Try to imagine this scene: the Air Canada Centre in downtown Toronto, normally a hockey arena which seats nearly 20,000 people for concerts, packed with happy fans. Who are they there to see? A skinny old man with a hook nose, wearing a hat so far down over his eyes that his face is nearly invisible, as he sings in a low growl, often sinking to his knees, about lost love, betrayal and redemption, the end of the world, death. Occasionally, he recites complex poetry, a long weaving of words. And the fans go wild.
Is this a fable? Surely, in our crass modern age, it cannot be true. But it is. I was one of the happy audience last night at the Leonard Cohen concert. Leonard is 78; his beautifully cut, impeccable suit hangs on his scrawny body, and yet he skips on and offstage, waving, and, yes, falls to his knees regularly and has no trouble getting back up. And though we rarely saw his face, when we did, his eyes were alight, and he even, occasionally, smiled, a great beaming grin.
He seemed genuinely happy to be there, genuinely wise, generous and humble. He introduced each of his extraordinarily good band members and back up singers three or four times by name, with fulsome praise, standing near them with his hat in his hand, head bowed as if in prayer, when they did their solos. They were as tight an ensemble as we will ever hear, blissfully good, the haunting violinist from Kishinev, the master guitarist from Spain, the organ player from Chicago … and the back up angels, his long time collaborator Sharon and two sweet-voiced sisters from England, their crooning exquisite.
He sang “Suzanne” alone at the mike with his guitar, and I was 16 again, with my long sheets of hair, bent over my Goya nylon string guitar, singing “Suzanne” and “Kumbaya” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” and the complete “Joan Baez Songbook” and Joni’s “Circle Game.”
It was an evening for grown-ups, an evening about love – love of the world, of the word, and, especially, of women. What joy to listen to a poet who loves us so very much. Leonard Cohen adores women, good ones and bad ones, and it sounds, from his confessional songs, as if he’s had his share of both – ones who broke his heart (“There were so many people/you had to meet/without your clothes/Everybody knows…”) and the many whose hearts he trampled on. He’s open about that, describing himself in unflattering terms, with humour. He must have been a wicked ladies man in his day. Maybe he is still; I know from the intermission talk that many women were salivating. He writes with such aching honesty. I wondered about those old girlfriends – Suzanne, Maryanne, Alexandra – all of them crowding the stage last night. We all sang along with “So Long, Maryanne,” rocking from side to side. What would it be like to be her, and have your break-up story become a singalong anthem?
“Halleluhah,” “Bird on a Wire,” “First we take Manhattan,” “Tower of Song,” “Dance me to the end of Love” – on and on. Just for us, a last encore – not his own song, but a gorgeous warm version of “Save the last dance for me.” We will, Leonard. Promise.
It was a heavenly treat, and I was lucky to be there. Not just there, but in the fourth row – I got a good deal on a great single seat. Thank you, Leonard, for your gravitas and your graciousness, for the beauty of those timeless songs, for going strong – the concert was 3 1/2 hours long! – at 78, and for promising to come back. You sang in “Hallelujah” that you stood once in front of the Lord of Song. But instead, I sat in the fourth row last night and loved everything about him.