I remember it was cold. Very cold. And as the sun slipped defeated behind the horizon, it got even colder. So cold that when he returned to the stage after the intermission, he was wearing a scarf. And we were all concerned for him.
I also remember how frail he looked. This was the fifth time I’d seen him in concert, but he looked so much older than the last time I’d seen him (in 2009). He seemed to shiver as the evening chill whipped across the stage.
He smiled and bowed at us and was greeted with euphoria. And he hadn’t even sung a word yet.
But when he started to sing, all the frailty was replaced by authority. Every word was crystal clear. Every line was a poem, every song a soulful expression. He was charisma personified.
Soon we were so wrapped up in his songs that we forgot about the cold. (Actually, we didn’t. It was absolutely baltic in Dublin that evening. Outdoor seated concerts in Dublin in September are not a good idea. But the magic on the stage made the cold almost bearable.)
Leonard Cohen was 77 when he performed in Dublin last September. Since he resumed touring back in 2008, he has become the elder statesman on the concert circuit. However, his concerts aren’t museum exhibitions. Cohen is a creative artist who is still creating. This time round, he was touring his wonderful new album, Old Ideas.
There were many memorable performances that night. Sharon Robinson’s singing of “Alexandra Leaving” was breathtaking. “Take This Waltz” led, inevitably, to communal waltzing in the aisles. “Hallelujah” was a prayerful performance that reclaimed the song from the Pop Idol brigade. And the beautiful “Light as the Breeze” was finally making it on to the set list.
For me, one of Cohen’s most interesting songs is “The Future”, from the 1992 album of the same name. I had avoided Cohen’s music for a long time. I’d heard all those jokes about his graveyard lyrics and his monotonous singing, that he should include razor blades with his albums. It all just seemed a bit too intense; I had enough heavy lyrics with my Dylan, Reed, Costello and Culture Club albums, after all.
Then around 1991, I picked up Cohen’s I’m Your Man album in a discount bin in the local record store. I took it home and gave it a listen. (I forgot to buy the razor blades!)
It was a revelation. Not only was the music catchy and infectious, the lyrics were hilarious. The deadpan delivery perfectly suited the album’s mood. Could this be the same dreary moaner with his funeral dirges whom I’d been avoiding for so long? This guy singing about his gift of a golden voice, promising to wear a mask for you, listening to Hank Williams coughing all night long?
Of course, the inevitable journey of musical discovery then began. First, a greatest hits collection was unearthed. Then began the systematic trawl through the back catalogue. As I discovered more songs, I began to see why he had the reputation for being a tad, shall we say, ser-i-ous. Don’t bring Songs of Love and Hate to your Christmas party, folks! But there were also songs of pristine beauty, from 1967’s “Suzanne” to 1988’s “Take This Waltz”. There were plenty of diamonds in this particularly dark mine.
In 1992, Cohen released The Future. A somewhat more disjointed and inconsistent album than I’m Your Man, it nevertheless includes some of Cohen’s most famous latter-day anthems, including “Waiting for the Miracle”, “Democracy”, “Closing Time” and, appropriately enough, “Anthem”. Three of the songs were included on the soundtrack to Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers.
The album kicked off with its title track, an alarming portrait of a misanthrope in torment:
Give me back my broken night,
My mirrored room, my secret life.
It’s lonely here,
There’s no one left to torture.
This is not some clichéd Cohenesque hermit in a smoky bedsit, however. In his previous album, Cohen sang of trying to take Manhattan and then Berlin. In this song, the singer has everybody in his crosshair sights, including the woman lying beside him:
Give me absolute control
Over every living soul.
And lie beside me, baby.
That’s an order.
The early 1990s were a reasonably optimistic time. The Velvet Revolution of 1989 had seen the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Communist Bloc. In the West, Thatcher and Reagan had left office. Change and clichés were in the air. The fin-de-siècle spirit of the times looked ahead to the future and the new millennium.
Cohen also looked to the future, with rather less optimism:
I’ve seen the future, brother. It is murder.
Of course, 1992 was the year of the L.A. riots. Seeing that turmoil on his doorstep causes Cohen to imagine the “breaking of the ancient Western code”. The song juxtaposes the riots on the streets with the domestic riots taking place in every home, a day when “the blizzard of the world has crossed the threshold”. (In another song on the album, he refers to the “homicidal bitchin’ that goes down in every kitchen to determine who will serve and who will eat”. Not exactly dinner party tunes, then.)
The song’s most memorable lines offer a vivid portrayal of anarchy:
There’ll be phantoms,
There’ll be fires on the road,
And the white man dancing.
You’ll see a woman hanging upside down,
Her features covered by a fallen gown.
No wonder the song popped up on the Natural Born Killers soundtrack!
(The phrase “white man dancing” always jumped out at me and later became an inspiration for one of my short stories, included in A Blanket of Blues. He’s changed the lyric in concert now to “the white girls dancing”, to give the sublime Webb Sisters a cue to do cartwheels on the stage. And they say the old curmudgeon has no sense of humour!)
Despite the severe lyrics, the song bounces along with an irrepressible beat and an almost-singalong chorus. As Cohen remarked, the song is “quite a dark, demented lyric set to a rather jaunty tune, moving briskly forward, which mitigates the darkness”. (Independent on Sunday, 12 October, 1997)
Bob Dylan, that other chronicler of anarchy and apocalypse, was apparently a bit concerned about this song. Cohen later recalled: “Dylan said to someone, who reported it to me, that it was an evil song. That kind of alarmed me. I don’t want to add to the evil in the world.” (ibid.)
In the midst of all the chaos, the song does offer hope. Cohen is one of the great explorers of the heart’s longing, and he has no doubt about what will remain when all else has fallen:
Love’s the only engine of survival.
Listening to song in chilly Dublin last September, I was thinking that we could have done with some “fires on the road” that evening. I was also thinking how interesting it was to listen in 2012 to a song that in 1992 predicted a future that has not yet come to pass. Sure, there have been plenty of theatres of murder, bloodshed and carnage in different parts of the word in the last twenty years, but the extensive collapse of society that this song portrays has not yet happened.
Of course, Cohen the songwriter knows well that he’s not a reporter; he portrays the future using evocative brushstrokes and impressionistic hues, not a timetable of specific events. Last-day prophets of doom always have a lot of explaining to do on the morning after the last day. (Remember how the Rapture rabble tried to untangle their theological knots after 21 May, 2011.) By keeping his vision of the future vague and menacing, where “things are going to slide, slide in all directions”, Cohen ensures it retains its power all these years later.
And its lyrics will still resonate many years into the future.