AAhhh.. the early seventies. Bell bottomed cords and paisley. Going to the Victoria Coffee lounge where they served Nescafe in earthenware cups and lit the place with candles jammed into the necks of old wine bottles. Sitting around til dawn having D&Ms. And the soundtrack to it all was Leonard Cohen. His dark eyes glowered soulfully out from the cover of Songs Of Leonard Cohen propped against the side of the sofa as the needle cracked and popped its way across the LP:
Suzanne takes you down to her place by the river,
you can hear the boats go by you can spend the night beside her...
I haven't listened to him in years. He caught absolutely the angst and self absorption of early adulthood; he gave it all meaning and set it in a bigger context. The last album I bought was Death Of A Ladies' Man, and then I sort of lost track of him. I'd found another even bigger context.
But a couple of weeks ago I was given a DVD called I'm Your Man, a film centred on the tribute concert Came So Far For Beauty held in Sydney in 2005. The DVD weaves together historic footage of Leonard Cohen, interviews with him and footage from the concert. Cohen himself doesn't sing on the DVD until the end when he does the vocals as U2 performs Tower of Song. By his own admission he is not a great singer. His songs are poems set to tunes. Listening to these well known pieces after all these years, I was struck by two things: 1) He is a very good poet indeed. Perhaps even a great poet. 2) the tunes he has set his poems to are also very, very good. Leonard Cohen is one of those artists whose original versions of his own songs are often eclipsed by the covers of them by other artists. And so it was in the Came So Far For Beauty concert. Rufus Wainwright's version of Hallelujah is perhaps not as gut wrenchingly haunting as Jeff Buckley's but it still beautiful. Martha Wainwright's peculiar voice brings meaning and depth to The Traitor which Cohen himself had not managed to convey. A highlight of the DVD for me was found in the special features: Teddy Thompson rehearsing Tonight Will Be Fine and making of the song all that Leonard Cohen intended.
Interwoven were the interviews with this wise old man. I hadn't realised that since I departed the fold of his faithful he had spent time as a Zen monk. It shows. He has, in old age, a humility and a self awareness that is not common in people as famous as he is. His explanations of the songs were illuminating. Speaking of The Traitor, for example, he says the song is about
"The feeling we have of betraying some mission we were mandated to fulfill and being unable to fulfill it; then coming to understand that the real mandate was not to fulfill it; and the real courage is to stand guiltless in the predicament in which you find yourself."
It's one of the few concert CDs I have listened to twice in the same week. More in fact, for bits of it. I went to my shelf and found my copy of Leonard Cohen: Selected Poems, which I bought in 1971 and last opened in (I think) 1979, and over the past few days have read a few again. The old guy is good. Very good. There's no doubt about it
PS. Just as a matter of interest, seeing as I've given you links to two covers of Hallelujah, here is Leonard Cohen singing it from (I'd guess) about 1980.