Waiting for the Miracle David Yaffe
"Give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld/So I can sigh eternally." It has been more than fifteen years since Kurt Cobain groaned those words on Nirvana’s final album, at a time when Cohen was on a tour that could have been his last. Cobain was 26, and with the aid of a shotgun he would soon deliver himself to his own afterworld; Cohen was 59, "just a crazy kid with a dream," as he likes to say these days. In the decade that followed, Cohen would study religious practices and retire from touring; his hair would turn a ghostly white; his longtime (and now former) manager, Kelley Lynch, would misappropriate millions of dollars from his retirement account. In 2006 Cohen filed suit against her in a Los Angeles court and won, but with payment of the $9 million settlement in limbo (Lynch has ignored the ruling and brushed off subpoenas), he decided to earn his keep by embarking on another final tour in 2008 and 2009. The Leonard Cohen Afterworld was going to happen after all. The man who had once been anointed the "prince of bummers" by The New Yorker was soon presiding over a tightly choreographed career retrospective and hopping on- and offstage with a toothy grin.
Despite his bread-and-butter motives, Cohen has approached the tour with anything but cynicism. With self-deprecating humor and septuagenarian angst, and draped in dapper men’s wear, Cohen often delivers his songs on one knee, hat in hand, as if begging or sermonizing, supplicant not only to the audience and his fellow musicians but to music itself. His voice ranges from gruff crooning to keening on the lowest frequencies, and each song he sings, plucked from nearly his entire recording career, going back to 1967, is somehow about a search for beauty, for lust, for wisdom. (The two albums missing from the tour’s playlist, Death of a Ladies’ Man, from 1977, and Dear Heather, from 2004, perhaps journeyed too deep into the valley of sleaze to make the cut.) The songs are about making love or sitting at a master’s feet–or both.
I saw Cohen from coast to coast: New York City in February, Los Angeles in April. In between I caught a performance in Claremont, California, of The Book of Longing, a 2006 collaboration between Cohen and Philip Glass that set poems of Cohen’s to chilly atmospheric music. I walked out of the New York performance at the newly restored Beacon Theatre dizzy with gratitude. Cohen played for three impassioned hours; his band’s musicianship was superb, and he told stellar jokes. He recited lines from selected songs, as if to emphasize that his lyrics were not merely poetic but poetry. From "Democracy": "But I’m stubborn as those garbage bags that Time cannot decay,/I’m junk but I’m still holding up this little wild bouquet." From "Anthem": "Ring the bells that still can ring./Forget your perfect offering./There is a crack in everything./That’s how the light gets in." Garbage, music, stoicism, beauty, truth: Cohen’s signature elements all linked in perfect rhyming couplets. When Cohen recited lines, he slowed down his delivery–even in a night of pop music–to allow the audience to savor every syllable. On one song, alternate lyrics for "A Thousand Kisses Deep," he drew cheers by doing nothing but recite. The audience laughed at the jokes and seemed stunned by the profundities. Live in London, a 2008 performance recorded at London’s 02 Arena (where Michael Jackson was to have launched his comeback), features a set list similar to the current tour’s and lots of patter almost identical to what I heard this year. Just pretend it’s spontaneous.