Halfway through Sunday’s three-hour show at London’s O2 Arena, as Leonard Cohen began messing around, plinky-plonk style, on a little electronic keyboard, some started to applaud. ‘Are you humouring me?’ he asked. ‘If so, I accept your compassion towards the elderly.’
Warm laughter all round. The joke was of course that none among the enraptured thousands was humouring or being kind towards the man in the grey suit, hat and hair. For once, nobody could see ‘elderly’ as a cheap euphemism for ‘past it’.
Cohen the Canadian-born Jewish poet and singer-songwriter will be 79 years old this Saturday, 21 September. He has surely never been better. His rich voice remains unique, and he brought the 20,000-capacity Dome down with an extraordinary performance, making that cavernous space seem almost intimate. As I said to Ginny, my wife, in a euphoric car park moment straight after the show, I have not seen a man dominate an arena through his personality in that style since the Gary Glitter comeback tour at Manchester Polytechnic in 1979.
This is more than patronising guff about being ‘marvellous for his age’. Cohen seems to me to have been rehearsing all of his life for the part he plays near-perfectly now: the worldly-wise sardonic sage of the songbook, deploying his acerbic wit to share what he has learned over his long career about life and death, love and hate, pain and perseverance, faith and hope in the face of darkness and depression. Some of us who may not have entirely taken to the folkie acoustic and uptight Leonard of the Sixties can be electrified by the more relaxed but razor-sharp older model.
On Sunday, Cohen galvanised the arena with an emotion one would not always have associated with his work: the joy of being alive. Bending into the microphone in the knock-kneed stance that brought to mind an even earlier punk-music hero, Hank Williams, he held the crowd in his hand as readily as his hat, mixing classic songs with material from his new album, the pointedly entitled Old Ideas. This album has been described by one critic as ‘Autumnal’ music, and the songs do not shy away from issues of age and mortality – before Cohen shrugs ‘that’s how it goes’, and literally skips off stage, then back on for the three encores (including ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’) that butted the show right up against the O2’s absurd ‘curfew’, when they cut the power off.