Tuesday, 21 July 2009

There ain’t no cure for love

Leonard Cohen in the O2 in Dublin (Photograph: The Irish Times/Dave Meehan)

Patrick Comerford

Leonard Cohen’s concerts in the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham, last year, must have been the cultural highlight of 2008 in Dublin. I thought then this was the last time I was going to see him in concert, and so it is a real bonus to all his fans that he is on tour once again this year, with four concerts in Dublin this week.

Few artists get a standing ovation as they come on stage, few artists are given a standing ovation at the interval, and few come back on stage for three or more encores. But Leonard Cohen could not have gone to sleep last night without knowing how much he is loved by his Dublin audiences; and his Dublin audiences are going home from the O2 each night knowing how comfortable he is at being in – as he describes it – this city of poets and writers.

It was a packed programme, with almost 30 numbers, and Cohen stayed on stage from 8 until 11.15 p.m – no warm-up acts, only a short interval, and complete generosity on the part of both the singer and those who were sung to.

He came on stage to rapturous applause, and was soon on his knees before us as he sang Dance Me to the End of Love.

I’ve said before that I’d like this song at my funeral, after the commendation as my coffin is being taken out. I’m not being morbid; I love its Greek meolody and strains, but it’s such a beautiful poem too, and if it’s understood as being about divine love as much as human love then it’s very appropriate.

He followed this with The Future, but as he came to the line “and the white man dancing” he changed the words to “white girls dancing” and “the sublime Webb sisters,” Hattie and Charley, did a backwards flip.

Next we heard Ain’t No Cure for Love:

I loved you for al long, long time.
I know this love is real.
It don’t matter how it all went wrong.
That can’t change the way I feel.
And I can’t believe that time will heal
this wound I’m speaking of –
There ain’t no cure, there ain’t no cure, there ain’t no cure for love.

I’m aching for you baby.
I can’t pretend I’m not …
There ain’t no cure, there ain’t no cure, there ain’t no cure for love
.

Then came Bird on the Wire, Everybody Knows, In my secret Life, Who by Fire, That don’t make it Junk and Waiting for the Miracle.

He told us it was a privilege to play for us tonight, and that it was the dream of every singer to be greeted the way he had been greeted that night. Finally, before the interlude, he sang Anthem, and he was on his knees once again when he came to those so truthful lines:

There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in
.

Before leaving the stage, there was his typical, graceful acknowledgment of his accompanying musicians and singers.

He came back with The Tower of Song, which is frank and honest about his aging:

My friends are gone and my hair is grey.
I ache in the places where I used to play.
And I’m crazy for love but I’m not coming on.
I’m just paying my rent every day in the tower of song
.

And the audience, predictably, responded with laughter to the lines:

I was born like this, I had no choice.
I was born with the gift of a golden voice …


Next we heard some old favourites: Suzanne, The Sisters of Mercy and The Partisan, before Sharon Robinson gave us her own, moving solo version of Boogie Street:

O Crown of Light, O Darkened One,
I never thought we’d meet.
You kiss my lips, and then it’s done:
I’m back on Boogie Street …

And O my love, I still recall
The pleasures that we knew;
The rivers and the waterfall,
Wherein I bathed with you.
Bewildered by your beauty there,
I’d kneel to dry your feet.
By such instructions you prepare
A man for Boogie Street.


After all the mangled and sanitised versions we have been bombarded with in recent years, it was good to hear Leonard Cohen sing Hallelujah as he meant it to be sung and heard. And then, after I’m your man, he read – or recited – as a poem, rather than singing, A Thousand Kisses Deep:

The ponies run, the girls are young,
The odds are there to beat.
You win a while, and then it’s done –
Your little winning streak.
And summoned now to deal
With your invincible defeat,
You live your life as if it’s real,
A Thousand Kisses Deep.

I’m turning tricks, I’m getting fixed,
I’m back on Boogie Street.
You lose your grip, and then you slip
Into the Masterpiece.
And maybe I had miles to drive,
And promises to keep:
You ditch it all to stay alive,
A Thousand Kisses Deep.

And sometimes when the night is slow,
The wretched and the meek,
We gather up our hearts and go,
A Thousand Kisses Deep.

Confined to sex, we pressed against
The limits of the sea:
I saw there were no oceans left
For scavengers like me.
I made it to the forward deck.
I blessed our remnant fleet –
And then consented to be wrecked,
A Thousand Kisses Deep.

I’m turning tricks, I’m getting fixed,
I’m back on Boogie Street.
I guess they won’t exchange the gifts
That you were meant to keep.
And quiet is the thought of you,
The file on you complete,
Except what we forgot to do,
A Thousand Kisses Deep.

And sometimes when the night is slow,
The wretched and the meek,
We gather up our hearts and go,
A Thousand Kisses Deep.

The ponies run, the girls are young,
The odds are there to beat . . .


Forty years ago, Cohen was more feted as a poet than as a song-writer or as a musician, and last night it was obvious that he still remains a poet first and foremost.

This was followed by Take This Waltz, and some more old favourites, So Long, Marianne, First we take Manhattan, and Famous Blue Raincoat.

Cohen is deeply spiritual in his words and in his poetry, and If it be your will is a real prayer for every singer and poet. He spoke the first verse, and then handed over to the Webb sisters, who accompanied themselves on harp and guitar:

If it be your will
That I speak no more
And my voice be still
As it was before
I will speak no more
I shall abide until
I am spoken for
If it be your will


It could have been the end, it might have been an appropriate end, when he sang Closing Time. But with humour he came back on stage and told us in song: I tried to leave you … “at least a hundred times.”

But no, a poet like this couldn’t end on a humorous note like that. His poetry is infused with Biblical imagery, and he ended with a short number drawing on the story of Ruth: Whither Thou Goest:

Whither thou goest I will go
Whither thou lodgest I will lodge
Thy people shall be,
My people.

Whither thou goest I will go
Whither thou goest I will go ...
Whither thou goest I will go ...


Leonard Cohen performs again at the O2 tomorrow evening [Wednesday, 22 July 2009]. That concert is sold out, but some tickets are still available for the next evening [Thursday, 23 July 2009] from Ticketmaster at 0818-719300. He is in the Odyssey Arena, Belfast, on Sunday 26 July, and then goes on to Portugal, Spain, Italy, Turkey, France, Austria, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Serbia, Romania and Israel. It’s a gruelling and demanding tour for a man of any age. Whither he goes, if he’s back in Dublin next year, I’ll go too.