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Tag Archives: Review of Leonard Cohen at Sydney Entertainment Centre 28/01/09

So Leonard Cohen has been a large part of my life for the last couple of years.

I really respond to his turn of phrase, and at the same time, the lyrics can be terribly sexist at times. He often plays into the ‘tortured male genius’ crap, and in so much of his music, the male is the protaganist, the women nameless/faceless sex partners.

So he’s well and truly welded into my life in that many of his songs feel like a part of my relationship, lyrics we both respond to, phrases that remind me of The Bearded One (I really ought to have a better pseudonym for him!), or of time spent together, things I wished I could have said so eloquently.

And on the other hand, I’ve spent countless hours railing at some of the lyrics, or trying to sift through them, arguing with and listening to friends and TBO, pondering the reproduction of certain aspects of masculinity within some of his music.

Further, I’ve long had a fear of singing in front of others. I mean really, really. I can do it around my sisters, but even then I’m not letting go. I used to sing – I started lessons, but I dunno. I lack the confidence. What sounds good to me might be terrible, and then…and then?? I’d combust with shame? So, all right it makes no sense, but it’s real enough.

Anyway, it’s a fear I’m trying to break, but it was to Leonard’s songs that I would shyly start to quietly sing along to when The Bearded One played them on guitar and sang. This process of saying shyly: “Um, my voice might be ok, and singing might be something I’d like to do” and beginning to actually do it, has been a big thing in my life, and Leonard is enmeshed with that experience.

So all in all Leonard has loomed large in my emotional life for a long time.

But last night I saw him perform at the Entertainment Centre.

My difficult relationship of exasperation/adoration gave way. I loved him.

It’s not my favourite venue (I’d go so far as to say that’s the first performance I’ve enjoyed in that space which strikes me as having all the warmth and character an over-sized shoe box) but last night was just fucking magic.

Here stood this man, with what? Forty years of song-writing behind him. Songs covered and recovered like Hallelujah (though don’t get me STARTED on the covers missing the whole POINT of the song!), songs recogniseably Cohen like Tower of Song, Chelsea Hotel, I’m Your Man…

I’ve never much idolised the brand of masculinity that seeks to elevate relationship issues and commitment phobia to hero status, and there are times where I’ve wanted to bang my head against a wall listening to echos of that in his music. Times also where his spitting, scathing contempt, his judgment about abortion, and his flagrant worship of the hard-on just make me both angry and bored silly.

But last night, as he bounded on stage and opened with a cracking version of “Dance me to the end of Love” I was overwhelmed to hear him sing songs so personal and reflective, so sad and beautiful.

Happily for my tastes and preferences, the self indulgent and the bitter, the ‘I’m SUCH a tortured poet’ crap and the ‘women are objects for me to fuck, but only while they’re young or else…yuck’ songs were left in the archives, and song after song evoked the sense that you were watching a man in his seventies reflect on his life, quietly, thoughtfully, humourously, and with grace and self deprecation.

Hearing his slow, creaking rumble of a voice emote lyrics like:

Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin
Dance me through the panic ’til I’m gathered safely in
Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove
Dance me to the end of love

at the age of 74, opening a concert in a country he’ll likely never perform in again, in front of fans who have waited so long for him and know it is the last time was incredibly moving. It felt like a personal invitation to journey with him through a shared reflection for the night.

Watching him self consciously take the piss out of himself by shuffling around after delivering the line ‘and the white man dancing’, made me warm to this funny, beautiful man and hearing him sing ‘I’m the little Jew who wrote the bible’ during The Future made my hair stand on end with joy at being there.

The lyrics of:

I see you in the subwayand I see you on the bus
I see you lying down with me, I see you waking up
I see your hand, I see your hair
Your bracelets and your brush
And I call to you, I call to you
But I dont call soft enough

were transformed by his voice into an aching ode of loss, time passed, memories and joy.

The tears started to sting at the back of my eyes hearing:

I walked into this empty church I had no place else to go
When the sweetest voice I ever heard, whispered to my soul
I don’t need to be forgiven for loving you so much
Its written in the scriptures
Its written there in blood

The poignancy of an old man’s profound longing for forgiveness from a loved one contained in:

Like a baby, stillborn,
Like a beast with his horn
I have torn everyone who reached out for me.
But I swear by this song
And by all that I have done wrong
I will make it all up to thee

I was overjoyed to be there, and to sit between my best friend and my lover, the two people who have shared my joys and frustrations with this music, who have spent hours listening to and talking to me about these lyrics to hear and watch this incredibly generous, humble and human performance.

I loved Chelsea Hotel the first time I heard it (the first time I head it was when my boyfriend played and sang it ((very well)) to me) – the lyrics are so unusual for a love song – so sweet and sad and funny and both sentimental and unsentimental at the same time.

The one segment that irritated me was “I don’t mean to suggest that I loved you the best, I can’t keep track of each fallen robin. I remember you well at the Chelsea Hotel, that’s all I don’t think of you that often”.

It shat me because I found it irritating to have Janis Joplin described as a ‘fallen robin’ and because it seemed to reduce her to what? One of the nameless faceless hordes who’ve fallen for his irresistable charms? Ugh.

But hearing it last night that’s not at all how it came off. I don’t much care, either, for masculinity protecting itself by pretending that emotion is for *girls and poofs* and pretending it doesn’t feel something which is what is always came off as, despite the fact his music is about emotion – but the emotion in that line last night was human rather than closed off – not being able to look squarely at the sensation of loss actually felt because it’s there and felt. And ‘I don’t think of you that often’ was delivered in self mocking irony – because of course he thought enough of her to write such a beautifully moving song.

By the second line in Chelsea Hotel I felt a tear slide down my face. I’m not embarrassed by this. Music moves me, particularly live music. People’s stories move me. A wonderful turn of phrase moves me. Here we had one very human man combining all three – and I was moved.

Everybody Knows was just so powerful – the lyrics, already both timeless and situated took on extra meaning when this wonderfully talented man in the last decades of his life sang them to an audience hanging off his every word, and this:

Everybody knows it’s coming apart
Take one last look at this Sacred Heart
Before it blows
And everybody knows

made me want to sob.

Anthem, a song I’m not all that familiar with was staggering in it’s timelessness in melancholy observations on politics.:

The birds they sang
at the break of day
Start again
I heard them say
Don’t dwell on what
has passed away
or what is yet to be.
Ah the wars they will
be fought again
The holy dove
She will be caught again
bought and sold
and bought again
the dove is never free.

And the heartwarming/heartrending call to action:

I can’t run no more
with that lawless crowd
while the killers in high places
say their prayers out loud.
But they’ve summoned, they’ve summoned up
a thundercloud
and they’re going to hear from me.

Listening to Tower of Song performed at this stage in his life (after his admission of the financial need to tour after being thoroughly done over financially), you start to wonder how he could have written lyrics that would seem so apt later in his life:

Well my friends are gone and my hair is grey
I ache in the places where I used to play
And I’m crazy for love but Im not coming on
I’m just paying my rent every day
Oh in the tower of song

And this:

Now I bid you farewell, I dont know when Ill be back
They’re moving us tomorrow to that tower down the track
But youll be hearing from me baby, long after Im gone
Ill be speaking to you sweetly
From a window in the tower of song

Yeah, no doubt.

While Cohen facetiously/self deprecatingly suggested that the success of Hallelujah came from the fact it had a ‘killer chorus’, for me, the climb of the melody and the lyrics in the verses has always been where it’s at and I couldn’t hold back the tears hearing him perform it, particularly the lines:

It goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah


There was a time you let me know
What’s really going on below
But now you never show it to me, do you?
And remember when I moved in you
The holy dove was moving too
And every breath we drew was Hallelujah


You say I took the name in vain
I don’t even know the name
But if I did, well really, what’s it to you?
There’s a blaze of light
In every word
It doesn’t matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah

(I can’t help feeling that those who seek to claim it for their religious sentiments have failed to ever listen to the song, but nevermind the bollocks)

and finally:

I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though
It all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

I suddenly found myself approaching Cohen and his music much like I would any human relationship, not expecting infallibility and perfection, but able to see what beauty was there. Being choked up by complexity of emotion, the poignancy of time, and loss. Laughing and taking joy.

His music is never easy, and there are many songs I downright dislike as much for the music/lack of complexity in the lyrics as for political reasons. (And those political objections stand and are valid). But, well, I’ve put a lot of work into understanding Cohen’s music and lyrics, and it felt like good background work because last night I didn’t find my musical Messiah, I found a fully human man, a warm, funny, engaging man who owns his flaw and arrogance, who seems humbled with age and love and appreciation.

A man with his voice and his words singing of life and love and loss and grief and joy and beauty and hope and desire. A man on his knees, a man holding his hat to his chest watching an old lover perform with sheer joy and admiration on his face.

I found a musical love – and love being love it is never uncomplicated, undemanding, untaxing. It’s always confusing and difficult, joyous and sad – but there are moments of sheer heady bliss, moments of quiet complex comprehension, moments of heart-bursting joy, moments where you feel so able to relate. And you just don’t forget those moments. They carry you through so much.

So while I’d love to have the poetry within me (or more accurately to make it come out of me) to pen an ode to Cohen for last night and how much it meant to watch him give so freely, I really have nothing except his own verse:

I walked into this empty church I had no place else to go
When the sweetest voice I ever heard, whispered to my soul
I dont need to be forgiven for loving you so much
Its written in the scriptures
Its written there in blood

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