Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Leonard Cohen, in concert

(at the Merriweather Post Pavilion , in Columbia, MD)
His features are sharper now, than the face to which we've grown accustomed. Yet his voice is - surprisingly - full, confident, and strong enough, and he uses it beautifully, even after a year of touring. He hasn't been on the road in about eight years; in fact, not many people expected to see him touring again; but this could very well be his last tour. He traveled the world, last year and this one, and finally got here, to the US. "Democracy is coming, to the USA."

I was late: traffic. The most striking thing, and the first thing that grabbed my attention, was that what was going on was something different from the concerts we know, from what we usually expect. It was the sudden awareness and remembering of the fact that he is a poet, first and foremost. Thus he addressed us - talked to us, recited, told, caressed us; his meaning, the meaning of him being there, on the stage, was to talk to us. As he himself affirmed, many times, Leonard Cohen is, first and foremost, a poet; then, a composer; then, a singer - in descending order of adeptness and comfort. I would add that his poetry is made for, and in, music; that he is a wonderful composer; that his poetic mode of expression, although based on words, is through music. He is, thus, a troubadour, in mind, in spirit, and in voice; this is the type of poetry he writes, this is the type of music he writes; as he writes on love, on things above and below, on loneliness, on encounters. And he doth travel the world. Therefore the night was one of a troubadour, who addressed us, who talked to us, sang to and with us.

As the night progressed, however, and as (some in) the public wanted to react in the familiar ways - the ways of the "show," so did his reactions change, too - slightly, in response. The learned ways of the show, of the concerts we know and usually attend, are that the stage is a self-enclosed world, and what happens in that world serves the functions of the spectacular, of virtuosity, even if containing some conversations between the members of the band; the aim is to generate entertainment that was paid for, by the public; the vague hope is that the reactions from the public might go as far as joining in, in feeling, in presence. But the two sides remain hopelessly apart, one expecting what it paid for - spectacular, entertainment, the other going its learned ways to produce that glimmer and show.

Or, if the concert is a classical one, we have a complex address that is put out there and hangs in the air somewhere between the orchestra and the public; and the hope is that the public will see it, admire it, and, in extra-ordinary occasions, partake of it, in this third object, in-between the orchestra and the public; an object so beautiful, so worked-out, so passionate, even. Yet the communication - it is never direct, between musician and public; in the end, the genre is not of such a nature, that it could actually constitute direct communication; the piece is already written, and it originates from someone else. The musicians execute it, participate in it, live it, even; then deliver it before us, and each of us - we might look at it, some might participate - and beautiful things do happen, that way; but it is a different genre, different from poetry.
But the poet, like Mr Cohen, must speak to you, otherwise he isn't there for the right aim, otherwise he is not, that evening, what he truly is. And so it is, that he is a troubadour. Thus, by virtue of this ongoing conversation, because of the music he made with us and for us, in conversation, his behavior did change slightly, accordingly; as some in the public descended towards the learned ways of the show, at times he (and they, on the stage) became more self-enclosed (yet only passingly); or, instead, he manifested a bit of cabotinage (no such word in English, unfortunately; clownery? second-rate, provincial theater?), of "show," yet even that, ironic, self-mocking, unserious. (The unspoken conversation that went on beneath the words and the songs; the need for show, albeit unspoken, was expressed, and was responded, with show.) But the clown is himself a troubadour; or, rather, the troubadour must be a clown, too, at times, as he sings about love, heartbreak, drunkenness, and laughter - even shrill.
And the band, just like Mr. Cohen, was (composed) of adults. So rare, nowadays, to have music (but it applies to contemporary art in general) that is by grown-ups, for grown-ups (which is not a function of biological age). Mr Cohen's poetry and songs age with him; one has only to listen through the recordings, over the years; and it is a beautiful thing. Years, they are what constitute him - not the moment.
And this was the second thing that I remarked, with gladness and relief: I saw the narrative. The concert had this soothing, healing character, therefore, because it had an underlying narrative. Not stories in songs, since they may be disjointed poetry; not a superimposed theme; but the narrative that was in him, and in some of the members of the band, in the poetry that is made in time, through time, and of time. It had a narrative, because it had time - age. No desperate quest for eternal youth, which is achieved through momentary (and thus despairing) grasps for the spectacular, or the hormonal. Thus the concert was soothing of the fragmentariness of this here American existence.
And what does this age, or narrative, mean, actually? It means something very un-postmodern: a continuity of feeling, an awareness of "the democracy of the dead and of the living" (to use G.K. Chesterton's words), a perspective on the moment that understands it with all that preceded it, and all that follows it. Healing attributes, then, of the ugly, insidious fragmentariness of the strip-mall, virtual, suburban, car-driven existence. The existence of public squares, and of cafés, to which one does not drive, but walks.
It was also a joy to see that he had a true, full band, to accompany him (really accompany him). The old Spanish Gypsy gentleman playing the "bandurria, laud, archilaud and 12 string guitar," with obvious relish and virtuosity, as if in the main square of a village in Spain, drenched in sun and drought (Javier Mas). Sharon Robinson, the aged (wine-like) lady in the backing vocals section , co-composer of some of Cohen's best songs, and duet partner on many other songs. A band surprisingly complete - I expected a trimmed-down, utility-oriented one; but no, they were individual persons, friends and long-time companions, musicians and singers; playing instruments ranging from the laud to the wind synthesizer, from real wind instruments to the Hammond.
An evening of poetry and music, with Leonard Cohen's troupe of wandering clowns, trapeze artists, old beauties and race horses.
[May 11, 2009]
P.S. I just learned that, "Due To Overwhelming Demand Leonard Cohen's Acclaimed 2009 World Tour Returns to North America," this fall, with a few concerts stretching the distance between New York and San Jose.

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