Bard of Montreal still serenades the women in his life
Leonard Cohen on stage at Mile One on April 20. — File photo by Rhonda Hayward/The Telegram
Several years back my father-in-law brought me an elasticized souvenir bracelet from a Basilica in southeast Texas. When I put it on, Our Lady of Guadeloupe (with Jesus and Joseph) peered up at me from 12 tiny rectangles skirting my wrist.
Two Saturdays ago, as I watched a larger-than-life image of Leonard Cohen coming on stage at Mile One, his jacket sleeve rode up over his right wrist, and I swear he was wearing the same bracelet.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe he was wearing a bracelet showing images of his 106-year-old Zen master. Or maybe it was images of the various women who have acted as muse for his hit songs.
You know, “Suzanne” — the first one, the unrequited love; “Marianne” (as in So Long); Janis Joplin (“Chelsea Hotel”); the second Suzanne, mother of his children (“The Gypsy’s Wife”); and Rebecca de Mornay (“Waiting for the Miracle”). But no, I’m sure it was Our Lady of Guadeloupe. But why would a well-off womanizing Buddhist Jew be wearing that?
I have no idea. But I do know that when Leonard Cohen’s son Adam was just 17, he was in a serious car accident on Guadeloupe in the Caribbean.
For months, Leonard sat at his hospital bedside reading him the Bible. According to the Sylvie Simmons biography of Leonard Cohen, “I’m Your Man,” when Adam finally woke up and spoke, he was unimpressed. “Dad, can you read something else?” were apparently his first words.
I was also less than impressed when I first heard Leonard Cohen’s voice.
“He sounds like he’s dead,” I said when my husband introduced me to his “Various Positions” album more than 20 years ago.
So, as my self-proclaimed atheist husband puttered around the house singing “Hallelujah,” I continued to listen to bands like The Moody Blues and REM.
But one day, I don’t know which one, I don’t know which year, I realized Leonard Cohen had grown on me. Maybe it was REM’s cover of “First We Take Manhattan.” Or maybe I had just grown up and appreciated lyrics that meant little to me back in the day.
Whatever it was, by the time Leonard Cohen played here five years ago, I was a big fan. But since I was also a sleep-deprived post-40-year-old mother of a breastfed surprise baby, I didn’t make it to Holy Heart.
So, this spring when I heard Leonard Cohen would be playing Mile One, I surprised my husband, the ultimate fan, with tickets. (Note: The tickets were not purchased in No-Spend February). My husband, in turn, surprised me by announcing that his Molson Canadian Hockey League championship game was on the same night. I wonder how Leonard would feel hearing beer league hockey trumped perhaps his last performance in Newfoundland. The man will, after all, turn 79 years old this fall.
So, with hockey-playing husband at Twin Rinks and my sister at my side at Mile One, I watched seven fedora-topped heads appear on stage on Saturday night. I had no idea which one belonged to Leonard until the lights came up and there he was looking more like Mr. MaGoo than a Westmount intellectual who has inspired musicals and ballets and been feted by royalty.
Eyes closed, knees crooked, bent at the waist, left hand to his mouth as if to deepen the already down-in-your-shoes baritone, Cohen dove right into “Dance Me to the End of Love,” which according to Sylvie Simmons, is about an orchestra in a concentration camp being forced to play as Jews were marched to the gas chambers.
The first time Cohen lifted his face from the shadow of his hat, the camera caught his eyes — a deer-in-the-headlights seconds before impact. He looked out into the darkened crowd and seemed quite astounded to be there. I don’t know about other people at the concert, but I felt a jolt of electricity go through me.
There were 10 people on stage, all — including the three backup female vocalists — wearing tailored suits. Each individual musician and singer was a master in his own right.
I was particularly taken with solos by Javier Mas from Barcelona on his fat Spanish guitar. As in his recordings, Cohen live goes easy on drums, heavy on keyboards and wild on violin and bass guitar.
The back-up vocalists were the Webb Sisters, from Kent, England and Sharon Robinson who has been writing lyrics and melodies with Cohen since they first performed together in 1979. For a man known for his womanizing, Cohen showed tremendous respect for Robinson on stage, removing his hat and placing it over his heart when she sang solo.
By the time intermission rolled around, the crowd floated out to the bathrooms and bar and the party continued.
However, as no bell announced the end of intermission, by the time the hundreds of people socializing in the corridors realized that the band was back on, we had to wait out the first post-intermission song behind a black curtain.
By the time we beat it past the curtain, Cohen was already one verse into “Suzanne.” I had not imagined hearing “Suzanne” sitting on a concrete step behind arena boards.
Then, while Leonard sang “Sisters of Mercy” (my favourite — inspired by two backpacking girls in Edmonton who were offered a hotel bed by Leonard; he sat up in a chair and wrote the song while they slept), we had to jump the same boards and find our way to our seats in the dark. I would highly recommend that Mile One adopt a warning bell like at the Arts and Culture.
Despite that snag, I arrived home happy and it’s been non-stop Leonard at our house ever since. I was playing “Songs From The Road,” featuring live versions of 12 of Cohen’s hits played at various venues around the world, when an Irish friend who said she was not familiar with Cohen dropped by for a visit.
“Don’t worry,” I told her. “You might not like him right away. His songs sort of have to grow on you.”
She listened thoughtfully without comment until the second to last song on the CD, “Hallelujah.”
“That’s the song from the Shrek movie,” she said.
Wow, I thought, Leonard Cohen’s songs really have penetrated society.
Susan Flanagan is a journalist who particularly enjoyed
“A Thousand Kisses Deep” Saturday night.
She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.