Leonard Cohen

I came to Leonard Cohen very late. For many years, he was the gruff-sounding bloke who had two songs on the ‘Natural Born Killers’ soundtrack. Then in 1999, Tori Amos put a cover of the heavenly ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ on the b-side of her ‘Glory of the 80s’ single. This deeply moving song led me to investigate Cohen a little more. I discovered that he’d written Jeff Buckley’s transcendent ‘Hallelujah’; that his song ‘Suzanne’ had inspired R.E.M.’s ‘Hope’ on 1998’s ‘Up’ album; that he was exalted by artists from U2 and R.E.M. to kd Lang and Rufus Wainwright. My interest piqued, I listened to him properly for the first time.

I still wasn’t a massive fan, however. I was only half-listening, really, wanting to hear what these others heard in him rather than approaching him wide open to his charms. So in 2008 when it was announced that he would be playing London’s O2, I was rather bemused. Surely these intense, enormously literate folk songs wouldn’t translate to the arena where I had seen Madonna, Rihanna, Kylie Minogue?! I didn’t go and I thought little more of it.

It was the release the year after of the ‘Live in London’ album, recorded at the O2, which changed everything. This was one of those albums that could change your life. Cohen was funny, engaging, genial and seemed to possess a wisdom which came directly from some long-obscured and forgotten source. More importantly, something clicked and the songs burst into technicolour life for me – I got it and felt foolish that I ever hadn’t. The big secret? Cohen has a reputation as a miserablist, a gloomy troubadour who surrounds himself in darkness. It’s an easily understood misunderstanding – that voice repels many casual listeners from the off – but it is certainly wrong. Instead, Cohen is one of the most funny, most magnetic and most humane songwriters I have ever encountered. That latter point is perhaps the key one – Cohen has such a tender understanding of the human condition that it frequently proves disarming, bringing me to the point of tears. His genius is in showing us our flaws, inspiring us to reach for ideals that seem just out of reach, yet never seeming superior or hectoring. Instead you get the sense that he’s learning too and just has the humble grace to want to share some of what he knows.

So, when he announced a date in Kent this year, I had little hesitation in buying tickets. There are few artists who could cause me to part with £200 and endeavour to travel to Kent and back for an outdoor gig in September. As it happens, at the last minute the gig was moved to Wembley Arena – far more convenient for me, yet post-gig I can’t help think that sitting beneath the stars at Hop Farm watching Leonard would have been a truly once in a lifetime experience. A minor quibble, however, because last night’s gig was undoubtedly one of the best I have ever witnessed. Cohen was everything I expected, everything I hoped for. You could tell that some in the audience were angry about the late venue change – Cohen addressed them after the first song, apologising and referring to ‘invisible hands of commerce’ which he never got to ‘shake or crush’. Instantly, you could feel the atmosphere change – all the anger disappeared as 12,000 people fell in love with the 77 year old on stage.

Watching Cohen made the modern obsession with mocking ‘authenticity’ seem infinitely mean-spirited and short-sighted. Here was a man who clearly approached his craft as high art, giving himself entirely to its calling with a refreshing and seductive humility and self-deprecation.  At one point he praised his backing singers (a phrase which seems almost insulting, such was their brilliance and centrality to the show), begging them to never leave as without them, ‘no-one would come to see my show’. The musicians on stage all clearly had a profound respect for one another, a spark amongst them which frequently ignited into a dazzling flame. So often I felt that I was witnessing true brilliance, a transcendental magic which made me feel privileged to even be in the same room.

The setlist was nigh-on perfect – a couple of favourites were missing, but there was not one song that I would have lost in their favour. How could you question a 3 and a half hour long set from a man approaching 80, displaying a playful energy which sometimes surprised in its bursts? I also fell madly in love with The Webb Sisters and Sharon Robinson, ethereal voices and artists generously given many changes to shine.

The video above sums the evening up very well – the warmth of spirit, the rapturous communal air. Cohen took us all somewhere else; somewhere where we are better. “This makes it all worth it”, he said at one point, directed to The Webb Sisters and Sharon Robinson as their beatific harmonies transformed a simple ‘da doo doo doo’ into a moment of towering elegance. That’s exactly how I felt as I left Wembley Arena. Artists like Cohen (a strange sentiment for someone so peerless) make everything all right.

It’s somehow fitting that Cohen’s new album should be due on the last day of January. It catches the despondency of the first month of the year while being in that almost-glorious period when you’re not quite so skint and the new dawn of February is near. Cohen tends to find some humour, however black and however resigned, in his darkness (and the darkness does tend to be greatly overstated anyway). He is very rarely difficult to listen to; very frequently witty, provocative, entertaining and moving. Sometimes all in the same song. He also often manages a righteous ire about the world without drawing the wrath of those who dislike ‘statements’. His live album from London a couple of years back is one of my all-time favourites – after 2 hours in his company you wish it was a regular engagement.

This piece raises the question of whether the ‘old’ can write pop. I always find this to be a very strange thing to ask, involving so many assumptions and pre-conceptions (the number of young artists making dreadful pop surely dwarves the number of old ones?) With classic songwriters of the kind Jones lists, it seems obvious that their new songs would reflect their advancing years and younger listeners would perhaps struggle to find things in them to identify with. However artists like Bowie, Dylan, Elton John and McCartney have certainly produced great albums past their 50s – indeed, it’s of note that they are all of a generation which tended towards producing their worst material in the 80s when they were in their late 30s and 40s. If there is any narrative to be had of this generation (who are, lest we forget, those who largely blazed the trail for ‘pop’ as we currently understand it) it is of a rise, a reign, a decline and finally a satisfied and satisfying acceptance of their position, status and age.

Such questions do always tend to involve the ‘classic’ songwriters and ignore artists who continue to be ‘current’ on the pop charts. Madonna’s ‘Hung Up’ and ‘4 Minutes’, released when she was 47 and 50 respectively, are (chart-wise) the most successful singles of her career. For all the debates over when artists such as she, U2, Prince or REM were at their peak, few without pre-determined chips would claim they had produced nothing of note in their latter years. There can be no doubt that as time progresses, the number of middle-aged and ‘old’ artists on the charts is only going to increase – from Kylie and Jennifer Lopez in the next decade through to Gaga, Beyonce and Rihanna, it would be a fool who bets against more and more great pop being produced by near-pensioners in the next thirty years.

The neat response to the question? Cohen was 50 when he released ‘Hallelujah’, the song which 20 years later became a number one for Alexandra Burke. Few would have anticipated such a thing at the time – who knows what treasures pop artists of the future might find on his new album?

Leonard Cohen is a rare thing: a pop grandfather who just gets better with age