I saw Leonard Cohen in concert, at Radio City last Sunday, part of his extensive “Old Ideas” world tour. A friend wanted to go. I won’t admit how much the tickets cost—something ridiculous—but then I read son Matt’s review of the tour in Rolling Stone, and was convinced. Later he said, “It doesn’t make any difference if he’s bad or good; he’s an icon of our times. I saw Bob Dylan and he was terrible, but I’m still glad I did.” I saw Dylan around the same time, and can agree, although have never gotten over the rotten Neil Young show that ruined him for me forever.
Well it turned out to be one of the greatest musical experiences in a lifetime of great musical experiences. Cohen is 78, and instead of being one of those performers whose later shows generate nostalgia for his younger self, he’s at the top of his form. Growing instead of fading, this show is—as it should be—a synthesis of everything he’s learned over the years. It’s as if he was always meant to be 78.
Perhaps Cohen’s deepening artistry has to do with his practice of Zen Buddhism, which I gently mocked in a post in 2008. Actually it wasn’t the practice, which I certainly respect, that bugged me, but the sanctimonious rhetoric that characterizes so much writing about New Age pursuits. Of course Louise Bourgeois’s artistry grew with age as well, and she was (in my experience) as neurotic as they come—sometimes delightfully and other times not-so-delightfully so. Fortunately, for those of us who love her work, the early childhood issues on which it was based remained unresolved.
A lean, elegant figure, Cohen is a showman, and from the moment he walks on, in his (no doubt) bespoke suit and fedora, the stage is his. The show was a generous 3 ½ hours long – and I have a feeling he took on the length as a challenge: “Can I keep you on the edge of your seat for 3 ½ hours? Yes I can.” Cohen is also a collaborator who surrounds himself with musicians who are, if not his equal, close to it, and showcases their talents, often kneeling in front of them, fedora to heart, as they perform (he nimbly dropped to his knees and bounced back up many times during the evening, and at the end, skipped off the stage). His back-up singers, the ethereal Webb Sisters, whose intertwined harmonies often sound like one divine voice, were the perfect foil for his gravelly vocals. They were joined by Sharon Robinson, who has co-written a number of Cohen’s songs, and whose solo, “Alexandra Leaving,” brought down the house. No obligatory applause here. Other standouts were traditional Spanish guitarist Javier Mas, from Barcelona, and Alexandru Bublitchi on violin, whose inter-weavings were almost as tight as those of the Webb Sisters.
And yet, after spending 3 ½ hours with him, Leonard Cohen remains unknowable. I’m sure each concert on the tour is exactly the same: same music, same patter, with no opportunity for spontaneity—not that it matters. He spoke of wanting to start smoking again when he’s 80, yet I’m sure he doesn’t mean it, as meditation practice is all about the breath—master the breath, master your life. He just wants to appear to be someone who would smoke, as if trying to associate himself with a little bit of decadence he can no longer muster. I always thought authenticity was the key to art, but in Cohen’s case the mask works. He gives everything, and reveals nothing. Way to go.