St. Leonard’s Passion
Leonard Cohen releases his 12th album, Old Ideas. The troubadour and poet hasn’t always been popular, but he is always profound.
Watching Cohen get dressed, Johnston felt a pulsating fear thudding inside him. He peeked out of the trailer and saw Kristofferson, Joan Baez, and Judy Collins lounging backstage, waiting for their friend to play his set. Cohen, Johnston thought, was nowhere near as tough as Kristofferson, not as determined as Baez, not as well-respected as Collins, and if the three of them were pelted with bottles and booed off stage, what chance did Cohen have? He was 36, nearly a decade older than most of the other performers. With a black T-shirt and a safari jacket, unshaved and unkempt, he looked more like Jim Morrison’s accountant than his peer. He took the stage. It was 2:00 in the morning. His face was blank.
“Greetings,” Cohen said into the microphone, “greetings.” His tone was casual, his voice soft. He continued. “When I was 7 years old,” he said in that same mellow way, “my father used to take me to the circus. He had a black mustache, and a great vest, and a pansy in his lapel, and he liked the circus better than I did.”
Sitting a few feet behind Cohen, Charlie Daniels, a young fiddler Bob Johnston had brought along from Nashville, was amused. Years later, recalling how he felt at that moment, he said he just couldn’t believe Cohen was trying to tell 600,000 people a goddamned bedtime story. But in a near-monotone, Cohen continued.
“There was one thing at the circus that happened that I always used to wait for,” he said. “I don’t want to impose on you, this isn’t like a sing-along … but there was one moment when a man would stand up and say, would everybody light a match so we can locate one another? And could I ask you each person to light a match, so that I could see where you all are? Could each of you light a match, so that you’ll sparkle like fireflies, each at your different heights? I would love to see those matches flare.”
The audience obeyed. For five days, the men and women on stage—organizers, artists, or anarchists—were talking at them. Cohen was talking to them. He seemed like one of them. He seemed to care. Slowly, they took out matchbooks and lighters, and instead of setting things on fire they waved their arms in the air, emitting heat and light. Cohen smiled. “Oh, yeah!” he said softly. “Oh, yeah. Now I know that you know why you’re lighting them.” He strummed a few chords on the guitar and continued his speech, half-singing. “It’s good to be here alone in front of 600,000 people. It’s a large nation but it’s still weak. Still very weak. It needs to get a lot stronger before it can claim a right to land.”
These were heavy words for 2:00 in the morning, but they seemed to permeate. Cohen wasn’t just telling the audience to stop rioting; he was about to give them an alternative. Playing as slowly as he could, Cohen began with one of his most famous songs: “Like … a … bird … on … a … wire …” Whoever was still standing now sat down on the grass and listened.
When the song ended, the audience clapped. Not thunderously, but still. A handful, still hopped up on the adrenaline of the afternoon, booed, but they were soon subdued. The 600,000 wanted to hear what Cohen had to say.
What he had to say was poetry. He had started out as a poet, and his first public performances consisted of reciting verse in smoky, small Montreal coffee houses. He might as well have been in one when he stared into the distance in the way that poets sometimes do when they’re reading out loud and began his soliloquy.
“I wrote this in a peeling room in the Chelsea Hotel, before I was rich and famous and they gave me well-painted rooms,” he said. “I was coming off of amphetamines, and I was pursuing a blonde lady whom I met in a Nazi poster. And I was doing many things to attract her attention. I was lighting wax candles in the form of men and women. I was marrying the smoke of two cones of sandalwood.” Then, he started playing another of his songs, “One of Us Cannot Be Wrong.”
To Murray Lerner, a middle-aged filmmaker from New York whose camera crews had documented every moment of the festival, the effect was hypnotic. Throughout five days of performances, he’d been too busy shouting out orders to stop and listen to the music. But Cohen’s words made him put down his camera and look up at the man on stage. Two hours earlier, Lerner was packing up his equipment, certain that the fires and the violence would lead to a massive stampede. He was ready to run for shelter. But now everything was still, and Lerner had no idea how Leonard Cohen had pulled it off. Standing beside Lerner, Joan Baez was equally baffled. “People say that a song needs to make sense,” she told the filmmaker. “Leonard proves otherwise. It doesn’t necessarily make sense at all, it just comes from so deep inside of him, it somehow touches deep down inside other people. I’m not sure how it works, but I know that it works.” Lerner nodded in agreement as he listened. It reminded him of something he’d once read T.S. Eliot say of Dante—that the genius of poetry was that it communicated before it was understood.
On stage, Cohen was done with the ephemera. He was smiling. He turned to his band mates frequently now, nodding his head encouragingly or saying a kind word or two. In his confidence, he decided it was time to speak honestly. He played a few basic chords and delivered a short speech-song.
“They gave me some money, for my sad and famous song,” he sang. “They said the crowd is waiting, hurry up or they’ll be gone. But I could not change my style, and I guess I never will. So I sing this for the poison snakes on Devastation Hill.” And then came a noisy, joyous rendition of “Diamonds in the Mine,” with Charlie Daniels singeing the strings and Bob Johnston, playing piano, pounding happily on the keys.
“He’s taking them on,” said Kristofferson, standing a few feet away with Lerner and Baez. “He’s taking the fuckers right on.”
Cohen was. He renamed Desolation Hill “Devastation Hill,” and called its occupants poison snakes. As he did, however, the poison snakes—the ones who crawled in through the mud or slung themselves at the fences, the ones who slithered on to the stage to spit out venomous messages, the ones who set the evil fires—they just huddled together and listened. Kristofferson felt something like elation. He clapped along madly.
It was nearly 4:00 in the morning by the time Cohen was ready to end his set. He had played all of his hits and launched into a few more bits of poetry. Someone in the crowd screamed a request, asking Cohen to sing “Seems So Long Ago, Nancy.” Cohen signaled to his band that he’d like to play that one by himself. “It was in 1961,” he introduced the woman about whom the song was written. “She went into the bathroom and blew her head off with her brother’s shotgun.” He pointed at the audience, now lying down, cuddled on top of each other on the grass. “In those days,” he continued, “there wasn’t that kind of horizontal support. She was right where you are now but there was no one else around to light their matches.” He played the song, and when he was finished he put down his guitar.
“I know it’s been cold, and I know it’s been damp,” he said. “I know you’ve been sick all night long. But let’s renew ourselves now. Let’s renew ourselves now. Let’s renew ourselves now. Goodnight.” And off the stage he went. It’s so good to have him back.
Liel Leibovitz is at work on a book about Leonard Cohen, to be published next year by W.W. Norton.
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