Sunday, November 13, 2016

Leonard Cohen—A remembrance

The first time I heard the name Leonard Cohen—known these days mainly as the composer of “Hallelujah,” one of most-covered songs of the modern era—was back in the early 1990s. A fellow who worked alongside me told me about going to a coffeehouse with his girlfriend the day before, and all she and her friends did was discuss the merits and meaning of various snippets of ‘Leonard Cohen’ lyrics. We had a good laugh at people who went to coffeehouses to discuss minutiae relating to artists nobody had ever heard of; plus this guy was supposed to have been a poet, too. Please.

For a while we mocked him on general principle; we were young, we mocked everything on principle. Somewhere along the way, however, cooler heads prevailed, and we decided to give this new guy a listen… and my friend immediately fell in love with his old stuff while I fell in love with his newer work, which was admittedly over-produced and synthesizer-heavy, but his melodies had grown more agile and memorable, drawing greater attention to the compassion, complexity and humor of the lyrics.

Not too long thereafter we heard this old guy was going to release a new album. We had already totally drunk the Leonard Cohen Kool-Aid by then—although we had the dignity not to let ourselves be overheard discussing the lyrics of an artist nobody had ever heard of—and couldn’t wait. An accompanying tour was announced with a stop in our town and we eagerly grabbed up some tickets as soon as they went on sale.

A couple weeks before the concert, he was on David Letterman’s show to debut the title track of his upcoming CD. He didn’t look at all comfortable and his low growl of a voice got lost in the synthesizer-heavy mix and I started to think about all the money we had spent on concert tickets. He just didn’t have the live performance thing down at all, but hey, he was still a legend, right? People still go see Dylan, who hasn’t delivered an intelligible live show since the ‘70s, so it would still be worth it to be able to say you saw this duffer with the old-fashioned hat. Then a couple minutes into the performance, poor Mr. Cohen began to sing a different part of the song than the backup singers and band were performing. I felt for the guy, but at the same time, I saw my concert money growing wings and flying out the window, like in a Tex Avery cartoon.

A couple weeks went by and we went to the concert, girding ourselves against a worst-case scenario. We noted where all the concession kiosks that sold alcohol were, as well as the bathrooms in case it became necessary to punish our livers to get through the evening.

Happily, it turned out that what Mr. Cohen didn’t do well was live TV. In concert, in a relatively intimate venue, he was a revelation. My specific recollection of the evening’s highlights is somewhat muddied by let’s say time, but I remember he was touring with the same girl-group backup singers and band from his disastrous TV appearance, and that night they were sublime.

His manner was that of a courtly older gentleman; his vocal range a bottomless bass, deeper than the voice of the angry God of the Old Testament. He didn’t drop a word that night, and the more hushed his singing became, the quieter the crowd grew as if we were instruments in an orchestra he was conducting. At every opportunity he introduced his band members by name, by show’s end he had name-checked the entire band at least a half a dozen times each. The girl-group backup singers’ parts were beautifully arranged and they did indeed sound like the angels he referred to them as. He ran through a generous set of hits from a long career that had seen very little mainstream success except in the hands of other people. Neil Diamond, among many others, had a big hit with “Suzanne.” Tori Amos scored with “Famous Blue Raincoat.” And Jeff Buckley was the first major artist to realize the commercial potential of “Hallelujah.”

It didn’t feel so much like a concert as a communal spiritual experience led by an angel choir. Mr. Cohen’s occasion encouragement of his backup choir, “Ah, sing it, angels,” seemed more apt than archaic. He made us feel like having been in attendance had somehow made us both wiser and humbler human beings. To this day, I’ve never felt its like again.

Career-wise, after Mr. Cohen invested the profits from that album and tour, he retreated for the next couple years to a Zen Buddhist temple in the LA area. In an excellent interview (searchable online) by the LA Times’ Robert Hilburn, Mr. Cohen recalls his time there being spent in meditation, writing poetry and making soup for the head yogi. He says they accommodated his celebrity to the extent that the monks took two of the closet-sized rooms they inhabited and knocked out the wall separating them, creating for Mr. Cohen a double-wide closet-sized room.

A few years later, Tom Waits was on tour and a bunch of my friends and I had made the pilgrimage to see the show. We had lousy seats way in back, but someone in our group spotted Mr. Cohen in the theater, about half-way back sitting with a couple of women. I was coaxed into going over to get his autograph. Now I had lived in Los Angeles for years by then and had never sought out anyone’s autograph. But I marched over to where The Great Man sat, and in order to not have to yell at him or lean menacingly over him, I took a knee when I approached the young woman seated next to him, who was seated on the aisle. After first ascertaining that he was indeed Leonard Cohen, I got her permission to speak to him.

I mean, really. It was like I was meeting the Pope or something. But the calm peacefulness of his demeanor made the fact that I was kneeling before this old man like I was proposing to him seem completely appropriate in the moment. I introduced myself and babbled the usual nonsense a fan would say; he put his hand out and shook mine and spoke words in his basso profondo rumble that for the life of me I cannot remember. I didn’t so much ask him for an autograph as I apologized him for an autograph. Which he gave me which I’m glad I scanned before misplacing it among my papers of the era. I got out of there as quick as I could so as not to draw attention to the celebrity in the audience’s midst. Yes, it was a jaded LA crowd, but it was also Leonard Cohen; his presence would be enough to reduce most attendees at a Tom Waits audience to breathless rubes.

Earlier this year as beloved pop icons were dropping dead left and right, I spoke to a friend who was concerned that we might lose Mr. Cohen this year, too. After all, he was in his 80s and had been working at what for him was a furious pace; 3 albums in the last 5 years, not to mention accompanying back-to-back world tours of 3-hour concerts. And I’ll tell you now what I told her then. I’m not worried about Leonard Cohen. He’s had one foot in Grace for at least the latter half of his life, and this mortal transition would no doubt be embraced by the man himself when his time came. Spiritually speaking, his passing would be a lateral transition at best.

And now the voice has been silenced and the Rubicon crossed. But you’ll never be able to convince me, the next time I’m shaken by an especially bone-rattling crash of thunder, that it isn’t Leonard Cohen and God, sharing a private joke together at the absurdity and beauty of the human condition.

“As I understand it, into the heart of every Christian, Christ comes, and Christ goes. When, by his Grace, the landscape of the heart becomes vast and deep and limitless, then Christ makes His abode in that graceful heart, and His Will prevails. The experience is recognized as Peace. In the absence of this experience much activity arises, divisions of every sort. Outside of the organizational enterprise, which some applaud and some mistrust, stands the figure of Jesus, nailed to a human predicament, summoning the heart to comprehend its own suffering by dissolving itself in a radical confession of hospitality.”
—Leonard Cohen, responding to a question on the ‘state of Christianity’ in an online Q&A

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