Where rock bands tour to ‘get the product out there’ or to meet and f*** chicks or just because being on stage was a giant ego-trip, Leonard talked about touring as a kind of ‘reconnaissance’. For him it was as much about the audience as it was about his art: touring was a way of meeting people and finding out ‘where they are at.’ That sounds very ‘sixties, and so it was – he visited Cuba at the time of the Bay of Pigs to find out what was going on – but it also represented the relationship he had with audiences the world over. Leonard responds to the mood of a crowd: at one of his early concerts – I think it was at the Isle of Wight festival – there was nearly a riot and he went up on stage and calmed them down just by being who he was. At another event (or maybe it was the same event) where the authorities were trying to shut the concert down, he sang, ‘they came up on the stage and they won’t go back no more.’ People surged forward and scrambled up onto the stage where, instead of mobbing Leonard, they left a respectful space all around him.
There was something of this energy in the space left around his death. He died on Monday but the news was not released for three days – I didn’t hear until the Friday – because his family needed that time and space for their own grief. It is hard to imagine the death and funeral of another, equally famous, singer where the news would not be leaked somehow. It is dignified and fitting that he should die and be buried so, in private, when no-one outside his family even knew he was ill. He has been buried in an unmarked coffin next to his parents, as per his request. No celebrity tomb for him: again, this is most fitting for someone whose art far transcended his ego.
Cohen was no saint, but there was something priestlike about him – unsurprisingly, given that there were several rabbis in his family. His concerts are almost rituals; his songs are prayers even when they don’t, like ‘The Story of Isaac,’ have a specifically religious theme. His voice was hypnotic, as if there were some kind of liquid link between him and his audience.
For me his life began in a classroom in 1972 with a crackly rendition of ‘Suzanne’ and continued in my room where for years and years I played his songs alone, ridiculed by family and friends, listening to that lonely voice echoing down tube-tunnels and once or twice, gloriously amplified in concert. He was a secret known only to a few of us back then. Now the world knows him, and we will not forget.
Here’s what I’m listening to today: