My night of joy with the Godfather of Gloom

Poet of pessimism? No way - Leonard Cohen’s first London gig in 15 years proves that his witty, heartfelt misery is as uplifting as ever.

Nathalie Rothschild

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His jog on to stage prompts rapturous applause, wolf whistles and howls. His one-fingered piano solo triggers an ecstatic round of clapping. A simple twirl delights the 20,000-strong crowd. He can hardly get a word in between songs; when he does, every quip draws roars of laughter, and every sombre recital has the ladies – and the gentlemen – awkwardly pretending that something’s gotten in their eyes. As he waves goodbye, the crowd calls him back with deafening standing ovations. Even after the five-number encore at the end of a three-hour set, the fans still want more.

This is not the response to the latest teen sensation but to the husky-voiced, at times growling, never less than elegant septuagenarian, Leonard Cohen. And little wonder: the Canadian poet and novelist turned folk singer turned Zen Buddhist monk is back on stage for the first time in 14 years. ‘I was 60 then’, he says, ‘just a kid with a crazy dream’.

He lists the many anti-depressants he has taken over the past decade-and-a-half, and says that during that time he has also studied religion and philosophy – ‘but cheerfulness kept breaking through’.

The well-rehearsed joke is also well-placed, coming in between the doom-mongering ‘The future’ (‘I’ve seen the future, brother: it is murder / Things are going to slide, slide in all directions / Won’t be nothing / Nothing you can measure anymore’) and the humorous ‘Everybody knows’ (‘Everybody knows you’ve been discreet / But there were so many people you just had to meet / Without your clothes’).

At last week’s performance at London’s 02 arena, Cohen spared the audience any spiritual titbits he may have picked up during his five years at the Mount Baldy Zen Centre in southern California in the 1990s. This was fortunate given his Zen moniker, Jikan, meaning ‘silent one’. Instead, the Cohen we witnessed was positively effusive. Repeatedly introducing his band members, and clasping his black fedora in between songs as he thanked and smiled at his fans, he came across as ‘humble yet cosmic’.

On Mount Baldy, Cohen spent his time meditating, chanting, scrubbing floors, cooking and acting as secretary for his ninetysomething teacher, Joshu Sasaki Roshi. When he came down from the mountain and traded his monk’s robes for his customary Armani suits, he found himself in financial difficulty. With little left in his bank account, Cohen went to work. Whether or not his diminished funds were truly the main motivation behind publishing a new book of poetry, recording a couple of albums and setting off on his current world tour in the space of just a few years, Cohen’s loss is certainly our gain.

He is on form and his band – all decked up in dark suits and hats – give many of his old songs soulful, jazzy, gypsy and Hispanic tones.

Cohen’s tour (several new dates have been added recently) is not so much a comeback as a nostalgia trip, a long gorgeous swansong; and at every gig Cohen makes sure to thank his fans for ‘keeping my songs alive all these years’. At the London concert, he told an anecdote of toasting his teacher on his ninety-seventh birthday (‘Roshi’ is now 102), who then told Cohen: ‘Excuse me for not dying.’ ‘I kind of feel the same right now’, Cohen said.

Well, ‘the ladies’ man’ ain’t dead yet. When Cohen sings ‘If you want a doctor I’ll examine every inch of you’, the women respond ‘woooooooo!’ – and at the line, ‘Or if you want to take me for a ride, you know you can’, they shout ‘YES!’. Cohen concludes: ‘I’m your man.’ The men in the audience, mostly either grey-haired or bald, probably identify more with the opening line of Cohen’s ‘The tower of song’: ‘Well my friends are gone and my hair is grey / I ache in the places where I used to play.’

But Cohen’s appeal transcends the generations, as his appearances at more youthful events over the summer, such as the Glastonbury festival, testify. In short, his songs are timeless, appealing as much to pubescent poet-scribblers as to middle-aged melancholics. And since the release of his 1975 greatest hits album, The Best of Leonard Cohen, many a teenage girl has stared at the picture of Cohen blowing smoke rings on the sepia-coloured backcover and angstily agreed that ‘there ain’t no cure for love’.

Accused of writing ‘songs to slit your wrists by’, Cohen has also been labelled ‘the poet of pessimism’, ‘the godfather of gloom’ and ‘the prophet of despair’. Aficionados would, of course, disagree. At the start of the documentary Ladies and gentlemen… Mr Leonard Cohen, shot in Montreal in 1965, the author (he had not yet started recording music), far from prompting a mass quietus, has an audience doubled over with laughter before a voice-over explains that Cohen ‘is not primarily a stand-up comic, but a novelist, a poet and a very confident young man’.

At the sold-out 02 arena concert, Cohen thanked the audience for ‘overcoming financial and geographical obstacles’ to be there and to meet him ‘at the other side of intimacy’. But everybody knows that Cohen’s is an easy crowd to please; after all his fans have been desperate to see him for nearly 15 years.

Three hours and 20-odd songs on, and after pretending to end the show with ‘Closing time’ and skipping off stage, Cohen comes back singing ‘I tried to leave you’: ‘Goodnight, my darling, I hope you’re satisfied, the bed is kind of narrow, but my arms are open wide. And here’s a man still working for your smile.’

There was little spontaneous or unrehearsed about the show, but, hey, what a way to say goodbye!

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.

Leonard Cohen returns to the 02 Arena on 13 November. You can find more details on his website.

Previously on spiked

Emily Hill did not see anything countercultural about the Glastonbury festival. Andrew Calcutt recalled being demobilised by the Rock Against Racism concerts in the 1970s. Neil Davenport was not too impressed by Anton Corbijn’s Control, about Joy Division. Donald Winchester saw no reason to mourn the death of the LP. Or read more at spiked issue Music.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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