Yes, it was pricey. Yes, it was worth it.
175. I’m Your Man: Leonard Cohen, Friday December 7, 2012, Scotiabank Place, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, $171.04
He’s a sportsman and a shepherd,
He’s a lazy bastard living in a suit”
from “Going Home” (2012)
I’ll cut right to the chase: this was one of the very best concerts I have ever seen in close to 40 years of gig-going. In my all-time Top 20. Earlier last year, I lamented not having been able to see Cohen last time around in my 20 Performances I Missed posting, thinking he would not tour again when I wrote it only to find myself holding December tickets by the time I published the piece.
I had good reason to believe he would never tour again. He’s 78 and had spent most of 2008-10 on an wildly acclaimed international tour that raked in the cash by the bucketload: a tour necessitated by Cohen’s shocking realization mid-last-decade that most of his fortune had been wiped out by a trusted friend and manager.
Out of that personally and financially devastating situation came a career rebirth and reassessment that took Cohen’s international profile to new heights. The marathon shows sold out major venues and packed ‘em in at festivals around the globe, the patina of his credibility gleaming more brightly than ever.
The tour’s Live in London double disc and DVD, recorded at the O2 Arena, became international bestsellers, renewing interest in his back catalogue. Heck, the royalties from the ubiquitous covers of “Hallelujah” alone would be enough to keep him knee-deep in new Italian fedoras for the rest of his life.
“Dance Me to the End of Love,” from Live In London (2009)
Surely after attending to a schedule that would have exhausted lesser, younger mortals and which vaulted his coffers from bare to overflowing, there’s no way he would be doing it again, right?
Well, surprise surprise, as Gomer Pyle would have remarked, the bugger confounded us all. Not only did he begin 2012 with Old Ideas, his first new studio album in eight years and one of his finest (I picked it as my #2 choice for Best Album of 2012), Mr. C unveiled the delightfully shocking news that he was going to take to the world’s stages once again.
Even better, both the album and tour were triggered not out of fiscal necessity but for the best reason of all: he simply wanted to.
Old Ideas and the CD’s graphics: these two are bloody well up to all sorts! (All Photos and Scans by VA)
After missing out on him in 2010, only death or hospitalization would stop me from taking in The Big Lenster in human form this time around, particularly when a stop was announced for Ottawa. Fortunately, finding myself both alive and unhospitalized, I got my wish, splashing out for pricey but ultimately totally-worth-it 13th row centre seats at Scotiabank Place (now the Canadian Tire Centre as of a few weeks ago … Sometime I shall have to write about one of my Pet Peeves: the constant corporate renaming of buildings).
It’s no small thing that L’il Lenny Cohen — as we cheekily but fondly referred to him back in my record store days — is traipsing the boards so frequently as of late considering that the bard of Montreal hasn’t exactly been a road dog throughout his six-decade-spanning career. Nor has he tended to follow the typical album/tour/repeat algorithm of many other artists.
Actually, there are few out there who have taken anything near a similar yellow brick road to a creative Oz. Cohen started his creative life as an author and poet here in Canada during the 1950s and ‘60s, not becoming a recording artist until the release of his classic Songs of Leonard Cohen debut in the very last days of 1967, whilst maintaining a parallel writing/music career throughout. His output has been more about inspiration than deadlines.
Cohen’s bibliography from the tour program (above) and my Cohen CD collection with the program (below).
Unlike almost all his contemporaries, he was well into his 30s by the time of his first LP, parlaying work that explored adult themes via worldly perspectives. While many other performers face an often increasingly Sisyphysian challenge of trying to replicate the pluck and visceral naïveté of their cheerleading youth, Cohen’s long-game has him at a rare advantage in the pop world: he’s simply continued to inchingly fill out the mature persona he blueprinted on album #1. The more he’s aged, the better it suits him.
Certainly many of his standard topics of death, war, religion, existentialism, and a complex take on adult sexuality in many forms aren’t exactly the stuff of usual hormonal rock or dance club foci (not that there’s anything wrong with that either), and he’s long been the go-to as one of popular music’s greatest miserablists, and not entirely without reason. Back in my campus radio days of the ’80s and ’90s, I did a feature every week recapping a particular artist’s career and spotlighted Cohen a few times. During one of them that aired late on a Friday morning, a listener phoned in threatening suicide if I didn’t stop the special. (My response: “Nice knowing you.”)
While it must be acknowledged that dark music and themes can not only allow for considerable depth in topic but also be oddly comforting, the shorthand assessment of Cohen’s music as perpetually depressive is a view I’ve long found unfairly reductive. His lyrics are often filled with all manner of bent humour that has sometimes made me laugh out loud, from “You were Marlon Brando / I was Steve McQueen / You were K.Y. Jelly / I was Vaseline” from “Is This What You Wanted?” or “I know you have to hate me / But could you hate me less?” from “Anyhow.”
Whether you’re seduced or repelled by his oeuvre, there’s no debating that he is a hell of a songwriter, with his songs and poems at the heart of what he does. Not for nothing has he released six albums with the word “songs” in the title. Meanwhile, his high-quality benchmark has meant that, in a span of 45 years, Cohen has released just twelve studio albums. Aside from the gaudy Phil Spector misfire, Death of a Ladies Man, there’s no real clunker in the bunch.
Then there is that polarizing voice — rich, sexy and full of character to some; monotone, moany and limited to others. But then some people like Nickelback and Mariah Carey too. To each one’s own—but I’m putting my own lot with the “character” camp, as many (but certainly not all) of my preferred voices tend to be unique and expressive rather than simply “accurate.” Regardless, it was truly bizarre when he won the 1993 Best Male Vocalist Juno Award in Canada following The Future, a multi-platinum blockbuster here. As Cohen stated when accepting the award, “Only in Canada could somebody with a voice like mine win Vocalist of the Year.”
But even that voice has lost some of its range as the years have piled on. His gravelly tone has transitioned from metamorphic to igneous — he hit a note so deep during “In My Secret Life” that I could feel it in my gut — but he’s also turned that into a virtue. I think I prefer the mature Cohen voice, a vehicle he uses in a more conversational tone these days, rather than in an orthodox “singing” capacity, his vocal trajectory somewhat analogous to Serge Gainsbourg’s.
And here we were, arriving at Scotiabank Place to hear that sensuously lugubrious voice in an unsexy cavernous arena. After years of waiting to see Cohen perform, and given all the hypes and raves that wreathed his previous tour, I was wondering if he’d be able to live up to such lofty expecations.
Unlike at the Neil Young/Patti Smith summit we’d attended and enjoyed two weeks prior at this same venue, tonight was an all-seated affair for a crowd with a distinctly different vibe and visage. No gangs of crack smoking, slam-dancing urchins or grimacing, disappointed mall rat girlys.
While there was certainly a range of ages in attendance, this evening skewed toward a decidedly older crowd of folks. It was one week before I turned 50, yet I still feel as if I could contextually lay claim to “whippersnapper” status in this milieu. And for whatever reason, it seemed as if a sizable swath of the women in the audience looked like either like Colleen Dewhurst or Paloma Picasso, the men like Ernest Hemingway or Jasper Johns (I guess I’d bell closer to the Hemingway camp owing to the facial hair and belly). Or as Cublet put it: “If I could think of one word to sum up the crowd, it’s “Tweed.” Security sure as hell had an easy one tonight.
Still, it was a nice balancing contrast to the slashing feedback of a fortnight ago.
Owing to having to focus on all the chaos that went down in our lives last year, it wasn’t until the night of the show that I remembered that I’d splashed out for 13th row tickets purchased many months earlier. What a treat to be ushered in, finding ourselves mere yards from centre stage. We settled in as we watched the road crew put last minute touches in place — you gotta love his roadies, all decked out in suits and fedoras. In the meantime, we bid our time flipping through the program while some Cohen artwork depicting a horse with a presumed naked Lady Godiva was projected on the stage backdrop. Or as the guy next to us happily noted to his wife, “Look, she’s got her titties out.”
Lady Godiva? Some Cohen artwork appearing as pre-show backdrop … excitedly for some.
8pm showtime was soon approaching when an announcement came over the PA informing us that there would be a 10-minute delay. “Maybe he can’t find his hat,” reckoned another wise guy close to us. But in short order, there he was, running out onto the stage like the Bionic Man, falling athletically to his knees, greeted by a wildly enthusiastic arena-wide standing ovation.
He opened the evening with Various Positions’ “Dance Me to the End of Love”: the song that kick-started his commercial re-emergence and introduced him to a new generation of fans — at least here in Canada — owing to the regular rotation of its haunting b&w video back in the day on MuchMusic. That velvet, subterranean growl washed through the arena like a warm wave over sand, as his exceptional band played up the song’s klezmer/Grecian flavours.
“We’re going to give you everything we’ve got tonight,” said wee Len, and that wasn’t false advertising, as he 180’d from the doomy romance of “Dance” to the smartypants nihilism of “Everybody Knows” and “The Future.”
In between simply being mesmerizing at every turn and filling the atmosphere with his purring croon, LC was also a regular chatterbox between the songs, thanking those of us $itting near the front “for putting yourself out of pocket for the seats down here” and to those in the bleachers “for climbing up (the stairs).”
He was full of good humour and self-deprecating wit, such as when he noted that “sometimes I stumble out of bed, look in the mirror and say to myself, ‘For Christ’s sake, Leonard, lighten up!’” triggering audience-wide mirth. It’s hard to explain exactly or pinpoint how, but Cohen made this gig in the voluminous home-of-the-Sens seem warmly intimate. Okay, so I was all up-close-and-personal-like, but I don’t think that was the whole reason why. It was what he radiated and how. It’s a gift.
And a skill, because at the time there wasn’t a single moment of the evening that even remotely felt phoned in, with every lyric delivered with conviction and every morsel of stage patter feeling as if he was saying it just to us for the very first time. So, imagine my surprise a short time after this gig when I finally got around to picking up that Live in London CD to discover that he had more or less played the very same show and set he had traversed around the planet with, right down to much of the stage patter that punctuated this Ottawa gig. He had clearly rolled this all out many dozen times but you would never have known it.
Highlights from the complimentary Leonard Cohen stickers sheets featured inside the program. Yes, you read that right: Leonard Cohen stickers. Up next: Diamanda Galas legwarmers ….
Le Leonard took a well-deserved intermission at the mid-way point, returning to note: “So pleased that you didn’t go home. So pleased that I didn’t go home — I’m just two hours down the road from a good bagel,” referring to his birthplace of Montreal, where he still maintains a residence. He kicked off Round Two flanked by backing vocalists Sharon Robinson and the Webb Sisters, cranked up the Casio-esque keyboard and delved into my numero uno Cohen composition, “Tower of Song.” He tickled the electronic ivories, garnering audience cheers for the lines about how “I was born like this, I had no choice / I was born with the gift of a golden voice.”
It was also one of several numbers performed from I’m Your Man. Cohen clearly has a fondness for his 1988 release, performing six of its eight tracks (sadly, one of them wasn’t “Jazz Police,” another choice cut I’m partial to).
“Tower of Song” shot from Ottawa, and from Live In London (below).
I wholeheartedly share Cohen’s affection for his eighth studio album although my appreciation for it happened gradually, sinking in over many years. At the time of its release, I didn’t much care for it, feeling that the pulsing wall-of-synths production and arrangements didn’t work. I was clearly in the minority though as it was his first significant hit album in Canada in a decade. It had a lengthy run on the charts here, going gold (surely it’s platinum by now) and setting the stage for the commercial juggernaut that was The Future four years later.
Over the years, my opinion of it has shifted drastically. Not only is it his best collection of songs, I now feel that the sleek, Eurotrash iciness is a masterstroke as a perfect counterpoint to the railing bleakness and paranoia of the lyrics: a glamorous shrinkwrap around its chilling heart of darkness. I’m Your Man is my favourite Leonard Cohen album.
Indeed, the set skewed towards the second half of his career which I mark as beginning with 1984’s Various Positions, tonight including numbers from The Future, Ten New Songs, and Old Ideas. Plenty of old favourites from his earlier, more acoustic-based masterpieces dropped by as well: “Suzanne,” “Bird on the Wire,” “Famous Blue Raincoat,” and “Who By Fire” among others. I was particularly pleased when the familiar strumming for “So Long, Marianne” launched the first set of encores, with the whole arena singing along with the chorus. I don’t know why in retrospect, but I didn’t expect it to be part of the evening but glad it was.
The second set also contained a surprise that particularly delighted the Francophone contingent in attendance, here in the strongly bilingual, trans-province twin cities of Ottawa-Gatineau: George Dor’s “La Manic,” a landmark Québécois hit of the 1960s.
Throughout, it was all pinned by a talented, tasteful crew of players. Mitch Watkins’ guitar playing shone on the bluesy arrangement of “Bird on the Wire,” Neil Larson’s keyboard work was a highlight in “Darkness,” and Javier Mas’ Hellenic accent in the sound was felt throughout via his laud, archilaud, and banduria.
On the vocal front, longtime writing and performing collaborator Sharon Robinson did a solo vocal turn on “Alexandra Leaving,” following Cohen’s own unadorned recitation of the lyrics (she did a fine job, but I have to admit to being a wee bit disappointed that the Lenster didn’t sing it himself as it was on my wish list for this evening), while the Webb Sisters had their spotlight turn with “If It Be Your Will.”
As the second half of the main set hit the home stretch, it was inevitable that a certain tune would enter as the belle of the ball. It seems there’s always been one Cohen song that’s always resided in his tower’s penthouse via a predominant cultural currency at any given time: a particular song that even non-fans would know, often via other artists covering his material.
In the late ‘60s and ‘70s it was “Suzanne.” In the mid-80, it was “Ain’t No Cure For Love” via Jennifer Warnes’ hit version from her popular Cohen tribute album, Famous Blue Raincoat. During that late ‘80s and early‘90s, seemingly everyone and their grandmother was covering of “Bird on the Wire.” Here in Canada, “Closing Time” seemed to waft from everywhere during the early ‘90s.
Now it’s “Hallelujah,” which has incrementally become his most celebrated composition of all, with k.d. lang‘s take on it probably my favourite. Actually, its cultural ubiquitousness may be getting a bit much, though. Who knows, maybe a dubstep cover of “Don’t Go Home With Your Hard-On” could launch that one on a whole new cultural wallpapering.
Cohen danced off the stage — literally — as the main sets closed shop with the Lorca-poem-adapted “Take This Waltz,” but his dance card was far from complete, returning to the stage for a series of encores that effectively served as an eight-song third set. This home-stretch included some of the night’s best moments, including the aforementioned “Marianne,” a pulsating “First We Take Manhattan” which had the arena on its feet and clapping to the beat, a compelling “Famous Blue Raincoat,” and celebratory “Closing Time.”
Leonard waltzes off the stage in Ottawa.
“Closing Time,” from The Future (1992)
But it didn’t end there, with Leonard the Lizard racing back with New Skin for the Old Ceremony’s “I Tried to Leave You,” its sombre lyrics of “I tried to leave you, I don’t deny / I closed the book on us, at least a hundred times” now rendered comically with context, with even more chuckles greeting the true final song and encore of the night, a cover of The Drifters’ “Save the Last Dance For Me.” Was Mr. Cohen perhaps a Borscht Belt comedian in a previous life?
Jumbotron Leonard in Ottawa.
And then, as if waking from a dream, he was gone at last, the house lights raising to break the spell, like a Bergmanesque fade to white. He’d played for three hours and fifteen minutes, not including the intermission.
It was a transportive evening. As you may well have read in this series as I recount shows of varying quality from both my past and present, I have seen some pretty incredible performances among them, although this one felt like one of the most special. As much as I have written above about this night, I don’t feel it’s possible to do justice to an experience like this, with “experience” as the key word. You simply have to see Cohen live and be in his presence and the moment to truly understand the alchemical magic of having him live in the flesh before you: gifted charisma with depth and humour. It’s a show I’ll never forget. Cublet wasn’t a major Cohen fan prior to the concert but concurred wholeheartedly that this was one of the very best shows he too has ever seen.
“Thank you for all the years, friends, that you’ve paid attention to my work,” spake LC to the hypnotized faithful. “I gotta say goodbye. Hope you’re satisfied. Cheers.”
Satisfaction indeed. Hardly a lazy bastard.
Definitely living in a suit, though.
Leonard Cohen: he’s your man.
Next On Stage –> Another year, another Ottawa Jazz Festival … another opportunity for great music to intersect with frustration.
176. Lightning: Ottawa Jazz Festival 2013 with David Byrne & St. Vincent, Sunday June 23 / Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, Saturday June 29, Confederation Park, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
© 2013 VariousArtists