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 sub-editor of the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.

BBC/Chris Christodoulou
Show Hide image

Proms 2016: Violinist Ray Chen was the star of a varied show

The orchestra soaked up his energy in Bruch's first violin concerto to end on a triumphal note. 

Music matters, but so does its execution. This was the lesson of a BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Symphony Chorus programme which combined both a premiere of a composition and a young violinist’s first performance at the Proms. 

The concert, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, opened with Tchaikovsky’s symphonic fantasy The Tempest, a lesser-known sibling to his Romeo and Juliet overture. The orchestra got off to a fidgety start, with some delayed entries, but fell into line in time for the frenetic chromatic runs that drive the piece. The end, a muted pizzicato, was suitably dramatic. 

Another nature-inspired piece followed – Anthony Payne’s composition for chorus and orchestra, Of Land, Sea and Sky. Payne drew on his memory of watching of white horses appearing to run across water, as well as other visual illusions. At the world premiere, the piece began promisingly. The chorus rolled back and forth slowly over scurrying strings with an eerie singing of “horses”. But the piece seemed to sink in the middle, and not even the curiosity of spoken word verse was enough to get the sinister mood back. 

No doubt much of the audience were drawn to this programme by the promise of Bruch violin concerto no. 1, but it was Ray Chen’s playing that proved to be most magnetic. The young Taiwanese-Australian soloist steered clear of melodrama in favour of a clean and animated sound. More subtle was his attention to the orchestra. The performance moved from furious cadenza to swelling sound, as if all players shared the same chain of thought. Between movements, someone coughed. I hated them. 

Ray Chen in performance. Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Chen’s playing had many audience members on their feet, and only an encore appeased them. It was his first time at the Proms, but he'll be back. 

The orchestra seemed to retain some of his energy for Vaughan Williams’ Toward the Unknown Region. Composed between 1904 and 1906, this is a setting of lines by the US poet Walt Whitman on death, and the idea of rebirth.

The orchestra and chorus blended beautifully in the delicate, dark opening. By the end, this had transformed into a triumphal arc of sound, in keeping with the joyful optimism of Whitman’s final verse: “We float/In Time and Space.” 

This movement from hesitancy to confident march seemed in many ways to capture the spirit of the concert. The programme had something for everyone. But it was Chen’s commanding performance that defined it.