The return of Leonard Cohen

Last week I bought a copy of The Lyrics of Leonard Cohen. It is a book I have wanted for a while - so I did the sensible thing and purchased it to give to a friend for her birthday. I figured I'd be able to borrow it back at some point. By the end of the week it had got the better of me (that and the idle hands - caused by a few days off work) so I went and bought a copy of the book for myself.

In some ways I didn't really need the book. I have all of Cohen's music - and my favourite book of all time, the book that has made the most impact on me is Stranger Music - an anthology of Cohen's lyrics and poems.

But I am glad I bought a copy of The Lyrics of Leonard Cohen. This book, as the title explains, is the lyrics - rather than poems as well (some of Cohen's lyrics are extensions of earlier poems of course). And it's a selection, arranged alphabetically according to title.

Cohen had released two novels and four volumes of poetry before his debut album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, was released in 1967. But Songs was his introduction to the world - he was only known in Canada as a poet before that album dropped. After that album the world knew he was a poet.

Reading through the lyrics, alphabetical according to title, songs from Songs of Leonard Cohen rub against songs from 2001's Ten New Songs and 1979's Recent Songs - and other albums that don't have the word "songs" in the title like 1985's Various Positions and then back to albums that do have "songs" in the title (1969's Songs from a Room, 1971's Songs of Love & Hate and 1973's Live Songs).

The thing that struck me with these lyrics bumping up against each other, ignoring the (sometimes) decades between them, is that if you didn't know the albums, if you were just reading the words, there'd be little in the way of clues to let you know if a lyric was from 1974 (New Skin for Old Ceremony) or 1988 (I'm Your Man); from 1992 (The Future) or 1977 (Death of a Ladies' Man).

Cohen seems to have arrived - as a lyricist - fully formed.

I guess he had two novels, four volumes of poetry and a heap of discarded ideas behind him - that was the time he experimented. After that he wrote lyrics.

Many of the words from 2004's Dear Heather are shorter, written as prose-poems or single verse lyrics - sparse, brief - but beyond that there's little that lets you know the time of a lyric. The themes are constant, the tone is consistent - it's a body of work that hangs together on the strong bones of the lyrics.

All of that leads me to the fact that Leonard Cohen is returning to New Zealand for encore performances; an encore that will arrive 21 months after his last performances in the country, January 2009.

I went to the Wellington show. I wrote this review.

When I heard that Cohen would be returning, a little part of me felt a bit ripped off. Ripped off in the sense that part of what made the 2009 concert so special was that it felt like we had been privileged to see the man visit us here; a show that I figured I'd never get to see.

But then I decided very quickly that this return was a good thing - I'm very happy for the people who missed out last time who will now get a chance to see Leonard Cohen live.

Let me assure you - it is a very special evening; it is a religious experience of sorts; it is the best concert you will see.

Well, that's how I saw it. I closed off my review with: it is hard work having to put this concert into words so I'll just say something I have never said in a review before and will never say again: this was the best show I have ever seen.

And I believe that. Still. I'm sure that I always will feel like that is the best concert I will ever see. I guess it's a reason to keep going to shows; to hope to see something as good or better. But a big part of the reason I ended the review with that comment was because it was a feeling I got from the crowd - that everyone (okay, not everyone, but a lot of people, a majority of the audience) felt that way. And I did too. We had shared something - we had been made to feel part of something, we had witnessed something together, felt it, shared it - and the communication had come from the stage. The living legend has given us an evening of words, or poetry from the page to the stage. And we carried it with us, an instant memory of a perfect occasion.

That some people left that show disappointed - or walked out before the end, well, that baffles me. I've heard some people thought the band was lame, too quiet, unexciting, bland. I guess the following newsflash should have been projected when the tickets were purchased at the box office or scanned on the door: you are going to see a poet deliver his words. The songs are a vehicle for the words.

In saying that - Cohen's band do the business, they serve up the songs, take their bows, noodle away during the band introductions - and they are very good. Leonard's never really known anything about producing hip and happening music. He's a writer. He writes words. The music is the framing for his word-paintings.

So, am I going to Leonard Cohen this time?

I don't think so.

But won't I be reviewing it again?

Well, maybe. But you see the promoters were so tight last time - I guess they knew they didn't have to give away tickets and receive reviews in return - that they made me pay for my own tickets to review the show. I was happy to see Leonard Cohen so of course I paid for tickets. But I did feel a bit, well the polite word is annoyed, when the promoter told me, a couple of months later, that my review "really set the tone" and "resonated around the world" and other hyperbole. He told me this to my face. I chuckled.

But I do recommend that you head along and see it this time if you didn't get tickets in time for the first concert/s. I see a Wellington show has sold out already and a second has been added. And Cohen is playing the South Island this time too.

Maybe you did go last time and you are going to go again. That's cool I guess. But realise that you will be seeing the same show, possibly down to repeat-banter. That probably doesn't matter - and it possibly would be worth seeing a total repeat.

So - what do you think? Going to Cohen? Or went last time and don't need to go again? Or do you not think it's worth it? Perhaps you don't rate Leonard Cohen's music at all. Share your thoughts below.

And for those about to post a comment telling me that if I like a gig I should pay for it - remember I was being asked to do my job, to review it. So before you post that comment from your desk at work, I do hope it's on a computer you paid for, at a work station you have the receipt for.

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