioned way - by going back on tour after 15 years off the stage.
"Leonard was very reluctant at first," says his manager, Robert Kory. "From his view, touring had always been a disaster - he would say, 'Performing is an opportunity for a thousand humiliations.' "
His hand forced, Cohen assembled a band (three backup singers, two guitarists, drummer, keyboardist, bassist and saxophonist, later replaced by a violinist) and rehearsed for a full three months, followed by a series of unadvertised preview dates in Canada, beginning May 11, 2008, at the 709-seat Playhouse in Fredericton, New Brunswick. During the next five years, selling out bigger and bigger stages, Cohen's touring would propel his career to heights he had never seen since emerging as one of the most important songwriters of the 1960s. Between a lengthy run from 2008 to 2010, which included triumphant appearances at Coachella and Glastonbury, and then a shorter leg in 2012 and 2013, the previously stage-wary Cohen played 387 shows to more than 2 million people.
Cohen's intensity and joy onstage were evident - he would skip on and offstage, kneel and doff his fedora in tribute to his musicians and visibly tear up at climactic moments. Not only were the marathon, three-hour-long concerts received rapturously by critics and fans, but the tour was also a commercial juggernaut. According to Billboard Boxscore, Cohen grossed $85.7 million from 147 dates he played in North America, Europe and Australia from 2008 to 2010 (about 60 percent of the tour's itinerary); and from 2012 to 2013, his Old Ideas Tour grossed $63.4 million from 87 dates (approximately 70 percent of his total performances). In 2010 alone, Cohen's tour was bigger than outings by Elton John, Carrie Underwood and Rod Stewart, with an average nightly gross higher than that of John Mayer or Justin Bieber.
"Leonard was a real soldier," says his longtime friend and former backup singer Jennifer Warnes. "His trajectory was to succeed. He was not going to go out on that story."
Lynch eventually was ordered by a court to pay Cohen $9.5 million. She never did repay the money, although she was sentenced to 18 months in prison for harassing and threatening him. Along the way, Cohen discovered that he liked the routine of the touring life. "Being back on the road," he said, "re-established me as a worker in the world."
His final performance was in Auckland, New Zealand, on Dec. 21, 2013. He wrapped things up with a cover of the Drifters classic "Save the Last Dance for Me." But according to Kory, even in his final decline, Cohen would talk about wanting to get back onstage. "He kept saying, 'Maybe we can do just a couple more concerts.' There was never a sense of 'I finally triumphed,' just a sense of gratitude. Leonard genuinely felt privileged to have the opportunity to share his music every night."
This article originally appeared in the Nov. 26 issue of Billboard.