The Paramount Theatre
April 13, 2009
Now, in Vienna there are ten pretty women
There’s a shoulder where
Death comes to cry
There’s a lobby with nine hundred windows
There’s a tree where the doves love to die
It can be argued that artists, at least those whose work survives the bonfires of the mass-marketplace’s cruel idiocracy, do not really teach anyone much of anything. They don’t discover cures for our ailments or truly heal our all-too-fragile human “condition.” It seems those poets, painters, singers, filmmakers, musicians and playwrights we cherish most are the ones who simply remind of us of what we already know. They tell us our story in our own words, as interpreted by their muse, to our own tunes, in the pages of a book we swear we must have written ourselves. There is a connection made, a bridge transcended, a heart entered … our own … the one we recognize in song. The one we share with the world, meaning to or not.
Each and every one of us has had our heart broken. And, in another moment, has experienced sublime joy. We have all been lonely, happy, angry and wistful. Yet there are those among us who sometimes, with nothing more than a few stanzas of prose or a few well-chosen guitar chords, can awaken the often deeply buried diamond of our own brilliant lives and place it, lovingly, into our plush theater seat for us to pause, and gaze into — and remember to laugh, and cry, and cry, and laugh about it all again.
One such artist, who began his career as the young poet prodigy, the heir to Byron, the Canadian Lorca, and who later became the thin Zen rabbi elder in Armani — who has, for the past 40-plus years, sung my songs, written my poems and lit the candles in every cathedral that housed my prayers, just for me, and a million others like me who are afflicted by the same life and loves that forces him, by some will not altogether his own, to be our poet. He is Leonard Cohen, and no artist anywhere has developed a more personal relationship with his audience. If you are a Leonard Cohen fan you are a Cohen fan completely. He’s touched your perfect body with his songs, hasn’t he?
He has been many things in his life. He’s written novels, he’s been poetry’s enfant terrible, he’s been portrayed as a great ladies’ man and he’s been a pop star. He’s been a father, a mixologist, a Zen monk, and a licensed (by San Bernardino County) food preparer and kitchen worker. He’s been on stage in front of thousands and he’s disappeared for years to embrace solitude. He’s a megastar in Europe and a beloved “fringe folkie” in America. In his native Canada, he is a national treasure. On Monday night, April 13, on a stage in Oakland, he was all these things. He was able to hold and captivate an audience for nearly four hours without once appearing that he would rather be anywhere other than with us. He seemed humbled, and quite taken aback, by the ferocity of the ovations, though they occur at every stop he makes on the tour.
He has sat, upright and silent, for hours upon hours, in rigid lotus pose (a posture not designed for Jewish singers in their ’60s) the minutes coming and going with each breath atop a tall slab of granite and scrub brush in the San Gabriel Mountains which is called Mount Baldy by the rugged Rinzai monks with whom he shared his barracks for several years in the ’90s. He, along with these hardened Buddhist Marines, marched in whispered circles around piled stones in a monastery courtyard carrying a grand piano on their backs, bent under the weight, simply for our shared love of Mozart. Our monks , and our artists, do the heavy lifting for us. This, for their gift they share so freely, is why we bless them with our thoughtfully generous alms. Alms that run in the $300-a-seat realm for these Oakland shows where the monk known as Jikan, and the pop star known as Leonard Cohen, plies his trade in front of an adoring throng, kindred hearts who stand with wild applause at least a dozen times throughout the evening.
He, our bodhisattva with his cocked and bent fedora which he removes and holds over his heart with each wave of applause, and wearing an impeccable gray and black (ordained Zen monk colors, naturally) pinstriped rebbe gangster suit, has been the strong and handsome lover, riding a white horse years ago onto an open stage to sing for a thousand women who willingly sleep with him completely, if only until the final bow and the curtain closes. He has also, just as naturally, been the humble hermit, offering his songs as if they were cups of tea poured at a quiet table for dear friends that he has only just met (though you know he’s known you forever).
He is now, on this stage, mostly your kind grandfather, wanting you to remember the songs he sang for you when you and he were younger. Songs you still found useful as you lost your way from time to time. They were still there, on a shelf, or perhaps transformed to ones and zeroes to be unscrambled for you on your iPod, whenever you needed them. He is motivated by art… but circumstances involving a shady manager who pirated away our Mr. Cohen’s retirement funds also play a part in the necessity of being a pop star again. He is, after all, 74 years old, with eyes that sparkle brightly like ancient stars in the spotlight, far from losing their luminescence, and belie the fact that he is condemned to be an “act,” but is indeed happy to perform for you again… no matter the reason for such a grand undertaking as a world tour. Tours covering Europe, North America and the far reaches of the Pacific are grueling to even young and enthusiastic performers. But on this night in Oakland, after an already mind-numbing 103 concerts, each running at least three and a half hours, Cohen manages to skip like a child to and from the stage for encore after encore, displaying no sign of weariness or boredom. A remarkable feat. Perhaps those hours atop Mount Baldy toughened the old bird into a spring robin.
There’s a concert hall in Vienna
Where your mouth had a thousand reviews
There’s a bar where the boys have stopped talking
They’ve been sentenced to death by the blues
My daughter, Hannah, our child born with a poet’s soul and an empathy for the world that keeps her heart in a constant state of being torn and stained (the most common trait of any Cohen fan), surprised me with scalper’s Orchestra seats for tonight’s show. We drove for the few hours that separate Redding from the Bay Area to what we both imagined was the Opera House in Vienna that is home to the 10 pretty women of “Take This Waltz,” temporarily transported to a nearly tawdry Broadway in Oakland for the singer whose voice now, in this millennium, has the raspy sound of the scribe’s pen scratching against the brittle parchment that he surely used to write the lines he sang to us first, “Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin,” — and whose words are older now than our time but show no more age than the elegant Rabbi kneeling with microphone cupped in his pantomiming hands while he offers the next line, “Dance me through the panic ‘til I’m gathered safely in.” But the quill’s point in his voice is still bold, and the cursive enunciation of his couplets still clear. “Lift me like an olive branch, and be my homeward dove, dance me to the end of love. Dance me, to the end of love.”
Cohen elected to rest on one knee, like a suitor wooing his audience, and sing in the smooth baritone that has aged inside what must be an oaken throat, his right hand clutching the microphone, his left hand occasionally fluttering like a pantomime dove being released into the lights. He would strap on his black guitar for many of the older numbers that require his rolling, finger-picking style, long associated with his “somber” folk sound. Often cited by frivolous critics as an artist to “slit your wrists by,” Cohen offers songs that may be more “serious” than one usually encounters, but are by no means nihilistic paeans to early death. He’s certainly outlived that bit.
He had taken the stage from our left, leaping and skipping like a much younger, well-appointed Jewish scarecrow/gnome to thunderous applause from the 3,000 souls who found their way to the gilded and plush Paramount Theatre that actually reeked of a Vienna Opera House by the time of the icon’s entrance. His entrance accompanied by the sweet, “La, la, la, la, la, la, la…” of his three singing “beautiful angels” and the playing of an ensemble, so tight, you couldn’t squeeze an errant note through them if you tried.
The show continued in the same vein as the previous 100 shows since his mammoth three-year world tour commenced last year, beautifully documented in the recent CD and DVD release “Leonard Cohen: Live In London,” a very fair representation of the current North American Tour, though I believe they’ve tinkered with the set list since London, which improves the pacing of the show, and the band has become even more precise and yet maintains an agility that suits the needs of a 74-year-old front man. I particularly enjoyed the addition of “Famous Blue Raincoat” to the set. It was, for me, one of the marathon concert’s highlights.
The promoters deserve special recognition for having the foresight to open the Paramount early allowing fans to relax and chat around the many bars and souvenir stands while a large a capella group (The Bearded Gentlemen) sang Cohen tunes from the mezzanine to the appreciative early arrivals gathered in the main lobby. This helped avoid the usual last-minute crush at the box office and the jammed doorways to the theater proper. The atmosphere was both relaxed and elegant. Smiles were on every face. Underlying the joy of sharing the evening with one of rock’s most revered artists (Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Inductee, Class of 2008) was the inevitable thought that this was, quite possibly, the last chance any of us would have the opportunity to hear this magnificent poet sing his songs to us. Fittingly, after the ovations, and it was clear the marriage of artist and audience had been spent, Cohen left us with a benediction. The band joined him for a sweet, quietly sung hymn, “Whither Thou Goest,” which sent us back into the soft, ornate aisles and back into the world.
Take this waltz, this waltz
With its “I’ll never forget you, you know!”
Take this waltz, this waltz, this waltz…
… It’s yours now. It’s all that there is.
He gave us a monk’s humble gassho before skipping away off the stage. He had sung his songs for us, recited his poems and danced his jig, maybe for the last time. But, both he and we know that they really are our songs. We’ve heard them all our lives. We just needed our kindly grandfather and poet to remind us where they are, and that they do, indeed, belong to us. The Beautiful Losers.
Phil Fountain and his daughter, Hannah Lane, have shared a love of poetry and the love of Cohen’s work for as long as each can remember. It was Hannah who put the beauty of the show in her father’s heart with the smile in her eyes as Cohen sang to her that night. She also bought the tickets so they could share this marvelous evening.
The setlist (for those interested in such things):
Oakland, April 13, 2009
Dance Me To The End Of Love
Ain’t No Cure For Love
Bird On The Wire
In My Secret Life
Who By Fire
Waiting For The Miracle
Tower Of Song
I’m Your Man
A Thousand Kisses Deep (recitation)
Take This Waltz
So Long, Marianne
First We Take Manhattan
Famous Blue Raincoat
If It Be Your Will
I Tried to Leave You
Whither Thou Goest