When Leonard Cohen prays

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I'm as sceptical of celebrity worship as the next person. But there is something to be said for being in the presence of the truly great — those who simply pulsate with genius and charisma.

Leonard CohenLeonard Cohen is like that. You could sense it the moment he walked on stage on Tuesday night. I could feel it, even from my distant seat.

The world of pop music is dominated by prettiness and skin-deep perfection. In that context, Cohen's greatness is not instantly discernible. When, in 'Tower of Song', he sings 'I was born with the gift of a golden voice', it would seem he doesn't mean the smooth glint of a wedding band, or the finely chiseled features of an ornate bracelet. He means nuggets, heavy and pliable, and dirty with the earth from which they've been plucked.

Not to everyone's taste. But the sound has served him well, and has the advantage of improving with the wear and weather of age. Cohen is 75, and those deep notes in 'I'm Your Man' still cause a delectable tremor in the guts.

The growl becomes him. Lurking in the all-around shadow of his trademark, narrow-brimmed hat, Cohen can still croon credibly about love, sex and beautiful women, without a trace of ick or sleaze. (He grinned evilly at the suggestive exhortations of one female audience member.)

His sense of humour is a trademark. Lately a Buddhist, Cohen explained how his latter years had been spent in 'deep study' of religion and philosophy. 'But cheerfulness keeps breaking through,' he quipped.

The humour augments natural gravitas. On Tuesday, he first prayed, and then sang, the lyric of his song 'Anthem' as a tribute to bushfire victims: 'Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That's how the light gets in.' (Cohen, supporting artist Paul Kelly and tour promoter Frontier Touring donated $200,000 to support the bushfire victims.)

 

"Cohen's genius is not restricted to the body that presided on Tuesday night. As with any great artist, his greatness is defined by what he leaves behind for others to carry or to be inspired or enlightened by."

 

It was a night of hits and plenty of fan favourites. During nearly three hours of stage time Cohen drew from the breadth of his catalogue, old and new(er), with equal aplomb. From his first album, the gospel lyric of 'Suzanne' fractured with the intensity of Cohen's rendition:

Jesus was a sailor
When he walked upon the water
And he spent a long time watching
From his lonely wooden tower ...
But he himself was broken
Long before the sky would open
Forsaken, almost human
He sank beneath your wisdom like a stone

Six of eight tracks from (arguably) Cohen's best album, I'm Your Man, made the set list. He sang two of these during his encore, with the sublimely dark 'Take This Waltz' ('With its very own breath / Of brandy and death') a highlight of the night.

Cohen is often described as a poet as much as a singer. 'A Thousand Kisses Deep' ('And sometimes when the night is slow/The wretched and the meek/We gather up our hearts and go') was transformed into a spoken ode, to skin-tingling effect. Conversely, Cohen's most famous song, 'Hallelujah' (an ethereal ode to the orgasm: 'Remember when I moved in you/The holy dove was moving too') was a bit off, though predictably well-received.

Strangely, given Cohen's clearly impeccable memory for his lyrics, he displayed what appeared to be an occasional 'seniors moment'. Prior to intermission, he thanked his virtuosic band (among them three backing vocalists, a saxophonist and a transcendentally dexterous mandolin player), assigning each member a poetic, adulatory spiel. Prior his encore, to awkward applause from the audience, he repeated the process, word for word.

Still, the guy's human, and no-one could begrudge him the occasional lapse, be it age-related, or due to the repetitive nature of a world concert tour. It certainly didn't prevent the crowd from offering a string of decreasingly spontaneous standing ovations as, during the encore, Cohen skipped (yes, skipped) from the stage after every song, returning one more time for 'one more time'.

A final note. 'Hallelujah' is not only Cohen's most famous song, but also his most frequently covered song. Indeed, Cohen's version is rarely heard by comparison with the late Jeff Buckley's intensely beautiful and ubiquitous take on the song.

So it's interesting that one of tuesday night's most sublime moments happened when Cohen stepped away from the microphone, to allow two of his backing vocalists 'unfold' the musical prayer, 'If It Be Your Will'. The 'Webb sisters' — one with a liquid-crystal soprano, the other a contralto with a voice like warm timber — seemed to shock the audience into silence with the beauty of their rendition:

If it be your will
To let me sing
From this broken hill
All your praises they shall ring
If it be your will
To let me sing.

Such is the nature of greatness. Cohen's genius is not restricted to the body that presided on Tuesday night. As with any great artist, his greatness is defined by what he leaves behind for others to carry or to be inspired or enlightened by. To paraphrase 'Tower of Song', we'll be hearing from him long after he's gone: 'I'll be speaking to you sweetly / From a window in the Tower of Song.'

 


Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. His articles and reviews have been published by The Age, Inside Film, the Brisbane Courier Mail and The Big Issue.

 

Topic tags: leonard cohen, rod laver arena, paul kelly, victorian bushfires, i'm your man, tower of song, hallelujah

 

 

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Existing comments

to see Cohen, one of north america's odd deep visionaries, with Kelly, one of your most glorious poets and joys -- ah, i wish...
Brian Doyle | 13 February 2009


Hear Hear! A wonderful artist captured in his essence by Tim. Thanks
Jenny | 13 February 2009


Reading this account and those of other concerts across the country, each performance was almost identical (including the humour). He also thanked his band twice in Adelaide (with very minor variations) so I doubt it was a lapse.

There is a large gap between the second best concert I've been to and this one. It was superb and all of the musicians were given there moment in the sun (in Adelaide they felt it too!).

A great night with not a hint of arrogance or self delusion. Cohen was charming, warm and 'cheerfulness kept breaking through'.
Tony | 13 February 2009


He intros the band the same way twice at EVERY gig. It's not "a seniors moment."
Amanda | 13 February 2009


A wonderful review of a great event. The words are part of our lives now.
Maggie Power | 13 February 2009


I know you're not supposed to respond to reviews, but you write so bl#*%y well! I wish I'ld been there.
Moira Rayner | 13 February 2009


Ah what an experience, Leonard Cohen in concert. Relieved to hear that he does introduce his band twice at each of his concerts as my friends and I were also just a little concerned that he had forgotten that he had already done this. Worried that he might just plan to tour Australia again and forget the plan. After the Brisbane experience I think I might just travel to the end of the earth for a repeat performance. Sublime.
Rosie | 13 February 2009


I went to the Bowral concert. One of the best concerts ever. LC was great, PK was great, and the Triffids - one of Australia's best ever bands - what a treat.
Tanya Plibersek | 13 February 2009


I would have loved to be at Leonard Cohen's concert. Family circumstances made it impossible and I feel I missed something wonderful. I play 'The Essential LC' as often as I can and agree with you that this man is an amazing poet. Thanks for the fab review - it doesn't make up for missing the show but it does make me somehow connected. Thanks heaps.
Tanya Tankard | 13 February 2009


Move over Hillsong!!!

When Paul Kelly said we were in for a treat it was perhaps the understatement of the year thus far. My friend, a regular concert goer, says he can't remember an artist getting such a long standing ovation from the entire auditorium before singing a note.

Due to illness since mid November I have given away tickets to plays & the movies – including War of the Roses Parts 1&2. My one aim - get to Leonard Cohen’s Sydney concert – I succeeded & was rewarded.

As we journeyed to the venue my friend offered to bring me home any time I needed – a most generous gesture repeated a number of times throughout the evening but ‘God willing’ I would see LC Live & stay right to the end.

Pain had me with eyes closed much of the time listening to the poetry but feeling ever so blessed. The last encore LC didn't sing – the audience remained standing - he recited a blessing upon us all - a Benediction. There was no cure for my ills but the tonic it was for my ‘being’ could have done with a ‘Repeat Prescription’.
Helen Coles | 14 February 2009


Regarding Hallelujah. There are many verses and the song should not be reduced to limit its depth for eg "ode to the orgasm" because another line states "it is not a cry that you hear at night" which might suggest the song is not about "orgasms". I have always felt it is a conversation with "God" But I havent even heard all L.Cowens verses and am happy that it can mean many things to many people. But I dont think that the "secret cord that David played" which so "pleased The Lord" was an "orgasm".
Chris Wilmott | 14 February 2009


Thanks for the review, Tim. As with others, I concur that he usually thanks his band twice. What bonds me to Leonard's body of work is the way he holds a mirror up to our full selves - the sacred, the profane, the love, the hatred, the success, the failure, the found, the lost - and treats our 'wholeness' with full reverence. Because of this, I believe his work does live up to the promise that he will take us 'down so deep the river's gonna weep and the mountain's gonna shout "amen"'. Thank you, Leonard!
Steve Davis | 14 February 2009


I enjoyed your review but was very surprised to see you assigning Leonard Cohen's graciousness to a 'seniors moment'. I never thought such a thing - it was gracious beyond belief. The concert was a transcendant experience. It still gives me chills up my back just thinking about it. People were converted on the spot; those who went but didn't care for him walked out looking dazed but not confused! Amazing, I saw him twice, I would go again and again.
Lynda Hill | 04 March 2009


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