“I ache in the places where I used to play”: An Evening with Leonard Cohen in Sydney, Monday, November 8, 2010



The lights go down and the ceremony begins.
They stride onto the stage, briskly, with purpose, a procession in black suits and black felt fedoras.
You wonder which one of them could be the Master, but as they take their places at their microphones and instruments, the lights fade back up and he is nowhere to be seen.
A few heartbeats go by, and then he walks in from the wings, with a wry smile and a doff of his Humphrey Bogart hat.
His jacket and trousers are hanging a little baggy, his grey shirt is buttoned up to the neck. But he looks dapper, urbane, like a Sicilian patrician, or the Man from Prudential.
He steeples his hands in greeting, he bows his head, and the band begins to play.
He is three-score-and-ten-and-six now, and when he drops to one knee at the feet of the seated guitarist, to sing the opening line of Dance Me to the End of Love – “Dance me to your beauty like a burning violin” – he looks prayerful and beseeching in his posture of atonement.
But we are sitting in judgement, on a cool November night in the Acer Arena at the Sydney Olympic Park, and all he has to do to win our forgiveness is to sing.
He is standing in the pool of light, his shoulders hunched, his knees bent, bird-like, bird-on-the-wire-like. His hands enfold the microphone and his eyes are shut, hooded by the brim of his hat.
His voice seems to have dropped a register over the years, but it is still as strong as the mountains, as dark as the night, and the songs are monumental.
They have been chiselled in places, dressed and embellished to tease us out of their familiarity, even though we have grown to love them as they are.
He caresses a wandering arpeggio from the strings of a black electric guitar, and then he shepherds it into the soft, silken serenade to Suzanne.
The six-piece band jams a smoky swirl of keyboards and guitar, like a Gospel song reborn, and it breaks into Bird On A Wire: “And I swear by this song, and by all that I have done wrong, I will make it up to thee.”
The guitarist, sitting alone in his world, plays an intense Flamenco-style overture on a 12-string mandolin, the licks dancing like flames, high up on the fretboard, and then there is a hush that beckons the opening question of the Yom Kippur liturgy, Who By Fire.
But when he sings Hallelujah, he just sings Hallelujah from the start, getting up off his knees at the minor fall and the major lift, as the stage is bathed in a white glow of redemption.
He lifts his shiny black shoes a little during The Future, as if stepping on hot coals, and when he sings that there’ll be “fires on the road and white girls dancing”, his backing singers, the willowy Webb Sisters, suddenly step back and execute a perfect cartwheel in sync.
After the interval, he says “Thank you for coming back, I know that it’s a school night”, and he stands on his own at an old keyboard, hitting a button to kick-start a synthesised drum pattern.
“Well, my friends are gone and my hair is grey,” he sings. “I ache in the places where I used to play.” He is singing about life in the Tower of Song, and making it sound like Heaven.
In the audience there are old couples with grey hair, and Goths with torn cardigans and black eyeshadow, and hippies and bikers and Buddhist monks with shaved heads and saffron robes.
He sings for three hours, and comes back for three encores, the greatest singer-songwriter-poet of his age: who else, at 76, can command an Olympic arena with a body of work that spans five decades, and covers every genre from pop to rock to folk to jazz to blues to cabaret?
But the image that stays with me, at the close of a sublime, transcendent evening, is of an old man in a charcoal suit, his hat in the air in an Arabesque, skipping into the wings, into the darkness, with his final words of the night resonating in my ears: “Thank you, my friends, for keeping my songs alive.”
*Leonard Cohen’s 2010 World Tour started in July in Zagreb in Croatia, and runs until December in Las Vegas in Nevada, covering 22 countries in Europe, North America, and Australasia. If you can’t make it, the Leonard Cohen Live in London double-CD is an excellent substitute.
By gussilber Posted in Music

9 comments on ““I ache in the places where I used to play”: An Evening with Leonard Cohen in Sydney, Monday, November 8, 2010

  1. Thank you for sharing this. When I was in the UK earlier this year, the Guardian published a series of the best lyricists and his poetry, gathered in a book, is such a treasure to have.

  2. He is as honest and dedicated a performer as I have ever seen. I recently watched James Taylor cynically sleepwalk through a performance, and the contrast to Leonard Cohen’s effort (at 76 years old) was impossible to ignore – I became an even more avid Leonard fan and have not listened to anything by Sweet Baby James since.

  3. Yes, he is a poet first and a songwriter and musician second. That is what makes his poetry and his music so special.And he is one of those rare performers who truly respects his audience – which is why his audience repays the respect ten-fold!

  4. I agree with Merle above… even though I haven’t read that much of your writing! It is so moving to read and evokes the quality his music holds for me.. He is an enigma. His music stirs feelings that are hard to name and I’m left with a sense of wonder at his naked, humanity and sensuality. I remember hearing Dance Me to the End of Love in high school and feeling almost guiltily drawn to and mesmerised by something there I was too young to understand.

  5. Thank you kindly, Merle, and thanks Belinda…that is indeed the thing about Leonard Cohen’s music…it touches chords where we didn’t even know we had chords to be touched!

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