Leonard Cohen: Live in London

Leonard Cohen is without any shadow of a doubt, my all time favourite French Canadian Jew. For the benefit of those uninitiated in the genius that is Leonard Cohen, here’s a very quick single paragraph summary.

Having published his first book of poetry in Montreal in 1953 and his first novel in 1963 Cohen moved into the burgeoning folk scene in 1967 with the release his first album. All of his art has been sombre and contemplative with rich sexual and religious imagery throughout. This made him highly adorned by beatniks, pretentious 6th form students and morose teenagers (of which I was one). He was already seen as a mature artist by many of his peers on the late 60’s folk circuit. Cohen recorded albums throughout the late 60’s 70’s 80’s and early 90’s, although his output considerably slowed after the 70’s. In 1996 Cohen was ordained as a Zen Buddhist monk and retreated to a monastery. I feared that that would be that, but he emerged again in 2001 with 10 New Songs and another album in 2004.

If it wasn’t for the fact that his life long manager then lost his $5,000,000 retirement fund, things may still be quiet. I suspect this financial issue may well have been the driving force behind last year’s tour and this subsequent live album.

On this new album immense effort has been put into the musical arrangements of these classic Cohen songs for the perfect live performance. Cohen’s gravely tones are accompanied throughout by a highly talented and rehearsed bunch of minstrels.

Despite sounding cleverly improvised and profound, the in between song banter is obviously beautifully scripted, as I recall the exact same dialogue when I attended a gig a few days after this recording was put to tape. Cohen’s chatter with the crowd evokes the feeling of an intimate performance for his personal friends despite actually performing to a packed O2 arena.

The double album consists of 25 sublime Cohen songs perfectly arranged and delivered. Here’s a selection of some of the many fine moments:

The Future
I have always been fairly obsessed with Cohen’s poetic lyrics and am likely to quote them extensively throughout this review. Cohen has in fact censored his own lyrics on this particular version of the title track of his 1992 album. Here’s the original version:

Give me crack and anal sex
Take the only tree that's left
and stuff it up the hole
in your culture
Give me back the Berlin wall
give me Stalin and St Paul
I've seen the future, brother:
it is murder.
For this performance Cohen opts to replace the word “anal” with “casual” but little potency is lost.

Bird On The Wire
The original album version had only slight guitar accompaniment to the melancholic lyrics. This version has added organ and mandolin throughout and even incorporates great separate guitar and saxophone solos. Once again I feel the need to quote from this Cohen classic:

Like a baby, stillborn,
Like a beast with his horn
I have torn everyone who reached out for me.
Everybody Knows
The mandolin and pedal steel guitar mingle with the familiar pounding rhythm of this seminal 1988 track. Despite sounding very similar to the studio version an extra level of detail seems to have added, further enhancing the original version. Once again here’s some lyrics:

Everybody knows that you love me baby
Everybody knows that you really do
Everybody knows that you've been faithful
Ah give or take a night or two
Everybody knows you've been discreet
But there were so many people you just had to meet
Without your clothes
And everybody knows

In My Secret Life
One of Cohen and Sharon Robinson's more recent compositions features an out of synch duet where Cohen growls along with Robinson’s beautiful dulcet tones.

Who By Fire
A magnificent Spanish guitar introduction gives way to the opening verse and applause and I am unable control the goosebumps and the tingle that runs through my body. The audience perfectly respect the deathly silence during the dramatic pauses and an unexpected Hammond organ solo further entertains us before the climatic bass.

Hey That’s No Way To Say Goodbye
This live version is missing the cheesy female vocal “boings” from the original but takes advantage instead of the mandolin player and mouth harp.

Tower Of Song
I recall Leonard walking up to his pre-programmed keyboard and pushing the magic button that kicks of the great synthetic rhythm that immediatley identifies this song. (For anyone who has just read my damming review of the Pet Shop Boys, and their reliance on programmed keyboards, my hypocrisy can be noted.) Anyway it’s hard to suppress a wry smile when the crowd cheer following his dead pan delivery of the immortal lines:

I was born like this,
I had no choice,
I was born with the gift
of a golden voice.
Leonard encourages his backing vocalist to continue with their chanting “do dum dum dum de do dum dum” long after the song proper has come to an end and he teases us with his profession to finding the meaning of life. It isn’t “42” as I suspected, or even “How many roads must a man walk down”, but it is in fact: ”Do dum dum dum de do dum dum”. That’s cleared that one up.

This is perhaps one of Cohen’s best known songs and he plays it beautifully, following that original 1967 recording.
(See YouTube Video at the bottom of the blog)

The Gypsy’s Wife
This was not originally one of my favourite Cohen songs, but this sublime live version is one of the many highlights of this album.

Lack of exposure to commercial television and dirge radio has spared me from the inconvenience of being tainted with last years Karaoke cover version of this Cohen classic. This centre piece from Cohen 1984 album, “Various positions” is portrayed by the skill and wit of its original author as it should be. That musician’s perennial favourite trick of replacing a place name with their current venue always pleases the local audience and works its usual magic by embedding a London reference into the song.

As this concert was recorded shortly after the election of President Obama, has there ever been a more timely moment at which to deliver these lyrics?

It's coming through a hole in the air,
from those nights in Tiananmen Square.
It's coming from the feel
that this ain't exactly real,
or it's real, but it ain't exactly there.
From the wars against disorder,
from the sirens night and day,
from the fires of the homeless,
from the ashes of the gay:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

I’m Your Man
One of my all time favourite Cohen songs is depicted in all its full splendour with accompanying woodwind. The song also provided an ideal opportunity for the pun writers of the title of a collection of Cohen covers by admiring musicians, “I’m your fan”. Here are some words of wisdom from this standard:

If you want a lover
I’ll do anything you ask me to
And if you want another kind of love
Ill wear a mask for you
If you want a partner
Take my hand
Or if you want to strike me down in anger
Here I stand
I’m your man

I was going to mention a few other songs too, but I think I’ve been going on for long enough now.

I may no longer subscribe to the religious doctrines so eloquently professed in many of these exceptional songs, but their poetic power remains undiminished by my disbelief.