My last entry in this Top Ten Experiences With Music In 2012 series happened on Thursday night. I had a whole other entry planned, but Thursday topped that, which is nice. It’s nice when music can come out of nowhere and change your plans and change how you feel about the world going forward.
There are a lot of people, especially people in their 30s, who don’t feel about music the way they used to when they were younger. They don’t listen to or seek out anything new, but instead just go back again and again to the same records – the records they listened to when they were in high-school or in college, the records they listened to when they feel like they were happiest. But they get less and less from those records each time they listen. Because – and I hate to admit this – most music wears out or loses its power the more times you repeat it. Sometimes you need to take a break from something, so it can build that magic back up. I hope this doesn’t sound too snotty, but I can’t imagine myself just endlessly looping the same dozen records I listened to when I was 17, trying and failing to get that old high from them, like a coke addict chasing that first fat line. It’s nice to hear something new. It’s nice to chase after some new interest. And it’s also nice to put something away for a while and come back to it later.
Leonard Cohen was an artist I walked away from for awhile. As a younger writer, Cohen was influential to me. But after a while I think I just needed a break. I at least partially blame “Hallelujah.” That song, in its endless reiterations and covers and covers of covers, each more sanctimonious than the last (until finally Adam Sandler’s attempt to deflate it during the 12.12.12 Benefit Concert only succeeded in taking it to a monstrous new level of obnoxiousness) has resulted in a unofficial anthem I never voted for, a song that’s nothing like Cohen’s original, which is dripping with irony and with Cohen’s usual mid-80s synth slop and delivered with his customary mid-period high-grade fever pitch of horniness. And when you’re a singer, people always want you to sing the damn thing. Like Jackson Browne’s “These Days” (a karaoke benchpost for every aspiring sensitive indie-folker ever since it was used in that Wes Anderson movie), “Hallelujah” is a song we all need a break from. I got so annoyed with “Hallelujah” after awhile that I started to hear the things I didn’t like about it in other Cohen songs too. The almost flabby sprawl of it. The way Cohen’s lyrical brilliance tips over into a kind of unbecoming self-regard. I knew I loved Cohen, but my sudden “Hallelujah”-trigged animus confused me. So I took a time-out.
Dear Heather got me back into Cohen a little bit, and I started to hear friends telling me of amazing Cohen shows they’d seen and insisting that I had to go see him. Eventually, after a couple of missed tours, the message got through to me and I made plans to go to Cohen’s Barclay’s Center show with my friends Bob and Mary.
The show not only wrenched me back into the Cohen-fan fold, it was one of the best concerts I’ve seen. I didn’t even begrudge Cohen his “Hallelujah” (re-tooled to deliver the solemnity audiences have come to expect from the song), though I was annoyed at the number of people who walked out after Cohen finished the song – in the middle of “Take This Waltz,” the best song on I’m Your Man, no less. But maybe those people were just tired and emotionally wrung-out; “Hallelujah” fell about 2 and a half hours into what I believe was a 3 and a half hour show. The 78-year-old Cohen showed no signs of fatigue though, dropping to his knees, skipping on and offstage for the two encores, bantering charmingly with his audience, introducing the band, the front-of-house team, the monitor guy, the guy who hung the lights even, naming their hometowns. He did this whole round of introductions twice, by the way. It was the most moving introducing-the-band routine I’ve ever seen – something that usually feels Vegas-y but this time around felt like church.
A lot of aspects of the show felt like church. Cohen’s always been equal-parts spiritual and randy, but the spirituality was highlighted at the show, perhaps inevitably because of the way Cohen’s age weighed on the audience’s mind. Like Johnny Cash (who didn’t always wear black and didn’t always project the same solemn gravity people associated with him by the end of his career), age fits Cohen, as if he was always an old soul trapped in a young man’s body. Actually, no music fan really even remembers Cohen as a young man. He was 32 when his first record came out in 1967, a celebrated poet but unknown in the rock scene, and though many remember him as one of the best songwriters of the 60s he stood apart from that younger crowd, with his short hair and his suit and his impeccable manners. People talk a lot about Cohen’s deep, resonant voice, but on his first handful of albums that voice is thin and reedy; he grew into that somber gravelly intoning thing later.
Cohen’s somber gravelly intoning voice was the engine that drove Thursday’s show. I have never heard a front-of-house sound engineer mix a stadium show so incredibly quietly. During the first few songs I actually had a hard time getting used to how soft the music was – so soft you could hear the echo of Cohen’s consonants as they traveled the entire length of the Barclay’s basketball court before gently ricocheting off the back wall, a softly crashing wave. The band had to be this quiet in order to let that gentle low almost-whisper sit on top of everything. Cohen’s voice has aged beautifully; it’s mellow, serious, comforting, singing just to you but to a communal “you,” a you who is a bunch of people all together, huddled in mostly unbroken reverent silence. At 78 a very slight damage and frailty has crept in to his voice, but even that is musical, in that it gives his voice an extra weight and authority. When he sang songs like “If It Be Your Will” and especially “Show Me the Place” from this year’s Old Ideas album – songs that deal with the mortality and that address God directly – it was almost unbearably moving.
On record, Sharon Robinson’s production occasionally crosses the line into what feels like elevator music. I personally love Robinson’s production (she was onstage with Cohen and sang a nice version of “Alexandra Leaving” from Ten New Songs), but I know that production has been a sticking point for some fans skeptical of Cohen’s later records. Live, it all makes sense. Leonard Cohen owns this sound, with its smooth, loving softness. This isn’t the music that an angry young man makes, full of dissonance and jarring edges. It’s graceful and it’s quiet and it’s confident. The players onstage were mostly older and – spurred on by Cohen’s compliments and his attentiveness (he even doffed his hat and respectfully faced them during their solos) – wrapped his music up in this beautiful smoothness, this kind of mellow soft rock, touched by soul, touched by folk. This isn’t rock and roll really, and it never was. It’s easy to forget that, but during the show that fact was clear and was another thing that made the performance so powerful – what we were all getting out of this show was an old-fashioned thing. It was the opposite of a yowling rock singer, a smashed guitar, a leap into the crowd, and in that it felt more European, like a Jacques Brel or an Edith Piaf performance. Or, again, like a kind of church. The people in the audience were reverent like church.
I spend a lot of time thinking and wondering about what direction rock-based music is going, and sometimes I notice that things like songwriting seem to not be as popular as they used to be, that there’s a kind of stylized feint towards songwriting on a couple of modern records but it all feels kind of reflexive, perfunctory, an old-fashioned gesture in a rock landscape that’s more about statement-making production or atmosphere or just vibes. Sometimes it’s discouraging. Cohen’s show reminded me of some deep-down thing music can do, that words can do in a certain order, that breath can do when you’re saying something you really mean, that graciousness can do when you extend it to everyone you meet. This thing, this almost sacred-feeling thing, is the reason that most people get into music to begin with. This thing or different versions of it. And from day-to-day we forget it or we need to take a break from it or walk away from it for awhile. But when we come back it’s there and it’s real and it’s clear.
(Ignore the annoying audience chatter – I actually heard almost none of this. These people paid more, or they probably didn’t pay, so they’re not a good audience sample. Part of me doesn’t want to put up a video at all because a video, especially an internet video, really captures nothing. But I guess I’m just following the format of the rest of these pieces.)
Number 10: Bill & Will – “Goin’ to the River” (March 2011)
Number 9: Ted Hawkins – “Sorry You’re Sick” (November (2011)
Number 8: Blake Mills – “History of My Life (January 2011)
Number 7: Ray Price – “Release Me” (February 2012)
Number 6: Roy Harper – “One Man Rock and Roll Band” (February 2012)
Number 5: Joe and Donnie Emerson – “Baby” (March 2012)
Number 4: Robbie Dupree – “Steal Away” (May 2012)
Number 3: Travis Tritt ‘ “Foolish Pride” (September 2012)
Number 2: Joe Walsh – “Theme From ‘Boat Weirdos’” (September 2012)