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My earliest memory of any rock show involves Cohen...
Joe Jackson, 24 Aug 1994
ONE OF the great delights of being a Leonard Cohen fan is watching the man in concert. Indeed, my earliest memory of any rock show involves Cohen. It was in the National Stadium in Dublin, more than 20 years ago, when he launched into a version of ‘As Time Goes By’ someone in the audience shouted “That’s Frank Sinatra – give us the real Leonard Cohen.” “This is the real Leonard Cohen,” he retorted. Needless to say, no-one shouted anything similar when the man crooned ‘Kevin Barry’ at the same concert, describing it as “one of my all-time favourite songs.”
Sadly, neither of these cuts are on this long-overdue set of Cohen’s live recordings. Also missing are those largely re-written concert cuts of songs like ‘Memories’, which he performed during his 1979 tour. However this facet of Cohen’s perfectionism is highlighted in a totally revised version of ‘Hallelujah’, with its new lines which will make cynics laugh, and ex-lovers weep. “I remember when I moved in you/and the holy dove was moving too/And every breath we drew was Hallelujah.”
His 1993 version of ‘Bird On A Wire’ also contains a telling rewrite when the original lines: “like a knight in some old-fashioned book/I have saved all my ribbons for thee” are changed to “like a knight in some old-fashioned book/it was the shape of our love that twisted me.” Similarly, “if I have been untrue/I hope you know it was never to you” has been scrapped in favour of the more self-serving “if I have been untrue/It’s just that I thought a lover had to be some kind of liar too.”
Listening to these tracks one is reminded of Cohen’s claim that he carries songs around in his briefcase for at least five years before he “finally accepts that they are ready to be set free.” This album clearly proves that the man never really does let go, never lets himself rest anywhere near the illusion that he has written the perfect song, the perfect work of art.
Unfortunately, with near-perfect songs such as ‘Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye’, ‘Take This Longing’ and all the tracks from the Recent Songs album absent from this set it’s hardly the best of Cohen. Fans of his more recent work such as I’m Your Man and The Future will also be disappointed that such albums are represented by only ‘I’m Your Man’ and ‘Everybody Knows’.
That said ‘There Is A War’, from 1974’s New Skin For Old Ceremony, still stands as a prescient view of the battle between man and woman, with its killing verse: “I live here with a woman and a child/The situation makes me kind of nervous/I rise up from her arms, she says ‘I guess you call this love/I call it ‘room service’.”
Obviously, the woman wins again. But clearly this victory makes for the kind of song-poetry that people like myself have lived through for years. Some of us even left home, and embarked on our original rite of passage, believing the Cohen song which said: “You must leave everything that you cannot control/It beings with your family/But soon comes around to your soul.” Was he right? Of course he was, as is obvious from this album’s ever-more resonant 1993 reading of ‘Sisters Of Mercy’.
No doubt when many of us creep nearer the grave, we’ll still be singing Leonard Cohen songs such as ‘Why By Fire’ or ‘If It Be Your Will’. Particularly, I suppose, the final verse of the latter: “And draw us near and bind us tight/All your children here in their rags of light/In our rags of light/All dressed to kill/And end this night/If it be your will.”
Even those of us who are atheists can sing such songs as though they were prayers. Such is the trans00formative power of Leonard Cohen. Thus, if this album serves as an introduction to his work it may turn out to be one of the most essential releases of 1994.