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.
Richard Blanco read a beautiful poem today for the President’s second inaugural. It encapsulates the grandeur and the unity of our people and our country — real or aspirational. Blanco is a poet and teacher and the first Hispanic and the first gay poet to write a poem for an inauguration. You can see a video of Blanco reading his poem. http://bit.ly/WBLBGO
By Richard Blanco
Spoken at the 2013 second inauguration of President Barack Obama
January 21, 2013
One sun rose on us today, kindled over our shores,
peeking over the Smokies, greeting the faces
of the Great Lakes, spreading a simple truth
across the Great Plains, then charging across the Rockies.
One light, waking up rooftops, under each one, a story
told by our silent gestures moving behind windows.
My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors,
each one yawning to life, crescendoing into our day:
pencil-yellow school buses, the rhythm of traffic lights,
fruit stands: apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows
begging our praise. Silver trucks heavy with oil or paper—
bricks or milk, teeming over highways alongside us,
on our way to clean tables, read ledgers, or save lives—
to teach geometry, or ring-up groceries as my mother did
for twenty years, so I could write this poem.
All of us as vital as the one light we move through,
the same light on blackboards with lessons for the day:
equations to solve, history to question, or atoms imagined,
the “I have a dream” we keep dreaming,
or the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won’t explain
the empty desks of twenty children marked absent
today, and forever. Many prayers, but one light
breathing color into stained glass windows,
life into the faces of bronze statues, warmth
onto the steps of our museums and park benches
as mothers watch children slide into the day.
One ground. Our ground, rooting us to every stalk
of corn, every head of wheat sown by sweat
and hands, hands gleaning coal or planting windmills
in deserts and hilltops that keep us warm, hands
digging trenches, routing pipes and cables, hands
as worn as my father’s cutting sugarcane
so my brother and I could have books and shoes.
The dust of farms and deserts, cities and plains
mingled by one wind—our breath. Breathe. Hear it
through the day’s gorgeous din of honking cabs,
buses launching down avenues, the symphony
of footsteps, guitars, and screeching subways,
the unexpected song bird on your clothes line.
Hear: squeaky playground swings, trains whistling,
or whispers across café tables, Hear: the doors we open
for each other all day, saying: hello, shalom,
buon giorno, howdy, namaste, or buenos días
in the language my mother taught me—in every language
spoken into one wind carrying our lives
without prejudice, as these words break from my lips.
One sky: since the Appalachians and Sierras claimed
their majesty, and the Mississippi and Colorado worked
their way to the sea. Thank the work of our hands:
weaving steel into bridges, finishing one more report
for the boss on time, stitching another wound
or uniform, the first brush stroke on a portrait,
or the last floor on the Freedom Tower
jutting into a sky that yields to our resilience.
One sky, toward which we sometimes lift our eyes
tired from work: some days guessing at the weather
of our lives, some days giving thanks for a love
that loves you back, sometimes praising a mother
who knew how to give, or forgiving a father
who couldn’t give what you wanted.
We head home: through the gloss of rain or weight
of snow, or the plum blush of dusk, but always—home,
always under one sky, our sky. And always one moon
like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop
and every window, of one country—all of us—
facing the stars
hope—a new constellation
waiting for us to map it,
waiting for us to name it—together.