Some people you wait your whole life to see perform live. So it was for our guest reviewer Colleen Marples when she finally saw Leonard Cohen in Birmingham on his Old Ideas tour.
In this piece Colleen not only writes of the great man’s enduring musical prowess but how it felt when she heard much loved songs live for the first time.
The smoothest pensioner in pop glides onto the stage and strikes a stance, legs apart, fedora tilted forward to hide his weathered, expressive face.
So begins the culmination of a lifetime’s dream for me – to see the great man in person, to hear him perform songs that have haunted, sobered and uplifted me since I was old enough to hear them.
Part lecherous uncle, part evangelical preacher, the body may have aged but the wit, the pathos and the soul are as fresh as ever.
Watching him sink to his knees then shimmy around the stage like a fading Fred Astaire, we’re captivated – just as surely as his infamous worm on a hook.
He solemnly addresses the crowd saying he knows that it’s been a while as he didn’t want to impose but then who knows when we’ll meet again. A fleeting acknowledgement that, at his advanced age, this could well be his swan song tour – but boy what a swan song.
Seamlessly moving from tried and tested favourites such as Bird on a Wire, Suzanne and So Long Marianne to his later acerbic hits such as Darkness, Cohen has the audience in the palm of his hand from the get go.
At 79 while others are using a bus pass and reminiscing about lovers long gone, frisky ole Len still has a definite twinkle in his eye.
His cock of the walk soft shoe shuffle off stage left makes your heart throb far far more than an elderly man really should be able to manage.
His voice has aged, less like a fine wine and more like velvet covered gravel swirled in a vat of bourbon and then coated in ground glass. So low it reverberates in your feet, your heart and other places.
Sometimes a singer, sometimes a growling poet, crooning and seductive, plaintive and broken but always fascinating, riveting, mesmerising.
In the sarcastic words of Len himself “I was born like this, I had no choice, I was born with the gift of a golden voice.”
A voice and a talent that the world rarely sees, and which will, all too belately, be celebrated and lauded when it finally moves to the tower down the track.
Part way through the show he muses that next year – when he turns 80 – he’s decided to take up smoking again and waxes lyrical about the nurse in sweet little white shoes that he’ll get to offer him up a cigarette on a silver tray, whilst massaging the bubbles from his IV tube.
Musings on growing old disgracefully aside, other highlights of the show included a bitter sweet lament to his thieving former manager Kelley Lynch to whom he ruefully says “we were both guilty.”
There’s a stunningly simple version of Alexandria Leaving sung solo by Sharon Robinson and a barnstorming version of First We Take Manhattan, complete with flashing backlights – the closest thing you’ll get to upbeat with Cohen.
A subdued version of Hallelujah changes the mood again, with white light strafing the audience as the angelic harmonies of backing singers Charley and Hattie Webb interweave with his rumbling take on love and loss.
He’s a whirlwind one minute and an oasis of still contemplation the next. Limitless in his energy and humility, he’s a one-man masterclass in showing them how it’s done.
There’s no backing dancers, costume changes, lasers or pyrotechnics needed, this man is pure entertainment, a 79 years young craftsman who calls himself “a lazy bastard in a suit”.
And what a suit, looking dapper and slick as ever Cohen electrifies the stage with his presence whether he’s dropping to the floor to tell us a man never got a woman back by begging on his knees, to standing, hat in hand like a mourner in New Orleans, as the organ virtuoso Neil Larsen plays gospel.
I for one hope that he has many many more years left to create albums more of his introspective, intimate, sweeping, desolate and glorious work.
With all the drive, energy, talent and sardonic wit that he has at his disposal, when that glorious, gravelly voice finally calls closing time, the world will be a colder, darker and far less humorous place without him.
All words by Colleen Marples. This piece was first published on Colleen’s blog, Just Hand Luggage, where she normally writes about travel.