Wednesday, 4 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


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