Leonard Cohen: The Last Word in Cool

The Wang Theater in Boston was sold out. Everywhere one looked people moved about shoulder to shoulder, trying to get inside from the cold. We were here to see Leonard Cohen perform. It was the second time I would see him, the last being a few years ago. We made our way through the crowd, past the tee shirt and souvenir stand (“I didn’t picture him selling tee-shirts for some reason,” said John, one of the three people I came to the show with) and to our seats. This was to be the first of a two-night gig in Boston. Cohen’s producers added another show after the first one sold out in a few days.

Leonard Cohen just may be the last really cool man on the planet. Everything he does exudes style and substance. He’s like a prophet in the wilderness of contemporary culture, trying to reach his audience with words and song. The man has suffered and is now a survivor. His bouts with depression are well known, just as his ability to play the ladies man. Like Bob Dylan, Cohen becomes the center of attention whenever he enters a room. One feels that one is in the presence of an angel, albeit one that is fallen. There is a wonderful line in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness that describes Kurtz and could just as easily describe Cohen: “You don’t talk with the man, you listen to him.” Exactly. One wants to sit at the feet of the man, listening to him recite his words of suffering, loss, and hope. One wants to absorb what he has to say. One wants to follow him to the unknown regions of the heart.

I first heard Leonard Cohen when he released “First We Take Manhattan” in 1988 on the I’m Your Man CD. Little did I would latter mark that moment as the time before I knew Cohen’s music from the time after. I lost sight of Cohen sometime after that. Cohen retreated from public life and went to stay atop Mt. Baldy in California to study Zen Buddhism. When he emerged in 2001 with Ten New Songs I knew that I had rediscovered something important.

Leonard Cohen skips out onto the stage, following the members of his band and the crowd stands. He looks terribly thin, but is dressed stylishly in his trademark suit and fedora. He plays for three solid hours, often falling to his knees and singing deeply into his microphone. He does not look 78 years old, nor does he act it. His band is magnificent, and his backup singers, the Webb sisters, and his longtime collaborator Sharon Robinson, are ethereal. The sound is so clear that one thinks the venue is more intimate than it really is. Cohen never takes his jacket off, and he only removes his fedora when one of his band members has a solo as he faces them. It’s clear that he has as much respect for the members of his band as they do for him. The band is tight, and not a note out of sync.

There are few people left in the world who can pull off what Leonard Cohen can. You can’t buy cool; you either have it or you don’t. Although his voice has never been really good in the way that Sinatra, Mathis, or even Jeff Buckley’s was, Cohen owns these songs. His ability to turn an ordinary evening of music into something transcendental is part of his charm. You come away from a Leonard Cohen show feeling like you’ve connected with something deeply and spiritual. It’s no wonder that so many people left the Wang smiling.

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