Leonard Cohen: “Don’t Plunge Me Back Into This Confrontation With An Audience”
To put matters in perspective, the audience at the Nov 5, 2012 Los Angeles concert was not the most difficult crowd Leonard Cohen has faced. Consider, for example, his account of the audience he faced at the 1970 Aix-en-Provence Festival.
I think I was shot at once at a big festival in Aix-en-Provence. That was when the Maoists were very powerful in France and they resented the fact that they actually had to buy a ticket. A lot of them broke down the fence and came into the concert and I did notice one of the lights on the stage go out after a kind of crack that sounded like a gunshot. I don’t know. But they’re tough critics, the Maoists.1
On the other hand, one suspects that the Canadian singer-songwriter may have found the ending he has recently adopted for “Tower Of Song” painfully apropos to this occasion.
Cohen And The Barbarians
It was in many ways a classic struggle. On one side was the courtly Leonard Cohen, trim and impeccably dapper in his customary suit and fedora, singing elegantly written lyrics and moving with energy and purpose, the embodiment of stylish civility.
Standing in opposition was the horde, that fraction of the audience who apparently left home to attend a Los Angeles Kings hockey match or perhaps a monster truck rally but somehow found themselves at a Leonard Cohen concert.2 These folks persisted in wandering the aisles, chatting, texting, making phone calls, … seemingly oblivious to the performance taking place on stage.3
It’s unclear whether the Nokia management was joined in an unholy alliance with these Philistines or was merely one more victim, overwhelmed by the crowd. In any case, most of the hundreds of audience members who did not enter the auditorium before the concert began found their own places without the help of ushers, a process that continued through the first two songs on the set list and all too often involved negotiating rights to specific seats with earlier arriving squatters.
Cohen employed his usual “give you everything we got” tactics, but when sheer talent and showmanship proved insufficient to carry the day, he unleashed his ultimate weapon – aggressive graciousness, politely halting the show after performing “The Future” with the mock apology, “I’m sorry for starting the show on time” and asking for the house lights so people could find their seats, adding, “Now I can see your faces.” He then had the band replay the second half of “The Future” as background music while people finished seating, provoking more laughter.
Toward the end of the second set, he again referenced the late arrivals and joked about the confusion during the opening number, declaring that he wanted to begin the show again …” He then proceeded to perform “Dance Me to The End of Love” a second time.
Dance Me To The End Of Love
Video by Arlene Dick
Leonard Cohen’s Epic Nokia Performance
Simultaneously with this fracas, another event was going on, a sublime communion between Leonard Cohen and another element of the audience.
Within an hour of the completion of the LA show, I began receiving messages from concert-goers – itself an unusual phenomenon – expressing unprecedented levels of soul-deep responses to the performance. The following phrases are indicative of the tone of these messages:
- “Fantastic” (2)
- “Best show ever”
- “Heart-stopping” [in a good way, as I read it]
- “Awesome” (3)
- “Incredibly lively and moving”
- “Mesmerizing” (2)
- “Concert of a lifetime”
Several writers mentioned new phrasings, lines, arrangements, and interpretations in various songs.
The following elaboration on the special qualities of the concert by Yitzchak Etshalom is representative of the tenor of the notes from my correspondents albeit more eloquently phrased:
Last night at Nokia was an experience out of time; it was a personal “high” as I took my 14 year-old daughter to her first concert and she was justifiably wowed. Sharon Robinson added so much to the show with her tear-evoking Alexandra Leaving (I’d only heard Leonard’s version with her accompanying) and the Webb sisters blew me away with their take on “Coming Back To You.” Needless to say, Leonard was above and beyond – wish he would have talked with us more, but he seemed to be reaching deep for every era in his life and putting it all out for us – he told us how much he wanted to return, “but just in case….we’ll give you everything we’ve got” (appreciative ovation). His delightful humor and ad-libbing with the band to help the latecomers was both impressive (for their musical tightness and flexibility) and heart-warming. He continues to please and then thank us for sticking around to enjoy it all!
There’s much more that can be said; at this point, I’m happy that my great-grandchildren will hear about how their grandmother went to her first concert and got to hear Leonard Cohen sing “Famous Blue Raincoat” (but – “sincerely, a friend”?), “Suzanne” and “Hallelujah” among so many other classics. I’m sure that she will never be able to experience Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur again without being brought back to the amazing rendition of “Who By Fire”. Thank you, Mr. Cohen, for sharing your spirit.
Shannon Burns adds:
You said Sharon Robinson was a big deal. You were right.
To my right, there were two nice fellows from San Diego who had been to Madrid — a month to the day — to hear and see Leonard perform. They described to me the differences in the songs performed in Madrid vs. Los Angeles. They came up from SD at the weekend for this concert.
To my left, and almost immediately in front of Sharon Robinson, was a large, black gentleman who, as much as he seemed to love Leonard Cohen, and knew all of his songs, appeared to be there, in that exact spot, for Ms. Robinson. About 10 seconds into the song, Alexandra Leaving, he took off his glasses and wiped away a few tears. Then put his glasses back on. Then off, then on. As his emotions swelled again and again, I guess I was so impressed that this guy, who looked like a pro football linebacker, could be “man enough” to express his emotions in public, I put my hand on his back and patted him softly, like Mama Bear comforting baby bear as if to say, “It’s all right”. After the song was over, he squeezed my arm in thanks.
It was a really golden moment to share among new friends.
There is more, but you get the idea.
The critics raved as well. A couple of excerpts should suffice.
From Leonard Cohen by Richard S. Ginell (Variety):
And Monday night at the Nokia Theater, he captivated, charmed and conquered a sold-out audience … It is hard to recall seeing a showman who is more considerate and gracious to his audience than Cohen. Only two numbers into his show, he ordered the house lights turned up so that latecomers could be seated (wryly commenting, “I’m sorry that we started the show on time!”) and then, for their benefit, reprised the last verse of the second song, the darkly prophetic “The Future.” Much later in the second half, he did it again, repeating the first song, “Dance Me to the Edge of Love” for those who missed it. The sound was excellent – and thankfully, not overly loud – again, a mark of respect for his fans.
From Live review: Leonard Cohen mesmerizes again by Ben Wener (The Orange County Register):
And at the center of it all, the wordsmith “born with the gift of a golden voice,” regaling us with seductive tales and wry observations. I didn’t think it could be magical twice, but by the time he was wrenching out more combustible passion for “So Long, Marianne” and seething animosity for “First We Take Manhattan” than he had brought to anything that preceded those pieces, it was clear this performance had been something special.
Nokia Fiasco and Nokia Epic – True, True, and Unrelated?
Given that the 2012 Leonard Cohen Nokia concert was both a fiasco and an epic there are three broad categories of possible relationships between those two states:
- The concert was a classic Cohen performance in spite of the chaos, i.e., Leonard Cohen overcame the obstacles to create a masterpiece.
- The event was a fiasco and Cohen was extraordinary, but each of these conditions was independent of the other, i.e., they coincided temporally and geographically but had no other connection.
- A causational link existed between the outstanding quality of the concert and the bedlam caused by the audience.
Now, odds might seem to favor the first or second proposition, but it is not difficult to conjure up support for the cause-effect hypothesis. Consider the notion that friction or adversity improves Cohen’s work by forcing him to dig deeper into his psyche, resulting in an affectual outflow that, in turn, enhances his performance. The monsoon that was Weybridge,4 for example, was a great concert. Indeed, Cohen began touring again in 2008 because of his fiscal catastrophe. And many of his best shows in his early career, such as the Isle of Wight Festival, were beset by belligerent audiences.
If this theory does have merit, the implications are profound. Pragmatically, it would be tantamount to malpractice on the part of Cohen’s management to trust to chance to incorporate that essential dose of angst into each concert.
It will come as no surprise to ongoing readers that Heck Of A Guy, in its quest to aid and abet Leonard Cohen’s fledgling career, has a solution. Even now, a proposal has been submitted for the creation of the Heck Of A Guy Cohen Conflict Crew, a carefully recruited and trained group of individuals who will be on hand at each Cohen show to chatter, text, mill about aimlessly, and otherwise disrupt the performance, assuring more epic shows. After all, you can’t count on a Nokia mob when you play Austin – or Denver – or Durham – or Istanbul or …
Sure, there will be some collateral damage: traumatized fans who arrive early with the goal of watching and listening to a Leonard Cohen concert and the Webb Sisters might develop chronic facial tics. And, yes, Alex Bublitchi might develop a longing to return to Moldova and Cohen himself might lose a year or two off his lifespan but, hey, you gotta make sacrifices for your art.
Note: Originally posted Nov 8, 2012 at 1HeckOfAGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric
- Leonard Cohen: Various Positions, Transcript of 1984 CBC interview by Robert Sward [↩]
- For the record DrHGuy is fond of hockey games and monster trucks; DrHGuy is, however, aware that behavioral norms for such events differ somewhat from social expectations pertinent to, say, a church service or a Leonard Cohen show. [↩]
- The description of the behavior of the audience and the situation at the beginning of the show are based on several eyewitness accounts, all remarkably congruent with one another. [↩]
- See Leonard Cohen’s Wet, Wonderful Weybridge Show [↩]