Blinded by Leonard Cohen’s Guitar
Last night my wife and I saw the brilliant documentary Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song. A marvelous reminder of Cohen’s extraodinary talent and life, it also reminded me my of his concert in Vancouver 12 years ago. Unlike any concert I had seen before or have seen since, he managed to reach 15,000 people with a remarkable level of intimacy, pathos and joy. I wrote this review shorty afterward that performance.
Last April I saw Leonard Cohen at GM Place in Vancouver. While he sang “Ain’t No Cure for Love,” the lights caught his guitar just right, and the searing reflection blinded me for a second. Even though there were 15,000 people there with me, for a moment, Leonard Cohen’s guitar blinded me.
I’ve talked to other people at the concert, and they had the same sense of relating with Cohen at level of intimacy they had never experienced at a concert before. What was it about this guy that connected with so many in such a stunningly personal way?
There was, of course, the fact that he had assembled some of the best musicians in the world to accompany him, including Barcelonan Javier Mas, who plays the meanest guitar and bandurria since D’Jango Rinehart. But that just meant good music. What Cohen brought to the stage was something less tangible, something more, well, magical.
It might have been the sheer vulnerability of the man, at 74, his face creased from a life of unflinching self-examination and excrutiating integrity, taking to the stage with startling agility, skipping repeatedly off and onto the wings, but doing it with such stiff abandon one cringed at the thought of him tripping and breaking a hip. Maybe it was his totally convincing humility, thanking the crowd for their generosity, telling us what an honour it was to play for us. Holding his hat over his heart while listening respectfully to the playing and singing of his incredibly talented colleagues. Sinking repeatedly to his knees in supplication or deference or humbleness. Displaying over and over, in poems as well as songs, what Pico Iyer calls his “undefended heart.” Laughing at himself when he tells us that the last time he toured was 15 years ago, at 60, “just a kid with a crazy dream.”
Yep, it was all of that. The serene sufferer who has lived a life that shames us with its honesty standing there on stage, squeezing every ounce of feeling from each word, and from each of us. But it was also the words themselves.
If you didn’t listen carefully, they could slip by, like a spy in the shadows. But Leonard doesn’t much like us doing that. So he tells us that a former love is now “cold as a new razor blade” and that another “came to me this morning and handled me like meat.” Which wasn’t necessarily bad: “You’d have to be a man to know/How good that feels how sweet.”
But we’ve all heard good lyrics, vivid imagery that paints its songs in bright gold and red. No. What Cohen offers us is much more. With his words he reaches us at a level we all have felt but seldom confide, even to ourselves. He rips the scabs off old wounds left over from lost loves, from sighing regrets, from those times of terrible loneliness and makes us feel those pains, not just in him, but in ourselves.
Who can’t relate to his plea to his partner to “Dance me through the panic till I’m safely gathered in” or his wrenching admission that “I couldn’t feel so I tried to touch.” Ooh. This is intimacy that hurts. This is stuff your therapist doesn’t even get. We sit alone in a dark arena with 15,000 other souls, and it’s like he’s somehow singing only to us, seeing inside our hearts, forcing us to look at ourselves with excruciating, unaccustomed honesty. And we get it — really get it on this soft spring evening in Vancouver — when he comments, “The gods of chance have smiled on this city. And on each one of us here tonight.”
“It’s in love we are made,” Cohen sings. “In love we disappear.” The fundamental contradiction only understood by the heart. And who of us who has looked out a night window, awake with dread and longing, can’t relate to this line: “Ah, the moon’s too bright/The chain too tight/The beast won’t go to sleep”? Or the bittersweet reminder that “Love is not a victory march/It’s a cold and broken Halleleujah”?
I’ve heard the comment that Cohen writes music to slit your wrists by. But I don’t think so. Sure, he’s willing to “lift my glass to the Awful Truth/Which you can’t reveal to the Ears of Youth,” but wait. Isn’t that a smile playing around his lips when he sings those words? And what the heck, there he is, 74, clearly enjoying himself, after sampling all that life has to offer, from five years of seclusion in a Zen monastery to a fabled and adventurous love life, gently reminding us that life’s loss and regrets are offset, more or less evenly, by its joys and mysteries. And if that grim assessment of Cohen’s music is correct, why would he be selling out arenas around the world, attracting thousands to his concerts wherever he plays?
Ultimately we come not just for the music or the reminder, no matter how eloquent, of the complexities of life. We come because Cohen, perhaps more than any musician alive, is able with his words to bind us in our common humanity. We feel an intimate, deeply personal connection with the man, as if we were the only drinkers at a small cabaret he is playing. But at the same time we are somehow joined with the other 15,000 people, knowing that we are sharing the common joys and fears peculiar to being human. The loneliness and isolation he sings about, that resonates so deeply, is countered by the transcendent power of sharing our intimacy in this darkened place.