Leonard Cohen: Spirit, flesh and imperfect perfection
The Canadian song poet wraps the first leg of his current U.S. tour with an absorbing, inspiring Madison Square Garden show
By Robert Christgau
Special to MSN Music
The latest major-venue tour of 78-year-old Leonard Cohen is neither miraculous nor unprecedented. People remain active longer today than they did in, say, 1978, when blueswoman Alberta Hunter recommenced her musical career at 83 in what was a true miracle at the time. Frank Sinatra played arenas into the '90s, 79-year-old Willie Nelson shows no sign of stopping, and others will surely follow. But that's not to say they'll follow Cohen, who spent 40 years eking out records without ever turning road dog and hated his 1993 tour so much he spent the next five years in a monastery. Going out and entertaining huge audiences is new for him, and since it started when he was 73, that's a bit of a miracle in itself. He undertook this mission for the money after his manager stole all his savings. But now it has a spiritual necessity of its own.
Despite a visible admixture of under-50s, there was more white hair in the crowd that filled Madison Square Garden for Cohen on Dec. 18, my own included, than at any rock concert I've ever attended. Yet the artist may have been the oldest person in the house. Beyond his deep songbook and precise, ostensibly modest stagecraft, what Cohen was selling this audience was a vision of vital old age. Unlike most dinosaur-rock ‑- and also unlike the tradition-bearing Nelson or Sinatra with his voice and recall memory shot ‑- this was not a nostalgia trip, a comforting or at best invigorating look back at pleasures and potencies past. It posited a clear-eyed future in which the fruits of a well-spent life remain at your disposal. Leonard Cohen is the 78-year-old 68-year-olds hope to become.
I'd caught Cohen at the Beacon Theater in early 2009, and there have been changes since then. His half-spoken nicotine baritone has deepened even further, into a whispered or murmured bass deployed with an assured skill that makes his younger voice sound callow and sarcastic, and he's aged visibly as even aged people do ‑- a vainer man would get a necklift. The setlist has shifted to make room for five songs from “Old Ideas,” which he recorded hobbled by a back injury and released early this year. His backup singers Sharon Robinson and the Webb Sisters sported new solo features, with Robinson's rendition of the co-written "Alexandra Leaving" a showstopper. The cosmic joke about the choral doo-dum-dum-dums on "Tower of Song" had been replaced with a homier joke about the applause for his bone-simple synth solo. "Is this charity for the elderly week?" Cohen asked, then proceeded to prove he could play . . . two notes at once!
But 17 of the 29 songs he did at the Garden were also performed at the Beacon and on the superb “Live in London” double-CD, and 11 of these were from the four pre-“Old Ideas” studio albums he's recorded since 1988, when he turned 54. Clearly Cohen conceives his canon as an old man's canon. Songs from the cult career he launched as a short-haired, suit-sporting 34-year-old in high-hippie 1968 ‑- such revered chestnuts as the entranced "Suzanne," the soaring "So Long, Marianne," and the rueful Janis Joplin tale "Chelsea Hotel #2" ‑- were enthusiastically revived and received once more, and the bereft 1974 singalong "Lover Lover Lover" was brushed up for the occasion. But unlike almost every other musician who went public circa 1968, he never stopped writing good songs even if they took him years, as many did.
Some would say Cohen's entire life has been a quest for the perfect woman he'll never find because he's so imperfect himself. With his ingrained politesse, he might even agree ‑- he's never been one to celebrate a "freedom" he knows to be a failure to commit. But his entire life has also been a quest for spiritual enlightenment. And even if you scoff at such quests, you'd be hard-pressed to deny he got somewhere in that monastery.
Scattered through the 29 songs were a few overtly political statements. Although some cynics dismiss Cohen as one, all stared down an endemic injustice idealists too know to be dismayingly recalcitrant, each nailing its title in a killer line like the bitter and furious "I've seen the future, brother/it is murder," the mock march with Jew's harp "Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.," the perfectly turned "Everybody knows the deal is rotten/Old Black Joe's still pickin' cotton/For your ribbons and bows/Everybody knows," and the hipster-baiting "First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin."
These grounded Cohen's signature romantic fare, where I, this night, in this mood, was stopped short by "I see you standing on the other side/I don't know how the river got so wide," "I call to you, I call to you/But I don't call soft enough," "Confined to sex, we pressed against/The limits of the sea." I was with my wife, who only warmed to Cohen in his current phase, and neither of us feels we need him for relationship advice. But his old age advice is first-rate. Cohen's greatest couplet anchors "Anthem," which capped the first set: "There is a crack in everything/That's how the light gets in." In a highly imperfect world, we need that kind of light as much as anyone.
As usual, Cohen was onstage for about three hours. Often he sang kneeling, or hunched in apparent devotion that for all I know made his back feel better. He was spelled now and then by his singers, or by musicians who are rock only by historical association. Colored decisively by Barcelona guitar-etc. master Javier Mas and Moldavian violinist Alexandru Bublitchi and anchored by a drummer from Mexico City and a bassist from Poughkeepsie, this is a modern European cafe band that can handle country and blues like Americans when the arrangement requires it, and they deserve their solos. Anyway, many younger singers sneak in such breaks. Cohen's stamina was inspirational.
And so was his inspiration. The third category of Cohen song seeks enlightenment like "Anthem." Sometimes his beloved sex is implicated, most irresistibly in "Hallelujah," the "Amazing Grace" of the new century. But I'm more partial to "Tower of Song," where his beloved music is implicated instead; "If It Be Your Will," a Jewish prayer to which the Webb Sisters bent their English harmonies; and the Jahweh-channeling "Going Home," which opens “Old Ideas” with a bang it never quite equals again. All were spellbinding.
My sole complaint about the show was that the other “Old Ideas” songs dragged a little. But when I played the album next morning, I noticed that it was full of enlightenment songs, and that after a year and dozens of plays, hearing them live had finally begun to put them in place for me. As Cohen would no doubt point out, determining just how much they have to say to me is going to take time. And at 70 I know I've got some that I'm obliged to use as faithfully as I can.
Starting in 1967, Robert Christgau has covered popular music for The Village Voice, Esquire, Blender, Playboy, Rolling Stone and many other publications. He teaches in New York University's Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music, maintains a comprehensive website at robertchristgau.com, and has published five books based on his journalism. He has written for MSN Music since 2006.