Fascinating and enigmatic, a quirky delight, Leonard Cohen nevertheless found a series of devoted, adult audiences over the years – selling 21 million records worldwide across four decades, including the gold-certified Songs of Leonard Cohen, his 1967 debut, and 1975’s The Best of Leonard Cohen.
As we mourn his sudden passing, those numbers are worth mulling over again. After all, popular music rarely makes room for true poetry, and even more rarely for singer songwriters who move beyond the typical folk trappings into blues, rock and the avant garde – and almost never for old men.
A key influence on a number of rock bands, notably the Velvet Underground, Leonard Cohen’s fiery literacy on issues both personal and political actually predated his music. He wrote some dozen books, beginning with 1956’s Let Us Compare Mythologies and continuing through collections of poetry, prose and drawings like 2006’s Book of Longing.
Yet an unlikely ride into musical history was finally made complete with the announcement of Cohen’s 2008 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and then a subsequent tour that led to the release of Live in London. He’d continue on a prolific pace through 2016’s You Want It Darker, but I returned to this 2009 live document – then Cohen’s first newly recorded release since 2004’s Dear Heather – during our first dark evening without him.
Included, of course, is “Hallelujah” from 1984’s Various Positions, Leonard Cohen’s only Top 40 hit and a familiar cover tune after renditions by more than 150 artists including Jeff Buckley (easily my favorite), Alexandra Blake, Willie Nelson and Bono of U2. Dig deeper into songs like “Anthem,” however, and Cohen’s wider legacy comes into focus – most notably a studied passion, this almost professorial verve.
From the first, Cohen’s work seemed to be informed by the weary wisdom of old age, and this dignified faith. It seems his physical presence grew into that maturity. And he had no issue there. “There is a crack in everything,” Cohen sings here, “… that’s how the light gets in.”
“Anthem” is just one of a string of tunes on Live in London imbued with enough humor, insight and beauty to once again nourish both the heart and intellect. “Bird on a Wire,” from 1969’s Songs From a Room, is a reliable highlight as are later gems like “Ain’t No Cure for Love,” and “Everybody Knows” from 1988’s I’m Your Man. There’s also a touching new version of “Suzanne,” originally included on Cohen’s debut.
This tour followed a sad turn of events that saw Leonard Cohen bilked out of millions by a former manager and lover. He retook the stage with a ferocious enthusiasm, fronting an air-tight, if not overly improvisational, band playing in smooth-jazz, cabaret-influenced style Cohen has always had within his sound. (A tip of the hat to keyboardist Neil Larson, who provided a few memorably churchy fills.)
“Closing Time,” Cohen’s spoken-word paean to the final moments of beer-soaked reverie before the bars turn the lights on, might have made an appropriate finale. But, no surprise here, he keeps going – finishing with a song inspired by the Bible’s ever-faithful Ruth, “Whither Thou Goest.”
Live in London remains a powerful testament to Leonard Cohen’s own constancy, even in death.
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