Orphan Leonard Cohen Concerts: 1988 Binéfar Show – Civic Pride, Regional Rivalries, & Empty Seats

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Binéfar & The 1988 Leonard Cohen Tour

How did a Spanish town half the size of Madison Square Garden land a Leonard Cohen show?

Binéfar is not the kind of place one would expect to find on a Leonard Cohen Tour. The entire Wikipedia entry for Binéfar, Spain follows:

Binéfar (Spanish: [biˈnefar]) is a municipality located in the province of Huesca, Aragon, Spain. According to the 2008 census (INE), the municipality has a population of 9,288 inhabitants.1 It is probably best known for the children’s theatre group “Los Titiriteros de Binéfar”.

Nonetheless, on June 11, 1988, Leonard Cohen did indeed perform in Binéfar (although some of the 4,000 seats in the venue were empty). How the show came to be scheduled, then became the center of a politico-social maelstrom, and finally transformed into an abiding element of the region’s musical and cultural heritage makes for an intriguing tale. It was, however a tale that couldn’t be told until a few months ago.

Except for its listing in Jim Devlin’s Is This What You Wanted and CohenLive.com as “1988/06/11 Huesca, Espana – (unknown venue)” and the occasional mention in a blog or forum by someone who attended the show,2 little was documented about this event until 2013. Then, on Jan 15, 2013, 25 años de Leonard Cohen en Binéfar was posted at Somos Litera (Update: No longer online):

This year marks twenty-five years one of the most important musical acontecimeintos history Binéfar. In 1988, Leonard Cohen included the town literana on tour in Spain. That June has been in the memory of many people who could enjoy one of the living legends of the music of our time. In Litera We are working on an extensive report on this unprecedented milestone. (Photo: Jaume Josa) [via Google Translate]

An Extensive Report On This Unprecedented Milestone

And, indeed, on the 25th anniversary of the concert, the “extensive report” promised in that original post manifested itself as two articles published in the June 2013 issue of Somos Litera (pp 78-80) that also offers the one other photo of this show I’ve discovered.

Thanks to the translation skills of Coco Éclair, I have composed a summary of the articles in English. Note: This is not a word per word translation but a summary of the approximated text stylized into English vernacular. We have tried to remain faithful to the original content – including points and interpretations with which we might disagree and which we have no way of confirming. As a convenience to readers, screen captures of the articles have been placed at the top of the respective summaries.

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An Unlikely Concert And A Milestone

By Pepe Espluga Trenc, Sociologist

In 2013 everyone knows that Leonard Cohen is one of the great figures of contemporary Western culture, both for his literary and musical work. Twenty-five  years ago, however, his status in the media was quite different, and his character must be placed in its historical context to realize how unusual his performance in Binéfar really was.

In 1967 Leonard Cohen (Montreal, 1934) was an established figure in contemporary Canadian literature. He could, however, barely make a living and consequently decided to increase his income by playing some of his poems and selling them to singers in the New York folk and rock scene. Then, after Cohen established himself with a few songs, a clever manager decided to release his work as an album and launch him as the Canadian Dylan.

He recorded three relatively popular albums between 1968 and 1971 – “Songs Of Leonard Cohen,” “Songs From A Room,” and “Songs Of Love And Hate” – which made him a key figure among the Beat Generation and the hippie counterculture of the era. During the 70s he continued to release albums of remarkable quality but with diminishing media coverage, becoming a survivor of a remote music scene, swept away by punk, new wave, disco, techno, and the new romantic ’80s.

By the ’80s his popularity waned, as evidenced by the fact that his 1984 album, “Various Positions,” took six years to record and was marketed only in Europe because his record company, CBS, refused to distribute it in America. At that point, Leonard Cohen was a depreciated outsider who spent his time isolated in a Buddhist monastery, and the recording industry itself was dead and buried.

In February 1988 he released a new album, “I’m Your Man.” Everything seemed to indicate it would be a another step into his descent into media irrelevance. Further, in this album, Cohen exchanged his customary acoustic guitar sound for the synthesizer, which alienated him from his fan base of the ’60s and ’70s. Cohen was 54 years old at the time and few of his fans, even his original, long-term fans, bought his records.

To promote his new album, Cohen embarked on a European tour (he would give 59 concerts in Europe between April 5 and July 2, 1988 before beginning his North American Tour in October 1988).

It was precisely at this time that the City Council of Binéfar decided to hire him. Unexpectedly, “I’m Your Man” became a blockbuster, hitting the charts in several European countries (it was one of the ten top selling LPs in Spain for several weeks), unanticipatedly boosting Cohen’s career. Since then, his musical and cultural impact has grown steadily.

In light of this upswing in Cohen’s fortunes, the decision by the City of Binéfar to hire him for a 1988 concert proved both timely and providential, coming as it did  when he was a rising star with a huge potential audience. Because of his new found popularity, for example, CBS committed to an enhanced promotional program in America. The album sold by the millions and concert attendance grew exponentially. However, Binéfar wasn’t filled. Why?

The Impact Of The Binéfar Concert

The Binéfar concert took place in the framework of the 1988 European Tour, the Spanish portion of which began in Madrid (May 9).  Following several subsequent concerts in Central Europe, Cohen returned in late May to perform in San Sebastián (May 20), Palma de Mallorca (May 21), Sevilla (May 22), Almería (May 23) and Barcelona (May 24).  Several concerts then ensued, including shows in Paris, London, Dublin and Lisbon, before Cohen played Binéfar (June 11) and Bilbao (June 12). The Tour ended in Roskilde (Denmark) on July 2.

Although the Spanish press published extensive announcements about and reviews of the Cohen Tour, the Binéfar concert was ignored by the periodicals other than the newspapers located in nearby Aragonese and Catalan towns; La Manana, Segre, Heraldo de Aragón, Journal of Alto Aragón, and Day Aragón did devote many pages to the event. Also radio stations Lleida, Huesca and Zaragoza were generous in their coverage.

Initially, most local reporting focused on municipal pride –  how is possible that Binéfar was chosen and not our city?

Later, however, the stories reflected their admiration for the drive of a people capable of embarking on adventures of this magnitude. The image projected of Binéfar during those days could not have been more positive, as is evident from the envy expressed by many journalists, in praise that went beyond purely musical considerations.

Oddly, the announcement of the concert in Binéfar launched a strange combination of underground political struggles, friction between different individuals, and suspicions on the part of elected and appointed officials, local organizations, and even the local radio, which generated a pervasive unease and a certain hostility.  Because of this environment, Mari Carmen Perez, the Councilor Of Festivities and the one held primarily responsible for the quality of the concert, had to redouble  her efforts to overcome local fears while she promoted the show throughout Aragón and Cataluna, seeking the cooperation of other institutions (DGA Council of Huesca, Coca-Cola, etc).

Despite the Cohen concert being considered a perfectly acceptable event by the City Council, a prominent notion in the local public opinion held that the show was an unnecessary luxury that could, if it did poorly, deprive that year’s important municipal festivities of funding.

These concerts and discord had a negative impact on the local audience which in other circumstances might have flocked to the concert. Consequently, this once in a lifetime event did not play to a full house.

Despite this disappointment, Leonard Cohen’s visit was a milestone in the modern history of Binéfar as a demonstration of courage and initiative in a truly unique location.

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a story … that is ours,
and our children’s,
and our grandchildren’s …

By Paco Aznar M.
Director de Somos Litera

I was there, standing

At 21 years of age and eager to see Cohen, I preferred to stand in front of four thousand chairs strewn in the central courtyard in the fairgrounds (for me, iw is forever Algadonera). One of the many affectionate memories of those days is the matter of chairs. I could not understand how you could enjoy a concert if you were seated. One was living at the time when an abundance of concerts were scheduled in the area that had nothing to do with the Cohen show: Sinister in Alcampell, Cabinet Callgari or 091 in Esplus, Toreeros Dead or Bunk in Tamarit Koratu, in Almacellas.

Leonard Cohen’s concert in Binéfar was a magical moment in the history of our town, unaccustomed to special events. It was singular, unique … Twenty-five years later, one can not help but become excited about those heaven-lit two hours by a musician-poet who is, alongside Dylan, Springsteen, and the Stones, one of our time’s living musical legends. It was the cultural milestone of a small town in Spain, accomplished through the blessed courage of a councilwoman named Mari Carmen, surnamed Perez.

Mari Carmen gladly fought with indomitable strength against the habits, customs, and other traits peculiar to a small town. Now, a quarter century later, the merit lies in those who, with the head of the council , trusted, persisted and worked for an unequaled event. They wrote the story.

Reviewing the archive, we can corroborate the media attention that described the concert, stressing the uniqueness of the event of the place by the sea, and the hero. Some comments questioned the suitability of the town, more accustomed to Bombero Torero [a comedy troupe of dwarf bullfighters] than to the musical poetry of a global talent like Cohen. Actually, we can also verify, in retrospect, rejoicing at the entrance of the lack of public at the concert, an “I told you so,” from the vantage point of an arrogant urbanite. Meanwhile, “The Vox Binéfar” dedicated a cover prior to the concert, with an inside page which made it clear that the presence of Leonard Cohen would not influence the rest of the major festivals of that year. Other information is limited to an emotional article by Ernesto Romeu, “Manhattan, Berlin, Binéfar.” The rest one has to imagine.

In any event, there were many such as these individuals. With order and harmony, with rigor and imagination, with will and decision, “they moved to the rhythm of silence!” seizing the opportunity to arouse the supine pulse of habitual rituals.

They did so on June 11th, 1988, and today very much deserve the recognition of a story that is ours, and our children’s, and our grandchildren’s …

Caring For & About The Orphan Leonard Cohen Concerts: This is another entry in the Orphan Cohen Concerts classification. As a Lenny-come-lately who began following Leonard Cohen’s career only a few years before his 2008-2010 World Tour, I’ve been accustomed to the internet-powered flow of information about the Canadian singer-songwriter’s concerts that renders time and geographical barriers irrelevant.

During the recent World Tour, for example, 1HeckOfAGuy.com (predecessor to Cohencentric) routinely composed, on a laptop located in Durham, North Carolina, posts about Cohen’s shows concluded only hours earlier in Belfast, Tel Aviv, Barcelona, Bucharest, Glace Bay, Auckland, Philadelphia, etc. that featured high quality photos and videos of the performance and first hand reports by concert-goers. In addition, articles about the shows published in foreign newspapers and magazines are available online and can easily, if not always elegantly, be translated by Google and other internet services.

It was, in fact, not uncommon to post information during concerts of special interest, such as the post, Leonard Cohen Tel Aviv Concert In Progress, which published the following immediately after the statement was uttered:

After “Ain’t No Cure” and “Bird On The Wire,” Leonard Cohen addressed the audience in Hebrew, saying, “It is an honor to play here for you here in Israel (…) We are going to give you everything tonight, for peace, for you and us…

Moreover, the immediacy and ease of communication afforded by the internet encourages those attending concerts to upload more videos to YouTube, enter more concert reports in blogs and forums, and post more photos.

Consequently, cognitive dissonance results upon discovering that many Cohen concerts, unless a reporter or critic happened to be in the crowd, escaped notice except by those actually in attendance. Heck, we are still discovering concerts given by Leonard Cohen that have not been accurately memorialized as even a line on a list.

Cohencentric has already published descriptions of little remembered Cohen Concerts. Many of the posts, for example, focus on concerts about which only scattered bits of information were available. Researching those shows, in fact, turned up at least two previously unlisted concerts.

The Orphan Leonard Cohen Concerts is now an official Cohencentric project. We’re going to show a little love for these stealth performances, posting whatever can be found about the otherwise forgotten concerts – even if that’s no more than a single memory lovingly preserved in the mind of an audience member.

Credit Due Department: A special thanks to CHEMA of Barcelona for first alerting me to this Leonard Cohen concert photo and the stealth concert where it was taken. Photo atop this post taken at the 1988 Binéfar show by Herminia Sirvent.

Note: Originally posted Mar 17, 2014 at 1HeckOfAGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric

  1. By way of comparison, Madison Square Garden in New York, a Leonard Cohen venue in 2012, has a capacity of 18,000. []
  2. For example, María Jesús Lamora (Blog antiguo) []