Who Needs Dead Poets When You’ve Got Leonard Cohen?

I had the privilege to see Leonard Cohen perform at the Sony (formerly Hummingbird) Centre last night. Thanks to a buddy for the tickets. At $250 a pop I could never have afforded them. The show was… intensely moving. And yes, I know exactly how trite and tacky that sounds, but it’s the truth. I even wanted to leave the theatre for a moment to have a little cry at one point, but not because I was sad, just a little too emotional.

At this point, I ought to admit my relationship to Leonard Cohen is not that of a true devotee and that my perception and experience of him is somewhat distorted. Being Canadian, I grew up thinking of Leonard Cohen as a poet from the CanLit canon, since that’s the context in which I encountered him, i.e. being forced to study his poetry in high-school English class. I liked his poetry very much, even though I despised all the rest of the stodgy pillars of CanLit (excuse me, but Margaret Atwood can GET STUFFED!) Ahem. As I was saying… then it seemed to me that sometime around the 90’s he started putting out records and people started playing them all the time and I thought “Well, hell, that’s cool. Nobody reads poetry anymore anyway and kids certainly don’t. Smooth move, Mr. Cohen.” And then he became a singer/songwriter phenom and his words and music became part of the background of our lives….

Well, of course, I’m a complete idiot, because a little research will reveal that Cohen’s been a singer/songwriter since the 60’s. True, he’s published a quite a few books of poetry, and even a couple of novels, but music has always been his thing and I just never noticed. For the benefit of others who don’t know the man’s story any better than I do, he’s apparently had affairs with Janis Joplin and Rebecca DeMornay, among many others. He’s also an ordained Rinzai Zen Buddhist Monk, though he’s still a Jew (Zen is easy-going that way.) He’s also apparently broke due to a sordid betrayal, but you can go read about that yourself. An interesting life, to be sure.

So, back to the show. Leonard Cohen is about 75 years old. He hasn’t toured for 15 years. Rumour has it that this tour is an attempt to make back some of the money stolen from him, which accounts for the outrageous ticket prices. As soon as he appeared on the stage he received a standing ovation, and it wasn’t just an obligatory one, either; some of those people had been waiting for this moment for a decade and a half! He asked the crowd to be seated with a hand-gesture and then thanked everyone, with a shared chuckle, for the “financial inconvenience” they’d gone to in order to be present. Throughout the show, the man displayed exceeding humility, as well as joy and humour. He’s a fragile-looking guy, though his voice was strong and there was no lack of passion in his performance, especially in favourites like “Hallelujah”, “The Future”, and “Democracy” (which really ought to be an Obama campaign song, doncha think? Check the lyrics!) His pitch may have been a bit off, but then I’m not sure he was ever famous for being an incredible singer. Nobody cared anyway.

It’s the lyrics that make Leonard Cohen’s songs so amazing, and the audience was improbably silent throughout the show so as not to miss a word. This is especially important as Cohen changes the lyrics to his songs so you might hear something new even if you think you already know the piece by heart. He would often introduce the songs with snippets of the same song, or other songs, or bits and pieces of poetry (in English or in French.) At one point he recited a poem that, although it often repeats the phrase “A Thousand Kisses Deep”, bears no resemblance to the lyrics of the song of that name. I haven’t yet found where it came from, or if it’s new, or if he made it up just for the tour or what… I’m sure some avid fan will enlighten me.

Anyway, though he will be remembered as a singer/songwriter, Leonard Cohen is still primarily a poet to me. Last night I remembered why I loved his poetry as a teenager and why I ever loved poetry at all! It inspired me to go back and re-discover poetry all over again. I also left with a little remorse. For not having paid enough attention to his art in the past. For probably never having the chance to hear him perform again. He asked everyone to make sure on leaving the theatre to look in their hearts for–or re-find if necessary–the “blessings of peace”. It felt an awful lot like a final good-bye. And now I will have to go have that cry….

4 thoughts on “Who Needs Dead Poets When You’ve Got Leonard Cohen?”

  1. I flew from LA to Toronto for Friday’s concert. It was worth every penny and every mile. Thanks for documenting your experience….

  2. Congrats on a fine post. As one who occasionally writes about Cohen on my personal blog, I can’t resist commenting on a point or two.

    I think you’re being a bit too tough on yourself when you write “Well, of course, I’m a complete idiot, because a little research will reveal that Cohen’s been a singer/songwriter since the 60’s. True, he’s published a quite a few books of poetry, and even a couple of novels, but music has always been his thing and I just never noticed.” In fact, Cohen was 32 before opting for songwriting, a switch he says was prompted by the belief that singing might pay better that publishing poems and prose. And, his novels and poetry met with critical acclaim. The Boston Globe, for example, anointed him the reincarnation of James Joyce. In writing a series of posts for new fans, in fact, I’ve found it necessary to emphasize that “Leonard Cohen, long before he was a singer-songwriter, was a well-known, successful poet and novelist. And, he was not a rock poet, a folk poet, or any other kind of pop songwriters are today’s poets poet. Nope, Leonard Cohen was and is the kind of poet who has a grasp of the craft of writing prose and poetry, who knows a dactyl from a trochee, who understands how an elegiac couplet varies from the heroic couplet. He sold volumes of well-reviewed poetry and novels before anyone thought of paying to hear him sing anything other than square dance tunes.” See my post, Leonard Cohen – The Literary Years.

    I would quibble only with the “apparently” in “he’s apparently had affairs with Janis Joplin and Rebecca DeMornay, among many others,” Cohen has repeatedly announced that his liaison with Janis Joplin is the basis for the song, Chelsea Hotel #2, and he openly lived with DeMornay and the two were often interviewed as a couple. For the past several years, his romantic partner has been
    Anjani, who has been worked for Cohen as a singer and keyboardist and is the performing artist on Blue Alert, an album produced by Cohen.

    The song A Thousand Kisses Deep is based on a poem called For Those Who Greeted Me. The poem and a brief explanation of the process by which the song evolved can be found at http://www.leonardcohenfiles.com/kisses.html.

  3. Thanks for your thoughtful comment DrHGuy! The reason I call myself an idiot is that if Cohen turned to music when he was 32, I was one year old at the time! In other words, I had a whole lifetime to know better. :) In any case, I take your point and thank you for it.

    The use of “apparently” can be put down to bad writing habits as well as uncertainty about my single-source of research (let’s face it, Wikipedia is not infallible!)

    And I thank you kindly for solving the mystery of “A Thousand Kisses Deep”. You see? I knew someone would enlighten me.



  4. CBC Radio had a great documentary that was done by a woman from Norway on Cohen (he doesn’t often do interviews). If you can find it somewhere online it is so worth the listen. Some absolutely classic quotes in there. Unapologetic and the spirit of true artist. Even let’s us come join him in a Shabbat dinner or two. (oh and if you find it send me the link bc i’d love to listen to it again un-distracted by traffic)

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