Leonard Cohen's perfect offering

The great songwriter is old now. But as closing time approaches, his poetic fire burns brighter than ever.

Published April 17, 2009 10:53AM (EDT)

For the people fortunate enough to see Leonard Cohen on his current national tour, as I did Monday night at Oakland, Calif.'s Paramount Theater, the world is a bigger, deeper, older, more bitter and radiant place. Every Cohen performance is an epic event. And in his three-hour-plus performance, part of his first tour in 15 years, the great songwriter, poet and novelist once again used his powerful body of work to create, for one night, a theater of his life, a public confession so intimate, complex, combative and profound that it felt as much like prayer as performance. At the end of the evening, as the audience floated out, still transported to whatever unknown inner place his words and music had carried them, you could almost feel a palpable sense of collective gratitude that such artistry still exists in a weary world -- that Leonard Cohen is still around.

Forty years. Like many members of the graying but impressively age-varied audience, that's how long I've been listening to Cohen. That fact in itself gave the evening a sense of momentousness, even fatality. It was a shock when Cohen strolled out onto the stage, still hip, still the epitome of a certain kind of sexy Euro-Canadian-Buddhist intellectual style, but now an old man. What happened to that handsome young blade who blasted onto the scene with the ice-cold "The Stranger Song" and the miraculously gentle "Sisters of Mercy"? The golden boy whose romantic life was captured in envy-producing photos in the first songbook I ever bought, the Leonard Cohen Songbook, hanging out with a mysterious blond woman on a Greek island and being quoted as asking, at a post-performance party at the Berkeley Marriott, "Hey, this is California -- where are the 13-year-old girls?" He got old, and we got old with him. If Leonard Cohen, the slashing youth who threw down the gauntlet to himself and us with the terrifying album "Songs of Love and Hate," who wrote the brilliantly audacious novel "Beautiful Losers," whose obsession with love and sex and betrayal and forgiveness and God and women, always women, served as a disquieting soundtrack for so many of our romantic lives, can be 74 years old, then it's no use denying it -- we must all be on that same one-way train. You can't watch somebody you've been following for that long without seeing yourself. The window is also a mirror.

For those of us still hiding from the revenges planned by the whirligig of time, it can be hard to look. This is the fourth or fifth time I've seen Cohen perform. The first time was sometime in the 1970s -- it's been so long I don't remember exactly. The last was on his mid-'90s tour, during the remarkable career renaissance spurred by his superb 1988 album, "I'm Your Man." In a stock line he uses in every show, but which surely brings down the house every time, Cohen noted that the last time he performed was 14 or 15 years ago, then deadpanned, "I was 60 years old. Just a crazy kid with a dream." In those 14 years, Cohen went from being a brilliantly sardonic middle-aged man ("Now my friends are gone and my hair is gray/ I ache in the places where I used to play") to a brilliantly sardonic old man. In his black suit and fedora, he looks like a cross between an aging hipster and a retired Jewish haberdasher, with a little John Updike thrown in. It's a cool look, and Cohen is trim and spry (in a delightful touch, he skipped off the stage at end of each set), but there's no hiding the fact that the golden boy is gone and won't come back.

But, of course, Cohen knows this, and talks about it, and plays with it, and interrogates it. At one point in his second set, he said that he'd been working out, and slyly opened his suit jacket to reveal his (flat) stomach. "But it's too late," he said. And then, after a beat: "It's always been too late." Old age, like everything else for Cohen, is a curiosity to be investigated. It's inescapable, and yet in a certain sense it can be overcome. During his memorable version of "I'm Your Man," which like all of his unabashed love songs falls like a redemptive rain after the caustic romantic pessimism of much of his other work, he made one of his characteristic, intriguing tweaks to his lyrics: following the line, "If you want another kind of lover," he changed the original "I'll wear a mask for you" to "I'll wear an old man's mask for you." Cohen's point seemed to be that his old age is real, but it is also a mask, and that beneath it, the same youthful fire of passion and devotion burns. In fact, maybe it burns higher and hotter, as he gets closer to what he calls "closing time." It certainly felt like that Monday night.

Cohen undertook this tour for financial reasons after his former manager allegedly swindled $10 million from him, leaving him almost nothing. (Cohen was awarded $9 million by a Canadian court in a civil suit.) But he held nothing back, throwing himself wholeheartedly into his music. In his generosity and dignity, Cohen reminded me of another old man who lost everything, and who earned the nation's respect by going on a grueling around-the-world lecture tour to pay off his debts -- Mark Twain.

Cohen's shows on this tour seem to be almost identical, from the set lists down to his jokes and his introductions of the musicians. (Most of the material on his excellent new album, "Leonard Cohen Live in London," including his stage patter, is virtually identical to the Paramount show.) But that doesn't really matter. It's a flawless, beautifully conceived and realized show, and it doesn't require performative spontaneity. You're getting Leonard Cohen, still at the height of his powers (OK, I miss the five or six notes he lost on the top end of his baritone range two decades ago), and if he doesn't want to show the audience any more of himself than he has already revealed in some of the most naked songs ever written, that's his prerogative. He may say the same things at every show, but his words possess such gravitas and sincerity that they're like a simple suit of clothes. Why change them?

Besides, Cohen somehow manages to create the sense every time he performs that he is engaged in a life-or-death struggle. He famously once told an interviewer that he approaches a performance like a matador entering the ring, and has enigmatically called himself a "soldier" (his touring band was once called "the Army"). And that sense of inner struggle -- with the angel, the devil, or just himself -- was the skeleton beneath the skin of Monday's sold-out show.

Accompanied by his superb 10-piece band, Cohen opened with the haunting 1984 ballad "Dance Me to the End of Love," which he said was inspired by knowing that in certain death camps, the Germans forced a string quartet to play while their fellow prisoners were being killed and burned. Cohen has explored the theme of love as an all-consuming flame, both destructive and creative, from the outset of his career -- a painting of St. Bernadette in flames appears on the back cover of his first album -- and that tortured ambiguity flickered throughout the evening. "If he was fire, then she must be wood," Cohen sang in "Joan of Arc," but the old ladies' man himself has always been dry wood, burning up, consumed by the same flame, dying endlessly. Cohen is a battered philosopher of eros, and the beauty and horror of much of his poetry derives from his alternately exhausted and triumphant response to the demigod of sex.

But Cohen has turned outward more in recent decades. His second offering of the night was "The Future," perhaps his bleakest political song, with its Yeatsian vision of a dystopian world in which "things are going to slide in all directions ... I've seen the future, baby, it is murder." Then came the unabashed, down-on-his-knees love song "There Ain't No Cure for Love" from "I'm Your Man," followed by the classic "Bird on a Wire" from his second album, "Songs From a Room." As is his wont, Cohen made a small but key change to one of the lyrics. The original line goes "If I have been untrue/ I hope you know it was never to you." He changed it to "I thought a lover had to be some kind of liar," relentlessly erasing the sentimentality from his earlier work.

That implacable self-questioning was manifest in Cohen's intense onstage demeanor. As he sang, he would sometimes stand still, holding the microphone close, with eyes closed and a tortured expression, seeming to be searching for the meanings behind his own words, the lies behind the truth. Frequently he dropped to his knees, as if to implore his muse or honor his fellow musicians. Once or twice a wild surmise seemed to shoot through his eyes as he looked up over the crowd into the darkness, a look of nameless wonder.

Then came one of the evening's highlights, the gloriously mordant "Everybody Knows," with its perfect commingling of Cohen's political and sexual obsessions. ("Everybody knows the scene is dead, but there's gonna be a meter on your bed that will disclose what everybody knows.") On this tune, as throughout, the Barcelona-born string maestro Javier Mas, who plays 12-string guitar, oud and bandurria, stood out. One of the musical highlights was watching Cohen, playing his familiar fast arpeggios on guitar, intently leaning over and watching Mas take off on one of his virtuoso Middle Eastern-inflected runs.

Mention must also be made of the astonishingly fine trio of backing vocalists. Sharon Robinson, one of the three, is not really a "backing vocalist" -- she is a major and formidable talent in her own right who co-wrote the songs on Cohen's strong 2001 release "Ten New Songs" and produced the album. Her soulful, expressive voice was highlighted on her own "Boogie Street." The other two vocalists, Charlie and Hattie Webb, lived up to Cohen's description of them as "the sublime Webb sisters." Their voices are not only astonishingly pure in tone and true in pitch, but they blend perfectly. On "I Tried to Leave You," they sang a beautiful, complex two-part harmony unlike any I've ever heard before. Best of all, these three muses gave Cohen the opportunity to wander over to them and whisper, "Sing it, angels." A Leonard Cohen concert in which he does not speak that line to the beautiful women who invariably seem to be on stage with him is a fraud.

The long, rich show included some old standbys like his breakout song "Suzanne," with its transcendent vision of a disquieting Jesus who "sank beneath your wisdom like a stone," and "Chelsea Hotel," with its indelible image of Janis Joplin "giving me head on the unmade bed while the limousines wait in the street." But Cohen dipped more into his newer work, performing widely celebrated songs like "Hallelujah," "Tower of Song" and "Democracy." (It's funny to think of a 20-year-old song like "Tower of Song" as being "newer," but that's what happens when your career lasts for four decades.) Standouts included a soaring version of Cohen's musical setting of the great Lorca poem "Take This Waltz," a triumphant version of "I'm Your Man" and a tune he's done forever, his goose-bump-raising version of the stirring French resistance song "The Partisan." He also did a wonderful spoken version of "A Thousand Kisses Deep."

Speaking of spoken words, there's the little matter of Cohen's voice. First, it was never as terrible as some of his critics said. No, he wasn't always on pitch, but he was coming from the European cabaret tradition, where expression and intelligence matter more than pipes. Who would want to hear Mariah Carey sing "Put the lather on your face, now you're Santa Claus/and you've got a gift for everyone who will give you their applause" from the savage "Dress Rehearsal Rag," a song in which Cohen berates himself for being too cowardly to kill himself? He could always sing just well enough to get by. His sudden drop into a strange, breathy basso profundo in "I'm Your Man" was somewhat disconcerting, and obviously diminished the melodic appeal of his voice, but he still got style points for delivery. Basically, the same thing held for his performance in Oakland. Actually, after the intermission, his voice had warmed up enough that he was hitting some of the higher baritone notes that he didn't even attempt in the first set.

A Cohen performance is exhilarating and moving, but it can also be exhausting. Part of this is simply because he is a real poet, not a pop imitation. He uses language precisely, extravagantly, experimentally. Listening to poetry is harder than listening to doggerel. But mostly, a Cohen show is exhausting because of his dark sensibility. One of Cohen's stock jokes on the tour is that he found himself drawn to religion (he was a practicing Buddhist monk for years at a monastery near Los Angeles) but "cheerfulness kept breaking out." However, cheerfulness is not the first thing you'd associate with Cohen. He gets to it eventually, but it's not a straight shot.


"Looks like freedom but it feels like death/ It's something in between, I guess," Cohen sings in "Closing Time." That knife edge, that balancing act between the intolerable and the redemptive, is where Cohen lives, both in his work and in his performances. He is a fearless explorer of darknesses of all kinds, mostly erotic and romantic, but also, and increasingly, political and spiritual. For Cohen, without darkness there is no light -- a credo summed up in his song "Anthem," with its exquisite chorus "Ring the bells that still can ring/ Forget your perfect offering/ There is a crack in everything/ That's how the light gets in." This unflinching dialectic, which is found in some forms of Buddhism and Judaism as well as in the "negative theology" of Christian mystics like Meister Eckhart, informs all of Cohen's work. In its rejection of facile optimism, it represents the diametrical opposite of the Dionysian self-assurance we associate with performers. Watching Cohen, you're sometimes haunted by a fear that he may fall and not be able to get back up.

This coiled tension makes his performances uniquely self-critical, almost self-canceling. You could almost say he performs against himself. Maybe that's where his matador image derives: He's both the bull and the swordsman. At times, as Cohen was listening intently to his own words being sung back at him by the chorus, you could imagine him shaking his head and saying, "Actually, none of that is true."

Cohen is a peculiar hybrid: a writer who is also a star, a natural questioner whose medium, the popular song, forces him toward answers. He's an anti-romantic romantic, an inveterate ladies' man who finds himself left alone in a place wrecked "by the winds of change and the weeds of sex." But in the end, no matter what, Cohen always pops back up, affirming something larger and nobler than himself. And the thing that buoys him is the idea of grace. Cohen does not necessarily believe that such a thing exists as an objective entity. But he does seem to believe you can create it -- in fact, that you have  to create it. As he writes in "Marianne," "I forget to pray for the angels, and then the angels forget to pray for us."

Cohen saved two of his most famous songs, "First We Take Manhattan" and "Famous Blue Raincoat," for the end. After his gravelly bass voice caressed the great opening line of "Manhattan" -- "They sentenced me to 20 years of boredom/ For trying to change the system from within" -- the band rocked the tune. "Famous Blue Raincoat" is probably the most beautiful melody Cohen ever wrote and one of his most haunting songs, with its enigmatic references to a friend's romantic betrayal and its heartbreakingly compassionate line "And thanks/ for the trouble you took from her eyes/ I thought it was there for good/ So I never tried." The mostly flawless band slightly overplayed behind Cohen on this classic, which deserves no instrumental adornment whatsoever, but it remained one of the evening's highlights.

As an old fan who still reserves a special place in his heart for the old songs, the number that really got to me was "Marianne." As Cohen and the backup singers broke into that famous chorus -- "Now so long, Marianne, it's time that we began/ to laugh and cry and cry and laugh/ about it all again" -- I found myself carried back 30 years. I remembered all the times I played that song and all those other great songs on the guitar. I remembered when Leonard Cohen was one of my idols, in the days when I was innocent enough to have idols. I remembered all the long-lost women I associated with that song. And remembering it all, hearing it here and knowing it was gone forever, something cracked open, and the tears came.

After Cohen's last encore, as the applause poured down upon him, he doffed his hat and bowed his head, and when he raised it again an incandescent smile, an expression of pure joy and appreciation, suffused his worn, sensual, intelligent face. As he smiled, the years seemed to fall away, not just for Cohen but for everyone whose life has been enriched by his artistic journey, whether they followed it for 40 years or one. Those of us who grew up with Leonard Cohen saw an old man on Monday night, and in his age we saw our own rapidly approaching fate. But we also saw something else. We saw an artist still alive and kicking, still asking troublesome questions of the world and telling beautiful stories about it. That was a fragment to be shored against our coming ruin.

"Thank for you for keeping my songs alive all these years," Cohen said at the end of the show. The fact that his songs still live on is inspiring. But it isn't just his artistic achievement that matters, but the humility, the discipline, and, yes, the grace that lies behind it. For what Cohen offered to us was not just his artistry, but his life -- a life played for keeps, an examined life, an artist's life. Not everyone can write "Famous Blue Raincoat," but every one of us can try to live a deeper life. Every one of us can ring the bells that still can ring.


By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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