Tuesday 16 July 2019

An epic display from smiling dada of despair

When legend Cohen takes to the stage, it's no less than a cultural event of Biblical dimensions, believes Barry Egan

Barry Egan

Barry Egan

Words on a page," Van Morrison once sang, "please don't call me a sage." You could happily call Leonard Cohen a sage without any fear of contradiction or even rebuke. Watching the Montreal mensch on stage at the Royal Kilmainham Hospital on Friday night, you could also add wise man, Zen-prophet, soothsayer, visionary, seer, bard, guru, godhead, high priest, soul-counsellor, troubadour, non-manic street preacher, chronicler of pain, Rinzai Zen Buddhist monk and holy man to that list.

Bono called him "Our Byron, our Shelley." I met the U2 singer and Guggi in Lillies on Friday night. They both went to Leonard's show -- as did Bono's wife Ali and Gerry Ryan and his kids.

The level of cultural excitement at Cohen's three sold-out shows in Dublin (the charismatic Canadian plays his final show tonight) bordered on mass hysteria. It wasn't so much a series of concerts by an old man in a grey suit as an event of biblical dimensions. He wasn't just here to sing us songs. He came down from the mountaintop with the stone tablets after talking to the angels. As he sang with that otherworldly gravel voice of his on The Future: "I'm the little Jew who wrote the Bible." The likes of U2 manager Paul McGuinness and his wife Kathy Gilfinan, tycoon Dermot Desmond, politician Dermot Ahern and actor Alan Rickman were there to absorb the messianic wisdom of the little Jew.

He didn't disappoint them or the 10,000 people who came to see him on Friday night. Over the course of nearly three hours he played everything from I'm Your Man to First We'll Take Manhattan to Dance Me Til The End Of Love to The Future to Closing Time to Bird On A Wire.

Frail as a bird on wire himself, Leonard never stopped smiling (so much for his title as 'The Dada of Despair'); his smiley cheekiness most apparent on The Tower Of Song when he sang the lines:

"Well my friends are gone and my hair is grey

I ache in the places where I used to play."

His masterpiece Hallelujah was majestic in the chill of a late summer's evening in Dublin. If It Be Your Will? was unforgettable (as unforgettable as the fabulously androgynous Antony Hegarty's showstealing version at the Leonard Cohen tribute night at the Point in 2006).

On his melancholic masterpiece Suzanne, he sang with vulnerability of pain and love -- all peeling from his stretched larynx like a snake shedding its skin -- as he moved softly about the stage underneath his trilby hat:

"While Suzanne holds the mirror

And you want to travel with her

And you want to travel blind

And you know that you can trust her

For she's touched your perfect body with her mind," he sang, as trumpets of angels swooped around him.

Watching Leonard onstage at Royal Kilmainham Hospital on Friday night -- as opposed to Bono holding court in Lillies on Friday night perhaps -- you could be forgiven for thinking that here was a man possibly endowed with profound moral and spiritual insight and intuitive powers, and possibly even special powers of divination.

There was a time when every ponytailed advertising guru of a certain age would recite Cohen's risque masterpiece Chelsea Hotel at Rathmines house parties ad nauseam. Languid Leonard didn't play that song but he didn't miss out much else on Friday night.

"I always thought of myself as a competent, minor poet. I know who I'm up against," the high priest of pathos once said with his charmingly crooked smile.

Asked what he was up against, exactly, Cohen smiled and replied: "Dante, and Shakespeare, Isaiah, King David, Homer, you know. So I've always thought that I, you know, do my job okay."

You do more than okay, Leonard.

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