Down but not out

Why Leonard Cohen is the ultimate comeback kid.

The news that Leonard Cohen has postponed a European tour due to ill-health may come as little surprise -- after all, the Canadian singer-songwriter turns 76 this year.

Cohen, born three months before Elvis Presley in the autumn of 1934, has played 191 sold-out shows around the world since returning to the stage two years ago. Spin magazine named him the big comeback of 2009, which, after a hiatus of 15 years, seemed like a gross understatement. To his fans, the tour was something far more special and unexpected: many had written off the chance of ever seeing him perform live again.

Halfway through the Manchester Opera House concert last June, he stopped to quip: "The last time I was [touring], I was 60 years old . . . Just a kid with a crazy dream." Cohen, like Tom Waits, has always fetishised old age. His peripheral presence among the Warhol set during the 1960s seemed an odd fit; he was clearly far more at ease in the boozy, intellectually rigorous company of his mentor and friend Irving Layton (who was 22 years his senior).

In the 1965 documentary Ladies and Gentlemen . . . Mr Leonard Cohen, he makes for a curious spectacle -- a self-conscious young artist, brash among his contemporaries and easily crushed by television interviewers who see through the pose. A charmer though he was, his long digressions into paraphrasing passages of his second novel, Beautiful Losers, say, in response to a question about art, are a far cry from Bob Dylan's razor-sharp epithets.

That's because Cohen isn't -- and was never -- a hipster. Hipsters, like Dylan and Lou Reed, are concerned with mapping out the future. Even when they appropriate cultural artefacts from the present or the past, they are making manifestos for new ways of living and seeing. Dylan might sing "Don't follow leaders", but what he really means is: "I know you're going to follow me."

Cohen, on the other hand, has built a career on the art of saying goodbye. He's seen the future, he once mumbled, but "it's murder". Many assumed that Cohen's 2004 album Dear Heather was an elaborate farewell. In that record, melodies from earlier albums were appropriated and rewritten; an old live recording of the country standard "Tennessee Waltz" reminded us of his younger voice; and backing singers were allowed to replace him on lead vocals. "To a Teacher", a musical setting of one of his earliest poems, completed what looked like the full circle of his career.

But his return to live performance was an awe-inspiring reaffirmation of his powers. Every night, he literally ran on to the stage and growled out his songs with almost religious conviction.

While fans are no doubt concerned about the singer's health, they should take comfort in the knowledge that, according to the official press release, it was a "sports-related injury" that felled him. Some might comment on how the notorious ladies' man has injured his "lower back", but I, for one, won't.

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.

Donmar Warehouse
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Limehouse raises the question of when party loyalty becomes political irresponsibility

Labour's “Gang of Four” are brought to life brilliantly at the Donmar Warehouse.

A star of the Labour Party right wing, exiled from the shadow cabinet for deviating from the dominant orthodoxy, rants about how a decent but weak Labour leader, with an election-losing anti-European, anti-nuclear manifesto, risks letting the prime minister get away with whatever she wants.

Laughter shows that the audience gets what the dramatist Steve Waters is up to. Limehouse takes place on 25 January 1981, when a gentle veteran, Michael Foot, seems to be leading Labour to such sure oblivion at the next election that Dr David Owen has summoned his fellow moderates Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and (just back from a stint running Europe) Roy Jenkins to Sunday lunch in his kitchen in east London. This meeting led the “Gang of Four”, as they became known, to make a statement of estrangement from Labour that heralded the creation of the Social Democratic Party.

Waters was inspired by a New Statesman interview in which Rodgers wondered if the left-right divide under Jeremy Corbyn might justify a similar evacuation of the pragmatists now. The debates that the play stages – fidelity to party and national tribes against a fear of political and historical irrelevance – feel hotly topical.

Williams, considering an offer to abandon Labour and teach at Harvard, faced then the dilemma of an Ed Balls or Tristram Hunt now. And Labour members today who fantasise about a new progressive grouping might reflect that, while the SDP briefly seemed a plausible alternative to Thatcherism (winning 7.8 million votes at the 1983 election), the middle-class revolution was squeezed externally by two-party domination and internally by disputes over leadership and direction.

But, for all the parallel relevance, the success of Limehouse ultimately depends on the convincing re-creation of an era and its people. Enjoyable period details include the luxury macaroni cheese to a recipe by Delia Smith that Debbie Owen, Delia’s literary agent, chops and fries on stage to fuel her husband’s discussions with his three wary comrades. Waters also skilfully uses the mechanics of a pre-digital world – having to go out for newspapers, going upstairs to answer a phone – to get one character out of the way to allow others to talk about them.

As a good playwright should, Waters votes for each character in turn. Owen, though teased for vanity and temper, is allowed a long speech that honours his status as one of the most memorable orators in modern British politics. Tom Goodman-Hill samples Owen’s confident baritone without going the whole Rory Bremner.

Playing Jenkins, a man celebrated for both a speech defect and rococo cadences, Roger Allam has no choice but to deliver the voice perfectly, which he does. Waters carefully gives the character an early riff about the “crepuscular greyness” of Brussels, allowing Allam to establish the w-sounds and extravagant adjectives. Actor and playwright also challenge the assumption that for Jenkins both to love fine wine and to advocate social justice was inevitably a contradiction.

Debra Gillett refreshingly avoids the scattiness that caricaturists attribute to Williams, stressing instead her large brain and deep soul, in a portrayal that increases the sense of shame that the Tories should lead Labour 2-0 in the score of female prime ministers. As Rodgers (in Beatles terms, the Ringo of the confab four), Paul Chahidi touchingly suggests a politician who knows that he will always be a bag-man but still agonises over whose luggage to carry.

Unfolding over 100 minutes, Polly Findlay’s production has a lovely rhythm, staging the delayed entrances of Jenkins and Williams for maximum impact. Biodramas about the living or recently dead can be hobbled by a need to negotiate objections of tact or fact. Politicians, however, often purchase even the rudest cartoons of themselves for the loo wall, and the real Owen, Williams and Rodgers laughed warmly during, and strongly applauded after, the first night.

At an impromptu press conference afterwards, a genial and generous Owen astutely observed that what at the time was “a very happy day in our house” has been dramatised as tragicomedy. But, regardless of whether Marx was right about history repeating itself the second time as farce, the possibility that farce is being repeated in Labour Party history has encouraged a compelling play that is sublimely enjoyable but also deeply serious – on the question of when loyalty to party can become disloyalty to political responsibility.

“Limehouse” runs until 15 April

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution