I can’t remember how I first got into Leonard Cohen, but I do recollect buying my first album by him. It was Songs from a Room, an original orange label copy on CBS, for £2 at Wax Factor in Brighton, during my second year at university (which puts it at 1987). What spurred me into buying it remains a mystery to me; I must have heard his name mentioned somewhere and had my interest piqued. It could well have been an interview with Suzanne Vega, of whom I was a great admirer at the time; she namechecked him in many of her early interviews. In any event, Songs from a Room quickly became a firm favourite with me by virtue of its mournful lassitude and air of extreme, willed introspection.
As is my way with many artists I discover for the first time, I quickly immersed myself in as much of Cohen’s back catalogue as I could lay my hands on. My first move in that direction, however, was a clear false start. Hoping for more of the melancholy, wintry sound I had found so appealing in Songs from a Room, I got Death of a Ladies’ Man and was distinctly underwhelmed by its everything-but-the-kitchen-sink production – the responsibility, I later learned, of Phil Spector. Things got back on track with Songs of Leonard Cohen and Songs of Love and Hate, but when the first album of new Cohen songs came out since I became a fan – 1988’s I’m Your Man – it too sounded overproduced, with the dated synthesisers and drum machines sitting uneasily among the fallen majesty of that voice. The lyrics, meanwhile, were thin gruel after the exalted and rapturous imagery of a set like 1984’s Various Positions. Cohen described his then new style of writing (with reference to “I Can’t Forget”, but it applies to the whole album apart from “Take This Waltz”) as “that limpid kind of language that doesn’t twist your arm at all…a dead, flat language.”
All of that said, Leonard Cohen has been a very important and much loved figure to me ever since, and the three Royal Albert Hall concerts I saw him perform (one in 1988 and two in 1993) were indescribably moving affairs. At one of the 1993 concerts I even engineered the obtaining of Cohen’s autograph, albeit without going anywhere near the man. I went to the Albert Hall with a pile of rare Cohen hardbacks in my bag, determined to get them signed. As an experienced autograph hunter, I knew the form. After the gig was never a good idea. There were record company parties, schmoozing to be done… it was also quite possible that the artist would leave the building quietly by a side exit. I knew that before the gig was my only chance. I also knew that it was unlikely that I would get to meet Leonard myself. That didn’t matter, as long as I got my books signed. So I would need help.
I also knew the best place to go. With a good while still to go before the concert started, I stationed myself, not by the stage door outside the venue, but by an artists-only entrance inside. Within a few minutes, one of Cohen’s musicians – a tall guy with glasses, I believe it was the drummer Steve Meador – passed me on the way in. I stopped him and chatted briefly to him; he was (as far as I could tell) not pissed off to be accosted in this way. (Maybe he was just being polite.) I showed him the books; he was impressed. I asked him politely if he would mind taking them to Leonard and getting them signed; he said he would see what he could do. He went inside with the books. A few minutes later, he emerged again. Each of the books was now inscribed with Leonard’s unmistakable signature, making me a very happy Cohen fan indeed.
Apart from his non-performing appearance at the Barbican last year (he also sat through the whole of Philip Glass’s Music In Twelve Parts the following day, which is more than can be said for some), that was the last time I saw Cohen until last Thursday in Bruges. If it hadn’t been for his well-publicised financial troubles, it’s unlikely he would ever have taken to the stage again. But I’m very glad he did, for this was a concert with an overwhelming emotional presence at its core. We waited two hours in intermittent rain outside, a worthwhile wait indeed since it meant we were able to stand right at the front – an unexpected bonus that made the concert doubly enjoyable.
Leonard Cohen songs are like mansions – huge, elegant and perfectly constructed, with vast tracts of space for the visitor to explore. They are songs that, alone, justify the popular song as an artistic form. Moving far beyond the singer-songwriter trope, Cohen’s music is a highly appealing form of central European folk, with clouds of acoustic and percussive invention augmented by achingly perfect vocal harmonies and touches of countryish electric and pedal steel guitar. It’s tasteful, yes, but it’s also possessed of an enormous emotional impact. And the words, even those that are “dead and flat” on the page, resonate with an elemental, often overtly erotic charge.
I could certainly have done without some of the hokier aspects of the performance, such as the frequent and completely unnecessary introductions of the other musicians in the band. But every time the 73-year-old called time on a song and flashed one of his beautifully open and sincere smiles, one’s awareness of all the slickness and the choreography fell away and one was left with the knowledge of witnessing a performance of extraordinary charm, lyricism and grace.