When a performer has reached the age of seventy-nine one can be forgiven for fearing every appearance might be his last, and it was clear at Leonard Cohen’s concert in Brisbane last night that thought has also crossed his mind.
Though he is enviably fit (he drops to his knees with strength of feeling, and there’s not a catch in his voice when he rises again without even putting his hands on the floor) and his voice has thrillingly deepened since I saw him last some three years ago, he is an old man and I have prepared myself for last night to be the final time I see him.
Well my friends are gone and my hair is grey
I ache in the places where I used to play
And I’m crazy for love but I’m not coming on
I’m just paying my rent every day
Oh in the Tower of Song
The man was on stage for well over three hours, finally remarking that he really wouldn’t mind if we all decided to go home, but nobody wanted to go home, nobody wanted to leave him, and we stamped and clapped and yelled “More please, more please,” like two-year-olds presenting our empty bowls for refills.
And refill them he did. Perhaps it’s to do with his sojourn in a Buddhist monastery, but Cohen has a talent for living in the moment that allows him to sing every song as if it’s the first performance, with a freshness and passion that lets the audience hear the lyrics anew, even though some of us can recite them in our sleep. He’s surrounded himself with musicians who can do exactly the same thing, performers for whom Cohen expresses the most gracious respect, granting them time and space to shine as he steps quietly away, his hat doffed, his head bowed in deference to artists such as Javier Mas, the “sublime” Webb Sisters, and long-time collaborator Sharon Robinson, whose breathtaking interpretation of Cohen’s “Alexandra Leaving” I present here for your pleasure.
Music is, of course, from and for the emotions, but it takes a rare talent in any genre to convey the kind of feeling that deeply moves the heart, mind, body and spirit. Cohen and his fellows share the ability to imperceptibly nudge their audience out of the everyday into the realms of poetry, that is, to evoke meaning over and above the prosaic, the obvious. Cohen stirs the emotional imagination, the man can’t help it, a brief account of his journey through the Brisbane tunnels on his way to the Entertainment Centre becomes a metaphor for life. The tunnels were therapeutic, he says. He entered them feeling not so well but by the time he emerged he was feeling splendid. Through darkness into light: there is a crack, a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.
Although Buddhism became a significant part of Cohen’s life, like Bob Dylan he is also fascinated by Christian imagery, and often references the traditions of that faith, especially in his latest album, “Old Ideas.”
I have to add here that there’s not much else Dylan & Cohen have in common attitudinally. Cohen assumes everybody likes him and won’t hold it against them if they don’t. Dylan assumes everybody is his enemy and especially hates them if they like him. I could write a thesis comparing the two, and I might well one day.
“Old Ideas” has the feeling of a man preparing for the end of his life, especially the quite lovely “Come Healing:” Behold the gates of mercy in arbitrary space, and none of us deserving the cruelty or the grace…
Yet it is a measure of Cohen’s astounding talent that he can imbue the 1960’s Drifters classic “Save the Last Dance for Me,” recorded by, among many, Dolly Parton, the appalling Michael Buble, Ike & Tina Turner, Harry Nilsson, Emmylou Harris et al, with such poignancy, as he performs it as his last song of the evening (no matter how much we shout and plead he’s skipped off stage, yes, he skips, and he won’t come back) and the familiar song takes on the quality of a farewell to the audience that he loves, but knows he must finally leave, and he wants us not to forget him, he wants us to save our last dance for him cos he loves us, oh so much.
Ah, Leonard. Right back at ya.