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Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen, Hydra, GreeceFor those of us who lived in Greece in the late sixties and early seventies it is hard not to think of Leonard Cohen as one of ours, in the same way that Liverpudlians felt about the Beatles. We all knew Cohen was living on the island of Hydra. Some of us had seen him. Some of us had shared long dinners with him at large tables in small tavernas. Some of us had seen characters from his songs, perhaps a beautiful woman dressed in silk scarves from salvation army counters, angelic blonde child in tow, walking along the cobbled streets of Hydra's port, a goddess on her way to some mundane human task like buying a loaf of bread or Flying Dolphin tickets for a journey to Athens to visit the gynecologist. Leonard Cohen belonged to us and even when we discovered that the rest of the world had discovered him too, we still felt like we had a special relationship with him, like an old friend from the neighborhood.

Greece was a magical place in the late sixties and early seventies, despite the fact that there was a military junta running the country. There were those who refused to live in a dictatorship, who felt it was too much of a weight on their creativity, or were just scared, who left Greece to return to the lives they had previously given up. They traded Greece for a full time job while they waited for the political climate to clear. But for those who stayed, the Greek islands were not a bad place to be during the junta. It was an age when overland travel from Europe to India was still possible and the parade of hippies and adventurers who spent weeks, months or years in Greece on their way to or from the east provided food for song, poems, books and conversation for the x-pats who stuck around. Leonard Cohen was one of them.

At this point I could easily be writing an obituary for Leonard Cohen rather than a review of his latest tour. Cohen is 75 years old, a fact that is included in every article and review of his shows. If you do the math you will realize that when he broke into the scene he was already in his mid-thirties, eight years older than Dylan who by 1970 was practically an elderly statesman in rock and roll terms. Cohen was 8 years older than the oldest Beatle who by 1970 did not even exist as a band. He was a man in a boy's game. A seasoned poet turned folk singer-pop star. His young fans thought he was singing about their lives. He was. But he was also singing about their parent's lives. In 1964 when I was 9 my mother brought home Bob Dylan's album The Times They Are A-Changin' and played it continuously and I was shocked to see the face of a young man on the cover, the whole time thinking that the songs I was hearing every day were being sung by a little old man with a beard and few teeth left. My mother is also 75 years old, the same age as Cohen. When Bob Dylan and the Beatles suddenly appeared and turned the world upside down, Leonard Cohen was already approaching thirty. In 1967 when he released his first album he was 33 years old. Cohen has always been old. We just never noticed it until now when he is trying to show us that he isn't. Did I say trying? He is showing us.

Discovering Leonard Cohen

Leonard CohenI discovered Cohen late. I had seen him in Hydra and knew who he was, and had girlfriends who loved him and had sat in many a quiet Athenian living room when Suzanne was played on someone's turntable or cassette player. But it was not until the eighties that I was really receptive to him and realized that we were some kind of kindred spirits and that our Greek-Jewish history and background made our music sound similar. I became a fan and began peppering my set with Cohen songs,sometimes doing several as an encore. After a night of Matt Barrett songs there was no better way to please a crowd than by playing Leonard Cohen. In 1989 when my musical career was drawing to a conclusion, I had decided not to go to Greece that summer and was not sure what to do instead. I was driving around upstate NY in my little 2002 BMW not even sure what direction to drive in when I saw a sign for Montreal. The previous summer my friend Elizabeth Boleman-Herring had interviewed Cohen in Athens and suggested that I meet him. I remembered that at the same time as I saw the sign and on impulse I got on the road to Montreal and since I had no other reason I was going there to meet Leonard Cohen. In those days I would do stuff like that and believed in fate and that some things were meant to be to a certain degree. This feeling was fueled by a French hitchhiker I picked up who when we were stopped at the border told the authorities that he was staying at the home of Leonard Cohen. If it was not fate it was a miracle. I drove him to Leonard Cohen's house. We walked in to a 3 or 4 story building on a small square. The house had very little furniture, there were sleeping bags, empty bottles of orange juice and newspapers scattered around and lots of young people who looked like they were just waking up after a long night of partying. It was not what I expected. I asked my new best friend if this was really the house of Leonard Cohen. "No this is the house of his daughter. Leonard Cohen lives next door."

I took a little walk and called some friends who lived outside the city and arranged a place to stay for awhile. Then I found a couple Greek restaurants which by chance belonged to a family from my grandmother's village. (I know you don't believe all this but it really happened). I had a nice Greek meal, wine and conversation and then went back to the little square to get my car and drive to where I was staying that night. Sitting next to my car on his front stoop smoking a cigarette was Leonard Cohen. I introduced myself and dropped the names of some mutual friends so he would know I was not some crazed fan stalking him, and he invited me to sit. We talked for awhile about Greece, about Montreal and LA and he was surprisingly forthcoming to me, a stranger. This was during the french-ifying of Montreal and he confessed that he was not sure whether to stay or go, that his French was not very good and that he did not really like LA but enjoyed his apartment because the sun rose on one window and set in another. I invited him to Chapel Hill which at the time was like Mecca for young musicians, and that probably he could find an apartment that did the same, produce some young bands, and become a sort of poet-in-residence. We then went down the street to the Samos Bakery, owned by Greeks of course, and bought some fresh warm bread and then returned to the stoop. I asked him if I could bring a tape for him to listen to and he said yes and we said good night. I spent the next morning putting together a compilation from the various tapes I had in my car which at the time was a sort of traveling closet. When I returned the next afternoon to his house he invited me in for a minute but told me he had some guests in the other room. I handed him the tape and he sort of blessed it and we said goodbye, me convinced he would listen to it and love it and want to produce my next album.

That is kind of the end of the story. I never did follow up which is what you are supposed to dobut I am by nature too shy to do, even with our meeting seemingly arranged by some higher force. I assumed that for all that stuff to happen then there must be more coming. There wasn't. Well, that is not entirely true. A week or so later I was staying with my friend Steve McGillivary in the same neighborhood when I went into a bagel shop for lunch and there at one of the booths was Leonard Cohen, his daughter and another guy and while I should have gone up to say hi I was so worried that he would think I was stalking him that I sort of buried my face in my bagel and tried not to be noticed. That was the last time I saw Leonard Cohen, until the other night.

The Tour

The circumstances that led to this tour which began almost a year ago and will probably continue well into next year was supposedly financial. While Cohen had his heart and mind in deeper places, someone in his 'organization' (I use the term with a smile) managed to steal or misplace all of his money. Though Canada has socialized medicine, the prospect of spending the final years of one's life dependent on a government program for any human, even a practicing Buddhist and poet,can generate a certain amount of fear, and Cohen, if nothing else, is human. Suddenly he had to work for a living again or end up facing the uncertain and apocalyptic future he sings about, with the rest of us. Not that a tour will earn you enough money to buy your way out of the apocalypse. But it can't hurt.

One day, if he hasn't already, Cohen will thank whoever it was that took his money and caused him to leave his secret life and put it back on the stage where it belongs. If you believe in God and that he works in mysterious ways then you need no more proof than the resurrection of Leonard Cohen.

Leonard CohenIt has been almost 10 years since the release of his album Ten New Songs which he recorded with his producer, singer, and I assume partner, Sharon Robinson who appears with him on the cover (and on the tour). This photo of Cohen on the album cover reminds me of the scene in the film Raging Bull of Jake Lamotta's last fight with Sugar Ray Robinson. Jake had given it all he had but rather than thrown in the towel, allows Robinson to beat on him until the final bell, using the ropes to keep him on his feet. When Robinson is declared the winner Lamotta goes to his corner as if to congratulate him. Instead, in a cinematic image that is iconic, Robert Deniro as LaMotta, his eyes swollen shut says "Hey Ray. You never knocked me down, Ray. You never knocked me down". This is Cohen's face on Ten New Songs, whether intentional or by chance. The face says "I am still standing" and says to the world "You never knocked me down." Nearly 10 years later Cohen comes out of his corner to prove it.

The Show

I was able to go to the Leonard Cohen Show in Durham North Carolina courtesy of one of my internet pals, someone I have never met in the flesh, Adam Cohen, who happens to be the son of Leonard Cohen and a musician himself with a band called Low Millions. Because of a mix-up we were given only 2 tickets and there were three of us which caused us to sit outside and figure out how to solve this problem other than shelling out $125 for the only tickets left. While outside we were approached by several women looking for cheap tickets and we actually considered selling ours for $100 and going downtown for a nice dinner rather than one of us having to wait outside the concert hall for three hours to get a ride home. It was the kind of situation that usually happens in Greece. I was supposed to have three tickets under my name (Matt Barrett) but instead there were only two tickets under Mike Barrett. But in Greece the language barrier and the attitude of any bureaucrat who welds power over you make struggle pointless and eventual victory impossible. This was Durham, North Carolina and the people in the ticket office seemed like reasonable human beings so I went back and asked for the manager, then pointed out that they had the tickets listed as 2 for Mike Barrett  and they came from Adam Cohen, and since I was Matt Barrett and my tickets also came from Adam Cohen, isn't it possible that since they made the mistake on my name, they may have made a mistake on the number of tickets? After all, why would three of us drive here from Chapel Hill if we expected there to be only two tickets? This seemed to make sense however they could only give me the 3rd ticket if they got the OK from Leonard Cohen's people (See there is an organization!). The manager took my two tickets and went to call upstairs. In the meantime I met a beautiful woman, Israeli I think, who had flown down from New Jersey for the show, and had an extra $250 ticket in the second row because her friend backed out at the last minute. So I had a back-up plan. A pretty good one. But then they called me back and handed me three tickets for row X which by my estimate had to be in at least the 23rd row. We were set and I helped the woman find a buyer for her ticket since she did not seem like she had much experience with scalping and was willing to take $100 for it.

When the lights go down and the band takes the stage for Dance Me To the End of Love, there is one figure who seems to trot onto the stage, almost skipping, the way a child would. Most of the audience sitting closer to the stage recognize this person as Cohen even while I am wondering who the energetic kid in the band is. When the kid takes off his hat to reveal gray hair and then lets out that voice that many of us know so well, I realize this is no ordinary concert. When the song The Future is played next and the line "I'm the little Jew who wrote the bible" elicits the kind of rebel yells from the North Carolina crowd that are usually reserved for Freebird, I realize this is no ordinary audience either.

Leonard CohenCohen has a humility on stage, a sort of respect for the audience and his fellow musicians that you don't usually see at rock shows. I could not count the times he touched his heart to let us know that our enthusiasm really meant something to him in the same way that he did when he accepted the offering of my little cassette tape twenty years ago. When one of his musicians took a solo, Cohen would take off his hat the way a Catholic would if he was being introduced to the Pope, holding it to his heart, head bowed with respect, watching and listening to every note, sending us the message that these notes are as important, or more so than the words he has been singing. As he introduced the individual members of the band he could have been introducing the finalists for the Nobel Peace Prize, including accolades so colorful that when he introduced them again in the later part of the show it was like we were kids at a birthday party getting a second serving of ice-cream cake. The instrumental lineup and appearance of the band itself will seem somewhat familiar to anyone who has listened to rembetika music or been to a Dalaras concert. The men dressed like mangas from the 1930's and 40's, several with fedoras, like Cohen's, dark jackets and shirts, looking like a cross between mafia hit-men and the band at a Greek village wedding. To Cohen's left was Guitarist Javier Mas who was particularly impressive on bandurria, laud, archilaud and 12-string guitar and for those who have grown up with Cohen and wondered how much of Greece is in his music, may as well have been playing bouzoukia. But it is the interaction between the angelic soulful singing of the three ladies and Cohen's beautiful yet grotesque voice that is the most effective canvas for the words that many of us know by heart. Often used as background, it is when one of the three voices joins with Cohen's in a duet that it all becomes very personal, to such a degree that I wonder which of them he has slept with, or is currently sleeping with. When a 55 year old man, like myself, is envious of the virility and romantic life, real or imagined, of a 75 year old man then perhaps somewhere I have made a wrong step, or the myth of Leonard Cohen is outshining Byron and Shelly combined. But getting back to music, the voices and the presence of the three female vocalists brings to mind a word that is not even part of my vocabulary, but it seems to fit in a Cohenesque way. The women were sublime*.

*sublime
1.
of high moral, aesthetic, intellectual, or spiritual value; noble; exalted
2.
inspiring deep veneration, awe, or uplifting emotion because of its beauty, nobility, grandeur, or immensity
3.
unparalleled; supreme a sublime compliment
4.
Poetic of proud bearing or aspect
5.
Archaic raised up
Collins English Dictionary

Leonard CohenWhatever period of Cohen you like, fans will leave the concert satisfied. By my count he played over three hours, including three encores, each of which he danced off the stage in that Zorba the Greek on acid way that reminds me more of my teenage daughter than any relative of Cohen's age in an old age home or sitting in front of the television waiting for some old friend or family member to come by or call. In a way it is an act, no matter how great he feels and what kind of physical shape his body is in. My wife is convinced he does yoga. I think he just takes long walks. We each believe in whatever anti-aging medicine we practice. But it is a show. He is showing us that 75 is the new sixty. That if your life has meaning, and you live and love deeply you don't have to sit back and think about the good old days. You can make these days good too. I am guessing that when you factor in his age and the fact that he is mortal, like the rest of us, a soul trapped in a decaying human body for a short period of time, that he is feeling pretty good right now and can probably carry on until this body eventually fails him as all bodies do. I also think that it is interesting how a personal financial crisis for one man, could lead to a sort of reawakening that seems to be spreading as this tour continues. I wonder how many people who went to the concert went home and made love. I thought about it, and probably would have if my wife was not so engrossed in a show about LSD on National Geographic channel. That's what life has become for us. We used to take acid and make love. Now we don't make love because we are watching a TV show about acid.

Conclusion

A night of Leonard Cohen is not about nostalgia. If you want to think about the good old days open a bottle of wine, light up a joint, and sit in your favorite chair and listen to the first couple of his albums. What this tour does is bring these old songs into the present, and introduce some people to the songs they may have missed in the last 40 years or so when they were not paying attention. More importantly for Leonard Cohen as well as for us, it shows us that a crisis can be an opportunity and that there is no reason to go quietly to the grave. If you love what you do then keep doing it. If you don't love what you do find something that you love and do it until you can't do it anymore. This is life. Live it like a poet. Live it like Leonard Cohen is watching you.

I guess it is safe to say that Leonard Cohen is not going to get back to me about that tape I left him. In a way that drive to Montreal was my last big musical career move. That same summer Andrea came to Montreal and we drove back to the USA together, had a daughter, and I settled down to family life and traded in my guitar for a computer. Instead of writing and singing songs I told stories about my life in Greece and probably became more successful than I would have with my music, even with a Leonard Cohen produced album. But as I told Adam in the e-mail thanking him for the tickets to his father's show, the performance was such an inspiration that for the first time in many years I am thinking about picking up the guitar and playing again. In the meantime, though, I will continue doing what I am doing, sitting in front of my laptop, answering e-mails and writing about Greece. But every so often I am going to get up and do a little Zorba dance to keep in shape, just so if I ever do go back on stage again I can be as inspirational at 75 to someone else, as Leonard Cohen was to me. Then again he will only be 95 and the way he is going now he may still be dancing.

Even if his performance did nothing more than inspire me to write this article that is something and today as I was walking around my little southern town listening to Greek music on the noise-cancellation headphones I bought for the dreaded flights to and from Greece, I could feel these words within me like they were scratching and clawing to be let out of a box. That hardly ever happens to me these days.

So if Leonard Cohen brings his show to your town make sure you buy a ticket for yourself and someone you care about. Maybe it won't change your life. But maybe it will. And if nothing else you will have a nice evening of music and be among friends.

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