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"Poetry is just the evidence of life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash." — Leonard Cohen
February 19, 2009:Leonard Cohen's set to appear on an American stage for the first time in 15 years. We're in New York City — anyplace else would be blasphemous, right? The speculations about why he's stayed away for such a long time are as rich as the reasons he's back — save the gossip for tabloids and toilet talk. There are only a handful of musicians as significant as Cohen, who rose to fame from the Canadian folk scene some 53 years ago as a poet, musician and novelist. And, as far as lyricists go, he's arguably on a level all his own — him and, say, Yeats anyway. Now 74 years old (spry as hell and urbane cool in Armani), Cohen's a living legend, mythologized, a transient and ambiguous seducer who can bring you to tears. It's always been within his torment that fans find resolution.
The walk to the newly remodeled Beacon Theatre, broken in by Paul Simon just a week earlier, is morning-commute intense; even the sidewalks of Broadway can't contain the droves. Scalpers are out of tickets; throngs of people have shown up, many from out of state, with hopes of getting in. A couple guys have wads of cash the size of Big Macs in their fists: "Hey, 800 bucks for your ticket, man. Got it right here. I'm a real fan; you're too young to get in!" Maybe he said, "You're too young to get it." Either way, there's desperation.
The word priceless has been raped, sure, but if he and the other would-be attendees had the dough, anyone with a ticket could name their price. People are crying already — not sobbing, just a tear here and there. A couple of hippies run into each other on the way in — haven't seen each other since the '60s. They hug in the middle of the sea — we don't even get our tickets scanned — the current of humanity sweeps us inside.
We stumble into actor-comedian Richard Belzer (Law & Order: SVU) at the door, then bump into him again coming out of the bathroom, and then once more at the bar right before curtain call. "My autograph really isn't worth that much," he smirks — squinting through his sunglasses. "That makes two of us." He follows as we plow to find our seats.
When the house lights come dim, the music starts. Cohen appears — one second he's not onstage, the next he floats up to the mic, like a specter. It takes the audience a moment to realize this. He's brooding and romantic, as is the music and the lighting. A prelude to "Dance Me to the End of Love" drifts into the room. You often hear of mood and ambience ... well, this is meta mood.
"Speak to them, angels," Cohen says to his backup singers — Sharon Robinson and the Webb sisters — removing his fedora and bowing to the trio. His age has finally caught up to his voice. His smile is fractured. He's frail but would sooner float than fall.
The band is tight — world-class, to be sure. The overly emotive sax-clarinet-keyboards guy is awkwardly distracting, but he's got chops. Then again, his name is Dino, so what do you expect? Guitarist Bob Metzger's skilled meanderings and chopped strums are accented by Spanish multi-instrumentalist Javier Mas, who switches between bandurria, laud, archilaud and 12-string guitar, providing a key element of Cohen's signature early sound. Drummer Rafael Gayol and bandleader-bassist Roscoe Beck hold it all together. Aside from Dino, egos are not invited.
But all eyes are on the man in black, who introduces some songs with solemn readings:
I swear all I've done wrong,
I swear in this song,
I've made it up to thee.
The irony of lyrics written decades ago juxtaposed with the reality of this show is uncanny sometimes, as when, by the end, he introduces "I Tried To Leave You." Then again a writer — a tortured monk-poet — like Cohen has a line for everything. Lyrics he wrote for himself and for lovers (Janis Joplin) are addressed to this intimate crowd and they feel privately ours. "Chelsea Hotel No. 2" brings the crowd together one more time — there's magic happening. The audience sings along softly, some just mouth the words as to not taint the room. And just about anytime New York is mentioned people cheer, clap, hoot and cry.
Those were the reasons,
And that was New York,
We were running for the money and the flesh.
Cohen leads the crowd through more than three hours and 40 years of material. We're getting our money's worth; we're getting an education; we're fucking entranced. The show gives a whole new meaning to what a hit song is — 'cause Cohen's got hits, and each one of 'em hits the soul. It's been more than an hour and, aside from introducing the band, Cohen hasn't addressed the audience directly. It's been about the music — making up for lost time — or maybe he's just setting us up for the poetic blow to the gut.
At one point, the band disappears into the void and Cohen steps to the front of the stage. A soft spotlight focuses in. Then, pure poetry; a line from "Anthem," a brief stanza that can break a man in half. In a low growl:
Forget your perfect offering,
There is a crack in everything.
That's how the light gets in.
It's a soul-sinking line that produces a united "Whoa" from the audience — more felt than heard. The show could've ended right there. But it's only the end of the first set — there are still two hours ahead of us. My heart breaks for the guy who couldn't buy his way in. Maybe he did, who knows? But he's seen Cohen before anyway. Though I doubt he's ever seen a 74-year-old man skip off a stage, on beat, no less. Each time Cohen leaves and comes back onstage, he skips ... like a kid. And onstage, he drops to his knees — equal parts James Brown and Catholic confession — shuffles his feet and twitches his hips. You can't gripe about old age after seeing that. You have to put everything in check actually.
Reminiscent of the relationship Hendrix has with Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower," Jeff Buckley's rendition of Cohen's "Hallelujah" is one of those rare times when a cover betters the original. But the song still kills and people here'd know it anyway. You might call it the climax, and Cohen would dig that, but the whole show should be considered as such — some sort of ethereal, tantric emotional orgasm.
Near the end of the night, Cohen reads from his poem, A Thousand Kisses Deep. A quiet rattle of pens falling to the floor or getting tucked away is heard. We're surrounded by other writers — each silently questioning whether we'll be able to pick up the pen again. It's hard to write anything after hearing verse like that. How will you ever come close? It's this kind of stuff that's worth $800 to some people just to hear it read by its writer.
All soaked in sex, and pressed against
The limits of the sea.
I saw there were no oceans left
For scavengers like me.
We made it to the forward deck,
I blessed our remnant fleet,
And then consented to be wrecked
A thousand kisses deep.
It's the stuff of legend.
Leonard Cohen performs Saturday, May 9, at the Fox Theatre, 2211 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-471-6611.
Travis R. Wright is arts and culture editor of Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.