In the late 1960s, by far the largest proportion of Leonard Cohen’s fans were teachers of English at British public schools. It’s a tale as old as time (or at least as old as the letters page in Mojo): the initiation of the young novice into the mysteries of poetry by the hip pedagogue with chalky fingers, a corduroy jacket and a copy of one of Len’s LPs (his records presumably included a lesson plan in the liner notes). Those young longhairs are now property developers, partners in a law firm or teachers themselves, but Leonard Cohen is nearly unchanged; his hair is silver now, and his voice is even more unfathomably deep, but it’s still the same face that stared out from all those record sleeves to survey all those lonely bedsits.
So, Leonard Cohen, 78 years old, stooped slightly, whether with age or affectation or the weight of expectation, skips on to the stage, the hero returning from the frontlines of love to give us news of his victories and defeats, and is greeted by a standing ovation simply for appearing. After the opener, Dance Me To The End Of Love, he addresses the crowd: “I don’t know when we’ll meet again. No one knows that. But I promise that tonight we’ll give it all we’ve got,” he declares to wild applause. It’s no idle threat; for the next nigh-on four hours Leonard Cohen takes his audience down the paths – some new, some older and careworn – of his life.
And what a life. Cohen began writing and publishing poetry in the early 1950s in Montreal, before living in Greece and England, publishing two novels and then becoming a singer-songwriter in the late 1960s. There’s no clear demarcation between his poetry and his songs; they all come from the same place, a place of tenderness and reverence. His poems and his songs cycle through recurring modes – vatic, wry, heartbroken, heartbreaking and mystic – but always return to the point at which they started; the poet and his voice.
For the new we have Going Home, an intriguing and witty meditation on mortality written from the perspective of Cohen’s muse, which opens with the lines: “I love to speak with Leonard / He’s a sportsman and a shepherd / He’s a lazy bastard living in a suit.” The final line, along with Chelsea Hotel #2’s “You told me again you preferred handsome men, but for me you would make an exception,” elicits one of the biggest cheers of the evening. Self-deprecation is one of Cohen’s dominant registers.
For the old we have Suzanne, Lover, Lover, Lover and Who By Fire. Yes, there is the occasional misstep; Bird On The Wire is partly robbed of its power by being slathered with instrumental breaks, the emotional punch weakened for want of the simplicity of the version recorded 45 years ago. But for all that there are no catastrophic lapses in taste. His band are remarkable; nine-strong, including three female backing singers, and each one a master of their instrument or, in the case of Javier Mas, several instruments (tonight he plays the guitar, laud, archilaud and bandurria). Each member of the band gets their moment in the spotlight, literally, and during the solos Len stands respectfully, hat clasped to his chest, facing the instrumentalist, before encouraging the audience to show their appreciation. Of all the musicians, Moldovan violinist Alexandru Bublitchi stands out, taking solo after solo with a preternatural dexterity. Vocalist Sharon Robinson is given free reign on Alexandra Leaving, and the Webb Sisters perform a version of If It Be Your Will.
I’ve forgotten: was the high point of the night when he played Tower Of Song (“I was born like this, I had no choice. I was born with the gift of the golden voice”) and thanked the audience for their applause (“an elderly chap needs some charity”); or was it when he got down on his knees to sing Hallelujah, a supplicant channelling the divine through his voice alone; was it the first, second or third encore; or was it when he sang the opening line of So Long, Marianne? It doesn’t matter now. Leonard Cohen played here, and that’s all that needs to be said.
words DAVID GRIFFITHS