I wrote this article for L’APERITIVO ILLUSTRATO N.68/15, WINTER ISSUE.
There is a significant moment in Live in London on October 2008: Leonard Cohen is behind his piano and is singing Tower of Song (probably the most beautiful song ever written about song writing). From under his trilby, he intones this verse: ‘I was born like this/I had no choice/I was born with the gift of a golden voice’. As he pronounces the word ‘golden’ he closes his eyes: he knows that the audience will explode, he knows that his audience feel with him. And so it happens. A highly visible shudder runs down his back; watching the video you can almost feel it, through a magical empathy. That moment is not the typical manifesta- tion of enthusiasm displayed at a rock concert, it’s something more. Cohen is back on the stage after more than fifteen years, having passed several of them in a Buddhist monastery in California (Jikan was his name as a monk, i.e. “the silence that lies between two things”) and after he had discovered that his manager had defrauded him, absconding with almost all of his savings (read I’m Your Man, the wonderful biography by Sylvie Simmons on the singer-songwriter from Montreal, Canada). In 2008 he is back on tour with a group of amazing musicians, attracting the at- tention of the entire international musical scene. His performances do not in any way resemble those of his peers: no ‘fumes and laser beams’, to quote a Italian singer, and not even a hint of that youthism, or of the rock’n’roll rhetoric that characterizes the performances of many veterans of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s that are still active.
Moreover Leonard Cohen, born in Montreal, writer and poet before even becoming singer and musician, has never been a ‘youthist’ having achieved success at over the age of thirty, after realizing that poetry alone ‘did not pay the bills’, has now sung about Jesus as a sailor (Suzanne), about initiations, and about the torments of love imbued with biblical references. Songs of Leonard Cohen, Songs From a Room and Songs of Love and Hate were released in the late ‘60s and early’ 70s, when the rhetorical proposal from hippie songs, all “peace and love”, reached its peak. That October 17 2008, in London, Cohen went on stage showing the world the style and the scale that would characterize all the performances of his tour: over twenty-five songs, some intense moments of recitation, snippets of irony and self-irony and a handful of musicians and backing vocals of unrivalled technical ability and sensitivity. Afterwards one of them would say that he had never played in a band like this, in which ‘everything fits’, everything was in the right place. Many have written, and I can confirm it, that to see Cohen right now is something more akin to a religious experience than the concert of an old star. He thanks the audience, takes off his hat, kneels, and he exudes a gentleness and humility which absolutely free of affectation. You wonder what makes a person so deeply human, and some answers may be found the in the songs.
Dance Me to the End of Love is a dance of love, beauty and salvation: ‘Dance me to the children who are asking to be born/ Dance me through the curtains that our kisses have outworn…’ embellished with a deep voice coming from the depths of ‘A thousand kisses deep’, sung during the evening in an alternative version, on a soft bed of keyboards ‘You came to me this morning/And you handled me like meat/You’d have to be a man to know/ How good that feels, how sweet…’ Just so, because one of Cohen’s traits has always been irony: something that critics of the ‘70’s never understood, insisting only on his inner torment. The myopia of experts sometimes can be sharply evident. How could they fail to notice the innate comedic talent of one who, in One of us Cannot be Wrong, in ‘67, wrote ‘I Showed my heart to the doctor. He said I’d just have to quit/Then he wrote himself a prescription, your name was mentioned in it’. A certain Lou Reed, when awarding Cohen on an important occasion, remarked that it would have sufficed his friend to write that sentence. Cohen’s humour impacts on the London concert together with his precious gentleness. One evening I happened to overhear a debate between two people. They spoke of his Hallelujah, now a hymn that singers themselves pass around from voice to voice. One said that the song was addressed to God, the other that it was about a ‘screw’. I was unable to intervene but someone should have explained to them that their argument was sterile and futile. The mystical and the carnal are inseparable and, moreover, they always have been: ‘And remember when I moved in you/The Holy dove was moving too/And every breath we drew was Hallelujah’. Hallelujah is just one of the examples that confirm that human experience is by its very nature indivisible and unique in its essence. Cohen was able to give it form the outset like few others. If It Be Your Will is another of his immense prayers. In an interview, he was asked if there was a song that he would have liked to have written during his lifetime and he replied “If It Be Your Will, and I wrote it”.
In London, and throughout that tour, it was introduced by him and entrusted to the voice, harp and guitar of The Webb Sisters, his backing vocalists, for a sweet and memorable version of ‘If it be your will/If there is a choice/Let the rivers fill/Let the hills rejoice/ Let your mercy spill/On all these hearts burning in hell/ If it be your will/To make us well’. Even Antony recorded an enchanting version. In fact many alternative versions of the compositions of Cohen are brought to light, even by ‘pop’ artists : latterly one of Chelsea Hotel no. 2 reinterpreted by Lana Del Ray. The piece was written recalling his brief liaison with Janis Joplin: ‘I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel/You were talking so brave and so sweet/Giving me head on the unmade bed/while the limousines wait in the street’. I have often heard people say that Cohen is more “poet” and “writer” than musician. Certainly his words have an undeniable importance. But as he himself has said: “…I know the music dissolves in the lyric and the lyric dissolves in the music”: as always the elements are inseparable and the proof of his innate genius as a composer is the esteem that his colleagues have for him, and in the thousands of times that one of his songs has been revitalized and reinterpreted. His melodies never wear out. We think of the Hallelujah by Jeff Buckley: a beautiful version, a true gem. Buckley could not write a text of that magnitude, but he would never even have reached a musical harmony so simple and eternal.
It was the magic in the song that allowed him to pour all of himself and all his immense talent into it. Cohen himself confided in Bob Dylan that he had spent two years to finish writing it, but later he candidly admitted that he had not been forthright: it had taken a lot longer. This side of Cohen is peculiar: many of his songs, but also many of his poems were written over many years: revised, abandoned, revived, discarded and rewritten again. What we hear is the result of dilated and distilled time. It is the fruit of silence. The Live in London concert, which has been used as the leitmotif of this article, exalts the transformation of his songs into something new and accomplished: The Gipsy Wife, probably the highpoint of the show, finds, in a bed of fading arrangements, a version of herself not distraught but above all unimaginable.
The woman, desire, loss and love are the essential cornerstones of a poetry that finds, distilled in songs, memorable examples of itself ‘… 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’ (from Boogie Street).
He does nothing but swing like a pendulum, Leonard Cohen, swinging to and fro between the solitude of desire and the aspiration for transcendence: the spirit is embodied in the flesh and the flesh is al- ways a light in the life of the itinerant Jew (‘Most of you was naked/Ah, but some of you was light…’ from Waiting for the Miracle). It has been going on for for a lifetime: this dichotomy has been salvation or open wound. He has always recounted this with a calm voice, which with time has become, deep, sensual and hoarse. His golden voice. Leonard Cohen never offers a recipe for a living, ultimately and above all, it is this that makes him great. It would have been easy for the person who had lived for a good part of the ‘90’s in a Buddhist monastery, with his master Roshi, to present himself as enlightened man, at peace with himself, with the times and with the world.
This was not, however, his intention; in him and in his work nothing is discounted or consoling. You will never be submitted to the violence of simplification or the urgency of complexity at all costs. Cohen does not speak the language of our time, he does not know how to express himself with slogans: in him reside doubt and mystery.
After his return in 2008, following his tour, he recorded Old Ideas. It was 2011 and in Going Home he expresses his desire to learn how to write a love song, a manual for living in defeat. The themes are the same, but there is more awareness in his hot voice, which is accompanied by essential arrangements that will be taken to the world with another tour. There is an acceptance and a really joyful awareness in doing what he does and in continuing to do so.
The truth is that Leonard Cohen, is like the best bottles of red wine, they have in them, from the outset, all the elements that make them unique but with time they improve. Starting with intrinsic qualities, in a strange and singular way they become, themselves again, while always changing.
And so it is with Cohen: he has become his own work of art, and has done so by virtue of all his experiences, his disappointments and his miseries, coming to accept them as part of existence and always avoiding becoming anybody’s teacher. He does not serve up truth to be given as a meal to the young: only, once again, availing himself as an instrument for the accommodation of beauty, accepting darkness together with high lights. Leonard Cohen, as I write, has just turned eighty. For the occasion, he published Popular Problems.
Who knows what it means for him to sing “I was born with the gift of a golden voice”. He just does not seem to want to stop, and who knows if it will not take him another decade to do so. Cohen is now a great concentrate of artistic experience and, foremost, a concentrate of human experience and of humility who accepts the mystery that we are and in which we are enveloped. He is above all a concentrate of a silence of disarming expressiveness.
Long, long ago, he wrote:
‘I am almost 90
Everyone I know has died off
He can still be seen
Hobbling with his love’.
I hope so, Leonard, with all my heart.