02 February 2013

Leonard Cohen

By Kirk Woodward

[My friend Kirk Woodward, by now a familiar contributor to ROT, has been my go-to guy for most things musical, from pop to show to ol’-time rock ’n’ roll.  I know he’s a huge Dylan fan (see Kirk’s “Bob Dylan, Performance Artist,” 8 January 2011, and “Bob Dylan at Woodstock – And a New Album,” 14 November 2012), and the Beatles (“The Beatles and Me,” 7 October 2010).  (I’m a fan of both, too, though not in his league.)  Lately, he’s come to appreciate newer artists like Lady Gaga as well (“Lady Gaga: Artist for Our Time,” 1 November).  When he told me he’d been to a Leonard Cohen concert and may have something to say about it, I was surprised because I hadn’t been aware he followed that singer-songwriter.  It turns out, he didn’t—until now.  Some friends had loaned Kirk some Leonard Cohen albums and then bought tickets for the 18 December concert at Madison Square Garden and Kirk, declaring that “the show was magnificent,” became a fan.  “It was quite a remarkable evening,” he told me; “I could see how he could fill the Garden.”  So, herewith is Kirk’s newly minted assessment of the music of Leonard Cohen.]

Leonard Cohen is a Canadian singer, songwriter, and poet. He was born in 1934, which meant he was in his twenties when he found himself in New York City beginning his career as part of the folk scene. Judy Collins recorded his song “Suzanne,” but he didn’t generate hit singles recorded by himself. Still, the quality of his writing couldn’t be denied, and over the years songs like “Bird On A Wire,” “So Long Marianne,” and the now ubiquitous “Hallelujah” have worked their way into public consciousness. With something of an air of mystery around him, he might perhaps be considered a cult figure. For years he was considered a recluse; in 1994 he began five years of seclusion in a Buddhist monastery.

Perhaps you know the facts I just cited. For me, until recently I could hardly have told you anything about Cohen. I had hardly any impression of him at all until I was introduced to his music maybe half a year ago. It was clear to me at that time that he could write outstanding lyrics. For example, a song that struck me immediately was “Democracy,” with its deliberately ambiguous imagery:

It's coming to America first,
the cradle of the best and of the worst.
It's here they got the range
and the machinery for change
and it's here they got the spiritual thirst.
It's here the family's broken
and it's here the lonely say
that the heart has got to open
in a fundamental way:
Democracy is coming 
           to the U.S.A.

But the frequently sparse instrumentation of his songs and his basement-level voice, half-speaking, half-singing, made me wonder if I could ever be enthusiastic about him. Little did I know! On December 18, 2012, I went to Madison Square Garden in New York City to see him perform. It was a different evening from anything I’d expected, and for that matter different from any concert I’ve attended.

The first shock was walking into the Garden and seeing some 20,000 people already seated, waiting for the concert to start. This never happens – concert crowds are forever entering late, milling around, talking. This crowd was all present, and sitting quietly, waiting for the show. I almost felt like I was in school, or in church. It was a dream audience the whole night; a few people shouted for “Hallelujah” in the second half (as though he wouldn’t play it!), but otherwise it was all attention and applause.

The next surprise was that the concert was long; it lasted three hours with an intermission, and Cohen was onstage for essentially all of it. He was backed up by a superlative band of nine, including three female singers (the Webb Sisters and Sharon Robinson, who has been his co-composer on a number of songs). The playing was tight, the solos were dazzling.

Onstage Cohen wears a dark suit and a fedora. Everything about him bespeaks simplicity. One certainly doesn’t expect to see him, at the age of seventy-eight, moving like, say, Mick Jagger (who, now that I think about it, is only eight years younger than Cohen). He looks like a minimalist performer – and he sings (he really can sing) his songs in the lowest voice I’ve ever heard except maybe for Leon Redbone.

But inside Cohen’s minimalist shell there’s a great deal going on, much of it contradictory. He looks like an undertaker but moves like a boxer, kneels on the floor (and gets up!) about half the time, acts songs out like a French cabaret singer. His eyes frequently close but he seems remarkably attuned to his surroundings. He’s a sort of mysterious figure but he was absolutely charming, addressing us as “friends” and sounding humble and sweet. An old man, and known to have suffered from depression during his life, he skipped offstage each time he exited, gaily waving his arms.

Contradictions are in fact a theme of Cohen’s life and work. He’s an observant Jew but as I said he spent five years in a Buddhist monastery. What’s more, his songs are full of Christian imagery. He carries with him a powerful air of spiritual purity, but he works actively in the music business and certainly does not abhor commercial success.

In the concert I saw he was thoroughly committed to his songs, singing them carefully and with a great deal of emphasis, taking his time to get the meanings across. The deepness of his voice is a little deceptive – he certainly has remarkably low notes, but actually he often sings in kind of a middle baritone range, which isn’t that much different from an average male voice. The “deepness” of his voice is more a matter of tone and style. After a while, to be honest, it was hard to remember that anybody else sings any differently – like any major artist, he creates a world that you enter and while you’re there it feels like THE world.

I thought his songs, which after all are fundamentally lyric poetry, came across amazingly well in a big arena – much better than I’d have imagined. Part of the reason is great sound quality. I have never, anywhere, heard a show so well engineered for sound. The vocals were “out front” and so clear that every syllable, every consonant could be understood. The band was fluidly mixed so that all the different musical lines could be heard, and the instrumental solos were brilliantly showcased. Nothing was loud or overdone, but nothing was thrown away or underrepresented, either. If only every concert, and in particular every rock concert, could be this successfully miked.

Of course the success of Cohen’s songs in a big arena also has to do with the songs themselves. They’re usually simple as far as chord structure is concerned, and he frequently uses repetition in his lyrics, repeating an identical phrase at the end of each verse of a song. He sang everything I hoped he would, including my two favorites, “Everybody Knows”:

Everybody knows that you love me baby
Everybody knows that you really do
Everybody knows that you've been faithful
Ah, give or take a night or two.
Everybody knows you've been discreet
But there were so many people you just had to meet
Without your clothes
And everybody knows

And “Tower of Song”:

I said to Hank Williams: how lonely does it get?
Hank Williams hasn't answered yet
But I hear him coughing all night long
A hundred floors above me
In the Tower of Song

Another first for me came in the way Cohen introduced the band. Typically the band leader will call out the name of each band member. Cohen literally took off his hat to them – he stood in front of each with his hat extended out in front of him in a show of respect. He was unbelievably gracious.

But that’s not all. For the first time in my experience, he introduced by name the technical crew – the sound engineers, the lighting team, the rigger! Some of them came on stage for their “bows.” Incredible! I’ve never even heard of that happening. The magnitude of his doing that almost can’t be overstated.

I couldn’t help comparing Cohen to Bob Dylan. I’m a committed Bob Dylan fan, as I’ve demonstrated before in this blog (see “Bob Dylan, Performance Artist,” 8 January 2011, and “Bob Dylan at Woodstock – And a New Album,” 14 November 2012). I really didn’t think there was room in my life for another singer-songwriter with political and personal awareness who began singing in Greenwich Village in the early sixties.

However, there are major differences between Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan. Two are that Cohen sings his songs basically the way he recorded them, and that you can understand nearly every word he sings. Neither are true of Dylan, whatever his (I would say numerous) virtues.

Aside from that, there’s got to be something about the way artists get started in their fields. Cohen as I understand it began as a poet, realized there wasn’t much money in poetry, and started setting his verse to music. Dylan wanted to be a rocker – his ambition was to be Elvis or Chuck Berry.

So it figures that Dylan has a rock band, Cohen’s band has a much more traditional, folk oriented sound. (He saved the hardest-driving songs for the end.) I believe that Dylan has a bigger palette of colors to draw on for his songs, but Cohen digs mighty deep into his themes.

And finally, there’s a fundamental difference in the attitude of the two singers toward love. In Cohen’s songs he’s always trying (not always with success) to immerse himself in love. Dylan on the other hand always has one foot out the door:

Go away from my window,
Leave at your own chosen speed.
I’m not the one you want, babe,
I’m not the one you need . . .        
        (“It Ain’t Me, Babe”)

All in all, to my surprise it was a great concert. It had many elements of a church service – he opened with a kind of invocation (“I know it’s been a hard couple of weeks for a lot of people here. I can’t promise we’ll cure that, but I do promise we’ll give you everything we’ve got”), the audience paid close to prayerful attention, a lot of his songs use major-league religious imagery, he was often in an attitude of prayer (sometimes on his knees!), and at the end he gave a lovely sort of benediction. (“If you have a family, I hope you share this holiday season with them. If you’re alone . . . I hope you’ll be able to glory in your solitude.”)

And he has a sense of humor. At one point he played a simple little one-note solo on an electronic piano. The audience applauded. “Is this charity for the elderly?” he said. “I can do more than that,” and he played some of the solo in thirds . . . .  He reported that when he feels down or depressed, he looks at himself in the mirror and says, “LIGHTEN UP, LEONARD!”

To my mind he can do just about anything he wants. It was that kind of concert, that kind of night. May there be more.

[I know almost nothing about Cohen except the tidbits that have come out in articles about his recent concerts and current releases, so I found Kirk’s discussion very interesting.  I remember a few years ago—maybe 10 or thereabouts—that every other TV episode used "Hallelujah" as a background or theme.  It got so frequent, I almost learned the lyrics!  Now I understand he doesn't even like the song very much.]

1 comment:

  1. Leonard Cohen, Quebec-born poet and songwriter, died peacefully at his home in Los Angeles on 7 November 2016; he was 82. Announcements of Cohen's death, which were released on 10 November, did not include the cause. The singer-songwriter released his last album, 'You Want It Darker,' on 21 October 2016; Cohen's son, Adam, said his father "felt [it] was one of his greatest records."