Friday, February 26, 2010

Letting in the light - Leonard Cohen, Live in London

It’s not that I have a penchant for older men with deep voices worn raw by a rough and rugged life – but it really would be wrong to write about Johnny Cash (see 22nd February) and Gil Scott-Heron (see yesterday) and then not write about Leonard Cohen.

Those long, late nights where I sat drinking scotch with my friend Creos, listening to the scratchy voice of Leonard Cohen on scratchy vinyl records, seem like they could have been just last month, but they were in fact almost 25 years ago now. And yet, when you listen to Cohen’s release from last year, Live in London, you realise that some memories are like some voices – they grow old only in the most superficial of ways, but their core, the bit that makes them real, never really ages at all.

But Cohen’s music is, for me, entwined with even more poignant memories – memories of my friend Rohini who loved Leonard Cohen like she loved anyone who put their toe into life’s less settled waters, and whose birth and death all her friends and family are marking today. And so, more than anything else, it was in Rohini’s memory that I listened to Leonard Cohen today.

Live in London is a generous double album, spanning over two and half hours and 26 songs, all of them but one by Cohen. When he recorded it, he was only a few weeks from his 74th birthday and, as you might expect, his voice, always ragged, is now more ragged still and, while he always sang softly, he now sings – or speaks when the notes are not quite there anymore – in what has almost become a whisper.

But it’s the heart and soul of Leonard Cohen that has always mattered the most and here we see how it has aged like the very best red wine, better even than what it used to be, with those songs that always seem to say so much to you, speaking to the soft and aching bits inside you, soothing them with the music’s old, worn, calming hands.

He opens with the shadowy dance of ‘Dance Me to the End of Love’ and you are reminded from the outset, in case you had ever forgotten, just how haunting and darkly evocative Cohen’s music and words are, and how you can hear them over and over again and still the hairs on your arm stand to attention, and still every tear you have shed suddenly feels just a little less lonely.

Cohen takes you through all his greatest songs here. There’s ‘The Future’, ‘Ain’t No Cure for Love’ ‘Bird on the Wire’, ‘Everybody Knows’ ‘Suzanne’, ‘First We Take Manhattan’ and, of course, ‘Hallelujah’ – still a song that makes you stop whatever you’re doing and say “wow”, and a song that, even with Jeff Buckley and even with K D Laing, has never been as good as when it is sung by Leonard Cohen.

There’s plenty of others, too, that I know less well or not at all, but every one of them seems to be a favourite of his audience who always cheer at the first hint of a recognisable phrase. These are well worn songs, in every sense – like the soles of old but enduring shoes, songs that are tired, but in a good way, in the way that things are meant to get tired: not grumpy and inattentive, but restful and at peace, because they have done so much, been so far, soared so high.

Cohen’s voice might no longer be a strong one, but neither is it a faltering one. It holds you in its grip, never failing to make you quiver to its trembling, yet restrained, emotion, and you don’t dare take a breath for fear that you might break its spell.

As Cohen himself tells us many times throughout this album, he is supported by a superb band of musicians here, like Dino Soldo who blows not just his breath, but his very soul, into a huge range of wind; or like the smooth and gorgeously harmonised vocals from Sharon Robinson and Charley and Hattie Webb, sometimes as much Cohen’s partners as his backers, like in their arresting, softly prayerful, version of ‘If It Be Your Will’, or their pure and hushed A Capella cover of Guy Singer’s ‘Wither Thou Goest’.

This is one of those live recordings where it’s a good thing that the producers decided to leave in much of Cohen’s conversation with his audience – it shows a humility, a humour, and a humanity that is as much a part of the experience of the album as the songs themselves, if only because they show us, like the notes and the words, a little more of who Leonard Cohen is.

However great Leonard Cohen’s earlier albums may be, Live in London is surely going to be one of his most important testaments of all, because here, conversing and singing to the people who love him, the people who have often shared that hard and lonely journey out of which so much of his music grew its thorns and blossoms, we hear him as he is meant to be heard – that old, worn and wrinkled voice, pouring out its bruised soul, unembellished, but eternally beautiful.

Vale Rohini – this music belongs to you:
"Ring the bells that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering;
There is a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in."

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