The Tower of Song

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I am always pleased when an artist finally begins to receive the widespread adoration and appreciation they deserve. Those who have been lionized by small segments of the population often fade away quickly, but once they make the jump from “acquired taste” to “icon”, they are far more likely to stand the test of time.

Just such an artist is Leonard Cohen. Certainly the enlightened have always valued his work, but now more and more of the mainstream seem to understand that he is one of the finest songwriters and poets of his generation at the very least. He is in the midst of a wildly successful tour of the world right now in his seventy second year and I have attached a very revealing review of one of his New York shows. I am pleased to say I will be seeing him on this tour in a couple months, and yes, I admit it, I am getting all fanboyish about it.

Sue me.

The following is reposted from Forbes.

The Successful Poet
Lionel Tiger, 05.20.09, 12:01 AM ET

As at any college, we had the usual group of baffled arrogant self-selected earnest artiste-intellectuals who circulated around the town. We wanted, at the same time, to keep people out and expand our group, but always the criteria were about creative skill, surprising knack and sustained and socially critical activity. And stubbornness–otherwise known as ambition or high standards–which made the difference decades later.

One fellow was especially athletic and knowing in his aesthetic drive, and he wrote the finest poetry in the group. He took up singing poetry to music, and we would sometimes troll the same parties with music to try to attract the attention of women who were over-clothed against the fierce winter of the college season. We did some national broadcasting work together–it was sheer pleasure for lads without a business plan for life.

He lived a life untroubled by surface perturbations. He always sustained profound uncertainties about faith, the surprises of time and loyalty, questions that he continues to mine. When I came back from three years away from town, we met for a long walk, and then he offered to sing me the new songs he had written, which he said he felt obligated to perform for anyone who asked. We sat in the furnished room in which he lived to hear what were to become classic song poems of our time–which it was clear then they were going to be. At one point he smoothly drove a black Volkswagen Beetle–obviously as a complex statement about the Nazis. His family owned one of the best suit makers in the country.

He said it sometimes took him two weeks to write two lines of a song. His records had central integrity and mysterious authority. Once we went for another long walk in Paris and people would approach him with a pencil and a bit of paper and he would sign and go, no words exchanged. He is always wry and extraordinary. His poetry is rich, demanding, direct and immediate, and his lyrics can make you cry for a phrase. His popular future was never clear.

The night of May 16, Leonard Cohen filled Radio City Music Hall. Though tickets were rapidly upscaled in price by what is presumably a more lush subsidiary of Ticketmaster, there weren’t seats available five minutes after they went on sale. Another performance was immediately scheduled for the next night, Sunday. Sold out as well.

Two nights at Radio City Music Hall. A long concert–nearly three hours. Cohen is 72. He reminded the audience several times that he is mortal, and a reluctant but candid connoisseur of his own frailty. He bounded on and off stage like a filly, waving his hat, and with an incandescent broad smile. But for a rock star, which is in effect his new job, he was as physically reticent as the dark tailored suits he always wears and his classic Milan fedora.

His major athleticism is to kneel for part of a number of the songs and to stand at firm respectful attention to the remarkable soloists with whom he works as they provided superlative virtuoso music. Cohen has always from the beginning–with the exception of one ill-fated essay with Phil Spector–surrounded himself with unusual outstanding players and singers he clearly honors. At the end he thanked, as well the bus driver, the perfect video and sound managers (from Montreal, his town, in his only explicit reference to place, apart from the Chelsea Hotel), the woman who had custody of the hats, the whole group. This was an ensemble that managed to turn a collection of songs–many of B-flat unrelieved melancholy and despair–into a triumphant act of musical affirmation and brilliant craft. They had to do at least five encores. The immense hall contained no dissenters.

In one riveting few moments, the college Leonard who had stunned us returned to recite a tight poem with only soft indeterminate music accompanying what was an angry, bitter, but always dazzling reflection on life and love, which delivered all the intelligent majesty of his huge poetic gift. Finally the man is great because of poetry, his first and best try at probing the system.

He also has the stubbornness. He has survived, prospered and gives thanks he can sing but notes he may not "be around again." He is an untouchable icon for countless musicians and sees himself still as a resident in his Tower of Song–a memoir of the time he lived in Nashville. Now on a remarkable tour around the world, it is wonderful for him and a jewel for everyone that he so fully reveals the power of the old magic, poetry, now united to the new, electrical music.

He concluded the evening with a modest oracular kind of prayer, with no affiliation other than proposing to live, and then skipped away.

Adam and Eve ban

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1 Comment

  1. Something else I’m highly enjoying, looking at the rising tide of positive press? Is that they’re counting him as poet first, singer second.

    While I’m highly in favor of the talent of singers being addressed, acknowledging him as a poet first, a poet who sings–that just might begin to lift poetry as a form out of poverty row.


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