Monday, June 16, 2008

The Secret Chord: Leonard Cohen Live in Dublin

Leonard Cohen summed himself up in one pithy comment during his triumphant concert in the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham, on Friday night, when the 73 year old poet of romantic despair played for three hours before an enraptured crowd whom he held in the palm of his hand.

Sharon Robinson, Charlie Webb and Hattie Webb, Cohen’s backing singers, were singing the final coda of Tower of Song, one of Cohen’s many masterpieces, when the great man ad libbed.

“Friends,” he said, “that’s what it’s all about. De do dah dum dum, de doo dah dum.” Cohen smiled, and the crowd laughed politely (in contrast with the roars of appreciation that met him when he sang the famous line in Tower of Song about being “born with the gift of a golden voice”), but in those sixteen words Cohen summed up his whole approach to life, music and art.

Cohen is famous as a poet and lyricist, but the musicality of his material is unjustly ignored. When you look at the body of work, although the organ drone of Cohen’s own voice is obviously limited (you could never call Cohen a coloratura singer), the arrangements are much more beautiful than they’re given credit for. The dreamy waltzes like Dance Me to the End of Love or So Long, Marianne, the psychotic rock-disco of First, We Take Manahattan, the fragile melodies of Bird on a Wire or If It Be Your Will, the in joke of the famous lines in Hallelujah – “it goes like this/the fourth, the fifth/the minor fall, the major lift/the baffled king composing Hallelujah,” where the lyric is a commentary on the path of the melody. These are all really remarkable tunes.

Cohen may be a wordsmith but he is very clear on the distinction between a lyric and a poem. In a love poem, you can never use “baby” as a form of address. In a lyric, it’s as vital a tool as a hammer is to a shoemaker.

Paul Simon was once asked about the “lie-li-lies” of his song The Boxer, and Simon commented that they represented a “failure of songwriting.” Cohen knows better, and so did Paul McCartney when he wrote Hey Jude. There are no other words that fit as well. So it is with “De do dah dum dum, de doo dah dum” – that’s exactly what you hear when you’re paying your rent, every day, in the Tower of Song. These are the perfect words.

But another part of Cohen’s immense charm is that he resists this himself. An artist could be lauded by pseuds and fools because he writes lines as semantically dense as “All men will be sailors then/Until the sea shall free them,” but Cohen knows that “De do dah dum dum, de doo dah dum” is every bit as legitimate an expression. In his ad lib Cohen was having a little joke to himself to those who would praise him for what he is not.

And he was putting the limelight on his fellow performers as well. During the show Cohen made a point of introducing the band who were so vital a part of the experience – this was more than just a show – and he also gave due prominence to the backing singers. Sharon Robinson sang Boogie Street solo, and the Webb sisters took over from Cohen himself on If It Be Your Will, singing it quite beautifully. While they sang Cohen himself remained on stage, his fedora hat clasped over his heart, the man himself enraptured by the beauty of the singing.

It was a gesture of supreme courtesy and typical of the man. Cohen is a gent of an old school. He flattered the crowd with a reference to Dublin as a city of writers of poets (although he sadly resisted the temptation to repeat his famous 1973 rendition of Kevin Barry in the National Concert Hall) and always seemed rather surprised that so many people turned up to hear him sing. The crowd, for their part, were astonished that the only sign of age that he betrayed was a certain frailty around the neck when shown on the big screen, but a seventy-three year old man that can deliver three hours of transcendence on an open-air stage isn’t doing too badly.

At the end of the show Cohen, courteous to the last, commended everyone to drive home safely, and not to catch a summer cold. The crowd spilled out down the hill from the hospital, along the quays through some of the oldest streets in the city, quiet and awed as a congregation going home from a religious event which, in many ways, they were. First, we took Rathfarnham; then we took Crumlin...

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