Saturday, June 14, 2008

Of Singers and the Soul - The Guru Cohen Amongst Us

What does one say about Leonard Cohen?  Last evening I was among the privileged few (about 10,000 souls I should imagine?) to be present at one of his three concerts here in Dublin in the grounds of The Royal Hospital on what must surely be the last world tour of the great Canadian singer song-writer, poet and novelist Leonard Cohen.  It is hard to believe that he is 73 years young - he will be 74 September next.  All in all, it was a wonderful occasion.  The "old" man is still in good strong voice and well able to hit both those low notes and some reasonably high ones.  He sounds as good today as he does on his many recordings, I am glad to say. 

[There is nothing to substitute for being present at a live performance.  The whole thing is purer and more natural, and consequently more moving.  I brought my camera along with me to record some moments from the event, but unfortunately I had my camera set at a stupidly low quality - 299 frames instead of 95 - the results are too small to be magnified as you can see from the uploaded picture.  How that happened I don't know.]

Cohen sang all those songs that we are familiar with from the very early numbers to the latest, only one or two with which neither I nor my two brothers were acquainted.  He opened the show with his wonderful "Dance Me To The End of Love."  I have, of course, been at some few, too few, concerts from Christy Dignam to Christy Moore to Robbie Williams to name some, all of which were celebratory and vibrant and to a greater extent convivial sing-alongs.  Cohen's concert was more akin to a contemplative, philosophical and spiritual love-fest for the initiated.  It had all the hallmarks of a quasi-religious get-together or perhaps a poetry meeting.  This is not surprising as our man Cohen is essentially a literate being or literatus or poet who turned to putting his poems to music early in his career.  As I looked around I could see people, for the most part my own age or older, with a sprinkling of youngsters in their twenties or thirties here and there, with their eyes closed in contemplation of the master's lyrics.  Indeed, Cohen is recognised widely within the field of music as the greatest lyricist of all time.  One can hardly disagree with this assessment of our man.

His Buddhist demeanour was evident at all times with the spiritual guru and lyricist extraordinaire bowing to his audience on many occasions and doffing his hat and holding it to his breast in a natural and sincere way.  It was as if after 15 years break from touring, the mystic had come down from his hill to be among his loyal followers.  This is all quite understandable because  in 1994, following a tour to promote his Album The Future, Cohen retreated to the Mount Baldy Zen Centre near Los Angeles, beginning what would become five years of seclusion there.  In 1996, Cohen was ordained as a Rinzai Zen Buddhist monk and took the Dharma name Jikhan, meaning 'silence'. He left Mount Baldy in 1999.  I have also read somewhere that many Buddhist monks around the world love to listen to the master's music.

Needless to say most of the old numbers from the sixties and seventies had new arrangements from Suzanne and the famous Bird on The Wire which I didn't recognise until he had started the second verse.  He recited "A Thousand Kisses Deep" as a poem.  It seemed to have some stanzas or verses I didn't recognise from the sung version.  I could be wrong here in this contention.  He thanked his audience or rather disciples for listening to his poem in this city of poets and writers.  Needless to say we all loved this.  Those of us into the world of therapy and mental health were at a therapist's concert or convention, and it was as if his words, lyrics and music were healing chords washing over us.  His wonderful rendition of Hallelujah had all his disciples singing.  He introduced "If it be Your Will" as a poem or more properly a prayer.  The woman beside me bowed her head and held her hands together as in supplication.  I could not tell if she had her eyes closed as she was wearing dark sunglasses.  Then he sang the beautiful song "Anthem" a short piece of which words I will quote here:


The birds they sang
at the break of day
Start again
I heard them say
Don't dwell on what
has passed away
or what is yet to be...

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

The wise old songster had begun this number by reciting the chorus first before he started singing the song.  I have highlighted the chorus in the above quotation.  There is much depth and much wisdom in that chorus.  There is no such thing as perfection in this world.  None of us has made or will make a "perfect offering" in this life.  Likewise, even the more perfect work of art decays; even the youngest life grows old; even the healthiest get sick; even the greatest symphony has notes that jar; even our doctors die, and even the experts of today are tomorrow's historians.  Such and more are the implications of the words, and the old master from Mount Baldy knew it.  He finished his concert proper with the smashing and lively number "Closing Time."  The words of this number are raunchy and wonderfully true and full of good humour - take note those of you who think Cohen morose and sad for he was and is never so.  Reflection, meditation, contemplation or prayer-like incantation are only superficially "depressing."  Listen and you will hear the humour and the depth and the joy!  Here's a few lines from Closing Time:

"Closing Time"
Ah we're drinking and we're dancing
and the band is really happening
and the Johnny Walker wisdom running high
And my very sweet companion
she's the Angel of Compassion
she's rubbing half the world against her thigh
And every drinker every dancer
lifts a happy face to thank her
the fiddler fiddles something so sublime
all the women tear their blouses off
and the men they dance on the polka-dots
and it's partner found, it's partner lost
and it's hell to pay when the fiddler stops:
Yeah the women tear their blouses off
and the men they dance on the polka-dots
and it's partner found, it's partner lost
and it's hell to pay when the fiddler stops:

Then there were two encores and Leonard sang some more songs, all the while thanking profusely both audience and musicians.  He kept repeating to his listeners, "thanks for coming to hear us play!"  It was a community effort.  Not once did the master say, "Thanks for coming to hear me sing!"  I had better bring this entry to an end as I am liable never to stop writing.  See this link for a previous post on Leonard Cohen. LC

Above I have uploaded possibly one of the worst pictures I have ever taken. As I said above I took it at too small a size unbeknownst to myself.

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