Cohen, Leonard - Famous Blue Raincoat
Type of Spiritual Experience
A description of the experience
The New Yorker – extracted from the article in the October 17, 2016 Issue Leonard Cohen Makes It Darker By David Remnick
….. Cohen eased into other matters. And the subject that he was happiest to talk about was the tour that began as a means of restoring what had been stolen from him. In 2007, he started conceiving a tour with a full band: three backup singers, two guitarists, drummer, keyboard player, bassist, and saxophonist (later replaced by a violinist). He rehearsed the band for three months.
“I hadn’t played any of these songs for fifteen years,” he said. “My voice had changed. My range had changed. I didn’t know what to do. There was no way I could transpose the positions that I knew.” Instead, Cohen tuned the strings on his guitar down two whole steps, so, for instance, the low E was now a low C. Cohen had always had a deep, intimate voice, but now, with age, and after countless cigarettes, it is a fantastical growl, confiding, lordly. In concert, he always got a knowing laugh with this line from “Tower of Song”: “I was born like this, I had no choice / I was born with the gift of a golden voice.”
Neil Larsen, who played keyboards in Cohen’s band, said that the preparation was meticulous. “We rehearsed very close to the way you would record,” he told me. “We did one song over and over and made adjustments. He was locking the lyrics into his memory, too. Usually it takes a while before a tour jells. Not this one. We went out ready.”
The tour started in Canada, and then went everywhere during the next five years—three hundred and eighty shows, from New York to Nice, Moscow to Sydney. Cohen began every performance saying that he and the band would give “everything we’ve got,” and they did. “I think he was competing with Springsteen,” Sharon Robinson, a singer and frequent co-writer, joked about the length of the shows. “They were close to four hours some nights.”
Cohen was in his mid-seventies by this time, and his manager did everything possible for the performer to marshal his energies. It was a first-class operation: a private plane, where Cohen could write and sleep; good hotels, where he could read and compose on a keyboard; a car to take him to the hotel the minute he stepped off the stage. Some of the most memorable musical performances Cohen had ever seen were by Alberta Hunter, the blues singer, who had a long residency in the late seventies at the Cookery, in the Village. Hunter had retired from music for decades and worked as a nurse, and then made a comeback in the last six years of her life. Leonard Cohen was following suit: an elderly man, full of sap, singing his heart out for hours, several nights a week.
“Everybody was rehearsed not only in the notes but also in something unspoken,” Cohen recalled. “You could feel it in the dressing room as you moved closer to the concert, you could feel the sense of commitment, tangible in the room.” This time, there was no warmup with Château Latour. “I didn’t drink at all. Occasionally, I’d have half a Guinness with Neil Larsen, but I had no interest in alcohol.”
The show that I saw, at Radio City, was among the most moving performances I’ve ever experienced. Here was Cohen, an old master of his art, serving up the thick cream of his catalogue with a soulful corps of exacting musicians. Time and again, he would enact the song as well as sing it, taking one knee in gratitude to the object of affection, taking both knees to emphasize his devotion, to the audience, to the musicians, to the song.
The tour not only restored Cohen’s finances (and then some); it also brought a sense of satisfaction rarely associated with him. “One time I asked him on the bus, ‘Are you enjoying this?’ And he would never really own up to enjoying it,” Sharon Robinson recalled. “But after we finished I was at his house one day, and he admitted to me that there was something extremely fulfilling about that tour, something that brought his career full circle that he hadn’t expected.”
In 2009, Cohen gave his first performance in Israel since 1985, at a stadium in Ramat Gan, donating the proceeds to Israeli-Palestinian peace organizations. He had wanted to perform in Ramallah, in the West Bank, too, but Palestinian groups decided that this was politically untenable. And yet he persisted, dedicating the concert to the cause of “reconciliation, tolerance, and peace,” and the song “Anthem” to the bereaved. At the end of the show, Cohen raised his hands, rabbinically, and recited in Hebrew the birkat kohanim, the priestly blessing, over the crowd.
“It’s not self-consciously religious,” Cohen told me. “I know that it’s been described that way, and I am happy with that. It’s part of the intentional fallacy. But when I see James Brown it has a religious feel. Anything deep does.”
When I asked him if he intended his performances to reflect a kind of devotion, he hesitated before he answered. “Does artistic dedication begin to touch on religious devotion?” he said. “I start with artistic dedication. I know that if the spirit is on you it will touch on to the other human receptors. But I dare not begin from the other side. It’s like pronouncing the holy name—you don’t do it. But if you are lucky, and you are graced, and the audience is in a particular salutary condition, then these deeper responses will be produced.”
The final night of the tour happened to be in Auckland, in late December, 2013, and the last songs were exit songs: the prayerful “If It Be Your Will,” and then “Closing Time,” “I Tried to Leave You,” and, finally, a cover of the Drifters song “Save the Last Dance for Me.”
The musicians all knew this was not only the last night of a long voyage but, for Cohen, perhaps the last voyage. “Everybody knows that everything has to end some time,” Sharon Robinson told me. “So, as we left, there was the thought: This is it.”