Best of 2009: When Leonard Cohen prays

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Leonard Cohen, Flickr image by Reza VaziriFirst published February 2009

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 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.)

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 'senior's 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

What a beautiful article, Tim, I feel like I was actually at the Leonard Cohen gig. You're a terriffic writer, as you've always been. It seems your work is reflecting all your effort and I, along with many other Australians are very grateful! I'll be sure to follow your progress with Eureka Street, and that of your colleagues- you're quite a talented bunch. Chezelle (Eudey) Conroy
Chezelle Conroy | 10 January 2010


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