In late spring 2008, both Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen were on tour. Their paths almost crossed, in the unlikely venue of St. John’s, Newfoundland. (Bob played there on May 24th, Leonard on May 25th. Leonard attended Bob’s concert, but by the time Leonard played, Bob had already moved on.)
For Leonard Cohen, the whole image of the tour could be summed up in one line: “I’m your man.” Undertaking a touring schedule which would be grueling for a man half his age, night after night he offered himself to his audience; they offered themselves right back.
In Toronto, a woman in the audience called out: “Leonard, I love you!” He paused a moment, doffed his grey fedora, and replied: “I’m very fond of you myself.” This moment was very polite: that is to say, very Canadian. It may even have been spontaneous, but it didn’t feel that way. It felt, like everything in this concert, controlled. Magnificent, yes – I loved every moment of it – but controlled. There was a time, back in the early 70s, when Cohen took risks on stage, when he courted disgrace (one of his early songs is even sub-titled “A Disgrace”), when he broke down in public. Those days are long gone. Nowadays he prefers to play it safe. On the night I heard him in Toronto, out of a twenty four-song set-list, he included just four from Ten New Songs (2001), and none at all from Dear Heather (2004). (And yes, it’s lovely to hear “Suzanne” in a bare, simple arrangement, acoustic guitar all on its own; it’s wonderful beyond words to know that this song still holds up, forty years later, it still enthralls as much as it did in that magical spring of 1967.)
Bob Dylan also has in recent years settled into a fairly predictable set-list. It’s a rare occasion when he plays a song that has not been part of the continuing repertory (though that performance warehouse is considerably larger than Cohen’s). Yet he always preserves at least the potentiality of surprise; he always gives the impression of being open to the evening’s chance. Cohen leaves nothing to chance.
Cohen’s set-lists remain basically the same. Out of that twenty four-song list, two or three at the most may change from night to night. The arrangements, and the playing of his impeccable back-up band, are always perfect, note perfect. The band introductions are repeated over and over; his back-up singers are never “the Webb Sisters,” they are always “the sublime Webb sisters” (which indeed they are). The between-song patter very occasionally acknowledges a specific location (in Dublin, he mentioned the Irish rejection of the European Union plebiscite), but for the most part he relies on a few tried and true lines: “It’s been fifteen years since I stood on this stage. I was just a sixty-year old kid with a crazy dream”; during a standing ovation, “Please sit down. It makes me nervous when you stand. I always think you’re going to leave”; “I studied all the religions of the world, but cheerfulness kept breaking through.”
Now, there’s nothing wrong with this perfectionism. The lines are funny; the music is exquisite; they deserve to be repeated. If there is any danger of the shows lapsing into a sterile formality, it is avoided, completely, by two factors:
The first is Cohen’s voice. It is amazing: rich, deep, full, expressive, open to every nuance of meaning and rhythm. For all the excellence of the musicians, for all the sublimity of Sharon Robinson and the Webb Sisters, it is Leonard’s voice that dominates (and the sound engineers know this very well, always keeping it clear and forward in the mix). It is a voice that (like Dylan’s) totally inhabits the songs, becomes part of their meaning. The second factor is the audience, and Cohen’s relation to it. Again the comparison to Dylan is helpful. In concert, Dylan’s attention to his own music is intense and respectful; his attention to his audience is often perfunctory. During the fifteen years of Cohen’s absence from the stage, Dylan has been touring continuously; his concerts are almost a dime a dozen. It may be a thrill to see him, but it is no longer an event.
Leonard Cohen in 2008 is an Event. Partly this is rarity value; for many in the audience, this is the first chance they have ever had to see him perform live. It may also be the last. Underlying all the concerts is the uneasy awareness that, at his age, this may well be the last tour he will undertake. So, into this one night must be poured all the emotion, all the devotion, of a lifetime’s immersion in his work. All that Leonard Cohen has ever meant to you, every moment when his songs have deepened or enlightened your life, every night you have sat up listening to a lonely CD, every time you gathered round a campfire to sing “Suzanne” – it all comes down to this, to this one evening.
The result is palpable. Tidal waves of emotion sweep from the audience onto the stage. The first standing ovation begins before he even opens his mouth. Men and women weep openly. A moment like the recitation of “A Thousand Kisses Deep” is listened to in awe-struck silence, followed by torrential applause. The audience is intent on embracing Leonard with their unconditional love.
And he allows himself to be embraced; he embraces them back. He is gracious, wittily self-deprecating, grateful. He doffs his fedora and holds it over his heart. He acknowledges his musicians, over and over again. He comes back for multiple encores.
Of course all this is meticulously planned. It’s not the crowd’s applause that draws him back for these encores: the structure of the encore set has been carefully scripted well in advance. The gestures with the hat are as note perfect as the music. The graciousness is a public persona which he has honed over many years. But none of that choreography is incompatible with the notion that it is all perfectly real. The fact that it’s not spontaneous doesn’t mean that it’s not sincere.
It’s clear that Cohen feels the audience’s love, and responds to it the best way a performer can: by meticulous attention to the presentation of himself and his music. The audience must also be a source of energy: an energy, perhaps, so close to overwhelming that he has to contain it with a certain formality of tone. If anyone wonders where a seventy three-year-old man gets the energy to perform a three-hour show, night after night, the answer must be that it comes, not just from the music, and not from the audience alone, but from the dynamic of the interaction between performer and audience.
Forty years ago, in Beautiful Losers, Cohen offered a definition of a “saint” as “someone who has achieved a remote human possibility. It is impossible to say what that possibility is. I think it has something to do with the energy of love.” That is the energy that is tangible whenever Leonard Cohen takes the stage, in this late spring of 2008.
Concert photos by Ian Cook, portraits by Tom Hill.