Cohen at The Big Chill

At 73, and with a career spanning four decades, how can Leonard Cohen possibly meet expectations? Q

Big Chill Blog - Sunday 3 August 2008

On Sunday, it's hard to think past the fact that the mythic Leonard Cohen, will be serenading the crowd
tonight. But there are plenty of other worthy acts vying for our attention on this final day of the festival, and we have to do something to bide the time. Saturday's bountiful sunshine has been kidnapped by a dirty swathe of cloud, not that this is going to faze Big Chill stalwart Norman Jay, whose Sunday lunch feel-good groove DJ set is a regular festival fixture.

After only 15 minutes on the Castle stage, it all feels a bit tired, and when Jay spins 'Love the Sunshine', despite the fact there clearly isn't any, the crowd's indifferent response is both surprising and embarrassing.

Hopefully this will force him to remember that you can't fake festival feeling, and that he will need to come up with a more imaginative set list if he's to remain King of the Decks next year. By contrast, it's impossible to feel grey watching Orchestra Baobab over on the Open Air stage. They layer Congolese rumba and bossanova beats, with a West African vocal style and haunting, bluesy guitar. On the dance numbers, finger-picked guitar passages and a time-perfect brass section makes for music to burn away the cloud.

It's easy to stick to the main festival stages but part of the Big Chill's appeal is that it offers more than just musical performance and five kinds of falafel. Over in the Words in Motion tent, "recovering brand addict" Neil Boorman is offering a timely answer to dealing with the credit crunch, and reads from his recent book which details how he ceremoniously burnt and battered all his branded possessions and TV to oblivion, in order to break his consumerist addiction.

He's an engaging reader, but unfortunately this kind of event only attracts the ready converts. (The brand bunnies are out on the plains supping Tiger beer in their Cath Kidston wellingtons). Boorman may appear logo-free, but he still looks as though he's stepped straight out of a Shoreditch Saturday night. And as he answers revellers' questions post-reading, he smokes a Marlboro Light, despite having related the moment he decided to give up consuming any labelled substance, tobacco included.

Back on the Open Air stage, the Imagined World are trying to warm the ever-dampening crowd with their 10-piece best of British folk collective. Led by Martin and Eliza Carthy, and featuring the Copper family sons, this is voice-quavering, fiddle-playing folk at its best.

The highlight is a modern reworking of a traditional song, 'Tam Lyn', which features Benjamin Zephaniah narrating the tale on video, to a drum and bass beat and flagrant violining from Eliza Carthy. It works brilliantly, and Imagined World turn out to be one of the unexpected festival highlights.

Only one more act before Mr Cohen - and it's a test of our love for Leonard that we stick it out to ensure a prime spot infront of the stage. The cloud has lifted, but Camille is the French bansheeing Bjork imitator up next, and as much as I try to appreciate her post-feminist dress over the head,'Why do you call me a slag' shrieking, it's pretty self-masturbatory stuff.

Camille is at her best when she and the rest of her collective leave off the teenage offence and switch to close-harmonied, high-energy beat-boxing. But forcing the audience to conspire with her mock-psychotic cabaret is the height of performative egotism, and she finishes the set with a gimmick which speaks volumes - turning her back to the audience to reveal a dress cut so low it reveals most of her bottom.

And so to the act we have not dared to anticipate. At 73, and with a career spanning four decades, how can Leonard Cohen possibly meet expectations? Quite simply, he doesn't. Instead, he surpasses them and proves himself a septagenarian dark saint, with an impossible sex appeal, and a humble sincerity of performance that makes him sound as though he bleeds and burns every word he sings.

Most of the favourites are there; 'Tower of Song', 'Suzanne', 'Goodbye, Marianne', 'That's no way to say goodbye', 'Dance me to the end of love', 'Bird on the Wire', and a soul-soaring version of 'Hallelujah' which has the unusually tuneful crowd serenading Cohen himself with the chorus.

His delivery of 'I'm your man' is so erotic, he could still have his pick of the female audience (and probably some of the male), irrespective of age. Cohen the man may have an ego, but Cohen the performer certainly doesn't. And it's this generosity, this willingness to share his capacity for rendering human experience in lyrical song that makes for an utterly spell-binding performance and the unquestionable highlight of the Big Chill.

Nichi Hodgson is a 25-year-old Yorkshire emigree working as an Editorial Assistant on an Arts Database. She freelances on arts, culture and gender issues

Nichi Hodgson is a writer and broadcaster specialising in sexual politics, censorship, and  human rights. Her first book, Bound To You, published by Hodder & Stoughton, is out now. She tweets @NichiHodgson.

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The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood