A short review of a concert plus my confession about how I became a Leonard Cohen fan.
Leonard Cohen performed a 3.5-hour show at the Chicago Theatre the other night, touring with his fine new album, Old Ideas – made up of all new songs. He puts on a superb show with a 10-piece band including a violinist, flamenco guitarist, other ethnic stringed instruments, keyboards including a Hammond B-3, plus drums and bass — and three wonderful back-up singers. (Photo by me.)
At age 78, his style and stamina are remarkable. He skips off stage, waving like a vaudeville performer. And he frequently kneels to sing. I have to admire the ease with which he kneels and rises. (You’ll appreciate this too when you’re my age.)
He performed nearly 30 songs with one 15-minute intermission. He pays fond respect to his band members throughout the concert, introducing them and highlighting their solos and special talents.
(“Legends of Music,” the photo of Leonard Cohen, Chuck Berry and Keith Richards, was taken February 26, 2012, at the JFK Library and tweeted last week by Keith @officialKeef.)
The setlist included five songs from Old Ideas, but was primarily from his long history of recordings, including fan favorites such as “Bird on a Wire,” “Suzanne,” “Everybody Knows,” “I’m Your Man” and of course, “Hallelujah.” (The latter is one of the most-covered songs ever written, by the way.) His collaborator Sharon Robinson performed a song I had not heard before: “Alexandra Leaving.” He also performed “A Thousand Kisses Deep” as a recitation. It is exquisite and makes you realize that Leonard Cohen is, first of all, a poet.
Leonard’s lyrics are mournful, erotic and often funny. In “Tower of Song,” he sings “Well my friends are gone and my hair is grey, I ache in the places where I used to play” and later laments “I was born like this, I had no choice, I was born with the gift of a golden voice.”
So, here’s my confession. I became a Leonard Cohen fan by accident. The popular culture of the late ‘60s and ‘70s passed me by completely since I was immersed in children, husband, home and career. No time for following the latest bands and barely time to see a movie or play.
About 12 years ago, I got my new (now old) Beetle, which came with a cassette player but no CD player. I had a good supply of tapes since, in pre-smartphone days, I would tape my records and CDs. My friend Linnea had a new car with a CD player so she gave me a cigar box full of tapes from her old car. I sorted thru them and picked out a few for the Beetle. The first one I played was from a Roy Orbison album. I was driving along enjoying the music and near the end of side A, the voice changed to a baritone growl. The song seemed to be a dystopic anthem* with the refrain “First We Take Manhattan.” At the end of that amazing song, I turned the tape over to hear the rest of I’m Your Man. And ever since, he has been my man. (Not to the extent that Bruce Springsteen is, of course.)
After listening to that tape a few times, I went to the music store and bought the CD and a few other Leonard CDs, such as The Future, Various Positions and a Best of compilation. A few years later I was in Montreal (his home town) and found a music store with a trove of Leonard Cohen CDs that I hadn’t seen before. So I now have a dozen in my CD stack.
There was no opportunity to see him live then — only in recorded concerts on TV and DVDs. I was thrilled when a world tour was announced with Chicago dates in May and October 2009. The first time I saw him at the Chicago Theatre I was absolutely captivated by his show and showmanship. What a charmer. He put on a great show and the band and other singers far exceeded my expectations. I saw him again in October that year at the Rosemont Theatre (now renamed) and he was equally magnetic.
No, he doesn’t exactly sing and his voice is deeper and more gravelly now than on earlier recordings. But he is very charismatic and as my friend Mike says “the coolest human on the planet.”
I believe rock stars (and Leonard is a rock star) tour as much for the adulation as for the money. I have watched videos of Bruce Springsteen playing before tens of thousands of people at huge outdoor European venues. The camera is behind him and you see the enormous crowd singing, dancing, pumping fists, waving flags and jumping up and down. Jumping up and down for him. That’s why senior-citizen performers like Bruce, Leonard, Sir Paul, the Stones, and Bobby D never give up touring.
* The meaning of “First We Take Manhattan” has always been the subject of debate by his fans. Is it about terrorism? The Holocaust? A musician ignored by the public? The meaning is surely ominous. Listen to it and make up your own mind.