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Came So Far For Beauty


(Preview of Leonard Cohen Tribute Concert, The Point Depot, Dublin, October 2006)

An all-star cast will line up for two evenings of Leonard Cohen songs, in an event titled – after one of the maestro’s works – Came So Far For Beauty, to be performed in honour of the legendary Canadian singer-songwriter on October 4th and 5th at The Point Depot, as part of this year’s Dublin Theatre Festival.

The concert will feature (in egalitarianly alphabetical order here on the page, if not on the night): Anjani Thomas, Antony Hegarty, Laurie Anderson, Perla Batalla, Steven Bernstein, Rob Burger, Charlie Burnham, Nick Cave, Julie Christensen, Jarvis Cocker, David Coulter, Don Falzone, Gavin Friday, The Handsome Family, Robin Holcomb, Briggan Krauss, Maxim Moston, Mary Margaret O'Hara, Beth Orton, Lou Reed, Chris Spedding, Teddy Thompson and Kenny Wollesen.

The show was originally commissioned in 2003 by the Celebrate Brooklyn Performing Arts Festival with support from the Canadian Consulate General New York, and has since played in Brighton, UK and Sydney, Australia. It is the brainchild of one of the world’s most visionary and original music producers, of both studio tribute albums and live events, Hal Willner, whose previous concept productions include Greetings From Tim Buckley (1991), Edgar Allan Poe’s Writings (1995), The Marquis de Sade’s Writings (1998) and The Harry Smith Project (1999). Now he is curating this programme of brilliant arrangements of classics from the Cohen canon, which, given the diverse musical backgrounds of the artists involved, promises to draw on stylistic elements from jazz, rock, folk, cabaret, electronica, blues and ballads, as each contributor brings their own interpretative reading to some of the finest songs of the past 50 years.

 

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Born into a middle-class Jewish family in the Montreal suburb of Westmount in 1934, Cohen is now 72-years-old. His relationship with the music scene has always been more tangential than has that of any other major singer-songwriter with whom he might be compared. For a start, he came to music late, his first album, The Songs of Leonard Cohen, not appearing until 1967 when he was 33, by which time he was already an established literary figure, having published four collections of poetry and two novels. Plus, his recording and performing career has been punctuated periodically by long lay-offs and sabbaticals, with no releases between 1979’s Recent Songs and 1985’s Various Positions for example, or The Future in 1992 and Ten New Songs in 2001, the later absence occasioned partly by this ‘Lothario of insatiable stamina’ (as he was once described) spending five years as a novice and then a monk in the Mount Baldy Zen Centre, a Buddhist retreat in Southern California. Then there’s the fact that his material has frequently been characterised unkindly as overly morose, with one ’60s wag dismissing it as, ‘music to slit your wrists to’. Add to all this that his monotone set of pipes, amounting to almost spoken-word vocals, hardly merit the designation ‘Pavarotti of pop’, and it can be difficult to account of the reverence in which he is held in some quarters.

Yet he has been venerated across four decades, with the release of Jennifer Warnes’ album of Cohen cover versions, Famous Blue Raincoat, during their writer’s ’80s hiatus leading to his discovery by a second generation of admirers, resulting in 1991’s tribute album, I’m Your Fan: The Songs of Leonard Cohen, featuring recordings of his songs by the likes of R.E.M., The Pixies, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Fatima Mansions and Robert Forster, which was followed yet again in 1995 by another tribute album, Tower of Song, with contributions from Billy Joel and Willie Nelson, among others. The song ‘Hallelujah’ itself must be one of the most covered in the language, with versions by everyone from Jeff Buckley to John Cale to k.d. lang to Rufus Wainright to Bono. Let’s also not forget that an extra night has been added to the present Festschrift in The Point, ‘due to unprecedented public demand’ as they say, the first having sold out pronto. How, then, to explain this extraordinary popularity?

Well, to misquote Bill Clinton slightly: it’s the songs, stupid. To be sure, there is also the persona, of one who has stuck to his guns through thick and thin, ploughed his own furrow regardless of what people thought, and pursued his artistic vision without ever caring one whit about its commercial potential, which commands respect. There are even those who hold that the gravelly, lived-in non-voice is the perfect vehicle for the downbeat images of the songs. But, these considerations aside, it is possible to argue that more than any of the other big ’60s survivors still doing the rounds – Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, or even fellow college boy Lou Reed – it is Cohen who is the most literate and, therefore, in a sense, the most singular. Steeped in (mostly Old Testament) Biblical imagery combined with the poetry of Lorca from the start, his work has from the very beginning to his more recent offerings, Ten New Songs (2001) and Dear Heather (2004), inhabited that dangerous but thrilling physical and psychological knife-edge intersection where sexual and spiritual yearnings meet. Musically, many of his songs recall the minor key, cantor chanting in a synagogue drone of the Jewish tradition he grew up in, which also gives them a distinctive feel.

As for the accusations of unrelieved bleakness, his earlier work usually leavened this with a furtive romanticism, while everything from 1988’s I’m Your Man onwards balances it by injecting a subtle, if sometimes sardonic, humour. As Derek Mahon wrote of Beckett, probably more years ago than he cares to remember, in what has since become a critical cliché: ‘An important thing to remember about Beckett is that he is one of the funniest of modern writers.’ As with Beckett, as with Cohen, as with Morrissey: it’s the funny bits people forget about the dark sensibility. Anyone who can groan I was born like this/I had no choice/I was born with the gift/Of a golden voice, as Cohen does sonorously on ‘Tower of Song’, is not deficient in being able to smile self-deprecatingly at himself, or to look wryly at the foibles of the world.

It is a demonstrable phenomenon that he is held in higher esteem by the ladies in his audience than by the gentlemen. Why should this be? Simple jealousy on the part of the males? In a song from his last album, ‘Because Of’, Cohen, who never married, succinctly sums up his amorous life: Because of a few songs/Wherein I spoke of their mystery/Women have been exceptionally kind to my old age/They make a secret place/In their busy lives/And they take me there/They become naked/In their different ways/And they say, 'Look at me, Leonard/Look at me one last time. We should all, mere mortal men, in our twilight years, be so blessed.


First published in Magill magazine, September 2006

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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