Remembering Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen on stage at Edinburgh Castle, Scotland 16 July 2008 (Photo by jonl1973 via Flickr)

Leonard Cohen on stage at Edinburgh Castle, Scotland 16 July 2008 (Photo by jonl1973 via Flickr)

Another loss has crushed the music community as we approach the end of 2016, this terrible year in which we also lost Prince and Bowie. Leonard Cohen passed away Monday at the age of 82. I could think of no better tribute than this review I wrote of his 2009 show at the Nokia Theater.

Leonard Cohen owns the stage at the Nokia Theater. Cohen is dapper in his grey suit, fedora and bolo tie, a look few men can pull off without it being obvious they are trying too hard. Cohen does not fit the suit. The suit fits him. He looks like he would be equally at home in either a smoky bookie joint or at the high rollers table.

It almost seems as if Leonard Cohen was born an old man. Even Cohen joked to the sold-out house, “It’s been a long time since I last set foot on stage at the tender young age of sixty.” This is a fortunate happenstance for the singer, as he does not have to try to hit the high notes of a younger man. Leonard Cohen has finally grown into his deep, sensuous, whisky-soaked voice. His performance was simultaneously subdued and intense. During particularly moving moments, he fell to his knees like a man used to kneeling, his aged alabaster hands held to his face as if clutching the memory of a cigarette.

He worked his way through his classics — “Bird on a Wire”, “My Secret Life”, and “Anthem.” The arrangement and vocal stylings rarely veered from his recordings. They did not need any tweaking; they were sheer perfection. By the time he finished the first set with “Waiting for the Miracle,” he had the audience in the palm of his hand, many of them moved to tears. Three and a half hours later, by the fourth encore, no one appeared to be going anywhere.

For the second set, Cohen returned to the dim, monochromatically lit stage with “Tower of Song.” In fact, it could even be described as mood lighting. It was subtle and romantic, sometimes washing over the band with fine sepia tones. It was the first concert I have attended where the Nokia Theater did not attempt to blind the audience with flashing lights aimed straight into our retinas.

The sound was also as crisp and clear as it has been to date. Either Nokia has found the bugs in the system, or the Nokia Theater was meant for the likes of Cohen rather than the likes of the Who. The sound quality enabled the audience to truly appreciate the fine musicianship of Cohen’s backing band as they meandered through his delicate Eastern-European-inspired arrangements. Particularly notable was the bandurria player, Javier Mas, whose music was showcased throughout the concert.

From Cohen’s finely pressed suit, to the lighting and the sound, every aspect of the show was impeccable. He was also exceedingly generous. Being that he only comes around every 15 years or so, he made sure the rapt audience got their money’s worth. He was also generous with the band, introducing them by name twice and allowing each their moment in the sun musically with short solos.

Cohen did something unusual during the set and stepped back twice to allow the backup singers to take center stage. His collaborator and co-writer on a number of tunes, Sharon Robinson, showed her incredible range with “Boogie Street.” Cohen used The Webb sisters’ angelic harmonies to symbolically become his voice for “If it be Your Will”

If it be your will
That I speak no more
And my voice be still
As it was before
I will speak no more
I shall abide until
I am spoken for

Cohen’s songs are woven with themes of judgement and redemption, confession and forgiveness rife with religious symbols. As in the often-covered “Bird on a Wire”

Like a baby stillborn,
Like a beast with his horn
I have torn everyone who reached out for me

But I swear by this song
And by all that I have done wrong
I will make it all up to thee

Other recurring symbols and subjects are dancing, light, gambling, flight, and death. And of course, love. It always comes back to love, sex and infidelity. As he loses himself in the music, one gets the impression that for him, these lyrics are not only words. In some way, for Cohen, these songs are religion. They are therapy. They are sex.

Cohen’s religious themes and poetic, old-fashioned phrasing are in strong juxtaposition to his occasionally prurient subjects. When he speaks of naked women, the word “naked” still has power; there is still a sense of stark nakedness. In fact, Cohen’s self-assured gunfighter delivery, his persona of part jazzman and part mobster gives his songs about women a sensuality even in their cruelty. He is the stylish and charismatic rogue that all of the women want. He will break your heart, but he will be a gentleman about it.

“Everybody Knows” is an example of Cohen at his most pessimistic, but it is not an anomaly. Cohen’s music is dark. It delves into the shadowy reaches of the human psyche. He explores our weaknesses and failings. But no matter how deep the music takes us, there is always a ray of hope. The song “Anthem” reveals that even within the flaws one finds purpose:

There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

Originally posted in LAist October 2009

Elise Thompson

About Elise Thompson

Born and raised in the great city of Los Angeles, this food, culture and music-loving punk rock angeleno wants to turn you on to all that is funky, delicious and weird in the city. While Elise holds down the fort, her adventurous alter ego Kiki Maraschino is known to roam the country in search of catfish.
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