Only a few weeks before the news broke about his death, Leonard Cohen was the subject of a piece in The New Yorker, which detailed the ailments that had kept him off the road the past couple of years; compressed fractures of the back that did not deter him from making music. And so it was that he managed to write songs and complete a new album, his 14th, entitled You Want it Darker and released just days before he passed away in Los Angeles.
Even at age 82, and in need of special equipment to get around and to be able to sit more or less comfortably, and even though he told the writer – New Yorker’s editor, David Remnick – that he was “ready to die,” he could not contain his passion for creating songs and performing them.
That devotion to his craft – and to his audiences – is well documented with various films and videos here on Qello Concerts.
He got started late – for rock. He was 33 when he swerved from a successful career as a poet and sex symbol to singer-songwriter, in 1967. He wasn’t much of a singer, and he knew it. Many years later, when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he paraphrased a famous line about Bruce Springsteen: “I have seen rock and roll future and his name is Bruce Springsteen.” Said Cohen: “I have seen the future of rock and roll, and it is not Leonard Cohen.”
But his songs have influenced a generation of introspective and romantic songwriters and singers, including Judy Collins (“Suzanne”), Joe Cocker (“Bird on the Wire”), Jennifer Warnes (“First We Take Manhattan”), and hundreds who’ve sung his “Hallelujah.”
Beyond his songs, there is his charm, charisma, eloquence, humor, honesty, and an inability to condescend. All of that was on display, in spades, on stage at the Isle of Wight rock festival in 1970. The scene, on that British island, was chaotic. The festival was almost brought down by hundreds who demanded that the music be free.
Cohen was awakened around 2 a.m. and asked to go out and soothe the savage beasts, who numbered, at one point, 600,000 people. He climbed onstage and sang his songs, most of them downtempo; his voice ragged and quivering, as if it needed a bit more sleep. But he mesmerized his early-morning audience. He was by turns gentle and critical. “One of these days,” he said, referring to the battle between the “free music” crowd and the beleaguered festival promoters, “we’re gonna have this land for our own.” But as the audience cheered, he added: “We’re not strong enough yet. Can’t fool yourselves.”
“I don’t know why they didn’t hoot him off the stage,” said Kris Kristofferson, who’d received just that treatment earlier on. “I can only think he was such an honest performer, and he wasn’t intimidated.”
Cohen set off on a world tour after getting inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008. He was 74, it was his first tour in 15 years, and sold-out houses were captivated by Cohen, a dapper, drily witty, down-tempo vocalist. Twelve songs from eleven of his stops are captured here, from Tel Aviv to London to California and his native Canada; from the typically contemplative “Bird on a Wire” to an atypically rocking “Closing Time.” Throughout, Cohen is courtly, singing with eyes closed. Behind him is a superb ensemble of musicians. Before him, adoring masses.
This is Cohen’s London concert from the 2009 tour. Fans are treated to more than two and a half hours of songs from the late ‘60s, including “Suzanne” and “Bird On a Wire,” as well as songs from his 2001 album, Ten New Songs.
Here are two concerts in Dublin in September, 2013. Cohen and his elite ensemble of players and vocalists perform for more than two hours, enough time for a leisurely survey of his lengthy career. He’s astounding, loping on stage, singing not only his classics in that low, dusky voice, but surprises like “Save the Last Dance for Me,” and he thanks audience for its “crumbs of compassion that you offer to the elderly.”
It was more than compassion. Much more. In an appreciation in the San Francisco Chronicle, Sylvie Simmons, his biographer (I’m Your Man), bade farewell this way: “I’m so very grateful to have known him, to have had his support and friendship. And so grateful to have his words and music. He is irreplaceable.”
Ben Fong-Torres was a writer and editor at Rolling Stone from 1969 to 1981. He was a DJ on KSAN, has published ten books, writes the Radio Waves column in the Chronicle, and created the online station, Moonalice Radio, where his DJ show runs from 9 to 12, day and night.