This week, I was privileged to sit down and talk to Vox Tablet about how Leonard Cohen, my rabbi and the subject of my new book, came to develop his sound, going from bleak to transcendent and finding the perfect voice with which to deliver his prophetic lyrics. But there’s no better way to relish in the wisdom of St. Leonard than to listen to him yourself.
Here, then, are my top five live performances by Leonard Cohen. Agree? Disagree? Want to add your own? I look forward to your thoughts in the comments.
Chelsea Hotel No. 1, Tel Aviv, 1972
Before there was No. 2, there was No. 1: Slower, sweeter and more elegiac, it’s a lesser song than the version we’ve come to know and revere but a profoundly touching one nonetheless, with a repeated refrain that captures the depths of Cohen’s sadness for the song’s famous subject, Janis Joplin.
Story of Isaac, Warsaw, 1985
When Leonard Cohen played Warsaw’s Sala Kongresowa, an imperial-looking Soviet-style grand hall, in 1985, Poland was a country on the cusp of revolution. There was talk of Lech Walesa taking the stage with Cohen, but the singer, one of the few western acts to grace the town in decades, had other ideas.
“You know,” he told an audience of intensely dedicated admirers, “I come from a country where we do not have the same struggles as you have. I respect your struggles. And it may surprise you, but I respect both sides of this struggle. It seems to be that in Europe there needs to be a left foot and a right foot to move forward. I wish that both feet move forward and the body moves towards its proper destiny.” The entire set he played that night was stellar, but “Story of Isaac,” with its admonition for those who build altars to sacrifice children to mend their evil ways, stands out.
Bird on the Wire, Isle of Wight, 1970
Billed as the British Woodstock, the massive rock concert on the Isle of Wight wasn’t going too smoothly: hordes of troublemakers forced their way into the festival’s site without paying for tickets, heckling the performers, and, before too long, trying to burn down the stage. With just a few hours to go, and with everything in flames, there was only one more performer on deck: Leonard Cohen, a decade or so older than anyone else who had taken the stage before him and nowhere near as famous. But as soon as Cohen walked out, something uncanny happened. The crowd sat down and listened. They were pacified, then moved, and, finally transformed.
Famous Blue Raincoat, German TV, 1979
He’s rarely been more sincerely L. Cohen than this gorgeous performance of one of his more shattering songs.
Tower of Song, London, 2008
In which he reveals the answer to all of life’s mysteries…