Updated: 12/11/16 : 05:59:58
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Cohen's rocky road to Lissadell 2010

By Eugene McGloin

MY HIGHLIGHT of 2010 – in football, hurling, music, arts, soccer, in everything, was a satellite telecast to Sligo of an older man singing his heart out.

The live telecast came from New York's Lincoln Center to the Gaiety Cinema, Sligo.

A 69 years old man was reinventing himself in an exhausting new role, only weeks before surgery for cancer.

Spain’s opera star and soccer fan Placido Domingo then toured London that same summer with Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra.''

A sum of £600 sterling was asked on eBay to see the show we had watched live in stunning HD here in Sligo for only 25 euro four months before.

We could see into Domingo’s eyes –- and 'into' his soul, truth be told -- for three full hours in HD, we got a free programme and heard him interviewed. 

Contrast that -- generally -- with some outdoor concerts: No plush seats and the punter may be wet, cold. Punters pay top dollar for a programme, if there is one.

Like a bad referee, some of these concerts have their audiences 'orphaned' far outfield and far from the site and sight of the main playing action. 

Pension Pots

Anyway, back to these famous older men: Why do they reinvent themselves and go back ‘out on the road.'

Why do they head out across the globe at a time in their lives when they could hire staff to count out their pension pots daily? 

Well, unlike Topsy in our infant school book -- that Topsy who ‘just growed' -- the personal fortune of Leonard Cohen shrank through no fault of his own. 

So, the rock road beckoned and a world tour which was servile work.

Shrek's Song

Only once ever did I see a routine film get an ovation from all the adults present. It was in the Omniplex cinema in Santry.

I was in Dublin on one of many overnight trips in the first decade of this century to see Sligo in Croke Park, football and hurling. 

Up on the cinema screen, “Shrek,” the giant green ogre had us wiping tears of laughter as he wiped his bum with the script of our favourite fairytales.

Leonard’s Cohen’s “Hallelujah,’’ sung by Rufus Wainwright, has become “Shrek’s song.''

Only thing is that John Cale gets to sing it in the film and Wainwright's version appears on the official soundtrack.

That film and separate soundtrack was the beginning of the beginning for global recognition and admiration for that one Cohen song.

Meanwhile, on other Dublin overnights back in the 1970s, many times I’d seen Wainwright’s parents perform separately -- Loudon Wainwright and his mum Kate McGarrigle. 

Kate sadly died of cancer in Montreal in January 2010, her family publicly thanking “Canada’s wonderful health care system.”

The National Stadium on Dublin’s South Circular hosted all those shows by the talented trio.

It was a venue with some dodgy sightlines behind stacked amplifiers and betimes dodgy acoustics.

The Stadium’ was where I fell in love with Leonard Cohen, in the unpromising setting of a wet Friday night and a Dublin bus strike, early December 1979.

That month, too, bonfires blazed and there was marquee merriment as Raymond MacSharry and Albert Reynolds became full Ministers for their first time.

Mr Haughey’s first Cabinet included the first female Minister in over half a century; since Madame Markievicz, the Lissadell House revolutionary and 1916 leader.

Guns, Bullets

Back then, Cohen was emerging, slowly, from his own GUBU-type phase; ‘grotesque’ and ‘bizarre’ was his 1977 link-up with producer Phil Spector, later jailed for murder. 

Those studio sessions – with Spector’s guns, bullets and guzzles of booze -- are/were the stuff of legend. Cohen’s new songs from those sessions were sadly no such thing.

Meal Ticket

Cohen then seemed a beaten docket although his back catalogue was, always and ever, good enough to earn him a meal ticket in any town. 

He filled the National Stadium as far back as 1972 in a memorable show. 

In those years Cohen even once fitted in a version of ''Kevin Barry,'' hanged in Mountjoy in 1920.

Cohen's version had as many misconceptions as the retired Irish government minister who thought Barry was shot, not hung, by the British!

World Music

 That 1979 tour was the start of a rocky road -- Leonard in midlife crisis, if you like -- it had many shaky moments. It had some pure magic too. 

On offer was Mexican mariachi, Middle Eastern, Arabic oud played by Armenian John Bilezikjian. 'World' music, roots music, were phrases not in the vernacular, not yet.

There was also a truly, truly memorable gypsy violinist Raffi Hakopian. The forensics suggest the subsequent career summit climb began in those foothills of 1979.

Without those two sherpas the man from Montreal might never have ended up in concert in Sligo quarter a century later, under Ben Bulben lit by the arc of a rainbow.

Class Permanent

Sample the duo's work on “The Window” or “The Traitor” from that 1979 CD “Recent Songs.” 

Both musicians then teamed up again for “The Faith” on Cohen’s 2004 collection “Dear Heather.''

That CD, ''Heather,'' proved Pat Spillane’s football idiom that ‘form is temporary but class is permanent.’

Women: Mention ‘women’ in same sentence with ‘Leonard Cohen’ and you hear many names.

There's Suzanne, Marianne, Nancy, the Sisters of Mercy, maybe Nico, Janis Joplin or Joan or Arc, Saint Bernadette or Heather.

Onstage Women

Those are the women in his famous songs. But never forget the onstage women, the backing singers who were the backdrop adding stardust to the throaty baritone out front.

Over the decades and above all things, all those women enhanced the gifted poet, singer and writer: Jennifer Warnes, Julie Christensen, Sharon Robinson, the Webb sisters Hattie and Charley, the wonderful Anjani Thomas.

My favourite Cohen onstage woman always was Perla Batalla from Ventura, California. 

Check YouTube for her “Hallelujah” with an Evangelist choir, and her duets with David Hidalgo, accordion player from the band Los Lobos or with Madrid rock singer Javier Colis.

That Song

‘’Hallelujah?” Hmm. Remember how Billy Connolly joked about the Glasgow drunk swiveling on left foot, then right and back onto left foot, singing, inevitably, Stephen Foster’s beautiful words “Beautiful Dreamer?”

''Hallelujah” could become T-H-A-T song. Drunken divils now stab at its repeated refrain ‘til it sounds in some parts of Ireland like “Alleluia, ya hoor ya…” 

Versions I love include Jeff Buckley, Perla Batalla yes, kd lang, Rufus Wainwright.

American opera star Renee Fleming mutedly and finely also re-made “Hallelujah.''

Cohen himself had Shakespeare’s ear. Who else could 'hear' and weld 12th century paintings by Chinese Zen master Kakuan to words spoken one thousand years earlier in the Old Testament.

He married that whole text off to Mexican mariachi music to give us ”Ballad of the Absent Mare:-''

''Say a prayer for the cowboy, his mare's run away/He'll walk til he finds her, his darling, his stray....''

But it's not a story about a horse or a horseman passing by at all; the rich allegory time-machines back to the famous entreaty and promise of Ruth to Naomi in the Old Testament: ''Whither thou goest, I will go....''

Borrowing Ideas

'Mare' also became just one of a handful of songs in which Cohen included his own name in the sung words -- the most famous of such was ''Famous Blue Raincoat.''

Cohen was not beyond borrowing ideas: He took a theme of the Greek poet CP Cavafy and, with help from Sharon Robinson, honed it from a reputed eighty verses into the concise Cohen classic “Alexandra Leaving.''

The collected lyrics of Leonard Cohen glistens with homage to poets like Lord Byron, Garcia Lorca, WB Yeats, CP Cavafy, glisten with the influence of growing up in multicultural Quebec. 

His lyrics overflow with desire, prayer, Biblical imagery, big digs at democracy, or lack of it, in the USA and little digs at his own “golden” voice.

Songs, he told the BBC, had windows but, above all, their appeal was that they moved ''heart to heart.''

 It was Q magazine in the UK which posed the 64,000 dollar question to Leonard Cohen: Which of the all the songs in the whole world do you wish you had written?

 His answer was “If It Be Your Will”…. And he added: “I have written that song!” 

Yet his record company refused an American release for “Various Positions,” the 1980s disc which had that song AND ''Hallelujah.” Sales in Ireland were also scarce. 

Cohen wittily labelled his shy company's HQ as “The Tomb of the Unknown Record.” He had the last laugh with ''Hallelujah.''

Sing Sadder

He always retained his Judaism roots but during Zen Buddhism guidance, when he retreated up a mountain from the world, Cohen was urged to ‘think deeper, sing sadder.’ 

Cohen said he found “the courage to write down my prayers.” A key couplet quoted across the globe yesterday shows his Zen study was fruitful: “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”

Political Tales

Cohen was a hero to, and sided with, Solidarity in the Polish shipyards in the 1980s. 

He is not overtly political but has recorded two fine political tales. 

1. ''Un Canadien Errant (The Lost Canadian)'' from the 1860s was self explanatory.

2. Homage to the history of Lissadell House and the geography of north Sligo saw him do the great 1940s French Resistance song “The Partisan'' on his visit here.

 Cohen recorded with poet Allen Ginsberg, rightly famed for “Howl” and who once visited the grave of WB Yeats or (heresy forsake us!) whoever is in that casket.

The ghost of Yeats reputedly once spoke to Cohen in Rome, his biographer Ira Nadel related.

 Before Cohen came to Lissadell in July 2010, Sligo had hosted much good music in unlikely venues over the decades:-

Fairport Convention in the Showgrounds;

Van Morrison and Georgie Fame in Cleveragh;

Chuck Berry in The Boys of Ballisodare festivals;

Hot Chocolate in Silver Swan;

Five All Ireland Fleadhanna in Sligo;

Christy Moore and U2 in the Blue Lagoon;

Westlife in Markievicz Park;

Patti Smith in Model Niland;

The Kilfenora in Drumcliffe and Ballymote; 

Thin Lizzy in Summerhill and Showgrounds;

Arlo Guthrie, Ralph McTell and Bell XI in HawksWell;

Eric Clapton with Albert Lee in Strandhill. 

Leonard Cohen was arguably the oldest of all of them -- aged a mere 75 years and 10 months when he came to Lissadell.

He came too to with his trademark tailored suit and classy hats, his appreciation of good tailoring a lifelong legacy of his family background.

Politicians and pop stars had made hats, in particular, a passé item for men in public.

Recall that ''Mad Men” episode set in 1960s New York advertising agency: Two mates argue whether Kennedy or Nixon would be a better President. 

“Kennedy doesn’t even wear a hat,” sez one. 

“Yeah? Get this, Elvis doesn’t either,” sez JFK’s fan. 

Leonard Cohen’s onstage hats half a century later changed all that.

His singing changed so much more; listeners were changed internally and externally.

We can only hope we see him -- and hear 'L Cohen' again -- down the road.

 Link: See Sligo Today 11/11/2016.