A Reluctant Mendicant’s fierce grace – Leonard Cohen live in Vancouver
Review by Douglas Heselgrave
“Look how he abused and beat me. How he threw me down and robbed me.” Live with such thoughts and you live in hate.
“Look how he abused and beat me. How he threw me down and robbed me.”
Abandon such thoughts and live in love. This is the law, ancient and inexhaustible. You too shall pass away. Knowing this, how can you quarrel?
– Dhammapada (sayings of the Buddha verses 3 – 5)
After nearly three hours on stage, and over twenty five songs into the concert, Leonard Cohen paused as he clutched his microphone with both hands and cast his eyes on the floor before him. He hesitated a moment, seemingly truly choked with emotion as he offered, “It is good to be back in my native land. I remember once in 1970 a venerable reporter from a British paper wrote ‘Leonard Cohen is a boring old drone who should get the fuck back to Canada.’ The response from the crowd of 8,000 people was predictably rapturous as Cohen lifted his head, his composure slightly cracked and trembling as he kicked into ‘Closing Time’ before dancing off the stage like a loose stringed Picasso marionette.
As I watched him turn towards the audience one last time, an unrepressed smile of deep beneficence illuminating his face, I wondered if he could ever have imagined such a moment when I first encountered a down-on- his- luck Leonard Cohen in Vancouver in the late spring of 1984.
A sparsely attended book signing to celebrate the release of ‘Book of Mercy’ provided me with the opportunity to get up close and talk to the man. I remember telling him that I was happy that he’d written another book, but that what I was really looking forward to was some more music. He looked piercingly into my eyes, shook my hand and said, ‘Thanks, man, but I don’t think anyone really wants to hear me anymore. I have a cassette in my briefcase full of new songs that no one seems interested in putting out.” I commiserated briefly with him, said that that was too bad and that I hoped that his luck would change before too long.
The cassette in question eventually became ‘Various Positions’ – an album that was originally only released in Canada. But, time is a funny thing and that record that very nearly never saw the light of day featured ‘Dance me to the End of Love’, ‘If it be your Will’, and ‘Hallelujah’ to become one of his most enduring and best loved collections of songs.
* * * * *
So much has been written about Leonard Cohen in the last three years that the prospect of adding even one word to the praise and endless dissimulation of his late career revival seems pointless and to obfuscate what has already been reported so well by others.
The tears, anger and recrimination that greeted the news that Cohen had been swindled and robbed of his life savings by Kelly Lynch his ex-manager while he was living at a Zen retreat in California were sincere, but sadly predictable. How many times over the last few years have we heard about someone who lost everything they’d worked so hard for over a lifetime? Leonard’s loss in many ways mirrored our own.
What perhaps has distinguished Cohen’s suffering from the more mundane betrayals inflicted on us by a global economy gone wild was his response to it. While no one reading this was likely present when Cohen received the dire news, and we were not privy to his initial rage, disappointment and despair, we have happily been the beneficiaries of his resolve to overcome such a considerable blow by taking to the road to literally sing for his supper. I would go so far as to offer that when Kelly Lynch stole all of Cohen’s money, she unintentionally did him a favour and provided him with an opportunity to reclaim something he had lost and to discover something he had never quite attained before.
Certainly no one would have wished the suffering that this betrayal created on anyone – especially someone of Cohen’s age who was enjoying a well deserved reprieve from a life of work and creative service. But, in a perverse sort of way she – like the raven in west coast native mythology – created a crisis that allowed opportunity to beckon from the other side. Without intending to, she forced Cohen to do what he appeared to have no inclination to do on his own.
As in all cases of enforced grace, one’s mettle is tested. A person can either fold and descend into blame and recrimination or dig deep into oneself and persevere. At the beginning, things were perhaps a little dicey. When I spoke with Cohen’s friend and musical partner Anjani Thomas in late 2007, she told me that he still felt no one was interested in hearing him sing and that undertaking a tour would be an exercise in irrelevance that lacked in dignity.
We all know now how wrong Cohen was, but viewed from his perspective, his misgivings were certainly understandable. The last time he went out on the road was in support of ‘The Future’ his very successful studio album from 1992. At that time Cohen was enjoying a new critical popularity and attention, and it was a darkly powerful artist and touring production that churned its way around the globe in 1993. From a musical perspective, Cohen was still a master of poise, exhibiting controlled vulnerability and grace, but beneath his exterior one could intuit hints of impatience, cynicism and distance. There was a sharp, almost metallic abrasion beneath his fine composure that no amount of alcohol or self-deprecation could diffuse. (“We drank up the profits”, he glibly told a CBC reporter at the tour’s end) The arena of popular culture as it was seen through the eyes of a man of sixty did not hold much interest. He did not seem concerned with ‘summing up’ or any kind of reckoning insofar as his art was concerned. Other things were on his mind. ‘The Future’ was a good album. His place was firmly set in the public’s cosmology of artists – at least in Canada and in Europe – and building on that didn’t seem to interest him in the least.
Fifteen years later and it was a different story that emerged. On the surface, the villain and motivation were obvious; if not for the theft of his retirement income, Leonard Cohen may have chosen to stay indefinitely out of the public’s eye if not their consciousness. Or, perhaps time – without such an unfortunate catalyst – would have encouraged the same result, and the definitions and parameters of life that greet a seventy five year old each morning when he opens his eyes would have engendered a similar change in motivation.
We dance on the earth for a short time, and whichever ‘what ifs’ a person chooses to indulge in, the universe told Leonard Cohen that it wasn’t time to hang up his microphone and adjust the tilt of his fedora. His service wasn’t done. Like a reluctant old Hindu adept, he abandoned his ‘householder’ phase to travel the world like a Sanyassi – with a guitar rather than begging bowl in hand. Though travelling through the modern Babylons – the world’s great cities – may lack the poetry of the mountaintop or the far off temple, the demands and outcomes are the same. A newly purposed Cohen has traversed the world since 2008, reclaiming not only what he’s lost, but in the process he’s become the artist he had only previously hinted at. Leonard Cohen appears to have merged the public with the private, the human with the ideal and is finally – to use a tired expression – walking his talk.
One could be cynical about the ticket prices Mr. Cohen currently commands, or one could rationalize that it reflects the cost of seeing another man’s redemption, but whatever one’s perspective, seeing Leonard Cohen perform is nothing like any other concert a person might experience. Who else could sing lines like ‘here is the darkness, here is the flood’ without a hint of self-consciousness or hesitation. Anyone else could utter these lines and you’d want to take him around back and beat him up for being a pretentious twat. But, with Cohen there is weight and dust of ages in every syllable he utters.
The world loves to see an underdog rise up against seemingly insurmountable odds. After the first forays through Canada and Europe in 2008, the ‘Live in London’ CD/DVD set was released. It showed the world that Cohen still ‘had it’ and many fans old and new loved to bask in this object transmission of perfect beauty. It offered a roaring jubilant taking back of his legacy that had been lost and forgotten while he resided on a California Zen mountaintop. ‘Live in London’ was a lovely, powerful shout out to the world, but if the sheen of hard work and sweat that produced this work were to be discreetly wiped away, one could sense that humming beneath the surface the essence of what makes Cohen such a great artist was still subtly hidden. ‘Live in London’ was a polished gem that perhaps unintentionally created a slightly tailored portrait of the artist, cleaned up for public perception and consumption. If Cohen had chosen to depart after this first tour and the commemorative CD and DVD, his legacy would have been safe and well preserved, but not extended in any way.
‘Live in London’ was clearly only an opening shot. The next tour – commemorated in ‘Songs from the Road’ – showed a looser, more confident, deeper digging Cohen who had turned the songs from exhibits at the museum of beautiful losers into amorphous living , breathing expressions of permeable grace unfolding. The musicians supporting Cohen in 2008 were a superb crack team of players. By 2010 they have evolved into a closely knit family who vibrate like neurons clustered around the nucleus of Cohen. This music has so deeply permeated into each of them that they are like blood and the heart beating, grasshoppers rubbing their hind legs together to speak and sing of hope and danger.
Professionalism has its costs. Two hundred and forty two concerts is enough to rob spontaneity and any remaining vitality from the most committed of musicians, so I was understandably a little hesitant when I entered into the Rogers Arena in Vancouver on a cold December night to catch up with Cohen’s tour. I had read that the set lists were virtually the same as in 2008, and having heard Cohen perform so many times over the last 25 years, I was worried that I’d fail to connect with anything new inside the music. As noted, two years of touring can rip the heart out of a band, but happily it has only added to the breadth and intuition of Cohen’s ‘Unified Hearts touring company.’
To be fair, it did take things a little while to coalesce and find the right groove when Cohen took the stage. The version of ‘Dance Me to the End of Love’ that the band opened with felt a little curt and lacking in spirit. Without a pause, they kicked into ‘The Future’ and I was worried that the flame had been doused with overexposure and that the band was going through the motions. But, salvation came early when Cohen flubbed a line in the second verse, causing him to plant his feet firmly and passionately reclaim the song as the band cascaded to a glorious finish. As they glided into a truly inspired instrumental section to introduce ‘Bird on a Wire’ the musicians palpably relaxed, smiled genuinely at one another, and settled into an inspiring night of music and song. By the time Spanish string virtuoso Javier Mas’ solo on ‘Who by Fire’ was unfurled part way through the first set, the band was firing on all cylinders and the breadth and nuance communicated by each player was unsurpassable.
Cohen, himself, has never been in such fine form. Even on old chestnuts like ‘Chelsea Hotel’ – a song I’ve heard him toss off on occasion – he seemed to be inside each lyric as he mused on old friends who had left the world’s stage too early and never had the chance to experience a moment of vindication such as he was experiencing nearly fifty years after writing his first song. Cohen clearly had mortality on his mind as did many in his mostly grey haired audience who seemed to poignantly dwell for a moment and go into their own ‘Chelsea Hotels’ to remember the cost of their own youthful follies. It was a moment among many other such moments at the concert when the concert became something other than a concert; it was a moment suffused with a grace that one rarely experiences – a collective sense of gratitude that everyone in the room had made it this far through the twisting vagaries of life.
After a 90 minute opening set that was as satisfying as most full concerts I had ever attended, Cohen paused and said, “I know it’s a school night, but please stay with us and come back after the break. We don’t know when we’ll pass this way again.” Spoken by a 76 year old, this was of course irrefutable, but it is highly doubtful that anyone in the crowd had the least desire to leave.
The second set of the concert took the audience through some of Cohen’s early hits and he spent much of the time playing guitar accompanied by only one or two members of his band. Songs like ‘Suzanne’, ‘Avalanche’, ‘Sisters of Mercy’ and ‘So Long, Marianne’ had lost none of their bite or poignancy with the passage of time, and to hear Cohen get deep inside the emotions of each track was something that few musicians of any age can muster.
Two years on the road has allowed many of the songs in Cohen’s catalogue to grow and take on a new life of their own shaped by the musicians who have been playing them every night around the globe. Each musician was allowed a generous amount of time to solo, and each of the backup singers had their own moment to shine. Sharon Robinson – his song writing partner of many years – sang a soulful version of ‘Boogie Street’ that even Aretha Franklin would envy, and the baroque loveliness of ‘If it Be your Will’ as interpreted by the Webb sisters was one of the evening’s many many highlights. ‘Darkness’ was the single new song of the evening, and its hurting textures and the uncharacteristic raunchy guitar Cohen offered up suggest that like Bob Dylan, the Montreal poet has found solace in the blues.
When, after more than three hours had passed since he first took to the stage, Leonard Cohen thanked everyone for helping to keep his music alive and enjoined everyone to ‘find their cars, but make sure they’re your own cars and go home but make sure you go to your own home’ before telling us to find comfort in our loved ones or in ‘solitude if it is your lot’, Cohen needn’t have spoken. Over the course of the evening, we had all gradually, improbably, formed into a temporary family, strengthened and encouraged to know that none of us was passing through anything alone, and that it would be a long time before any of us felt the renewed sting of solitude.
It was an evening like no other I have experienced in over 35 years of attending concerts. Leonard Cohen in 2010 is so much more than a musician or an icon. Rather he appears to us an embodiment of human vulnerability, publicly working his way through love, loss and redemption. See Leonard Cohen if he ever comes your way. It is truly improbable that any of us will encounter his like again.
This post also appears at www.restlessandreal.blogspot.com
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