Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin. Without introduction apart from a gracious bow, Lenny and his band launch into his mid-eighties classic, and I can see this is going to be a good one. Leonard looks fit. He looks fresh. A little older, a little leaner, a little more self-effacing, but always with a hint of devilment.
It’s the same band as last year. There’s Rafael Gayol on the drums – our timekeeper, as Lenny calls him. There are the Webb Sisters, Charley and Hattie, on vocals and acrobatics. Sharon Robinson is here, Lenny’s collaborator on his later albums. Out front, and seated as always, is Javier Mas on Bandurria and 12-string guitar. Behind him, playing every known wind instrument, and a few as yet uninvented, is Dino Soldo. Behind Dino, on pedal steel and electric guitar, is Bob Metzger. To Lenny’s right is Roscoe Beck, on electric and upright bass, the musical director of our little ensemble, as Lenny describes him. And on a raised platform beside the drummer is Neil Larsen on keyboards, piano and accordion.
The sound, as always, is purer than ice and warmer than mulled wine.
Lenny smiles a lot, and he wears the same sharp suit, the same fedora that he doffs in respect and holds to his breast. He wears the same cheeky, self-deprecating grin, and his voice is maple syrup laced with sand.
My young companion is transfixed as Leonard weaves his gentle, careful magic and draws us into his world. She was raised on this man’s music though she didn’t know it at the time, and now, through this back-catalogue of greatness, every song plucks another string of memory. Bird on the Wire. The Future. Sisters of Mercy. First We Take Manhattan. Everybody Knows.
Lenny talks about the difficult times we live in, and how privileged we are to be able to come together like this. There is a crack, he reminds us. A crack in everything. It’s how the light gets in, and the band strikes up Anthem.
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
The sentiment seems appropriate in these uncertain times.
Lenny doesn’t just put on a show tonight. It’s a display A concert. A recital.
He takes us through his musical lifetime, a gallery of hymns to laughter, hope, love, despair, longing, but never anger, never bitterness. Lenny gives us no terror.
He kneels beside Javier Mas, from Barcelona, and together they unpick the threads of Lorca’s poem, and Cohen’s reworking: Take This Waltz.
He takes us to the mountains with The Partisan, a song he wrote at a time when he believed fascism could be overthrown by music. Men will come from the shadows.
He gives us his Jewish prayer, Who By Fire.
He strikes up Suzanne, and it could have been written yesterday, by this mystical Jewish Buddhist unbeliever who sings equally of Jesus and Isaac as if he has a beer with them after work. … and when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him, he said all men shall be sailors then until the sea shall free them.
He stands before us, alone, and recites A Thousand Kisses Deep,
You came to me this morning
And you handled me like meat.
You’d have to be a man to know
How good that feels, how sweet.
And as we all laugh, he blinds us with the second verse
I loved you when you opened
Like a lily to the heat.
I’m just another snowman
Standing in the rain and sleet,
Who loved you with his frozen love
His second-hand physique -
With all he is, and all he was
A thousand kisses deep.
We’re stunned and silenced as he stands there in the spotlight, alone with his heart bleeding onto the stage in front of us.
On If It Be Your Will, he speaks the first few lines and stands back in respectful shadow, head bowed towards them as Charley Webb plays guitar, Hattie plucks harp and Neil Larsen accompanies their singing. I heard this in the open air last year, the perfection of two sisters’ voices intertwining in one beautiful song, and I was spellbound. This time I was dumbstruck and so was everyone else who heard it.
My daughter gasps as he begins to sing I heard there was a secret chord that David played and it pleased the Lord.
Of course! Hallelujah! You keep forgetting that you’re in the presence of greatness. You forget that down there on the stage is the self-deprecating, immensely courteous king of Cool. He that man.
Lenny flirts all the time.
If you want a doctor I’ll examine every precious little inch of you. All the women giggle and he cracks a sly little smile as he chuckles: I’m your man, and they all sing along while Lenny grins. We all know Lenny’s story and who wouldn’t like to live within the history of that smile?
I lean over to my child: What’s not to like about this guy?
She laughs. I know.
Lenny was always a dirty bastard and they love him for it. This is the man, after all, who wrote She’s a hundred but she’s wearing something tight.
This is the man who wrote For something like a second I’m cured and my heart is at ease.
This, I’m afraid, is the man who wrote You were KY jelly. I was Vaseline.
Dirty bastard, but we love him.
The whole damn place goes crazy twice, and it’s once for the Devil and it’s once for Christ but somewhere along the way, he slips into the haunting and enigmatic Famous Blue Raincoat, with a smoky tenor sax and a gentle undulating melody, hinting at immense betrayals and painful forgiveness. He mocks himself in Tower of Song: I was born like this, I had no choice, I was born with the gift of a golden voice, and he accompanies himself on the small keyboard that he’s been carrying around for 20 years. Somebody whoops at the little repetitive musical figure Lenny’s playing and he chuckles again, missing his cue. As the band marks time he nods to the heckler: You’re so very kind, and he gives a little laugh.
I don’t believe in any God, but I imagine if he did exist, he’d be a lot like Leonard Cohen. Sharp-dressed, funny, a little lop-sided, not too full of himself, and immensely kind.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from last night. Would he live up to last year’s masterpiece? Would it be better to remember him at the height of his powers?
Well, I’ll tell you what: he didn’t just live up to it. He got better and there’s no sign of him stopping.
We jump in a taxi outside and the driver is the usual taciturn, uncommunicative class of individual we have come to expect. For three blocks not a word is spoken, but then he turns to me.
Was he any good?
Oh, he was great. I really enjoyed it. Did you ever hear him?
Yeah. I heard him in 1981. In Montreal. As a matter of fact, I painted his house.
Then he touches the stereo and suddenly we’re surround-sounded by Democracy is Coming to the USA.
Small world, isn’t it?
I can’t do a set-list this time because I didn’t take any notes, but here are some of the songs as best I can recall. I’m sure I’ve left some out.
Bird on the Wire
Who By Fire
A Thousand Kisses Deep
If It Be Your Will
So Long Marianne
Take This Waltz
First We Take Manhattan
The Sisters of Mercy
Hearty With No Companion
Boogie Street (sung by Sharon Robinson)
Ain’t No Cure For Love
Waiting for the Miracle
Tower of Song
I’m Your Man
Famous Blue Raincoat
I Tried To Leave You