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Musical Musings - 'An Evening With Leonard Cohen
On Friday night, November 23 of 2012, my father and I attended the ‘An Evening With Leonard Cohen’ concert at the Akoo Theater in Chicago. I am not a person who makes it a point to go to concerts or live shows, be it for time issues, money issues, or interest issues. I still attend high school five days a week, I have a five hour job on Fridays and Saturdays, and a microscopic little blog about concept albums that I still, for whatever reason, put a lot of time and effort into. Only on certain occasions do I decide that seeing a group or artist perform live with a large crowd would be a good way to spend my time. This was one of those occasions.
For the longest time I’ve held Leonard Cohen as one of my favorite musical artists. The first couple of times that I’d heard about him (I believe I was about thirteen), he didn’t catch my interest. Like most human beings, I was a little idiot when entering the first stages of puberty, closed-minded and a touch melodramatic, much as it shames me to admit. The only song that I’d heard of Cohen’s was ‘Hallelujah’, but my lack of interest in Cohen’s music led me to misinterpret it as a foolish, happy religious song (I’d also like to make note that I was a very fervent, bitter atheist at thirteen).
But as maturity came along with me, it also helped to ease me into the rest of Cohen’s work. I forget what possessed me to do so, but I decided to borrow from my father’s sprawling collection of CDs, taking whatever caught my eye, sailing the boat of my musical tastes on a course for new horizons. Throughout my life, my father has probably been the greatest influence on my musical taste, practically back to when I was a child. On long car rides, he would pop in a CD of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Let Love In, engraving the songs ‘I Let Love In’ and ‘Red Right Hand’ into my subconscious permanently. I’ve always trusted my father’s taste in music and I was willing to listen to whatever he’d throw my way. If I end up not liking it, there’s always something else around the corner to make up for it.
In his musical collection, there were two CDs entitled ‘The Essential Leonard Cohen’. I don’t like ‘best of’ or ‘The Essential’ CDs. Something about them feels so manipulative to me. If I find an artist intriguing enough, I’ll listen to their work from beginning to end and decide for myself what their best works are, thank you very much. For every ‘Best of Pink Floyd’ album that puts in something like ‘Comfortably Numb’ or ‘Money’, there’s always a ‘Welcome to the Machine’ or a ‘Pigs on the Wing’ that doesn’t make it in. With that said, they can be a great introduction to an artist by their more popular works. Being brand new to the songs of Leonard Cohen, I put the CDs in and, as the saying goes, the rest is history.
My relationship with some of my favorite music oftentimes has a history of uncertain, confused beginnings. To elaborate, I believe that any time somebody wants to get into a new/different band or artist, the beginning might always be tumultuous. The reason why many people are cautious about listening to something new is because of two reasons. The first is that we, as a society, are always busy with something to do, so the amount of time we have to experience ‘quality entertainment’ is limited. We want to make sure that anything we invest time or money into will be worth it. The second is that our lack of knowledge about the artist leads us to haphazardly figure out their work on our own. It’s like being given a coloring book without crayons, so you’re left with whatever you can find to fill in the spaces.
This was certainly the case with me and Leonard Cohen. The first album I bought after listening to ‘The Essential Leonard Cohen’ was his debut album, The Songs of Leonard Cohen. Again, because time wasn’t always on my side, I wouldn’t give the album a full, thorough listening, opting out to listen to artists that I was already familiar with. But there were still specific songs that definitely caught my ear on occasion and that I’d listen to repetitively. Songs like ‘Suzanne’, ‘So Long Marianne’, and ‘The Stranger Song’ have since become personal favorites of mine in Cohen’s work. Even if I didn’t listen to The Songs of Leonard Cohen all the way through, there was obviously something that drew me to his work with a great deal of force. I couldn’t quite define it, but I knew what it was in the most broad sense of the term: Cohen was a poet.
What do I mean by this? Well, in the same way that music is the art of sound, poetry is the art of language. While both can stand apart from the other, they seem to work at their best when combined. Leonard Cohen understands this and has used it to his advantage ever since Songs of Leonard Cohen. And while some may debate how good his music is, it’s his lyrics that make him legendary. Take this line from ‘Suzanne’, a love song that doubles as a religious meditation: And Jesus was a sailor/When he walked upon the water/And he spent a long time watching/From his lonely wooden tower/And when he knew for certain/Only drowning men could see him/He said "All men will be sailors then/Until the sea shall free them"/But he himself was broken/Long before the sky would open/Forsaken, almost human/He sank beneath your wisdom like a stone.
There are numerous interpretations that one can read into these lyrics. There certainly seems to be a great deal of metaphor in them, as I think metaphor is always at work when religious mythology comes into a song. But regardless of the messages, subtext, and meaning to these words, the very thing that makes them stand-out is the overall aesthetic. Songs, to me, are set-pieces that are painted with sounds and words. Songs can bring a whole world to the listener. They give him/her a picture right before their eyes, complete with smell, taste, sight, sense, and most importantly, sound. Sometimes the meaning comes up in the imagery that these songs evoke. Sometimes it doesn’t.
Even if subtext is working at its hardest here, I think discovering whatever its hiding is kind of a fool’s errand. I don’t mean to say that critical thinking is useless when it comes to poetry. On the contrary, I think that at least knowing what critical thinking is helps one’s poetry tremendously. But, if you’ll pardon my radical sappiness, poetry comes from the heart, not the mind. They’re like paintings and various painting styles. You can read whatever you want into how the artist used their tools. A picture can hold a thousand words. But those thousands upon thousands of words come because the picture sparked something. Hatred, love, sorrow, yearning, beauty, ugliness, anything. That picture sparked something in its audience, and that’s why it is remembered.
Leonard Cohen taught me this.
In regards to his music, I don’t think it is the major selling point, but it absolutely compliments his words. Hell, some of Cohen’s work would be only be ‘good’ if not accompanied by his compositions (‘Take This Waltz’ and ‘Hallelujah’ come to mind). Cohen has always gone for a minimalist approach when it comes to music, from his early years of acoustic strumming to his more recent synthesizer tunes. His lyrics, I think, surpass his music, but that said, his music helps his lyrics immensely. His words are given emotion by his compositions, and great sweeping heaps of it too (which could be due to the fact that the person writing it often suffered from clinical depression in his early years). As much as I detest synth music, as I said in Electra Heart, I will stomach all of it just to hear Cohen’s arrangements (in some cases it works perfectly well, though; ‘Everybody Knows’ and ‘First We Take Manhattan’ as a couple more examples.)
Leonard Cohen isn’t a man who hides any sort of ‘message’ behind his words or his music. Leonard is an artist who displays his thoughts and his emotions beautifully through the power of language and song. Cohen is able to produce songs, bursting with East European melodies, blues, gospel, and jazz on the bare basics of instrumentation. He is a man who can take anything from lost lovers, religion, politics, sex, depression, and corruption, and spin it into soft, smooth, understated melodies. It’s been a long time since the day I only knew of Cohen through ‘Hallelujah’. Leonard Cohen is not only one of my favorite songwriters. He is my favorite poet.
So two nights ago, my father and I saw Leonard Cohen in Chicago. Even with a stomach filled with beefsteak, potatoes, and pecan bourbon pie (the only thing that matches Chicago’s fantastic architecture is its food), it is understandable why Chicago is called The Windy City. Chicago at night feels a bit like its already Christmas-time, though that might be because it is almost Christmas-time.
Another reason why I don’t often go to concerts is the people. Pictures can say a thousand words, certainly, but some of those words can collide with one another. I’ve heard someone describe Leonard Cohen as a ‘cult figure’, which I disagree with. I’m not up-to-date with what is ‘cult’ and what isn’t ‘cult’, though, so perhaps I’ve no right to judge. Even if he is though, his audience sizes certainly state that he has to be one of the most famous living musicians with a cult following, even today. Granted, this show wasn’t Stadium-Sized, but theater sized is certainly nothing to sneeze at, especially for ‘cult folk artists’ like Cohen.
Some will say that seeing a live performance with a group of people is an amazing experience, as you are able to share a moment with like-minded people, like a big, crazy family. Some will say that audiences and live performances are overrated, as everyone has a different reason for liking something, and those reasons will certainly contrast with one another (that and the obnoxiousness of some audience members). I agree with both, but I lean a little more to the latter argument.
But that said, going to a Cohen concert brings out a bit more of the former argument. At something like a Pink Floyd concert, one is more likely to be stuck in a crowd of people who think and operate on a different wavelength. Pink Floyd is just a common, household name that is associated with rock, so its more than likely that there is going to be a lot of biased audience members who go simply because of the name, knowing nothing more about Pink Floyd outside of the name. At a Leonard Cohen concert, though, I think there are more people who know exactly what they’re getting into and what they want to see. Even the most obnoxious audience members (such as the lady with a foreign-accent in front of me rocking back and forth whenever she had the chance) are still a bit more tolerable. There’s something infectious about being with so many people who share the same passion that you do for something.
As for Cohen himself, his performance and that of his back-up singers/musicians was marvelous. Old as he is, at the age of 78, he holds this great, understated liveliness about him, kneeling like a man in prayer as he sings, dancing offstage during the intermission, etc. Plus, he simply owns the ‘Fedora-And-Suit’ look (it also helps him pull off the ‘Aging Al Pacino’ impersonation even better). Everything about Cohen is so beautifully understated, even his sense of humor. At some point around the beginning, he had made a comment about starting smoking in two years. Not funny on its own, but to anybody who is familiar with Cohen’s subterranean voice, you can tell how he got a few chuckles out of that (that brings up a good point to anybody wishing to listen to Mr. Cohen: his early stuff sounds fairly normal for a Canadian folk singer, but as time goes on, expect more gravel than nasal).
The only flaw I’d find with the show is how long it went. Again, for a man at his age, its astounding how he pulled off playing for about three and a half hours. I wouldn’t mind terribly much, but Cohen seemed to enjoy playing with the audience’s expectations a little bit much. I mean, there are encores, and then there was this. Right as he plays ‘Going Home’, he’ll come right back onstage and play ‘It’s Closing Time’, and the show still won’t be over. It isn’t a problem with the songs, as they’re all beautiful to listen to, especially live, with arrangements made for violin and keyboard. It is positively amazing to see. But admittedly there’s only so much that one can take.
I suppose everything is flawed to an extent. But, as the man himself once said:
“There’s a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” ~ Leonard Cohen, Anthem