Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen, the O2, London, 17-07-08

I haven't had an uninterrupted nights sleep in several days. I wonder if this is the half awake state of someone whose mind is not quite where it should be and whether that, in turn, means experiences are best seen under half sleepy eyes. I've also realised I write the kind of reviews for myself that I would not write for a magazine. The music takes me over and the reviews are not balanced. I know that. I don't choose to write in a detached way, I put it all out there. That's just me.

Most audiences are used to 9pm gig start times, often it's later. Last night it was 8pm and I sped into the arena only to miss the entrance of the Montreal troubadour by a mere moment. I remembered sitting in a field in Somerset a few weeks ago with the sun on my face as it set to the east and Leah turning to me and saying 'I hope he does Dance to the End of Love'. A moment later he made his entrance and started with that very song and we smiled in surprise and joy. As I emerged into the cavernous, but small compared to Glastonbury, O2 arena the opening verse of that song wafted across to my ears and I smiled again. Making my way to my seat, carefully down the steep concrete steps, the place was full to bursting, with not a seat to be had. I got to my row and saw a young dark-haired woman in white with an empty seat next to her. Smiling and contrite I politely asked the seat occupiers to let me pass through to my place. After the song was over I turned and the woman in white was gone. I thought I saw her sitting somewhere else but maybe I didn't, maybe she was a spirit guiding me to this synagogue of song.

I saw a small boy, no more than eight, being led by his parents to a seat. I saw a hunched over lady, in her eighties, nodding her head to the music. A middle class, middle aged crowd in a sterile grey venue surrounded me and I knew I would have trouble centering myself and my thoughts, feeling the hypnotic music as I had done in that field. It was almost like work at first. The music was not of the volume one is used to at gigs and certainly not like the housequake of Prince that I had seen on my last visit to the venue. It was sedate, not a rock concert by any stretch, and not just because the crowd were seated. And then I focused, on the cantor-like figure on the screen. An avuncular man in a pinstripe suit and sharp fedora, his kind open face smiling out to the masses, benevolently, with warmth and humility. Leonard Cohen didn't think this would be his retirement, having been led into performance by financial misadventure not of his own making. He surely couldn't have imagined the intense level of affection, reverence and appreciation that has greeted this current tour and at times seemed genuinely moved by the reception to his poetry set to music.

He has the songs, of that there's no doubt: from Tower of Song to So Long, Marianne, from First we Take Manhattan to Closing Time. And to Hallelujah, a song with its definitive version recorded by the son of a folk poet like himself. It takes a lot to quieten the noise of Londoners, that cynical breed. But you could have heard a pin drop when he recited, not sang, with sparse keyboard backing, Thousand Kisses Deep. To say he's a magnetic performer hardly does Cohen justice. Holding both hands to the microphone, going down on one knee to sing heartfelt lines, skipping off the stage; his creased wise face and silver hair sets him off as quite the charmer, even at 73. And that voice, it's all about that voice. Dylan gets on with it, rattling out song after song with barely pause for breath or admiration. He doesn't require worship, even though he gets it. Cohen doesn't require worship either but certainly leaves the spaces so they can be filled with respect and, even, laughter. He apologises for putting the audience out of their way 'geographically and financially'. He tells us he's 'not a man to keep things to himself'. That the last time he toured in 1994, aged 60, he was a 'young man making his way in the world'. All said in that rich, deep, hypnotic baritone, which envelopes you in sound from the minute you hear it to the minute he leaves the stage. He never missed a note or a cadence, never missed a cue nor a step. The nine-piece band were consummate and yet I had eyes only for him, like everyone else.

It's cruel, really. That I should get the chances to experience this so late in his career. Surely I won't have many chances after this? Not because he's infirm, far from it. He skipped offstage like a schoolgirl on several occasions and appears to be in great shape. Not touring for 14 years will give a man that wide-eyed enthusiasm for reconnecting with his audience. There's a certain weariness about some older stars, like the Stones. They do deliver but they've been on the road now with little break since 1989. That's longer than most bands entire careers. Hundreds upon hundreds of shows. Being away from it, taking in real life, being ordained as a Buddhist monk, as Cohen has been; it has made coming back that much sweeter for him. A standing ovation after Hallelujah, through my glassy tearful eyes, and the golden voice led us to the gate. It was a moving, profound evening, completely different to Glastonbury. That was an evening that defies description. A freeing experience outdoors with a breeze and a setting sun. Even in this cold, concrete venue, he reached out to me for those three hours and I took my place next to him for the rest of the journey.

Dance me to the end of love
The Future
Ain't no cure for love
Bird on the wire
Everybody knows
In my secret life
Who By Fire
Hey, that's no way to say goodbye


Tower of song
The Gypsy's Wife
Boogie street
I'm your man
Take this waltz
First we Take Manhattan


Sisters of Mercy
If it be your will
A thousand kisses deep (recitation)

encore 2

So long, Marianne
Closing Time

encore 3
I Tried To Leave You
Whither Thou Goest