Cohen is Our Man

There was a packed house at the ByTowne last night for the new Leonard Cohen documentary. Many grey and greying heads were in the line snaking along Rideau and down Nelson Street – the man is 71 – but our friendly invitation had snared four university types. For me, it was perfect. It was youth by proximity. We were with bright young people, and I was able to make up slightly for a mis-spent adolescence where I wasn’t nearly hip enough to “get” the Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and Neil Young that Mr. Hill was playing in English class. (I preferred, as he put it, “group noise”. If you couldn’t do basketball warmup drills to it, I wasn’t too interested.) Youth by retroactivity…

I’m Your Man is not a great documentary, but it does feature a great man. Cohen “had an unfair advantage, in a way,” reports Nick Cave. “He can actually write.” This Aussie-centric tribute to the Man and his Words drove one of my dates (the doer/dancer I’m married to) nuts, though. It was everything she has come to scorn  about musicians. Many of the performers were self-absorbed and fairly inarticulate. (Bono and the Edge from U2, and of course Mr. C. himself, were sparkling exceptions, at least to the charge of verbal clumsiness.) Many seemed marginally talented and were jarring to watch (especially if your taste runs to Judy Garland and The Sound of Music.) And there was certainly a surfeit of clanging camera angles and other visual tricks apparently designed to help us forget that we were watching talking head interviews and some B-list concert performers.

Although he, like several other tribute-bearers, found it (annoyingly!) necessary to have the song lyrics in front of him, Rufus Wainwright takes a star turn here, particularly with his version of “Hallelujah”, which he had by heart.. His sister Martha does less well, threatening to swallow the microphone while she flails, and eating way too many of those beautifully crafted words; Kate (their Mom) and Anna McGarrigle made my young friends squirm with a “weird sisters from Macbeth” sort of vibe. (I like ‘em, though. Maybe it’s nostalgia.) But aside from these visiting Canucks (and fellow Montrealers), the performers in this Australian concert were well under my radar. Several were a little hard to watch, the prince being an androgynous and quite spastic singer called Antony. (When I closed my eyes, though, his unusual voice was quite compelling in a Roy Orbison-esque way. His stage presence was Joe Cocker, only less graceful. Very odd.)

The obscurity and limitations of some of the concert participants were pierced by some lovely performances, especially of “Anthem” by two women (unknown to me) who know and deliver that marvellous song. There were also segments that seemed to come from another film altogether: a sweet little (lip-synched?) performance of “I’m Your Man” by Leonard Cohen with U2 in New York, and quickie hallway testimonials from the Edge and Bono. Huge fans both, they teetered constantly on the cliff of outright worship, particularly Edge with his comments about Leonard “coming down from the mountain carrying the tablets of stone”. They placed his career in a broad and intelligent context, though, and their reverence was nicely cut by Cohen’s own self-deprecation and humour. For only one example, he reads to the interviewer (presumably the director, Lian Lunson) his recent introduction to the Chinese version of his 1960s novel Beautiful Losers, and this address to his readers is a triumph of humility, respect, gentle engagement and rich humour.

If you’re already a fan, I’m Your Man will probably work for you, too. And if you’re open to a little weirdness in your musical life, this might be a fine introduction to the work of Leonard Cohen. It’s worth the two hours, though surveys show that only half the people in my marriage would agree.

[I wrote on another Cohen interview, and songwriting honours for him, here.]

Slowed by a Brick in the Road

I’m not accustomed to being this current in my reading, especially with something other than the occasional sports page, but yesterday I launched into the summer ’06 edition of Brick, a literary journal published in Canada. (While it’s still summer. Imagine.) It is far from alone in deserving (and needing) a wider readership, and in bringing something just a little loftier to minds ready for more than stock quotations and Red Sox scores; that is to say, to most educated adults. The rewards are many.

Here are two of them. First, I read the transcript of a radio interview I’d heard last spring with Leonard Cohen. Five of his songs were being inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame; he was humble, charming, intelligent. (I wrote about it here in an earlier entry.) It was a pleasure to stumble upon such a rare treat again.

Second, I was introduced to literature’s Mr. Roth, not the American novelist Philip but the Austrian writer Joseph, a little-known figure that scholar and translator Michael Hofmann has made it his life’s work to know and love and advocate. “My Life with Roth” gives scant detail about its subject – surprisingly few traces remain, though he lived until 1939 – but recounts Hofmann’s rather random discovery of Roth and the ten subsequent translations he has done of his novels and letters. He had already convinced me to scribble down The Radetzky March on my burgeoning list of Books I Will Get To Someday, but Hofmann sealed the deal by concluding his essay with the following selection from Roth’s greatest novel. Like much great writing, it is more true now than when it was written. It pierces our nearly omnipresent conviction that efficiency and sheer pace are the hallmarks of our cultural greatness. He echoes Gandhi’s famous dictum that “there is more to life than increasing its speed”. Roth wrote,

In the years before the Great War, at the time the events chronicled in these pages took place, it was not yet a matter of indifference whether a man lived or died. When someone was expunged from the lists of the living, someone else did not immediately step up to take his place, but a gap was left to show where he had been, and those who knew the man who had died or disappeared, well or even less well, fell silent whenever they saw the gap. When a fire happened to consume a particular dwelling in a row of dwellings, the site of the conflagration remained for a long time afterwards. For masons and bricklayers worked slowly and thoughtfully, and when they walked past the ruins, neighbours and passers-by alike recalled the form and the walls of the house that had once stood there. That’s how it was then! Everything that grew took long to grow; and everything that ended took a long time to be forgotten. Everything that existed left behind traces of itself, and people then lived by their memories, just as we nowadays live by our capacity to forget, quickly and comprehensively.

 This was my ouch for the day.

(You’re welcome.)

Leonard Cohen and Five Good Songs

“You should never throw anything away, including people and ideas. It’s really true that we should never give up on anyone.”  That was Leonard Cohen, in my radio today.

Cohen is 71 now. Five of his songs were inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame on the weekend. (Did you know there was one? Not the weekend, I mean the Hall. Although, actually, there is no actual hall for the Hall. Someday.) He was on Sounds Like Canada this morning, a taped interview he’d done with Shelagh Rogers. I missed the first 15 minutes or so of a warm, intelligent conversation of the type that CBC Radio occasionally pulls off so wonderfully well. (The “Mother Corp” takes a lot of hits from people who don’t listen to it. The TV side has its highs, even beyond Hockey Night in Canada, but I don’t watch it much; it’s so-so, even before you account for having to watch commercials. But the radio side is brilliant, commercial-free, and getting better, getting a little younger. Superb.) It was an hour-long conversation, followed by an hour of highlights from the HoF awards show. (How’s a guy supposed to get any work done?)

“Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in…” This is an example of the songwriter as Writer, as Poet, a designation Cohen once refused, feeling that it was too early in his career to apply to himself such an exalted title; I take it upon myself to confer it now). It comes from “Anthem”, which enters the Canuck Songster Pantheon along with “Bird on a Wire” (Willie Nelson was there to sing it, and that’s the version I hear), “Ain’t No Cure For Love” (I hear Jennifer Warnes), “Hallelujah” (kd lang did a glorious version at the ceremony, but I like Bono’s, too) and “Everybody Knows” (Don Henley does a terrific rendition on the tribute album Tower of Song, but Cohen’s own is one I find more listenable than some of the others, gritty and morose).

I’m hoping that the whole interview, as well as the awards package, will be available. I looked on the CBC site tonight for it tonight, and instead went wandering through their archives of 1950s radio interviews and 1960s television chats – Adrienne Clarkson, in all her youthful bouffant glory! – and on into the more recent past. And in case there’d been any doubt, I found an extraordinary man. Even in his youth, Leonard Cohen was profoundly articulate, gently contrarian, an artist and a seer who sounded and looked as contemporary as his interviewers looked and often sounded quaint. Now, his intelligence, insight and deep humility are beautiful to hear. I hope to hear today’s interview again. (Apparently it was filmed for eventual airing on television. I’ll let you know.)