Leonard Cohen at The Opera House, Manchester. Tues, 17 June 2008.
Dark stage, brightly lit at the back – I expect a Manhattan skyline. The band take their places. LC quickly follows, there’s no spinning it out, he’s right on time, getting to business. He bounds on, he’s up for it, dapper in a suit and fedora, both grey, a double-breasted suit, wide trousers, grey shirt buttoned at the neck, no tie. He looks like a mafia don, Al Pacino in later life. The audience, almost caught out by his prompt arrival, erupts. We all leap to our feet, clapping with hands over our heads, dozens of hands and fingers stretching up, silhouetted against the stage lights, roars, halloos, cheers, tremendous release of pressure – is this really happening? Yes it really is. His first concert for a dozen years.
He greets our applause with his hands folded on his chest, looking round. He peers around as if surprised, at the intensity, maybe even at us being there at all. Caught in the lights, he bows, takes off his hat, grey hair, short, holds it over his heart (to protect? To contain?), he bows again, speaks slowly, a deep, measured voice: ‘I’m sorry for the geographical and financial inconvenience you’ve been put to to get here tonight – just like you to know that I don’t establish the market. And on a school night too. Thank you so much. We’re touched and honoured at your generous reception. So lets play some music. – But please, sit down, it makes me nervous – I think you’re going to leave.’ We laugh, relieved, we sit down as one. We’re okay, he’s here, he’s looking good, we can safely put ourselves in his hands, surrender to the master; well, almost: we’re waiting for one more reassurance. The voice.
He has a hand mic on a long lead, he holds it with two hands on his chest, bows his head to sing into it, shoulders up, as if he’s wrapping himself around it, focussing all his energy on it, almost crouching. Band strikes up a staccato 2:4 time, three girls in chorus sing, ‘La la, la la la la la la, la la la la la la, laa laa laa’, almost languid, and again, we wait – head down, what will the voice be like? – ‘Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin, dance me through the panic till I’m safely gathered in, lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove, dance me to the end of love.’ – It’s there, it’s deep and dark, (someone wrote – his voice is like a boulder rumbling down a tunnel) he’s in excellent voice, with just a little thickening that gives it a new, rich texture. Now we really can relax into the evening, sink back – whilst attending to every nuance; this is an evening when every inflection, every choice of word will be scrutinised, we’re measuring and calibrating everything against what we already know so intimately. We know everything there is to know about the man and his work – this is our opportunity to know more. For we are in the presence. A flute solo: he turns in profile, watches with rapt attention, still, as if in thrall. At the end he announces the musician’s name, and we applaud dutifully. With the next verse he turns to other side and the girls turn to face him and they sing to each other, his attention on them total through to the end of the song.
Then, more urgently, faster, 4:4, this is going somewhere – ‘Give me back my broken night, my mirrored room, my secret life, it’s lonely here, there’s no one left to torture. Give me absolute control, over every living soul, and lie beside me baby, that’s an order!’: it’s a message song, it’s called The Future, but he’s singing about the present, this is how we live now, what will get worse in the future, that we have to change – ‘When they said REPENT (the girls echo ‘repent’) –I wondered what they meant.’ ‘I’ve seen the nations rise and fall, I’ve heard their stories, heard them all, but love’s the only engine of survival. Your servant here, he has been told, to say it clear, to say it cold, it’s over, it ain’t going any further.’ What? this is the last days, the end, he’s the prophetic voice (‘I’m the little Jew who wrote the Bible’) singing of the end? Unless he’s singing of possibility – this is now, it will be worse in the future, unless we say ‘it’s over, it ain’t going any further’. ‘There’ll be fires on the road, and the white man dancing’, and he gives a little dance, a soft-shoe shuffle, we cheer; stay with him, he’s going somewhere. Suddenly I realise that, although I know all the words, and I’m singing along with him, it all sounds new. That he is singing with such intentness, such focus, such freshness, such urgency that all the words that I’m happily singing along with, are as new. He, and we, are singing a song that’s coming into being as we sing, and we’re hearing it for the first time. That’s what this is about. This is an occasion.
Slow, again, thoughtful, looking back: ‘I loved you for a long long time, I know this love is real. It doesn’t matter how it all went wrong, that don’t change the way I feel. And I can’t believe that time can heal this wound I’m speaking of – sing it for me, angels – There ain’t no cure, there ain’t no cure, there ain’t no cure for love. I’m aching for you, baby, I can’t pretend I’m not…’ and, yes, this seventy-four-year-old guy is singing songs about a young man, and he’s full of passion for the songs, they’re real to him – but they are no longer now. He’s singing them with a sense of wonder that someone, him, should have written this song: he’s not ‘aching for you, baby’, he’s singing about someone who’s aching for you baby. And he feels the passion of that person. It’s exact, it’s real. That was then, this is now. And we’re all thinking of those relationships and their ending that time doesn’t heal, that just went wrong, or time or circumstance or something just moved you, or them, on from, that are still as real as they ever were, always will be, that are part of the pain of life that we accumulate by simply living our life, that the more ardently we live our life, the richer the living, and the richer the memories, the greater is the pain we accumulate, but that’s okay, ti’s worth it. ‘I don’t need to be forgiven, for loving you so much’, but there ain’t no cure … He takes off his hat, holds it respectfully on his chest as he bows to each member of the band.
Alone, spotlit, he begins ‘Like a bird on the wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir, I have tried in my way to be free …’ It’s so familiar, it would be easy to slide past it, worn smooth, to treat it as cliché. But again, tonight, with only him illuminated, the backing muted, it’s as if he’s on stage alone, trying to locate, with a series of similes, a truth that can’t be stated, that only reveals itself with an accumulation of similes that come at that central idea from different angles and, like searchlights playing from different directions on shapes made of smoke, just occasionally reveal a shape, something tangible, that you can hold on to. Maybe it’s his ‘Tangled up in Blue’, the song that articulates most directly his ongoing view of life, about how things go wrong no matter how hard you try, but that doesn’t mean you stop trying, ‘I have tried in my way to be free’. Alone, on the stage, there’s an electric intensity to his performance. At the line ‘and a pretty woman leaning in her darkened door’ I think suddenly of a Magritte painting of a house which is in darkness, lit by a street lamp and lights in the windows; but all around the house, the sky and the trees, it is daylight.
More light, and the jogging rhythm of a song that reminds us of what’s obvious but sometimes we forget, need to be reminded of: ‘Everybody knows that the dice are loaded, everybody throws with their fingers crossed; everybody knows that the war is over, everybody knows that the good guys lost; everybody knows the fight was fixed, the poor stay poor, the rich get rich; that’s how it goes. Everybody knows.’ In the middle period, he ‘got political’, acknowledging that however pure we become through inner reflection, however honestly, even impeccably we behave in our personal lives, there, needing to be acknowledged, and acted on, is the manifest unfairness of the political and economic situation. This performance makes each word live.
After intensity, and a reality check, a song of quiet reflection – ‘I saw you this morning, you were moving so fast; can’t seem to loosen, my grip on the past’, my secret life, the parallel world, the other world, that we all need, in order to cope with life. He wrote it in his late 60s, after his time in the monastery, in which the conflict between the inner and outer lives, and the impossibility of any final resolution – we have to live with irreconcilables – is starkly stated. A spare take.
He puts on guitar for Who by Fire?, a Yiddish-Klezmer-Sephardic song, perfectly Jewish in that it is all questions. That’s all it is, questions. Accompanied by great playing, on a guitar-like instrument but with a lot more strings, by a balding Jewish tailor, going crazy on his night off, down at whatever bar Jewish tailors go to on their night off. LC goes down on one knee in front of him and bows his head in respect.
Each song is illuminating all I know, includes all culture (I got the same feeling in front of Klimt’s landscapes the other day, at the exhibition in Liverpool) – makes me realise the value of working at something, ‘perfecting’ it. (An anecdote from LC in a radio interview: he was talking to Dylan, and Dylan had asked him how long it had taken to write ‘Hallelujah’. Two years – and in this he wasn’t being exactly truthful, as it had actually taken him nearer 4. And, Bob, how long did it take you to write ‘I and I’, a song he admired: about 15 minutes was the reply. Dylan’s songs are written on the run, with what’s around at the time, bricolage, even, snapshots of intense concentration; Cohen’s are constructed outside time, worked on, pulled apart and put together, each a world in which he tries to depict everything there is to say about the subject. Dylan’s are full of life, Cohen’s of thought; Dylan’s are fireworks, full of time passing, Cohen’s are lenses, in which time slows, as if it’s thickening: but the object under the lens comes clearer and clearer – but never entirely resolves. My crass simplification.
Plucking the guitar, he sings ‘Hey, That’s no way to say Goodbye’. It’s noticeable that the biggest ‘recognition applause’ at the start of a song is not for the old stuff, the classics, but for mid- to late-period songs; this is an audience that rediscovered him in the 80s and reconnected with him through a music that was less solipsistic than the music they’d idolised him for in their bedsitters, that reflected more of their concerns in middle years, resulting in his greatest popularity.
A speaking interlude, talking of how long it had been since he performed, ‘– I guess it’s 15 years since I was on a stage, playing like this – then, I was 60, just a kid with a crazy dream, writing songs like this. I’ve taken prozac, ritalin, amphetamine’ – a long list of prescription drugs – ‘I’ve studied all the world religions, but in spite of all that, cheerfulness just kept breaking through’ (we all cheer) ‘– There’s a crack, in everything – it’s where the light gets in.’ Sings ‘The birds they sang, at the break of day – start again, I heard them say; don’t dwell on what has passed away, or what is yet to be. The wars, they will be fought again; the holy dove be caught again – bought, and sold, and bought again – the dove is never free. Ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering; there is a crack in everything – it’s where the light gets in’. There’s a moment, when, in his spoken introduction, he says ‘there’s a crack, in everything’, and there are ‘oohs’ in the audience, almost orgasmic from the women, at the realisation that he is really going to sing … when I realise that what I’d thought was my private Cohen song, that no one else in the world knew the real significance of, fully appreciated, that so perfect was my relationship to this song that when it was played at my funeral, people would say – ‘but what is this song? we’ve never heard it before. It says everything we’ve ever wanted to say about the relationship of perfection and life, of what we have and what we want, of the only perfect being the flawed, the damaged.’ And I realise that all I thought, felt about this song is shared by everyone in this theatre. As all his early songs were shared when we were in our solitary bedsitters, these later songs are shared in our family homes, smiling as we listen, as we do the washing up. And that most of the audience here has probably got it on their funeral programme. And I can only smile; because, yet again, what I’d thought was my individual aloneness, is in fact shared by all of us; it doesn’t affect my solitude, because, like all his songs, it’s about living with your solitude and coming to terms with, a modus vivendi with, the world and all the people in the world – and we’re here, sharing our private relationship with this song, this magician. ‘They’re going to hear from me’, he sings. He looks on enraptured as the girls sing ‘ring the bells that still can ring’, a whole chorus to themselves. I’m in tears and feel sure many in the theatre are. He introduces the whole band. Everyone’s on their feet, the applause comes in waves.‘We’ll be with you again in 15 or 20 minutes’. It’s the end of part one. I queue for the toilet. It’s as long for the men as for the women – we’re in serious, white-haired prostate territory. I eat an ice cream in a trance.
He comes onto the stage alone, his hands crossed on his chest in thanks at our applause, stands at the synthesiser, with just the organist at the back and the girl singers to the side, says – ‘the great thing about this is that it plays itself’, presses a button gingerly and sets it going in a simple backing rhythm, to great applause, he bows mock-modestly, sings ‘my friends are gone and my hair is grey, I ache in the places I used to play’. We wait expectantly for ‘I was born with the gift of a golden voice’, and cheer mightily. In the middle he plays the plinky solo, which is very simple, concentrating like a seven-year-old at his piano practice, almost tongue out of the corner of mouth, the place erupts, he blinks in surprise and delight, takes his hat off to acknowledge the applause, then resumes singing, his voice suddenly powerful, ‘I’m standing by the window where the light is strong, they don’t let a woman kill you, not in the tower of song’; and especially on the middle eight: ‘I see you standing on the other side, I don’t know how the river got so wide, I loved you, I loved you way back when – and all the bridges are burning that we might have crossed, but I feel so close to everything that we lost – we’ll never, we’ll never have to lose it again’. He has a sublime way of focussing and concentrating everything in the now. (I’ve experienced it occasionally at a poetry reading, when suddenly the poem I’m reading is surrounded by blackness and silence, everyone is quiet, attentive, so that the poem is the only thing, is illuminated. Well, with him every song, every verse is like that.) It’s all formality, and in a way formulaic, in that everything is rehearsed. But the very formality seems to allow him to appear to be himself. He is performing Leonard Cohen – it doesn’t matter whether Leonard Cohen is really like this – Leonard Cohen the artist, the performer is like this, is this. As the girls sing da dum dum dum, da dum dum dum, endlessly, he stops in his tracks, stares at them, as he stares at them enraptured, says, ‘I’ve just discovered the key, the key to the mystery – its listening to these girls singing – da dum dum dum’. And, old ham, why not?
Suzanne. And again the familiarity isn’t worn-smoothness, but the still-jagged recollection of something that once was now, is now then, but that still resonates in our lives – ‘she brings you tea and oranges that come all the way from China’, ‘you have no love to give her’, etc etc, one of the songs with which you negotiated your wretchedness, and your guilt, in the crazy musical chairs of the adolescent/early adult mating game, hormone-fired and ferociously unfair, that turned us into mad men; but also a time, a state, when we were never more fully alive. I’m singing along, but I’m hearing it for the first time, but with all the understanding not only of familiarity but of all the things that have happened between then and now.
He straps on an electric guitar. A familiar riff, no surely he can’t be – and then, praise be, ‘And where, where, where is my gypsy wife tonight? I’ve heard all the wild reports, they can’t be right. But whose head is she dancing with on the threshing floor? Whose darkness deepens in her arms, a little more – and where, where, where is my gypsy wife tonight?’ And one of the greatest verses ever: ‘Ah the silver knives are flashing in the tired old café, a ghost climbs on the table in a bridal negligée. She says, “my body is the light, my body is the way”, I raise my arm against it all – and catch the bride’s bouquet …’ It’s the Bible, it’s Herodotus. Like Cavafy, there’s always a strong element of ancient Greece in his songs, the Eastern-influenced Greece of Herodotus, even though the Bible, and the story of the Jews, is his primary reference. ‘Too early for the rainbow, too early for the dove. These are the final days: this is the darkness, this is the flood.’ It’s a song I’ve found myself singing a lot recently, ‘oh where, where, where is my gypsy wife tonight?’, and I think for a personal reason that I’m eternally grateful for.
Sharon Robinson (his long-time collaborator, lead of the three female singers) illuminated, sings ‘O Crown of Light, O Darkened One, I never thought we’d meet. You kiss my lips, and then it’s done: I’m back on Boogie Street’, and then the simple shuffle beat and into the mundane return to the everyday world, after his time in the monastery, ‘a sip of wine, a cigarette, and then it’s time to go; I tidied up the kitchenette, I tuned the old banjo. I’m wanted at the traffic-jam, they’re saving me a seat. I’m what I am, and what I am, is back on Boogie Street’. But even in this most prosaic of songs, he can’t forbear from the portentous, bearing portents, ‘so come my friends, be not afraid, we are so lightly here; it is in love that we are made, in love we disappear. (How often has he perfectly characterised love in his songs with a paradox, and how perfect is this one?) ‘Tho’ all the maps of blood and flesh are posted on the door, there’s no one who has told us yet, what Boogie Street is for’. Whereas Dylan has always abjured the role of prophet – ‘I’m just a song and dance man’ – there’s more than a little of the prophet in Cohen, whose message finally is – be still, and attend.
Hallelujah, which so many others have sung that it’s become a standard show-stopper (even Dylan included it in his act at one time) he delivers here in fine, urgent, full voice – ‘she tied you to a kitchen chair, she broke your throne, she cut your hair’, ‘the holy or the broken Hallelujah!’ ‘there was a time you let me know, what’s really going on below, but now you never show it to me, do you?’ (One of the great double entendres) silver light, the stage bathed in light, all the band illuminated, an anthemic moment.
Martial drums, lights cut, it can only be ‘It’s coming through a hole in the air, from those nights in Tiananmen Square, it’s coming from the feeling that it ain’t exactly real, or it’s real but it ain’t exactly there’, and then the fine chorus ‘Sail on, sail on, O mighty ship of state, to the shores of need, past the reefs of greed, through the squalls of hate. Sail on, sail on!’ ‘I’m as stubborn as those garbage bags that time cannot decay’, ‘it’s coming like the tidal flood beneath the lunar sway, imperial, mysterious, in amorous array: democracy is coming to the USA’. Fine, but now I’m sure – having added up what songs he’s played from which albums – that he won’t be performing one of my very favourites, Closing Time. Never mind. But I wish.
After the declamatory, he hugs up to the microphone for his woman-pleaser, that so-familiar, plaintive horn opening, then ‘If you want a lover, I’ll do anything you ask me to’ – woo! it’s knicker-throwing time for the married school teachers, their men back off, Dionysus is in town and you don’t want to get in the way when your wives become maenads. ‘If you want another kind of lover, I’ll wear a mask for you’, woo ooh! ‘Here I stand – I’m your man’. The women whooping, he tips his hat as he sings ‘I’ll examine every inch of you’. This is Leonard Cohen the lubricious night club (or even working-men’s club) compère-singer, ‘here’s one for the ladies’, they let their hair down, take their glasses off, and whoop. Amazingly, he gets away with it, vulgarity balanced by self-abasement, I’m your slave. It’s his winning combination. At the end, hat off in smiling thanks. It’s pure theatre.
The stage dark, only Leonard spotlit, they’ve all gone except for the organist who noodles invisibly in the background as he recites all 12 verses of A Thousand Kisses Deep, a poem that later became a song. Very intense, he speaks the poem with urgency, the way you can with a poem, not held back by the needs of the song, total silence, eruption of applause – ‘it’s easy,’ he says, ‘with such a consummate organist moving it along’.
The band returns, strikes up a waltz, ‘Now in Vienna there are ten pretty women, there’s a shoulder where Death comes to cry’ – it’s his version of Lorca, the Lorca so prophetic of his own murdered end – ‘the tree where the dove comes to die’ – but of course tonight the song for me is Viennese Klimt, with all the darkness and glitter, the black and the gold of Klimt’s portraits, that both flatter their sitters (invariably the wives of wealthy men) and create symphonic poems of pattern and colour. ‘Take this waltz, take this waltz’, in his double-breasted suit and snap-brim hat, and suddenly he’s Henry Miller beginning his crazed infatuation with his second wife, who he met as a taxi dancer, who, he always claimed, tortured him into being a great writer. Though Cohen has always been more professional than Miller, keeping a place, between him and life, in which art could safely be made. The band is a café band, and we’re in Cabaret, with first the world-weary (and yet poignantly ardent) compère, and then the eager ingenues (his ‘angels’) spotlit as they sing.
They leave, they return. The, I guess inevitable, Marianne ‘we met we were almost young’, ‘as we went kneeling through the dark’, recalling our ardent youth.
Then – ‘they sentenced me to twenty years of boredom’ the electrifying first line of his comeback album, his equivalent of Blood on the Tracks, ‘Leonard’s back! ‘Remember me? I used to live for music. Remember me? I brought your groceries in’. ‘First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin’.
‘When I was talking to Sharon about my drinking problem, she said – we have to make a song out of this!’ laughter and applause – hey, this is what we like, the artist who turns his life into art, tattoos the words on his own skin, and, yep, we’ve had the odd problem with drink, we know where you’re coming from etc, etc. Except, the artist’s distance, that allows a cool, life-saving sliver of irony in: ‘I fought against the bottle, but I had to do it drunk,’ ‘too late to fix another drink, the lights are going out – I’ll listen to the darkness sing – I know what that’s about,’ a late song that says – if you’re serious, there’s only one place to be. Except there are two places, ‘I tried to love you my way, but I couldn’t make it hold; so I closed the Book of Longing and I do what I am told.’ Which is where you get to in the end, reconciling irreconcilables because you no longer accept that you can’t maintain two incompatible positions simultaneously – you can, you have to, it’s the only way.
He begins talking ‘if it be your will, that I speak no more, and my voice be still as it was before; I will speak no more, I shall abide until, I am spoken for, if it be your will’, and then the girl singers take over, singing. They are slim, young, ravishing. One plays the guitar, one plays the harp (and I don’t mean a mouth organ) for heaven’s sake – what are you trying to do to us, Leonard? they sing and play with the earnestness and knowingness of twelve-year-old Lolitas, their voices harmonising pure soprano with thrilling blues harmonies – ‘And draw us near, and bind us tight, all your children here and their rags of light, in our rags of light, all dressed to kill; and end this night, if it be your will…’. Silence. Darkness. They’re gone again.
They return and play – ah, now I really have died and gone to heaven! he is going to play it, as they hit into, ‘So we’re drinking and we’re dancing and the band is really happening, and the Johnny Walker wisdom running high. And my very own companion, she’s the Angel of Compassion, and she’s rubbing half the world against her thigh. Every drinker, every dancer lifts a happy face to thank her, and the fiddler fiddles something so sublime: All the women tear their blouses off and the men they dance on the polka dots and it’s partner found and it’s partner lost and it’s hell to pay when the fiddler stops, it’s closing time’. Four verses of solid imagery about a good night out that’s also the search for the ineffable, it’s classic Leonard Cohen; and echoing behind it Cyril Connolly’s ‘it’s closing time in the gardens of the West’, he rattles through it with great verve, word-perfect at top speed – how does he do it? – the great culminating celebration of our evening together. That’s it, you’d advertise it as ‘An Evening with Leonard Cohen’; but instead of an evening of quiet reminiscence, we’ve been on a rollercoaster whose one aim is to remind us how close we must stay to the search, how we must live with the crack that’s everywhere, that’s where the light gets in.
And then a cool, bass-driven, late-night-jazz feel as he stands at the mic, brings us down, says farewell, sends us safely into the night, back into the world: ‘I tried to leave you,’ cheer, ‘I don’t deny it,’ cheer, ‘I closed the book on us, at least a hundred times – but I still wake each morning by your side,’ more cheering, a solo from each member of band as he introduces them, before finishing with ‘goodnight my darling. I hope your satisfied. The bed is kind of narrow, but my arms are open wide. And here’s a man still working for your smile’, and he’s gone, the lights come up, we remember ‘but the Boss don’t like these dizzy heights, we’re busted in the blinding light, of closing time…’ I don’t establish the market … We look around, shake ourselves, walk out into the city night.
Easy to glibly characterise, as he was once characterised, as the grocer of despair. (But, as someone said – he’s only depressing if you don’t get the joke.) Now, he’s the Zen master as louche singer of cabaret songs. Mafia don in defence of the spiritual. He’s serious and impish, subtle and vulgar, a magician and a ham. Above all (and this is very Jewish – maybe it’s what he and Dylan share in their Jewishness) he has a belief in words, in the perpetual search for words to say the unsayable, knowing he’ll never succeed, but that by dedicating himself to ‘blackening paper’, he will get as close as is possible for him.
I realise that he’s singing exactly now, he’s in the here-and-now, his present life is fine because it’s full not only of the life he’s got now, but of all the things he’s done, of all the songs he’s written, and sung, each one worked on carefully, often over years, so that it says as near to what he wants to say as is possible. Also: each song is an attempt to describe as exactly as possible what he was trying to say in that song at that time; each sounds like an attempt at the one song, or at least the one song on that subject.
I drove straight home, from Manchester to Shaftesbury, with one cup of coffee in an empty Hopper/Cohen motorway service station, through the night, the darkness illuminated by my replaying of the concert in my head. I drove through empty Bristol, and arrived home with the dawn. I haven’t played any of his records since, as I still don’t want the recorded version to get between me and what I heard that night, am still hearing. (I wrote this just after the concert – I’m now playing him again.)
The one thought that keeps coming to me is how grateful I am to have spent – to be spending! – my adult life in parallel with two great artists who have, throughout that time (from my nineteenth year with Dylan, my twenty-second with Cohen) illuminated my life, and the times I’ve lived in. How many artists in history have been active and vibrant from their teens to their sixties, from their twenties to their seventies? And how lucky I’ve been to see both, close up, in recent years, in their golden late periods.
Concert Set list
Dance me to the end of Love
There ain’t no cure for love
Bird on the wire
In my secret life
Who by fire?
Hey, that’s no way to say goodbye
Tower of Song
I’m your man
A thousand kisses deep – spoken as poem, all 12 verses
Take this waltz
So Long, Marianne
That Don’t make it Junk
If it be your Will – as poem, then the girls sing with guitar and harp
I tried to leave you