Ahead of a new film about the history and the legacy of the ultimate song of faith and desire, Hallelujah – read about it tomorrow, and come back on Friday for an extended discussion with the great Cohen interpreter, Judy Collins – what better way to warm up than to return to the first of three tours in four years where Leonard Cohen reminded us of his genius and generosity.
In this 2009 concert, we learnt many things about life and love and faith and how it’s possible for a man in his 70s to skip off stage after three hours. None who saw shows on that tour will forget it, though some of us who attempted to skip home are still paying the price of not being Leonard Cohen.
Sydney Entertainment Centre, January 28
IS IT TIME, as one of my friends suggested afterwards, for the rest of us to consider a lifetime of yoga or a frolic in the Chelsea Hotel? A spell in a mountaintop Buddhist monastery or on Hydra? Would any or all of these get us a little closer to being as gracious, as elegant, as limber, as smart, as - dammit all, the man is in his ‘70s! - effortlessly sexy as Leonard Cohen?
I don't know but I'd happily die trying after practically floating out of the Entertainment Centre alongside a young woman who was literally flapping hands against her quick beating heart while my phone chimed with a message from another friend saying "I have seen God. He skips like a lad. He sings like honey. I swoon. I am undone."
Effusive? Yes, but nonetheless appropriate after spending three hours in the company of a man who in a way no other poet or songwriter could, spoke of desire ("I loved you when you opened/Like a lily to the heat"), who sang of its consequences ("You left when I told you I was curious/I never said that I was brave"), who told of us regrets ("Like a baby, stillborn/like a beast with his horn/I have torn everyone who reached out for me”) and who laughed at himself (“Well my friends are gone and my hair is grey/I ache in the places where I used to play").
Oh yes, he is funny. Sometimes gently, a smile playing at the corners of his mouth; often with a sharpness dangerous to those spouting humbug and cant, as in the pungent Democracy. And if the between song patter is well rehearsed now it is no less amusing to hear him explain that in the years since we last saw him, he had been studying religions "but cheerfulness kept breaking through".
In arrangements mostly sympathetic and often witty (except the easy listening saxophone), Cohen sings those languorous melodies in a voice lower and more gravelly than in his relative youth. He defers to the excellent players around him, in particular Spanish guitar master, Javier Mas, leaves space for the no less talented trio of singers and doffs his hat gracefully at every ovation. It’s nothing, he says, you’re too kind.
But when at the interval you can sit back and think, good God there was nothing but gems in that first hour (from Dance Me To The End Of Love through Who By Fire to Anthem) and we haven't even had Suzanne, If It Be Your Will or Hallelujah yet, you know you’re on the way to something special. And we were.
Set 1 1. Dance Me to the End of Love 2. The Future 3. Ain't No Cure for Love 4. Bird on the Wire 5. Everybody Knows 6. In My Secret Life 7. Who By Fire 8. Chelsea Hotel #2 9. Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye 10. Anthem
Set 2 11. Tower of Song 12. Suzanne 13. The Gypsy's Wife 14. The Partisan 15. Boogie Street 16. Hallelujah 17. I'm Your Man 18. A Thousand Kisses Deep [recitation] 19. Take This Waltz
Encore 1 20. So Long Marianne 21. First We Take Manhattan
Encore 2 22. Famous Blue Raincoat 23. If It Be Your Will 24. Democracy
Encore 3 25. I Tried to Leave You 26. Wither Thou Goest
TOMORROW: the story of Hallelujah, the song that grew and grew.
FRIDAY: Judy Collins and Leonard Cohen, two lives, two careers, entwined.
Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song. Screens from July 14 in selected cinemas.