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Leonard Cohen: The Gallant Poet Leaves The Stage

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I have the enormous—albeit pleasurable—task of trying to convey to you the experience of an evening with my favorite Jewish-Canadian Zen Buddhist poet, the ineffable Leonard Cohen, who came to prominence in the 1950s as a luminary in Montreal’s literary circle. His career of nearly sixty years has produced twelve studio albums, two novels, and over a dozen collections of poetry. Cohen has been a citizen of the world: Living in Greece, New York, and London, he’s been an itinerant troubadour in search of answers to the great mysteries. Struggling with depression, he sought spirituality and never ceased to produce spectacular lyrics. Through out all these years and heartbreaks and challenges, Cohen has managed to maintain a level of work the quality of which has no match.  His lyrics reach into the listener’s soul as he explores what it is to be a human being: love, life, sex, death, war, religion, isolation, happiness, depression, politics, and much more. Listeners can recognize biblical influences (most famously in the almost too-frequently covered “Hallelujah”), literary influences (“Take this Waltz”), biographical influences (“Chelsea Hotel No. 2”), and topical influences (“Democracy,” “Everybody Knows”). Cohen balances his soul-searching songs (“Anthem,” “If It Be Your Will”) with ironic, humorous, and pessimistic ones (“Tower of Song,” “Darkness,” “The Future”). He transcends any specific time or generation, and achieves a human universality that few others reach.

But I’m not here to tell you Cohen’s life story. (If you want that, read Sylvie Simmons’ recent biography, I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen. While it’s a fine book, with wonderful insights into his life, Simmons has two tragic tendencies in her writing: she employs a lot of linguistic frippery and refers to Cohen throughout as “Leonard,” which starts off as uncomfortable, moves on to distracting, and then becomes irksome. But if you can ignore the overly-familiar nomenclature and the rococo language, it is redolent with information.)

No, I’m here to tell you about an evening with this man.  I gladly admit that while listening to Cohen I experience perhaps the entire spectrum of emotions. I cry at “Who By Fire,” and laugh at “Anyhow.” One of his earlier pieces, “Sisters of Mercy,” always sends chills down my spine. Part of what makes him so riveting is that he is self-deprecating, relatable, and vulnerable. Openly flawed, he admits desires, failures, regrets, and dreams. He is human, and he knows it. He is honest. He is authentic (all this despite his hyperextended love affair with the synthesizer and his rather limited musical arrangements).

The San Jose crowd of 6,000 people consisted largely of aging angel-headed hipsters, dignified middle-aged couples, a smattering of sullen youths, and white yuppie-looking types.  The HP Pavilion, usually the home of the San Jose Sharks, is far from intimate. The gray concrete walls and plastic chairs gave an air of industry not exactly matching the warmth I had hoped for. I would have preferred a place like Oakland’s Paramount Theatre or The Fillmore in San Francisco. I had suspected this, but insisted on seeing him nonetheless because it might have been my last opportunity to do so, after all Cohen is 78.

The stage was lit with indigo hues and effect fog curled in the air as members of the tech crew checked instruments and sound. Some of Cohen’s sketches were projected on the stage’s screen. As I waited for the show to start, I pored over the beautiful Old Ideas tour program. It contains song lyrics alongside some notes and numerous archival pictures documenting Cohen’s life and career—here he is in Paris, and Hydra, Los Angeles, and so on.

At last, the band members—in suits and fedoras—emerged and took their places. Moments later the spry figure of Cohen himself appeared. He trotted on stage wearing a black, double-breasted coat and fedora, and the moment he appeared the audience erupted into standing ovation, electrified zealously by his mere presence. He began with “Dance Me to the End of Love,” and delivered most of the song on his knees, his hands grasping the microphone as his gravelly, husky voice permeated the auditorium.

When the first song ended, Cohen greeted the audience, and thanked them for coming. “I hope to stay on the road another couple of years,” he said, and then quipped, “Because I want to start smoking again.” When the chuckles subsided, he acknowledged his age and impending mortality—a major theme in this year’s Old Ideas—and told the audience that even if we should not see each other again, “We’re gonna give all we’ve got.”

Suffice it to say, they did. Cohen himself was robust, and though he may not have the same energy as most of those in the crowd, he was utterly enchanting. He seemed more comfortable with his calmer arrangements. He especially shined when performing cuts from Old Ideas, such “Going Home,” the first track on the album. Apart from his opening and closing greetings, Cohen did little talking, which was disappointing; I would like to have heard more from him (The man has such a dry wit; when he returned to the stage after intermission, he looked at the audience and said, “I’m so happy you didn’t go home”). When he recited his poetry—including “A Thousand Kisses Deep”—his sonorous baritone reverberated through the auditorium and his words gripped the audience into total, reverent silence.

The band was superb. Roscoe Beck, the musical director and bassist, performed beautifully. Neil Larsen gave wonderful solos on the keyboard, particularly for “Anyhow,” and “Hallelujah,” to which much of the crowd sang along.  On the drums, Rafael Gayol (or, as Cohen calls him, “the prince of precision”) kept the band synchronized with his marvelous percussion. Guitarist Mitch Watkins delivered a fabulous solo in “Amen,” adding musical richness to an otherwise minimalistic tune. The two most remarkable members of the band were Alexandru Bublitchi, the violinist, and Javier Mas on the laud. Bublitchi’s contribution to the show was enormous, and his solos were mesmerizing, particularly in “Dance Me to the End of Love,” “Suzanne,” and “So Long, Marianne.” Mas’ solo at the opening of “Who By Fire,” tinged with the sounds of Israel and Spain, was bewitching and gorgeous.

Cohen’s three back-up vocalists, Hattie and Charley Webb (“the sublime Webb Sisters”), and (“the incomparable”) Sharon Robinson, Cohen’s longtime collaborator, also performed spectacularly. Given the spotlight, Robinson’s rendition of “Alexandra Leaving” was a welcome opportunity to appreciate her vocal and lyrical talent.

The show was not perfect, of course.  The HP Pavilion was too large for Cohen and his crew. They never filled the place with sound nor seemed comfortable with it; this is the first concert I have attended where I wished they had turned up the volume. It also took the group a few songs to really gain momentum, though once they did, I could have stayed and listened for hours. I missed the brass and wind instruments in this show. I’ve listened to Cohen’s Live in London album, and love the saxophone solos and trumpets that add so much passion and color to each number. This evening’s “Hallelujah,” for example, simply felt incomplete without the tenor sax. There were certain songs I wish they had played; though with a collection like Cohen’s, this is not anyone’s fault—there are too many jewels. I longed to hear, for instance, “Closing Time,” one of my favorites, or “If It Be Your Will,” or “The Partisan.” But again, with so many songs, you can’t have it all. Cohen covered the Doc Pumus standard “Save the Last Dance for Me,” during the second encore (Yes, second. The man is amazing. Did I mention he’s 78?).  The performance struck me as a bit camp for someone so experienced and with such a wealth of his own compositions.

But the rest of the show was magical; it was a religious experience in its own right. Other highlights included the performance of “Anthem,” which is just that: an anthem to the beautiful brokenness of human life. In “Waiting for the Miracle,” Cohen gave a rare demonstration of his vocal power—the gravel in his voice was perfectly suited to this tune. The troupe’s rousing rendition of “Democracy” was fitting in its post-Election Day timing. “I’m Your Man,” perhaps one of the sexiest songs written in the 20th century, was met by the audience with roars of joy. “Who By Fire” was enchanting: Javier Mas’ enthralling solo on the laud and the flood of red light added to the haunting nature of the song. When Cohen emerged from the fog with guitar in hand, a single spotlight shone up towards him, casting a fifty foot tall shadow; all you could see was the silhouette of a lean figure wearing a fedora and carrying a guitar—a visual manifestation of the humble man and the transcendent poet.

Like all good things, our evening with Leonard Cohen had to end. After three and a half hours, he beautifully acknowledged his band, his crew, and the audience, thanking them for supporting his work and art through many years. He bowed, elegant and Zen-like, then said, “May the blessings find you with your family and friends, and if this is not the case, may they find you in your solitude.” With that, the gallant and hale poet left the stage to thunderous applause, his band finished, and when the lights came up Cohen’s intertwined heart logo—a combination of his Jewish heritage and Buddhist beliefs—with open hands and beams of light projected onto the background screen, evoking the holy dove in Saint Peter’s Basilica.

Leonard Cohen—a remarkable man with a remarkable band—delivered a phenomenal show. I, too, hope he stays on the road for another couple of years. Not just so he can resume smoking, but so that I, and any other serious fan of music or literature, can experience him again.