Tuesday 3 February 2009

Leonard Cohen in Brisbane 2009

It’s 1.30 in the morning, and I’ve just arrived home from Leonard Cohen’s concert here in Brisbane – a breathtaking four-hour extravaganza (with a wonderful opening set by the Aussie singer-songwriter Paul Kelly). Cohen was accompanied by some extraordinary singers and musicians – it would have been worth going just to see Javier Mas play his heart out on that bandurria.

The concert was a revelation. I laughed and I cried; I roared and thundered; I leapt to my feet; I sat wrapped in silence. It was the greatest show I’ve ever seen. Filled with heartbreak and humour, desolation and hope, sex and seduction and light and darkness and prayer. Cohen is often described as a depressing singer; but the real core of his poetic vision is a fragile yet all-pervasive hope, a hope that springs – unexpectedly, miraculously – from the ruins of a shattered world. “There is a crack, a crack in everything: that’s how the light gets in.”

There may not be many prophets left in our churches. But from time to time, at a show like this, you might get lucky enough to see a true prophet, to hear words of truth from the lips of another human being. Ours is a world of lies and falsehoods – and of what Harry Frankfurt calls “bullshit”, mere nonsense-talk in which questions of truth and falsehood are irrelevant. Indeed, we are terrified of the truth (this was one of Freud’s great insights); we shrink from it, we spend our lives concealing it and evading it and shielding our eyes from its piercing glare. From ancient times, we have stoned and imprisoned and crucified those who told us the truth.

So when Leonard Cohen takes to the stage and sings “Anthem” or “The Future” or “Everybody Knows” or “First We Take Manhattan,” it is an astonishing thing to be confronted suddenly by words of truth – words that are “as bare as knives and forks on a white tablecloth” (to borrow a phrase from Peter Carey’s novel Oscar and Lucinda). Words like this:

       Everybody knows the deal is rotten
       Old black Joe’s still pickin’ cotton
       For your ribbons and bows
       Everybody knows.

Or this:

       Give me back the Berlin wall
       Give me Stalin and St Paul
       Give me Christ or give me Hiroshima
       Destroy another foetus now
       We don’t like children anyhow
       I’ve seen the future, baby:
       It is murder.

All day long we lie to ourselves, we lie to each other: but here, amidst a crowd of ten thousand, one lonely man stands beneath the lights and tells us the truth.

In a humorous moment, 74-year-old Cohen offered this autobiographical remark: “It’s been 15 years since I was on stage – I was 60 then, just a young kid with a crazy dream. Then I took a lot of Prozac. And Zoloft. And Wellbutrin, Ritalin, Effexor… I studied all the religions and philosophies of the world too – but somehow, cheerfulness just kept breaking through.”

Anyway, I’ll leave you with this clip. This was one of the concert’s greatest highlights – an exquisitely beautiful performance of “If It Be Your Will” by the Webb sisters (the clip is actually from an earlier concert, but it’s the same arrangement):

       If it be your will that I speak no more
       And my voice be still as it was before
       I will speak no more, I shall abide until
       I am spoken for
       If it be your will

       If it be your will that a voice be true
       From this broken hill I will sing to you
       From this broken hill all your praises they shall ring
       If it be your will
       To let me sing

       If it be your will, if there is a choice
       Let the rivers fill, let the hills rejoice
       Let your mercy spill on all these burning hearts in hell
       If it be your will
       To make us well

       And draw us near and bind us tight
       All your children here in their rags of light
       In our rags of light, all dressed to kill
       And end this night
       If it be your will


Anonymous said...

So where should a newbie start with Cohen? Is there an essential recording? There are a few "best of" compilations available at the local library. Thanks.

Unknown said...

I just got shivers from remembering the show out here in Ontario.

Anonymous said...

Man, that was one passionate review, "ring[ing] the bells that still can ring."
Cheers, mate.

paul said...

Great review, Ben. I first saw Cohen in 1980, and after all these years it still remains perhaps the best concert I was ever at (only Dylan and Bob Marley give real competition). It was a generous 4-hour tour de force, 13 encores, only finishing (with a half-hour blues jam) when the band had played everything they ever rehearsed. If It Be Your Will is surely one of the great mystical poems of recent times, just as Joan Of Arc is the most lyrical meditation on martyrdom since who knows when, perhaps centuries.

Anonymous said...

What a beautiful post Ben. So glad you stayed up in the wee hours to chronicle and share something of the 'revelation'. Then again, how can you just go to bed after something like that? Either way, cheers.

Paul said...

Great post Ben.

Thekibitzer, I would recommend "The Essential Leonard Cohen." It's where I started too. Lots of music on two discs for a decent price.

Oh, and yes, Cohen's music is depressing and the lyrical content often revolves around him, seduction, and various women, but I don't think that's any reason for a Christian to turn up their nose. I mean, besides, have we forgotten Abelard?

Pseudonym said...

Leonard Cohen is, I think, one of the greatest dichotomies of 20th century music. He is one of the greatest songwriters ever, but he's also one of the worst singers ever.

I love reading his lyrics. I love covers of his songs. But I can't stand listening to him.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Ben,

I was there last night as well and share your rapturous response to what was a wonderful, enriching performance. I loved it's mix of sensuality and spirituality. LC seemed to fill the Entertainment Centre with his warmth, his sincerity and humility - rare qualities indeed in the music industry.

Thanks for your post - it helped recapture the experience.


Anonymous said...

What a night - LC was all he might have been and then some. And what a magnificent band. The Webb sisters were superb and Sharon Robinson the perfect support. Ah how can anything match up. I think I can die now.

TheoPoet said...

Nice review---wish I could go to a Cohen concert---he is one of my favorites. Anyways, Thekibitzer, I echo Paul in recommending "The Essential Leonard Cohen." ---it has a nice mix of songs from Cohen's pre and post cigarette ravaged voice eras. Although Cohen Live was the first Leonard Cohen album I got.

Anonymous said...

I was at that concert too, with my dad (who is the same age as Leonard Cohen) and we both thoroughly enjoyed it.

So many emotions! You put it very well, Ben. I laughed, I cried, I sang, I closed my eyes and just enjoyed........it was magic.....


Anonymous said...

I'm glad you guys in Brisbane enjoyed Leonard's gig. We were lucky enough to see him twice last year. The first time was last July at Edinburgh Castle Esplanade. We enjoyed the gig so much, the next day we booked another gig for November 5th at the Clyde Auditorium, Glasgow.

These were truly magical performances by one of the great contemporary music legends of our time.

In my student party days, all I knew of Leonard was that unmistakable voice and his songs on vinyl CBS albums and his picture on the sleeve. I had spent my pocket money on his first two albums and part of my first pay packet on "Songs of Love and Hate". I never thought I'd ever see him live.

I am so glad that I finally did!

The voice is a few octaves lower and he's adapted his rendition of those early songs to suit - "Bird on The Wire" being a good example. But I guess at 74 he can be forgiven for that. Nevertheless that famous deep baritone is still there.

Behind the dark song lyrics is a man with droll but witty sense of humour, who came across as a charming and graceful human being, constantly namechecking his band and bowing to his appreciative audience.

November 5th was the day the US Presedential electios results were announced, and at the Glasgow gig, on hearing the first new notes of "Democracy", the audience spontaineously rose to their feet and cheered. Apparently this spectacle has been repeated at all subsequent concerts.

It was a night to remember! I'm sure it was the same for you in Brisbane.

Oh and yes I agree, "The Essential Leonard Cohen" double-CD album is a good place for a "newbie" to start. Check out the net though, as there was a new limited 3-CD bonus version released last year!

Christopher said...

Great review - it further deepened my regret for not going. It was either L. Cohen or N. Young, I made the wrong choice.

Unknown said...

I went to the Bowral concert and was just blown away. It was something about the self-revelation, and something about the way the whole show was so clearly and determinedly about the music.

Anonymous said...

we flew down to Brisbane just for the Show, and it was by far the best show I have seen in my 45 years. As you say, we laughed, cried and jumped to our feet. An absolute unforgettable evening with a Master. Thanks for the clip, it brings tears to my eyes.
Cecil in Yeppoon

Anonymous said...

I'm 55 now, Listening to LC's music has often kept me alive rejuvenating my thoughts... trying to find a way through this life, I had the honour of a casual meeting with LC on the island of Hydra in the early 70's he bestowed me with his passion to understand human kind.. ah memories... can words truly affect us? how about from the end of LC's novel 'Beautiful Losers'...'Welcome to you..Darling and Friend who miss me forever in your trip to the end'

Anonymous said...

I'll be going to see him in November 2010 in Tassie what a great cost this is to my pocket, however it will be well worth it!!!!!!!

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