Divine wisdom of Mr Cohen

LEONARD COHEN: Playing at TSB Bank Arena, December 17 and 18
LEONARD COHEN: Playing at TSB Bank Arena, December 17 and 18

We heard he'd murdered Marianne. Or maybe it was Suzanne or Nancy. Whichever girl from whatever song, the schoolyard whisper about Leonard Cohen went unchallenged. Someone said he sold razor blades at his concerts. The lunatic on the cover of Songs of Love and Hate, and the menacing ruin of a man within, seemed capable of anything.

By the time he toured Australia in 1980, the manic depressive cliche was so entrenched that the guy who stepped on stage at Sydney's Capitol Theatre seemed, even at 46, like a miracle of survival.

Leonard Cohen cracked jokes that night, in his charcoal-dry way. He smirked a lot. He was so generous and grateful for our ovations that he came back for seven encores. "What about Nancy?" someone shouted, and Seems So Long Ago, Nancy was summoned, like the chilling memory of a beautiful ghost.

Poor, doomed "Nancy" hasn't reared her pretty head on Cohen's recent visits to Australia, or in his current tour of New Zealand. Much has changed since 1980, not least the evaporation of that lifelong depression at the feet of a Hindu mystic, one of many gurus, about a dozen years ago.

Look at him backstage now: cruising in his silk monogrammed bathrobe, balloon of brandy swishing in his hand and a Playboy magazine from 1974 under his arm - "for the articles," he winks as he strolls off to the steam room.

At least, that's the whisper at this end of the schoolyard.

"I haven't ever seen any Playboys backstage," says Charley Webb, one of Cohen's three back-up singers these past five years. "There is alcohol, although Leonard doesn't tend to drink very much, if at all, these days.

"He is always very well-dressed and beautifully presented and has elegance in everything he does. But I've never seen a bathrobe, no."

Oh well. The fact that the cloistered maestro can substitute his twentysomething backing singers for pre-tour interviews - and have journalists eagerly accept - is indication enough of the regal mystique surrounding this 79-year-old pop-poet sensation.

The real backstage picture the older Webb sister paints (Hattie is her left-handed accomplice in occasional cartwheels and heartbreaking harmony) is ship-shape and mostly Zen-calm. There's no question who's the boss, she says, but "in the most graceful and elegant sense of the word".

"He's incredibly respectful and he treats everybody as an equal and he certainly sends a message to everyone else that that's what he expects. But there's no sense of seniority or hierarchy or a disciplinary vibe. It's very friendly."

The 2008 genesis of Cohen's phenomenal touring renaissance, after 15 years off stage, says a lot about the way in which it continues.

According to Sylvie Simmons' recent biography, I'm Your Man, the Webb sisters, of Kent, were last to join an ensemble that Cohen reserved the right to disband before the first show if he lost his nerve.

Far from dictatorial direction, the venerable songwriter stood back and let the band "come to the song", Hattie told Simmons, for several months of rehearsal. Only after they had arrived did Cohen step in to sing, with his hat over his heart.

"There is a great sense of patience," Charley confirms.

It all speaks seamlessly to the new image the world has developed of Leonard Cohen, with its aura of gentle, almost divine wisdom. It's quite in tune, says Charley Webb, with the man she has come to know over hundreds of dates, several times around the globe.

"Although he is a well-rounded character. I wouldn't say it's a two-dimensional image of divine wisdom. There are other sides of him and I think his most ardent fans will recognise that in his writing."

Does he ever lose his temper?

"Yes! Not on a regular basis but in very choice moments where it absolutely makes sense. It's not fun," she adds a little nervously.

"At times it can be testing, because of the exhaustion you sometimes feel, travelling every other day, and also the physical exertion of the concert. We all put our heart and soul into the show and it's a very long evening.

"At times we've been on the same touring path as Bruce Springsteen and there's banter backstage about who's going to beat whose show time." Often her boss outlasts the Boss, she says, with shows that push four hours.

"I think it's very important to Leonard that each person in the audience hears the song they came to hear."

What about Nancy?

"At one point Leonard asked Hattie and I to work up a version of Seems So Long Ago, Nancy. It didn't make it into the set list and I'm not sure what that means. Is he going to bring it back, I wonder? That's a very dark and meaningful song, isn't it?"

Yes it is. But there are still more to choose from this year. Old Ideas, only his 12th album in 45 years but his third this century, arrived since his last visit of 2010.

"And I don't get the impression in any way he has finished writing," Charley Webb says. "He's working on a new album now and there's no conversation about it being his last. So it's anyone's guess how long his performing may go on. He jokes that he wants to start smoking on the road next year."

That Leonard. Always with the dark and dangerous image.

Leonard Cohen plays Wellington's TSB Bank Arena on Tuesday 16-Wednesday December 17 (ticketek.co.nz), and Auckland's Vector Arena on Saturday December 21 (ticketmaster.co.nz)

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