If Leonard Cohen was a business or a corporation he’d certainly have shown many of the current contenders how to do it. What showmanship, what quality, what self indulgent – and exactly what innovation (or ingenuity in music/poetry-speak).
Way back, in ’09, July time, I went to see his World Tour at the Mercedes-Benz World. There were several things wrong that night. In fact hundreds had to wait at least an hour or more before anything like refreshments were opened.
But none of this tarnished what was an incredible evening. Nor did it seem to baulk the enthusiasm of the thousands, myself amongst them, who gathered to see him. You see, the first lesson that corporations can perhaps learn is that not everything has to be perfect, so long as the core offering exceeds expectations.
Despite the initial problems, what then happened when the concert opened was sensational. Suzanne Vega kicked off with a powerful and confident and an extremely good set. The musicianship was excellent – a tight band. After a break, Cohen came on at 7.00pm. Then, the evening became extraordinary. I have to say I was never a huge fan of Cohen. I’m not entirely sure what compelled me to go and see him that night. What I do know is that I am a fan now. I was devastated to hear of his passing in 2016. There is a well-worn cliché that politicians often wheel out whenever someone of vague import dies. They say: ‘a voice has fallen silent’. Cohen’s death was one of the few times I felt that could really, sincerely and absolutely, be true and applicable.
What do I remember that was so good? First, there was his abundant humility and pleasure in being there: he projected a complete appreciation of his audience, thanking them, incorporating material about them into his song. His favourite address word was, Friend. As a Quaker, this strikes a chord with me now.
This appreciation extended to his band, and at the end to everyone involved in the project, including the catering crew. Usually, these encomiums to all sundry at corporation does prove tedious and insincere. Not so with Cohen – he projected an amazing an amount of empathy.
Further, the selection of his band was clearly inspired: the singers, the players, were all top rank technically, and further they all seemed to be inspired by the soul of music. They were ‘in’ the songs as they played it – for the duration of the playing or the singing that they seemed like angels. Along with the virtuosity seemed a delight to Cohen himself instead of a source of competitive jealousy because the spotlight shifted to them.
Clearly, the period spent in rehearsals had produced something extraordinarily musical, accurate, moving and tight. His tunes are most likely as close to poetry as it gets. One only has to pay attention to the lyrics of the song Nevermind, written in 2014 and used spectacularly for the opening credits of the next season of HBO’s True Detective, to find out exactly what I mean. Dylan is wonderful, but occasionally flabbily verbose; all of the tunes by Cohen seem completely crafted, as if nothing spare, second rate, gets through his filtering method. There were instances, sitting on the tough uncomfortable seats, at the wind and driving rain, even when one became completely oblivious – the music, the performance transported one someplace else.
Perhaps for me, the defining moment was when he just recited a poem, his own: If It Be your Will, and then allowed the Webb sisters to sing it. The effect has been spell-binding – I believed one could almost hear a pin drop in an audience of tens of thousands.