Pico Iyer Journeys

No Disguises in the Dark

He bounds onto the stage, dressed to kill, and roars into a rendition of one of his classic songs as if he’s been storing up his energy for fifteen years to make it new. He’s bent before us, crouching, trying to squeeze out every ounce of blood, and he’s looking into the wings to summon a fury, a devotion, a power most of us would not have words for. An innocent in the audience might wonder what this courtly coyote is trying to sell us, with his references to Robert Frost and stories from the Bible. Then she may notice that the singer is looking at the ground, as if admitting us to his private cell. He has no designs on us at all.

Is this cabaret or prayer-hall, you may wonder as the show goes on? Haunting or celebration? Some of the songs have the dark, chill atmosphere of a graveyard after nightfall; others reveal to us the man before us, hand on his undefended heart. We’re used to thinking of Leonard Cohen as ladies’ man and monk, master of chansons and koan. But if you’re in the right place, he might be telling us, all of them look the same. You can make your home in some place behind the smoke of all distinctions.

I watch this godfather and grandfather–a mystic in a gangster’s hat–command the stage and give it up, hold us without effort and then disappear again, and I think how far away the tortured young seeker of the past appears to be. He’s still shaking at the knees, wearing his fedora at a rakish tilt, offering himself up to us with his hands in his pocket and a crooked smile. But he’s down from the mountaintop now, master of his discipline, and it’s easy to see he’s at peace, accepting of his contradictions.

So don’t try to assign him an age or nationality, I tell myself; just let him take you to the space we all bear witness to: the empty room, the empty heart, the place where god and goddess become one. Even here in the Sony Centre, in downtown Toronto, the city where he first recorded his songs forty years ago, he’s ready to let his voice be still, or to raise a cold and broken hallelujah. The music all around him, now raucous, now hushed, has the sound of an ironist’s surrender.

You notice, perhaps, as the songs pulse on, how he reminds us of his age just before singing, “Forget your perfect offering.” You catch the transparent modesty with which he salutes and introduces his musical companions, again and again. The show is artfully shaped and structured, you realize, from the “Golden Voice” on the tickets to the final song of farewell. The meticulous players around him, so sharp you could cut a finger on them, look like a group of hit men (and femmes fatales) from a monastery.

But beneath all that, what Leonard Cohen on tour in the 21st century tells us is that all of us, in our solitary trembling, can come together in a kind of communion. So many of us have been listening to him alone, or sharing the songs with a single love as the night comes on and the candles begin to gutter. But here, for the first time in fifteen years, we’re all together in our observances. People stand up to welcome the stranger home, and rise up again, and again, in battalions as they recognize their old lives coming up. No one needs flashing lights or changes of costume; the words and the feelings are enough.

A young woman beside me–barely alive, I suspect, when he wrote “The Gypsy Wife”–exults, “They love him! Who wouldn’t love him?” A portly grandmother from rural Canada another night starts shaking her booty and jiving back and forth as he dances her to the end of love. A celebrated novelist is picking out favorite lines during the intermission, and C.E.O.s are trying to remember (or not to remember) who they were with half a lifetime ago when they first heard “Who By Fire?” Tattooed boys and sleek young women, men in suits and perhaps a shadow monk or two are all giving themselves up to the droll beauty of it all.

I–with a sweetheart who’s enjoying her first day in Canada, having flown over from Japan for the event–notice all the new verses he shares with us, the way a “broken” turns to a “shattered” in one verse, and, later, “There’s going to be a meter on your bed.” I think of the time I saw him walking barefoot on the icy ground after midnight in his Zen monastery, not having slept for seven days and nights–and then, with the next song, I remember the dapper double-breasted gentleman who entertained me in his house while the most beautiful singer I’d ever seen decorated his growls with harmonies in his back-yard studio. I hear his signature words come back again and again–”naked” and “touch” and “heat” and “kneel”–and realize that the point of a concert is to do what all his songs do: take us out of ourselves, so that we can look down on the discarded skin and chuckle.

At some point, in any case, all the pretentious words run out, and all I think is: this is a man with no disguises, no agendas. He’s giving us himself, and no one could ask for anything more. He’s telling us that he’s old and grey and aches in the places where he used to play, and he isn’t, as most aging stars do, trying to reverse the clock. He’ll introduce gravitas and even wisdom to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame and regret or deny nothing. I realize I’ve been taken somewhere deep and rare and strange, by a guide who never pretends that the journey is going to be easy or smooth. And then I hear the kind of line only Leonard Cohen could deliver, stretching our sense of what “popular” and what “music” mean till they snap: “The last time I was here, I was sixty years old, just a kid with a crazy dream.”

Hallelujah, I say, and may all of us (and none of us) rest in peace.

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