Toasty Taranna #21: Sonic Boom #5: Leonard Cohen – Closing Time (single)
Mike found this one, handed it to me saying something like ‘meh, it’s only one song so it’s probably not interesting…’ as I put it straight into my shopping basket. Do I need it? Of course not. This is an album track I already own, and this single is just a label promo of the one song. But it’s Leonard! Of course I’m buying it!
I love this song. I’ve heard folks say Leonard’s is depressing music for slitting your wrists, but I think this song is brilliantly hilarious, and the video is too.
Hit It Or Quit It? Hit!
And now we reach the last entry in my major series of incredible finds at Sonic Boom in Taranna with Mike. It’s one I wasn’t sure I wanted to play.
You’ll think me silly, but I haven’t listened to this last Leonard Cohen album before or after his death. Not until this post.
Understand, I have been a Leonard fan most of my life. I got into his books first, back in high school, then the music later. His death really knocked me for a loop. Which is silly, because it’s not like I knew the guy personally. Yet through his works of art, with that inimitable voice in my ear, it still felt like I did. He was just always there. Then suddenly he wasn’t. I’ve already posted about it here.
I bought this CD in Toronto at Sonic Boom, same as the John K. Samson, where I told Mike that come hell or high water, no matter what else I bought, I had to have this new release. And there it was, on a rack right by the front door. Meant to be. Of course, Leonard was still alive, when I bought it.
There were 43 other items I bought that day, all of which I heard before getting to this one. I was saving the best for last. And Leonard went and died on us in the intervening time it took me to reach this one in the stack, before I’d even heard the record.
So we’re back to you probably thinking me silly. Why am I so precious about this? It’s just a damn CD, play it! It might even provide some closure! So I did play it, but it took me some work to get there. It’s the last Leonard record. Sure, there’ll be posthumous releases, but this one is his last. It matters. It’s the bookend to an extraordinary life. The words will carry that much more meaning. I wanted to taste every word, and imprint it on my mind.
The 5th Annual Toronto Expedition Series, Part 44 (CD)
I’m gonna write this up, but in future, whenever I read this back, I’ll likely regret it and wish I had done most of it differently. I’ll never feel quite right about this, his last, record.
The title track starts us off with a typically slinky Leonard beat. His voice is front and center over a church-like choir of backing vocals. “I’m ready, my Lord.” It’s like he knew. It’s a rough track, lyrically, perfectly dark as it should be. He’s unapologetic about it all, though. Here’s the reality, folks. And, impossibly, through the good headphones, his voice is even deeper and gruffer than ever.
Treaty starts us off with gentle piano and Leonard’s whispered voice. Gorgeous. As the track builds, as the poetry comes to the fore, as the upright bass anchors ita ll, it’s glory.
On The Level arpeggios underneath’s Leonard’s words. His voice again the centerpiece. It quickly becomes an almost gospel track, organ and backing vocals and that drum beat. It even builds more but the beauty is already well in hand.
Leaving The Table is a sweet late-night barroom waltz. Such a simple arrangement, but therein lies the power. There is so much warmth here.
If I Didn’t Have Your Love brings back the church organ, with a simple hi-hat and Leonard’s voice right there in your ear. It’s the guitar part, and the repetitive piano, here, that make it perfect.
Traveling Light violin and guitar bring out the gypsy feel for this one in the intro, but then it simplifies, ,
It Seemed The Better Way sounds like it’s in a cold, open, semi-dark cathedral, the choir unseen yet audible. “Lift this glass of blood, try to say the grace…” and then the violin starts… holy hell what a track.
Steer Your Way is another beautiful track. It’s the restless strings that are the energy and the passion, Leonard’s poetry, delivered in that voice, the glue and the genius.
String Reprise/Treaty is all strings, and it’s bloody stunning. A gorgeous ending to, honestly, a perfect album.
I have yet to respond fully to the lyrics here, yet. I know, with time, I will get so much more out of this album all over again. But the last thing he said to us, on this album, is:
Steer your way, O my heart, though I have no right to ask
To the one who was never, never equal to the task
Who knows he’s been convicted, who knows he will be shot
Year by year, month by month, day by day
Thought by thought
They whisper still, the injured stones
The blunted mountains weep
As he died to make men holy
Let us die to make things cheap
And say the Mea Culpa, which you gradually forgot
Year by year, month by month, day by day
Thought by thought
We are none of us equal to the task.
We are none of us truly worthy of the pure genius that was Leonard Cohen.
R.I.P. Leonard. It pains me to even type that. This record is a perfectly fitting epitaph. I couldn’t have hoped for better, even knowing he made this record not knowing he would soon be gone. But I now long for so much more that will never come.
This record is fucking gorgeous.
I’m gonna try tightening these posts up a little bit. I’ll bet I could keep it shorter and still get the point across…
We’re huge fans of Leonard, my lovely wife and I, we have all his records. Bought this latest release on our anniversary trip last weekend. We played it twice through in the car on the way home, and I played it once more yesterday, and I have to say it’s really damn excellent. Leonard’s voice is just golden, that bass rumble with the cracks in it, perfectly delivering his poetry and humour. The music is the same as ever – bluesy, funky, sometimes like a church hymn, sometimes with middle eastern bursts, and still sometimes what can ony be described as toy music. Wouldn’t have it any other way, at this point.
Here we have all the longing, searching, joy and sorrow we adore about Leonard, with the intelligence and the sly wink and the perfectly chosen words. Initially I thought 9 tracks was a pretty lean album, but on hearing it, most certainly it is nothing of the sort. The only oddball was Did I Ever Love You, with its plain verses and then a country gallop on the chorus parts. It’s like two songs pasted together, jarring. Otherwise, I can’t pick a favourite, they’re all gems. We’ll love this album like all the rest. Released around his birthday (which shares our wedding anniversary date, making this a great gift for us!), this year Leonard turned 80. This act of his career has been glorious.
Thanks, Leonard. Thanks so much.
I’ve already mentioned, in these pages, my utter excitement that Leonard Cohen will be releasing a new album on September 23. YES YES YES!
And, fortunate for us, there’s been a single released! It’s called Almost Like The Blues and it’s gorgeous.
James sent me a heads-up on this, and I have to say that I am absolutely vibrating with joy at the news:
Leonard Cohen will release an album of entirely new songs, next month!
It will be titled Popular Problems, and will be released on September 22, 2014. That’s one day after his 80th birthday!
Not only will there be new Sloan in September, but now there’ll be new Leonard too!?
THIS IS GONNA BE AWESOME!
Way back in January, I sent Aaron an email telling him that I was about to buy my first set of concert tickets of 2013, and it would be to see Leonard Cohen. I knew this would delight him. I did not realize just how much. When I described the upcoming show as me crossing one more act from my “must see them at least once” list, he replied “No, Dude, it’s more than that. It’s IMPORTANT. Leonard is not just another artist on your checklist of bands to see. He’s special, separate. This… this cuts to the very fabric of things. It’s NOT just another concert. It’s an EXPERIENCE.”
And so the bar had been set.
This show came perilously close to not happening. It was originally scheduled for Saturday, March 9, but on the day before, the show was postponed due to a flu outbreak among Cohen’s band. Six weeks later, give or take, and Regina was treated to the final performance of Cohen’s 2013 North American tour. He’s now got a nice break before starting up anew on June 18 in Paris.
The tickets promised that the show would begin promptly at 8:00 p.m. Leonard Cohen strikes me as someone who does not mess around when it comes to advertised start times, so we got there with plenty of time to spare. I used this extra time productively; namely, to taunt Aaron. I didn’t even mention that there was a spare seat next to us that remained open all night. It could have been his. Instead, we just gave ourselves additional butt and leg room.
Sure enough, at 8:00 on the nose, the omnipresent Sheila Coles took the stage to welcome us all and tell us that the show was about to begin. The voice of God boomed down from the heavens above with the ten-minute warning. I taunted Aaron some more. Five-minute warning. More taunting. I began to run out of things to rub in Aaron’s face. I gave up when I was reduced to thinking of things like “Hey Aaron. See that Boston Pizza ad on the rink board? There’s a chance LEONARD might see that Boston Pizza ad on the rink board!”
The lights went out and an army of men in fedoras swarmed the stage, silhouetted against the curtain that hung behind them. People applauded intermittently as if they thought one of these men might be Leonard Cohen, but weren’t sure which, and didn’t want to give inordinate levels of applause to the wrong person. But when the last fedora’d figure sprinted – sprinted! – onto the stage, there was no mistaking who it was. He launched into Dance Me to the End of Love before apologizing for the inconvenience of rescheduling the show. “I hope this isn’t a farewell tour, but in a sense, we’re all on a farewell tour. I promise you this, tonight we’ll give you all we got.”
It would be impossible to argue that he failed. With one brief intermission, the show ran until nearly midnight. 31 songs, including three encores (thank you, internet, for keeping track so I don’t have to). He ran onto the stage and skipped off. When singing, he’d crouch down to the ground or drop to his knees. This 78-year-old put forth more effort over four hours than I do in an average week. I can’t even sit for as long as he can perform for.
Now, I’m not a Leonard Cohen expert. I’m not Aaron. I have I’m Your Man and I know the proverbial greatest hits, but I was concerned that I’d only know a handful of songs. Not so! Cohen stuck largely to old favourites, and even better, the sound was actually good (especially for a hockey arena), with the vocals loud and clear, so you didn’t have to know a song to follow along with it. His recitation of A Thousand Kisses Deep deserves special mention; the crowd was mesmerized and you could have heard a proverbial pin drop while he was speaking.
And his band was incredible; I’ve repeatedly claimed that I cannot tell whether a musician is any good or merely faking their way through it, but there was no denying the talent on display. The band, roughly 10 people in total, had come from all over the world. I suppose if you’re Leonard Cohen, you’ve earned the privilege of picking and choosing the best.
The set was very simple. One giant curtain behind the band, two big screens on either side of the stage. Whoever was manning the cameras did fine work, getting closeups of the emotion in Cohen’s face, and letting you see just how skilled his musicians really are.
My mom had seen Cohen in Saskatoon last year, and she was surprised at what an entertainer he was. I can see that – he’s this serious poet with the deep voice, and while his lyrics reveal wit, you wouldn’t necessarily expect him to be quite so playful on stage. But Cohen laughed and joked, took the time to repeatedly introduce and compliment his band members, and just generally seemed to enjoy himself; an attitude that couldn’t help but rub off on the audience. By contrast, I saw Bob Dylan years ago and he was there to play songs, that’s it. No talking. No smiling.
It wouldn’t be a concert review if I didn’t complain about the drunken idiots around me, but I really thought I’d get away without having to do so this time. I expect some morons nearby when I’m watching some unknown local band in a bar, but c’mon. This is Leonard Cohen and his fans are… well… old. I expect a certain degree of civility here. Nope. We had these two drunk old women behind us who tried their damndest to spoil the show for everyone around them. I should have known we were in for a “treat,” given that they needed first aid before the show even began because one of them turfed it on the stairs. They talked loudly for the first four songs – and look at those songs. The Future? Bird on a Wire? Everybody Knows? Classics. You should listen to them. Or hey, don’t – that’s cool if that’s not your thing. But I paid to be there, so leave me alone as I listen to them. Finally, I turned around to give them hell only to find Mika already in the process of doing so. She was a lot more polite about it than I would have been. This just made the drunks enter into a conversation about precisely how loud and disruptive they were being (not in an argumentative way, really, merely inquisitive), and THAT was when I told them to shut up. Initially, they did not; the louder of the two tried to explain herself to me, see, they had been talking but they hadn’t known that we could hear them and y’know, they were just… and I turned back around, gave them The Look, and simply said “ENOUGH.”
The lady sitting to my right seemed awfully pleased with this.
The good news is that the two drunks more or less gave up on talking during the songs. This was good! But when Cohen finished Who By Fire, the louder one said “at least I can still whistle!” and let out this this really shrill ear-blaster, as she would proceed to do after every song. This was still really irritating but at least it was somewhat situationally appropriate. Not so appropriate was yelling “I LOVE YOU LEO” at the top of her lungs during quiet parts of songs. Again, listen or don’t, just don’t interrupt the listening of everyone around you. Or at least leave ME be. That’s what matters.
I did find one part kind of funny. The louder of the two was clearly the group leader. The second one liked yelling too, but not quite as much, and didn’t have the creativity, so she’d just yell whatever the first one said, only quieter and with less enthusiasm. So you’d get exchanges like this:
Cohen: “They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom…”
Drunk #1: “YEAH! BOREDOM! WOOOOOO!”
Drunk #2: “Yeah. Boredom.”
It got to a point that not only was I fantasizing about stabbing them, but I was composing new lyrics to Hallelujah in my head so that I could sing while I did it. (I’d post them here but I never made it too far – I mean, obviously the knife would move right through ya – but I don’t share works in progress.) But then the most amazing thing happened… they left at intermission! I don’t know if they went somewhere else so that they could dance, or somewhere that they could drink, or if they were just too stupid and didn’t realize the show hadn’t ended, or what. The important thing is that they were no longer near us. This was the kind of wonderful development that never happens, not to me, and then it DID. This made me so happy. I did hear inappropriate yelling from far away at other points in the show, but I prefer to think that they just went home. I mean, if they did, look at what they’d have missed:
1. Dance Me to the End of Love
2. The Future
3. Bird on a Wire
4. Everybody Knows
5. Who by Fire
7. Ain’t No Cure for Love
9. Come Healing
10. First We Take Manhattan
11. A Thousand Kisses Deep
13. Tower of Song
15. The Gypsy’s Wife
16. Waiting for the Miracle
17. Show Me the Place
19. Lover Lover Lover
20. Alexandra Leaving (performed by Sharon Robinson)
21. I’m Your Man
23. Take This Waltz
24. So Long, Marianne
25. Going Home
26. Closing Time
27. Famous Blue Raincoat
28. If It Be Your Will (performed by the Webb Sisters)
29. I Can’t Forget
30. I Tried to Leave You
31. Save the Last Dance for Me
I know I said it already, but seriously, look at this! I’ve been to other shows that were just as long, but I was always ready to go home before the band was. Not on this night. He could have left after Hallelujah and people would have been satisfied. He could have finished up after a rousing rendition of the most obvious choice, Closing Time. No. People applauded so he came right back out and sang some more, finally wrapping it up with the Drifters’ Save the Last Dance for Me, with the crew and the instrument techs joining the band on stage. Part of me wanted to stay there and just keep clapping for days, just to see if he’d keep coming out and playing more songs. Make it a test of will. One I would be thrilled to lose. This man has stamina I’ve never even imagined.
A significant number of people left before the end – Cohen made sure to note that he knew it was late and nobody in the band would take offense if anyone had to go – and I do get it. The original show had been scheduled for a Saturday, when staying out to midnight works better for everyone. On a work night, running 7:00-11:00 might have been a wiser choice, but this was a make-up show and I’m sure at least 90% of the people there had their original tickets with the original start time listed. Changing that was probably just too much hassle to consider. And as a bonus, it made getting out of the parking lot that much easier for those of us who stayed.
Ah, Leonard, another artist who is a must-have on vinyl for me. I’ve always loved his work, both prose and song (and surely the two are one in the same, in most cases). So, when I found this, it was a shoe-in to come home with me.
Bird On A Wire is just one of those songs (and what an opening salvo for an album!). I wouldn’t care how many times it got played, so long as this was the man singing it. It is gorgeously orchestral as much as it is simply acoustic. It is also slightly absurd, with what must be a jewsharp boinging in the background (and indeed that thing appears all over this record). In other words, the track is pure Leonard at his most focussed, his most beautiful. I know Kris Kristofferson once said he wanted the opening stanza of this song to be his epitaph. Too much? You decide. I’d say not.
Story Of Isaac brings a bible tale to life to a vaguely olde English tune. To me, the bass here has always seemed too jaunty versus the harrowing tale being told, and it occasionally cuts right out at the ends of the verses. Weird. Best line: “You who build these altars, now, to sacrifice these children, you must not do it any more.” Amen, brother.
A Bunch Of Lonesome Heroes sounds almost identical to So Long, Marianne, except in story. Odd synth-like sounds (or, is that a guitar?) and that boinging noise again. Just the right amount of goofy to temper the power of his message, a sly wink while still getting his point across. And wow, has his voice ever deepened with age! There are some notes he hits here to which I doubt he could even come near, now.
The Partisan, another well-known tune, has super-cool and relentless guitar-picking, juxtaposed with such a simple bass line, which together totally carry the song. We even gets some accordion! Busting out some of the lyrics en francais is also a nice touch. I could never decide if this is a children/teen’s choir or a women’s choir. I suppose the internets could tell me, but I prefer to savour this mystery as there is no indication on the album cover.
Seems So Long Ago, Nancy is wistful and full of heartbreak. Poor Nancy, doomed from the beginning. And how prescient of him, to sing of 1961 and mention it seems so long ago (a whole 8 years!… and think of how long ago it seems to us now). Well-played. People talk about Leonard being morbid, but it’s really just an extremely intelligent, dark beauty and humour, and this tune proves it.
The Old Revolution carries on the sound from Side A, that vaguely-country-ish, bouncy and yet still gently morose sound. And again with the prominent boinging. Imagine being on tour as the guy who did that job every show. Weird and wonderful. But, never mind. This is another beautiful song-poem as only 1969 Leonard could muster it.
The Butcher plods along like an amateur at a campfire, but with another great story. Almost Zen-like, just how simple the song is gets carried away by the perfect match here of his vocals, words and music. Damn.
You Know Who I Am brings back the mid-tempo jaunt into poetry unmatched. There’s a reality, a sense of being, in these songs. The guitar bit after the choruses is also simply great.
Lady Midnight is another brilliant track, should be on the Hits collections (if it isn’t). Here we have a relationship that may or may not be healthy for either of those involved. And that repetitive last bit always amuses me, “You’ve won me, you’ve won me, my Lord.” Haha awesome.
Tonight Will Be Fine sounds like Leonard covering Johnny Cash which, in its own way, makes a certain sort of sense (when it isn’t disorienting). That same Cash bass line, a nicely-picked guitar. There’s even some harmonic whistling at the end. It’s one of the fastest songs on the record, which is a nice send-off to this contemplative, beautiful record. Most bands would put the fast stuff at the start of Side A, but not our Leonard, no. And in having it like this, it gives hope for the next release by leaving the listener wanting more. Always more.
Did I like this? Oh yes. We all need more Leonard in our lives.
Whatever you think of them, however bad they are, I am having a blast trying to put these haiku together, so here’s some more (very likely weak) attempts just for you. Only the best for our KMA Faithful Readers!
Tragically Hip – We Are The Same
warm country/rock gems
pure poetry set to song
wide open and clear
Immaculate Machine – High On Jackson Hill
I know I already reviewed this record in these pages, but I keep playing it and I keep loving it, so why would I not keep writing about it?
pop heroes return
with a sense of urgency
Leonard Cohen – Live In London (DVD)
the master at work
his relentless search for love
a perfect keepsake
Godspeed You! Black Emperor – F# A# (infinity)
raw instrumental passion
all stark bleak soundscapes
Yeah Yeah Yeahs – It’s Blitz
glam plastic pop hooks
eighties all over again
best served in dance clubs
We are back from the concert of a lifetime.
I have been reading the poetry of Leonard Cohen for a long time now, and his music has been there for me almost as long. His thoughtful combinations of religion, sex, Montreal, music and playfulness have always appealed to me greatly. Yes, I am a huge fan.
I had always assumed I might never get the chance to see him perform in concert, as it’s been fifteen years since he last took the stage. Oh sure, we’d seen the opening night of the Philip Glass performance of The Book Of Longing last June, and Leonard was there (though only on-stage briefly at the end, to wave his thanks), but that wasn’t nearly enough…
Then, recently, my lovely wife got us tickets to one of his recent Toronto shows, and we awaited its arrival with an anticipation and excitement unlike any we’ve known.
And then the day arrived.
We were seated in the balcony of the Sony Centre, but rather than being too far away, instead we were treated to a perfect view of the whole stage and all the goings-on, and from there the sound was almost perfect (though I felt it might have been a bit louder, for clarity of the music’s sake). But no matter. There he was, performing for us in his inimitable way, and it was utterly beautiful.
In a tidy suit and fedora, he sang, flirted, danced a little and, with complete self-effacing grace, poured his soul into each of the many songs offered us that evening. He truly seemed to be having a great time, reveling in the love and happiness washing back to him in kind from the entirely enthusiastic audience.
And then there was That Voice. Oh my goodness, it’s exactly as it should be, even after all of these years. Detractors have sometimes called it an atonal foghorn (fools!), but to my ears it is the only voice that can bring the passion and justice of his poetry to life. The longing is still completely evident in his tone, and those low notes are as clear, crisp and tingle-inducing as ever. His voice really is like a big, warm hug from a longtime friend.
His touring band is a tight, enthusiastic and unflappable unit. The arrangements of his songs were beautiful, and perfectly executed. Leonard took great pleasure in repeatedly introducing each player/singer after every solo or song, removing his hat and bowing to them with thanks.
He introduced a few of the songs in French, offered different stanzas of well-known tunes, and gracefully handled a few of the enthusiastic shouts from the audience. When one woman yelled out “Marry me, Leonard!” he smiled and said, “Well, OK. It’s a deal. But you don’t know what you’re getting into.” And after a pause, he added, “Many have tried.”
And so the night blissfully sailed past, with our attention riveted to the stage and hanging on the every word and gesture of this aging but still wholly vital bard. Each song was sent soaring to our ears, and even he seemed to be having too much fun to stop just yet, as evidenced by the three encores he gave, all with long standing ovations.
Frankly, if he had played until three that morning, we all would have unquestioningly stayed right where we were and enjoyed every minute. As it was, we know whole-heartedly we have been in the presence of a generous and gentle Master, and for the rest of our lives we will be lifted by the memories of our good fortune to have visited the Tower of Song.
We will never forget this night.
(yes, I wrote down the songs as they were played because I did not want to forget a single moment of this night)…
01 Dance Me To The End Of Love
02 The Future
03 Ain’t No Cure For Love
04 Bird On A Wire
05 Everybody Knows
06 In My Secret Life
07 Who By Fire
09 Tower Of Song
11 The Gypsy’s Wife
12 Back On Boogie Street
15 I’m Your Man
16 A Thousand Kisses Deep (recited as poem)
17 Take This Waltz
18 Waiting For The Miracle
19 First We Take Manhattan
20 That Don’t Make It Junk
21 If It Be Your Will
22 Closing Time
23 Tried To Leave You
24 Wither Thou Goest (a cappella with band)
I know! WOW!!
Yesterday was such a HUGE day for me. As noted in my previous post, I brought home my shiny new MacBook Pro, in all its absolute glory. And when I got in the door, my lovely wife gave me even bigger news – she’d fought online for 40 minutes and got us balcony seats for the Leonard Cohen show on Sunday, June 8 in Toronto!!
I believe I’ve mentioned in these pages before about how much we love Leonard Cohen. We have all of his books. We have all of his records. And we love every one of them. We used to walk around Parc St-Louis in Montreal calling his name, hoping one day he’d hear us (it never happened ‘cos he was up a mountain being Zen, at the time). I may be repeating myself here when I say that I’ve long held that every Canadian home should have a corner in the living room done up like a shrine, with a picture of Leonard, a candle, and a copy of Stranger Music. Yah, we’re fans.
As you may remember, we say the opening night of the Book Of Longing show he did with Philip Glass a while back, and we were ecstatic to have been (for the first time) in the same room as our hero, no matter that he only came out at the end and waved for a bit. And now we’re going to be there again!
Oh baby, what a dream.
It’s taken me a while to gather my thoughts about this show, partly because there was so much to note about it, but also because I was partly troubled by it. Don’t get me wrong, I liked it very much, and I consider myself privileged to have been there, but…
Part of the inaugural 10-day Luminato Festival of Arts and Creativity in Toronto, this once-in-a-lifetime show featured brand new music from Philip Glass, and Leonard Cohen’s recorded voice reading poems from his most recent collection, Book Of Longing. Recorded, you say? Yes, indeed. But what could possibly go wrong? The work of two great artists, and it took place in Toronto so it must be a World Class event (the joke being that Toronto says every event in their city is World Class). Well, we’d soon find out.
Now, we consider ourselves very fortunate indeed to have been there at the World Premiere of this Glass/Cohen collaboration at the Elgin Theater. To be in the first audience to hear newly composed Glass music is an honour. And my wife & I are huge (HUGE!) fans of Leonard Cohen. We’ve always loved him – the poems, the music, the novels, everything. I’ve often said that classrooms should have his picture on the wall (where the Queen used to be), and every home should have a little shrine with a candle, a bottle of something tasty, and a copy of Stranger Music in it. When we lived in Montréal we used to walk around his neighbourhood, calling his name, hoping one day he’d be there when we were. Yes, we’re geeks. So what of it? Anyway, this was our first good chance to maybe be in the same room as our hero, given how rarely he has toured in the past couple of decades.
We stood around outside the theater before the show because they had a red carpet set up, and TV cameras there waiting for a car to arrive. We knew this might be an opportunity to see Leonard up close. But then I overheard a CITY-TV cameraman say he’d been told that things had been switched to the back entrance, and by 7:45 before an 8:00 show Leonard had not arrived out front, so we gave up and went in (right up the middle of the red carpet, of course) to find our seats. My wife did point out a guy in the lobby who looked one helluva lot like Ashley MacIsaac, but we’re not completely sure if it was him or not. Sure could’ve been, with the ripped jeans, leather jacket, bleached blonde hair and all.
Our seats were in the top balcony, almost at the back, and still these were not bad. I’d never been in the Elgin Theater and it was very ornate and lovely. The stage had a simple set-up, two pianos facing each other from about 15’ away, and behind them each of the other instruments had their own, individual raised diases. And there were four microphones in the center, but I’ll get to the problem with those in a moment.
There were awkward moments, as there will be at any opening night performance, though most of those came from the crowd’s not knowing where to clap. Should we wait ‘til the end of the section (and when is that)? Clap after every solo? After every song? As with any large crowd (the place was packed on this night), once one person starts clapping everyone joins in. Fair enough, but there were a couple of points where we missed some of the recorded Leonard’s next bit because the crowd noise hadn’t yet subsided.
So basically, how it worked was that Philip Glass and Michael Riesman led a small collection of excellent musicians (cello, drums, violin, sax, etc) through the music from their seats at the pianos. At strategic points the recorded voice of Leonard would waft from the speakers, it’s low rumble offering us truths and laughter and sorrow like any poem of his can and always will do. The backdrop was a wall made up of frames containing artwork by Leonard blown up big, with one in the center being a screen onto which were projected varying images, self-portraits and nudes also drawn by our hero. The screen was slightly distracting, and unfortunately whoever put it together didn’t choose pieces that went well with each song. But no matter, it was what it was.
And now we reach the microphones, and my problem with them. You see, I’m actually a bit of a snob when it comes to Leonard Cohen. I think he should sing, read aloud, fart, whatever he wants to do… by himself. When he does it, it is right and all is as it was meant to be. I have never liked anyone’s covers of his songs (especially yours, Bono, you dick! Leave Leonard alone!) and I really don’t even like his back-up singers. Just let Leonard do his stuff, solo, and the world is fine. The rest of you, stay out of it!!
Anyway, The four microphones were there because the other part of this production involved these four Broadway-rejects actually singing poems from the book, to the music from the band. Oh Lord (as a concept) help me, it was awful. These people sounded like they were only here doing this because they couldn’t get into the We Will Rock You production of Queen’s music further up Yonge Street, or maybe they didn’t quite make the cut for Fame or Grease somewhere else. You know that kind of over-the-top enunciation and singing I’m talking about, the stage affectations. Ugh.
It may partly have been the songs that were composed (but I doubt it), or the way these ponces flounced their way through them (more likely), but it was disgusting from start to finish. It just didn’t match the grandeur, humour, Humanity and power of Leonard’s words at all. Remember, I think that the only person who should sing Leonard is Leonard, but this was atrocious beyond imagining. They sounded like some bad high school stage show, and they swaggered around like they believed they were great performance masters. Trust me: they really, really weren’t.
And then there was this annoying staging order wherein the person singing would walk from backstage, through the tangle of musicians, sing, and then walk off-stage again. They did this even if they only sang harmony on four lines of a song, and they did this if they were on more than once within one song! It was way too much coming and going, completely distracting. Every time they left the stage I felt like cheering, but then one or more of them would come back again. Blah.
So, Leonard didn’t have any actual real-time involvement in the production, only his voice on tape in the sound booth. But he was, after all, in the building because at the end of the performance he came out and took bows with the rest of the cast and the musicians. There he was!! He took one bow, left the stage, came back for a second bow and then he was gone. A total of maybe 30 seconds that we were in the same room and in direct eye-sight of our hero. And believe me, even that short moment from way up in the rafters was enough to wash away the rest of the problems with the show. There he was, sharply dressed in a suit, waving and smiling. And then he was gone. It was beautiful. Yes, we’re geeks. So what of it?
As the players left the stage, and the clapping subsided a bit, some woman down front yelled out (really loudly) “We love you, Leonard!” which drew more clapping and cheering. Because we do. He is a national treasure for Canadians, a living legend, and you should all immerse yourself in his works. My wife pointed out, though, that that little moment of shouting probably hurt Philip Glass a bit, given all the work and thought that he put into this production and the music, which was massive. True enough. But I also believe he should remember where he was, the history involved, and because of these things Leonard would be the star with home turf advantage.
On the way out I snagged a libretto (which they had not had out before the show, which isn’t really very helpful at all) as a souvenir. The pimple-faced usher told me they were trying to save as many of them as they could, so I only got one. What are they saving them for, Christmas? eBay? Perhaps they want to make sure they have enough for the rest of the show’s run, but you’d think they’d make enough to cover that. Anyway, I got one and it’s a neat little momento.
In sum, I am totally glad we went to this show, no matter what I might have said and thought about parts of it. It was a rare opportunity, completely unique and not likely to ever happen again in my lifetime. I sure would have done things differently if I’d been artistic director, but putting aside my gripes I still wouldn’t have missed it for anything.
We love you, Leonard!
Prologue – I Can’t Make The Hills
I Came Down From The Mountain
A Sip Of Wine
Want To Fly
The Light Came Through The Window
G-d Opened My Eyes
You Go Your Way
I Was Doing Something
Not A Jew
How Much I Love You
I Enjoyed The Laughter
This Morning I Woke Up Again
I Want To Love You Now
Don’t Have The Proof
The Night Of Santiago (after the poem by Lorca)
You Came To Me This Morning (for Sandy 1945-1998)
I Am Now Able
Roshi’s Very Tired
Epilogue – Merely A Prayer
It was inevitable that this would happen, that people would feel compelled to pay tribute, to eulogize this great man (who is still very much alive, by the way). It’s happened before, too, though not quite in this way until now. Maybe it’s because he is getting older, and because he takes so bloody long between releases of anything.
So here is I’m Your Man, a blow job to the Bard of Montreal who, whether you like him or not, has introduced some of the most amazing work into our culture. This movie is basically a stage performance by various artists inter-cut with old footage and photos and interviews with the man himself, and verbal homages from fellow artists. Just like you would expect such a thing should be, really.
Look, at the very least, the performers who felt the need to read the lyrics off a sheet while performing looked like idiots. I mean, if you’re professing your love for the man’s songs, wouldn’t you know the words? Maybe they were nervous, or wanted to be sure to get it right, but c’mon. This is your job… Not all of them did this, but those that did needed a kick in the ass.
Secondly, I think the CD of this performance will be way better than the movie was, simply because a lot of these people looked like they were being electrocuted while they sang. Very hard to watch, distracting.
And I really think Bono and the Edge should just Shut The Fuck Up. I don’t care what they think, I don’t care about them at all, and they don’t add anything to the show that isn’t ludicrous and full of hyperbole. Really. Comparing Leonard to Moses, for example. Anyway, their “performance” of Tower Of Song at the end, with Leonard himself, looks pretty bad. I think they were lip-synching. Watch their lips, and the drums… they don’t quite match the song. I could be wrong. So, U2 boys: Shut The Fuck Up. Please.
And I don’t know why they keep using interviewers fresh out of journalism school, but those were some pretty stupid questions. Leonard, of course, handled the whole thing with style and class. In this way, the man remains untouchable, equal to the myth around him, while remaining so painfully human.
As for the stage, the best performance out of all of them, by far, was Beth Orton’s Sisters Of Mercy. Wow. And Perla Batalla can really, really sing. It was fun to watch Jarvis Cocker on the lesser-known I Can’t Forget. At least there were bright spots.
In sum, this was worth seeing once. As a fan, I kinda had to see it. But while a tribute of this kind has been a long time coming, this is not what I would have hoped to see as the final result of the effort. And, now that we’ve got this out of the way, I hope the next inevitable tribute has a little less of a feel of being slapped together.