I recently introduced my parents to Leonard Cohen’s music; needless to say, they’ve become huge fans. Upon hearing that I would be seeing him in person, my mom said to me “make sure you bring a handkerchief”. Which is like telling someone to bring a teacup, in the event of a tsunami. At first glance, some might see Leonard Cohen’s music as dark, cynical, or at the very least, melancholy. But there’s a quiet joy that runs through his songs. A reverence and deep respect for the mundane – and quite often the bawdy – aspects of everyday life. Tears, yes. But more of release, rather than sadness.
The concert itself… While it is of course a great privilege to attend such a special event, for me at least, listening to Mr. Cohen’s music is an intensely private matter. There is a certain kick – and indeed, a religious aspect – to the shared experience (tempered though it is by the vastness of The Wang Theatre and being in “the cheap seats”). Hearing others burst out in spontaneous laughter at those particular lines in songs, feeling those around you uplifted as you are at other moments. Deeply moving. And of course, the chance to add your voice of appreciation – in person – for this brilliant poet and entertainer. Just to share in that special moment in time. But I also felt a weird, vague discomfort there in the ornate grandness of the Wang Theatre, even though I can’t imagine a more regal setting for a regal human being. I suppose it’s akin to talking to oneself and then realizing someone is listening, or praying out loud in the subway. There is also the oddness of the seats, of sitting still and just listening. Of course, at times, I wanted to do just that (such as when he performed that stunning reading of “Thousand Kisses Deep”). But while it’s of course absurd to consider his show “dance music”, I felt sufficiently moved at times to well… move around. Not in a disco ball sort of way, mind you; more like a Baptist revival meeting. Sometimes the spirit moves you. Perhaps they should be performing in churches and not theaters, though his 9-piece globe-encompassing, majestic accompaniment would probably be overwhelming in such a setting.
There are no appropriate superlatives to describe Mr. Cohen’s band. It is as though the very best from every possible musical culture was plucked from far reaching corners of the world, then assembled together. At times folksy, at other times bluesy or rocking, majestic as a full symphony orchestra, exotic and mysterious with a Spanish flavoring courtesy of some astonishing performances on bandurria (and other stringed instruments) from Javiar Mas. Gorgeous backing vocals from The Webb Sisters and Sharon Robinson. Sharon has been collaborating with Mr. Cohen since 1979, and co-authored several songs, including one of my favorites, “Everybody Knows”. Amazing saxophone and clarinet from Dino Soldo. Bob Metzger playing guitars and pedal steel… lovely. Rafael Gayol, just wonderful on drums and percussion, and Roscoe Beck playing bass, who is also musical director, and who has also been performing with Mr. Cohen since 1979. Neil Larson on keyboards, marvelous, and together they’re extraordinary. I probably would have been equally swept away by a simple poetic reading with no accompaniment whatsoever, but to be immersed in this amazing musical stew at the same time is equivalent to, staying with my food analogy, having a thick slab of chocolate mousse cake drenched in hot fudge.
Though I’d been familiar with Leonard Cohen’s work for years (when I first picked up an acoustic guitar in the early ’70s, “Suzanne” was one of the first songs I taught myself to play), I’ve recently been rediscovering him. Studying more closely the words of his songs, and reading his magnificent collection of poetry, “Book of Longing”, which recounts his time spent in a monastery, and impressions upon leaving. He may have felt himself to be an absolute failure as a monk, but clearly he gained something far more profound. What struck me so strongly that night was his extreme humility, almost an embarrassment that we would be so reverent and breathless in his presence. It was in the way he held himself as he sang, letting the power of the music and his own words shape and overtake him, often dropping to his knees to deliver his awe-inspiring lyrics. His appreciation of the amazing musicians performing with him was quite moving as well, and he would frequently sing portions of songs to each of them, then stepping back to enjoy and be swept up in the music along with the rest of us. He was mesmerizing, his simplicity and eloquence a powerful statement, as he voiced his gratitude of being there with us. There really is no one like him anywhere.
As odd as this sounds, a discussion of what was performed seems almost unnecessary in this context. Everything the man has written is brilliant, and his delivery is breathtaking. Often he would speak a few of the lines before the song began. Obviously in a concert appearance, he can’t perform every song. Inevitably there will be some sadly missing (which will vary from person to person); then there will be some happy surprises (for me, that was “Chelsea Hotel”). Twenty songs spanning his amazing career comprised the main set (split into two parts), with an additional seven songs spread over three encores. I cried during “Bird On A Wire”, “Everybody Knows”, “Anthem”, “Hallelujah”, “I’m Your Man”, and “Thousand Kisses Deep” (not surprising), and also “Chelsea Hotel” (somewhat surprising, although that one always has that effect on me). I cannot more highly recommend the Live In London DVD, for those who attended one of the performances, and especially those who could not. While it doesn’t include “Chelsea Hotel”, “Waiting For The Miracle”, or “Famous Blue Raincoat”, it does include “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye” and “Closing Time” (which weren’t performed in Boston), and it’s beautifully filmed.
Between songs, Mr. Cohen was playful and humorous. During “Tower Of Song”, he gave this eloquent little speech (perfectly captured on the DVD). “Tonight it’s become clear to me, tonight the great mysteries have unraveled… and I have stumbled on the answer… Do you want to hear the answer?” “The answer to the mysteries…” Regardless of his appraisal of his time spent as a monk, this was worthy of a Zen master, and I was thinking at the time that it was something Alan Watts might have said during one of his talks on Buddhism back in the ’70s, delivered – as it must be – with a wink and a grin.
Jogging and dancing on and off stage between sets, you could feel Mr. Cohen’s joy in performing, and how he fed off the audience’s joy in seeing him. Life takes the most convoluted of twists and turns; were it not for his manager absconding with his cash while he was away at that monastery, would he not have toured now? It just feels like the perfect time for his words; perhaps it always was and always will be, but now more people are catching up with him. He last performed here 15 years ago, at the Berklee Performance Center, for about 1200; the 3500 capacity Wang Theatre was sold out for the first night, and this second night, I imagine close to it.
He ended by thanking everyone on the tour, from the truck drivers to people in charge of the monitors, to folks who helped out backstage. And then addressing the audience, he said something which will stick with me for a long, long time. Saying something about wishing everyone good times with family and friends, he added (paraphrasing here) “and for those of you who don’t have that and are alone, may blessings reach you in your solitude.” Wow. I mean seriously, who ever says something like that?? This led into the closing benediction of “Whither Thou Goest.”
Dance Me To The End Of Love
Ain’t No Cure For Love
Bird On The Wire
In My Secret Life
Who By Fire
Waiting For The Miracle To Come
Tower Of Song
Sisters Of Mercy
I’m Your Man
Thousand Kisses Deep (from “Book Of Longing”)
Take This Waltz
(and The Gypsy’s Wife… “somewhere”)
So Long Marianne
First We Take Manhattan
Famous Blue Raincoat
If It Be Your Will
I Tried To Leave You
Whither Thou Goest
Leonard Cohen: Zen And The Art Of Songwriting (NPR interview from May 22, 2006)