Wednesday, 19 November 2008

ACHING WHERE I USED TO PLAY: LEONARD COHEN AT THE ALBERT HALL

When Leonard Cohen's band took the stage at the Albert Hall last night, I thought I'd wandered into a production of the Three Penny Opera, like one I saw in Montreal some thirty years ago. Then Leonard himself entered, in his current-trademark hat, which he took off for the crowd with a look of surprise, like a 74 year old grandfather who's walked into his surprise birthday party at a restaurant on Blvd. St. Laurent, 'oh, are all these people here to see me?' Of course, they were, and it was the kind of crowd of long-time fans, the bed-sit warriors grown old and obviously successful enough to afford the tickets, that was going to love whatever Leonard gave them, but as an admirer more of Cohen the writer than the performer, I have to say, he gave them far more than they asked him.

As the evening went on, he would occasionally smile wryly; as if he still marvelled at the way his career path as a struggling Montreal poet and novelist got turned around when he picked up a guitar to impress the girls who weren't impressed by his poetry: one gets the sense that he's never totally left that Canadian poet behind. So when he sings on his knees, which is probably some yoga things that gives him more energy or more wind, you get the sense of a singer who's somehow penitent, and that helps you enjoy his success even more. Even if he hadn't skipped off stage at the end of each set, and each encore, he played with enjoyment, his band was tight behind him, and if every gesture was obviously well-rehearsed, it didn't make them any less sincere, or appreciated. My wife, entranced by his songs since hearing 'That's No Way To Say Goodbye' in New Zealand as an eight year old, raised on Leonard, as it were, hung on every note, and in a way, I should not have been surprised that I found the show so good, because a bootleg cd I have of a 1993 live show is one of my favourite boots of all time.

Some of the band has been with him a while; bassist and leader Roscoe Becke co-produced Jennifer Warnes' 'Famous Blue Raincoat', which you might say launched the Cohen revival. Guitarist Bob Metzger was on that 1993 bootleg. But the real star of the show was Javiar Mas, playing laud (the Spanish for the Greek oud, or Cuban loud) and 12 string guitar, and adding a dramatic touch to the sounds that echoed Mexican and Greek music, as well as Spanish. He was also wearing a fedora, and it made him look like second runner-up in a Tom Waits lookalike contest. But it was only when Mas was playing that you got the sense you might be hearing something that wasn't note perfect like every other performance on the tour. And one of the keys to Cohen's late-career rebirth has been Sharon Robinson, his backup singer and co-writer; like Lou Reed calling for the 'colored girls' to sing, she adds life to Cohen's vocals, and did a solo of 'Boogie Street' that was powerful. Joining her on backup vocals were the British Webb Sisters, whose more folksy voices provided a nice mix. Their encore duet of 'If It Be Your Will' , playing harp and guitar, was somewhere in that alt.country/new folk range. The mix worked well, even if the synchronised gymnastics were underwhelming.

I came to Cohen first via Judy Collins' fabulous 'In My Life', which I heard at 17, played to me by a Smith College date who was trying to seduce me, which shouldn't've been that hard. Maybe I got distracted by the songs. To that point, my tastes were mostly Motown, Stax, Blues Project, Butterfield, Byrds, Beau Brummels, Kinks. While I liked Cohen's songs, I was generally satisfied with other interpreters: I was, however, floored by the novel Beautiful Losers, and by some of his poetry too. In fact, I pretty much ignored his records from the early 70s through my Montreal years, until, like so many other people, 'I'm Your Man' reminded me of what a good song-writer he could be, and what happened when he finally found a style that suited his words as songs. That style isn't really the electric beat, it's more of a torch-song approach, much closer to Serge Gainsbourg than Bob Dylan.

But maybe it's a generational thing that I responded more than Kirsten to 'Chelsea Hotel', which now seems less clever and more touching to me, although I might be indulging in nostalgia for Janis Joplin and that way of life. Certainly I love the way 'That's No Way' moves both me (Judy Collins version or his own) and my wife equally, despite our coming to it from such different places. On the other hand, my all-time favourite is 'Dress Rehearsal Rag', which is even too depressing for Cohen to perform, or at least it has been for the past few decades, so maybe I'm more of a bedsit romantic than I'll admit. Of course, Judy Collins is the only singer who can make a song about a wrist-slicing junkie sound beautiful, but I love Cohen's own version too. Last night, even though I realised I really did admire many of Kirsten's favourite songs, and had a few of my own I hadn't realised I liked so much, for me the highlight of the evening was Cohen's reciting the poem 'For Those Who Greeted Me', from which his song 'A Thousand Kisses Deep' is adapted, especially the verse he used as a refrain:


I loved you when you opened
Like a lily to the heat.
I´m just another snowman
Standing in the rain and sleet,
Who loved you with his frozen love
His second-hand physique -
With all he is, and all he was
A thousand kisses deep.

There were a couple of moments when it could have gone all nostalgic; after all, half the crowd was there figuring they will never get another chance to see Leonard in concert. I've followed that logic with Elliott Carter's 80th and 90th birthday concerts, and I'm figuring on attending his 100th too. This was not a Frank Sinatra 'farewell' tour, with ol blue eyes going through the motions and providing mere hints of the songs his adoring fans remembered. Leonard Cohen went through the catalogue, re-interpreted some, revisited others. He stuck the songs that might have been construed as goodbyes, or looking back, in the beginning of his sets, and he ended on a bang, with a final encore of 'Democracy Is Coming To The USA' which took on a certain resonance given the last election, and which was greeted with a roar. Listening to 'the rich have got their channels in the bedrooms of the poor' earlier in the night, I wondered if we shouldn't see Leonard more politically. On the other hand, you know you're getting old when you find yourself nodding along to 'I ache in the places that I used to play' .

People forget that there was never a 'young' Leonard Cohen the singer; he'd already has his young career as a precocious writer. He tends to get associated with the Beats, and for good reason: watching last night's concert could provide an illustration of the kind of 'beatific' that Kerouac or Ginsberg had in mind. 'Beautiful Losers' could be the archetypical Beat title; my memory says the novel has a little bit of that feeling, some magic realism (very early on; Canadians were as good as Latin Americans at that) and some classic North American fictional tropes. But before that second, and last, novel, the young Cohen was at first a rather formal poet, working in rhyme and meter, before his poetry merged into his songs. The later freer verse is good, but the early songs benefit from that formalist poetic. And I was reminded of all this last night.

It was one of the best concerts I've been to in ages, and it reminds me of just how good a song-writer Leonard Cohen is. That he became such a good performer too is simply a bonus. But the feeling I left the Albert Hall enjoying was one that somehow joined my younger self to my older one, if I may be allowed to show just how soppy Cohen can make me. Or anyone.

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