The Wonders of Leonard Cohen
By Andrew Cohen, The Ottawa Citizen
June 2, 2009
As Leonard Cohen continues his triumphant march across North America and Europe, he is said to be more popular than ever. Perhaps so, but it is equally true that he has been popular -- hugely popular -- for decades.
In the early 1970s, when he was still establishing himself as a musician, it wouldn't be unusual to hear his recorded voice in a café in Budapest. Today his appeal is universal, existential, generational; to the unfamiliar, he is one of those overnight successes decades in the making.
It has been 41 years since he released Songs of Leonard Cohen. A younger, searching Cohen stares out from the black-framed cover of his debut album; on the reverse side a shackled Saint Bernadette of Lourdes is engulfed in flames.
He is still singing Suzanne and So Long, Marianne before live audiences, much as the Rolling Stones still offer Ruby Tuesday. When he tried to stay with newer songs on tour some years ago, he gave up. "They cry out for Suzanne," he said.
At his two appearances last week at the National Arts Centre, they cried early and often. Even for Ottawa, the standing ovation capital of the world, the reception was rapturous. They were on their feet more often than Congress applauding the president's state of the union address.
There is no one in the world of performing arts today like Leonard Cohen. A poet and novelist before he was a songwriter, he understands the English idiom instinctively and renders it exquisitely.
Oh, sure, there may be an unsung balladeer in the Australian Outback with his gift. But until such an artist emerges on Australian Idol, we can say this: the union of song and verse from the lips of Leonard Cohen is matchless.
But you knew that. What you might not know -- because Cohen performs live so seldom -- is his evolving, polished showmanship. It strikes you from the moment he skips -- nay, canters -- on stage.
He wears a charcoal double-breasted suit, a tieless shirt buttoned at the top and a grey fedora. The fedora is a prop. Its purpose is less sartorial than theatrical -- to come off to salute his able musicians. They're wearing fedoras, too.
The show opens with the joyous Dance Me to the End of Love. Cohen cradles the microphone, shambles and shuffles, and genuflects at the side of Javier Mas, a master of the 12-string guitar. He will fall often into this effortless crouch, an amazing elasticity for a guy pushing 75.
The show runs three hours. There is no warm-up act. The evening is broken by a 20-minute intermission. There is no gimmicky or mimicry, just hard work. Leonard is so worried about preserving his voice that he sees no relatives or friends on tour.
The Webb Sisters (Hattie and Charley) slip off their jackets and do an elegant cartwheel. Sharon Robinson, collaborator and background vocalist, sings with soul. Dino Soldo, the saxophonist, deploys his phalanx of "instruments of wind." Cohen acknowledges them all, individually, with appreciation.
Here is the convergence of the public and private man. He is on stage as he is in person -- courtly, generous, funny, self-deprecating and sardonic.
If ties of blood bind -- and yes, we are cousins -- they also blind. Leonard isn't perfection to critics of his "golden voice" or his lament of love. Yet he's perfection to his family and his fans.
They know his work so well that he changes a tense or inserts a word ("I'll examine every precious inch of you") at his peril. How dare he tamper with the scriptures! Did he apply for poetic licence?
In the pale light, I see him, his roots, my late father. I see the weary humour of post-war Jewish Montreal, I see the leafy parks of Westmount and the characters of The Favourite Game. I see the rebel, the bohemian, the lover, the darkness and the self-discipline.
I see my adolescent son, who is the same age now I was when Leonard began making music. I see that priceless thing that passes from father to son.
When Rabbi Cohen sings Who By Fire, he draws from the prayer book of the Day of Atonement. On Yom Kippur my father would always point out that well-thumbed passage detailing the menu of fate; it remains with me still.
Later, much later, I think of Charles Dalfen -- our effervescent friend, renowned lawyer and public servant, delightful polymath, Leonard's cousin by marriage -- who is with us at the concert.
Nobody knows this will be the last night of his life. He will die without warning, or justice, the next afternoon. He will die "in your merry, merry month of May."
It is devastating, numbing. I wonder: did Chuck, like so many others sitting in that dim hall, ponder his mortality amid the swelling chorus and the stirring melody of the night?
It's the ultimate irony. An irony worthy of Leonard Cohen.
Andrew Cohen is a professor of journalism and international affairs at Carleton University.
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