He’s seventy-three years young and, courtesy of a pension fund that went west, out of retirement. Hallelujah say three raging Cohen-philes who get close up and personal with the saturnine bard of Montreal.
LEONARD COHEN AT RICHARD GOODALL GALLERY
In April 2007 I received an offer I couldn’t refuse – an opportunity to meet Leonard Cohen at an intimate preview of his prints and poems. Invites are limited to fifty people and there are bouncers on the door of the Richard Goodall Gallery, Manchester. The door staff turn many away but, delightedly, I find myself on the inside shaking hands with my hero, chatting and smiling like I’ve met up with an old friend (which is exactly what it feels like from my perspective, although it’s probably different for Leonard). The walls are full of the great man’s prints and paintings which, I’m pleasantly surprised to find, are stunning – a continuation of his writing and singing and, corny though it sounds in these cynical times, inspiring beyond belief. Keepsake photographs are duly taken and cherishable quotes uttered. “Stop plugging the kid and take the damn photo!” Leonard rebukes after my companion tells our hero that “Jaime is a songwriter as well… he’s very good”. I am dying the slow death of the damned at this point, going crimson like a naughty child in class. The photo reveals us both laughing like old friends, partners in words and song and all that comes with the creative struggle. Well, just for one tiny moment perhaps.
Leonard himself is dressed in a 1940s-style double breasted Mafioso suit complete with tweed hat slung at a rakish angle. He’s 73, with the obligatory beauty hanging on his arm. He’s a truly beautiful man himself and it’s difficult to reconcile those words coming from that mouth on that face behind those eyes. He smiles and tells all “thanks for coming man…” No, Leonard, thank you.
A twinkle-eyed woman and her son share a cigarette outside with me and she tells me she and Leonard are old friends. She calls him “the dirty monk”. I am of course reluctant to believe this until I see her disappear into the back of the Goodall Gallery arm-in-arm with my hero. I speak to Gary Neville (yes, the footballing one! What’s he doing here?) who is lurking in a corner, and I wonder if the night can get any better. I leave with a receipt for a piece of Leonard’s work and worry about the rent later.
Later, in anticipation of writing this piece, I try to pin down what it is about this old man that inspires such devotion. It’s a difficult thing for me to explain (besotted as I am), and I realise that it’s the whole, the body of work in its enormity – flawed and wonderful and overpowering with the voice of God and cigarettes. Leonard is a Canadian Jew, drolly nicknamed “Laughing Len”; the subject of countless reviews that mention slitting your wrists; Field Commander Cohen to an army of bedsit poets. These are the clichés, of course, and they are not true; although some of them might be. Just not to me.
Leonard was already nearing middle-age when he emerged as a recording artist, ten years older than his folk peers and immediately compared to Dylan for his word play and acoustic guitar; even as Dylan morphed and twisted into electricity itself – a blur of motion to Leonard’s solitude. Ancient by contemporary music biz standards and already a celebrated poet by the early ’60s, he defied – and continues to defy – the post-war obsession with youth. An obsession that is quick to deride and also to claim genius on debut records built on haircuts, geography or this week’s style barometer. An industry trapped in spin and doomed to recycle every preceding decade and repackage it for this season.
Leonard belongs to a different time, yet he’s never been more celebrated and relevant than right now. His reference points remain beyond the clumsy grasp of MTV. He exists alongside the mainstream and the underground, never belonging to either. His roots are in Montreal rather than Memphis, allowing him freedom from the geographical baggage of rock ‘n’roll. His is an immigrant’s history that goes back – way back to the Cohen priest line; Old Testament stuff. Leonard is Greek musical tradition meeting Jewish folk tale, wrapped up in an Armani suit at the feet of God. He’s always consumed by the really big themes: love, loss, longing, redemption, failure, fathers, hellfire and women. And always love as war.
Sometimes these songs are difficult/dark/ obscure, but this does not define their worth. Some things are instant. A Wop Bop Aloo Bop is probably as good as it gets as far as lyrics go – the kind of poetry that is amphetamine in essence. It says everything immediately. But some words need time, some melodies reveal themselves only when they are ready and reflect your life when you least expect it. At these times it’s like Leonard wrote it all just for me. He didn’t of course. He wrote it for you.
LEONARD COHEN AT THE BIG CHILL
Much fuss was made about the recent Leonard Cohen tour and, as tickets sold out and then appeared on eBay for astronomical sums, my chances of seeing him were looking thin. So it felt like a privilege to get Sunday-only tickets for his last tour date at the Big Chill festival.
At 73, Cohen is in fantastic shape and as soon as he started singing I was utterly captivated. His voice was clear and even deeper live than on record; it made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck and all down my arms. I felt that I was in the presence of greatness – and maybe I felt it more acutely because, despite his spry, elegant appearance, his age inevitably shows. There is a sense of fragility about him. Leonard Cohen has for years made references in his lyrics to growing old, and as he delivered a line like “Well my friends are gone and my hair is grey/ I ache in the places where I used to play” (from ‘Tower Of Song’) I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. He seduces his audience with the disguise of a “golden voice” whilst simultaneously dishing out lyrical profundity that blows the air right out of your chest. I have not been so profoundly moved by a gig in years. Since I got back from the festival I have added Cohen to my daily playlist, and have become somewhat obsessed by him and his albums I’m Your Man and The Future. Both have a synthesized, distinctly ’80/’90s sound to them but, thinking back to the Big Chill, I realised that his repertoire, spanning years, sounded effortlessly “now”. Like the man himself, Leonard Cohen’s muisic is truly timeless.
LEONARD COHEN, MANCHESTER OPERA HOUSE
“It’s enough to put a dent in your mood” claimed Leonard Cohen, after his ex-manager emptied his pension fund while he was otherwise engaged meditating up a mountain. Supposedly depressive, he makes light of a situation that would send most to their car clutching a hose pipe and some Anadin. On the island of Hydra, Greece, where he used to live, the man is thought of not as a pop star, nor an icon, but merely as Leonard. Local shopkeepers display photos of themselves with Leonard; the odd poster or record sleeve may adorn a wall, but it’s far from crass hero worship. Like his legions of fans, the denizens of Hydra are genuinely devastated that Leonard had his cash stolen. As the song has it, “Everybody knows the good guy lost.”
So, Leonard Cohen is out of retirement and, in his own words, “back on Boogie Street”. He’s ready to perform – for nest egg cash, he freely admits. I bang on about Leonard to my long-suffering partner all the time. I think she understands. I buy two tickets for the Manchester concert – not cheap, mind (I am from Yorkshire), but he deserves it. Cohen starts at seven, on the dot. He jogs on stage in a Fedora and double- breasted suit; he is 73 , nearly my Dad’s age, but he looks a lot cooler than my Dad. His voice is strong and the words are poignant and meaningful. e women in the audience fall for it again and again.
Cohen’s ability to write amazing words against beautifully subtle music remains a brilliant mystery to me; it’s sparse and simple, but never obvious. The accompanying female vocals make a fantastic frame for his golden voice. He retains a wickedly urbane sense of humour – always a surprise to those who’ve been misled by lazily regurgitated stereotypes and come to Leonard expecting wall-to-wall gloom and razor blades. There’s so much love in the room it’s infectious; it brings a tear to my (and my girlfriend’s) eye. The set is great, something from every era. He starts with ‘Dance Me To The End Of Love’, and goes through all the “hits”: ‘Hallelujah’, ‘Who by Fire’, ‘Suzanne’ et al, but passes on ‘Chelsea Hotel’ and ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’. Of course I forgive him; Leonard always has his reasons, and that’s why I love the miserable bastard. May his belated retirement be long – and fully reimbursed.