The mercurial talent of Bob Dylan on record doesn’t always transfer directly to the stage. If you’re a big Dylan fan who has never seen a live show and expect to arrive at a stadium-sized set of greatest hits—you will be disappointed. Fact. That is not Dylan’s way.
His way, as Leonard Cohen said in 2008, is to explore a “secret code” between himself and the audience. It’s this exploration that has always kept us begging for more and earned the undoubted respect of Mr. Cohen.
That means you’re never likely to arrive at a Dylan performance with a paint-by-numbers setlist guaranteed to sell T-shirts. You’re just as likely to get an entire set of backwater folk tunes that have been buried for 100 years from the Nobel Prize winner. It can be enough to turn off fair-weather fans from making the trip, something his staunch supporters likely relish.
Winning the Nobel Prize for literature is an accolade that Dylan could scarcely have imagined at the beginning of his career in the early sixties, then he was just the latest youth with a view that wouldn’t keep quiet about it. That said, it’s one he rightly deserved for a musical path chock-full of literary moments of genius. As Cohen put it in 2016: “To me, [the award] is like pinning a medal on Mount Everest for being the highest mountain.”
Speaking just a few weeks before his death, Cohen was at Q&A for his album You Want It Darker when the subject turned to his friend and contemporary, the freewheelin’ Dylan. “I think that Bob Dylan knows this more than all of us: you don’t write the songs anyhow,” he said. “So if you’re lucky, you can keep the vehicle healthy and responsive over the years. If you’re lucky, your own intentions have very little to do with this.”
It may feel a touch confusing to think that Cohen’s best moments with a pen come from when he was most detached from the work but the singer’s record speaks for its effectiveness. The duplicity of being both a genius and professing to have no interaction with said genius has always been an alluring one and it’s part of what has made Cohen such a prophetic figure in music. It’s a similar confusion that Dylan likes to offer out at every chance—including his live shows.
In a 2008 interview with Cohencentric, which we found via Reddit, Cohen understands and deconstructs Dylan’s deliberately obtuse live shows and the “secret code” he shares with his audience that turns something confounding into the clearest image of pure music. “I went to his [Bob Dylan’s] concert. It was terrific. I’ve been to many Dylan concerts. This one, there was a walkway from the hotel to the auditorium, so you could enter into this private area, the people who had boxes. We were in one of those boxes.”
Cohen continued: “First of all, I’ve never been in a private box in an auditorium. That was fun. And a lot of members of the band came. But it was very loud. Fortunately, Raphael, our drummer, had earplugs, and he distributed them. Because our music is quite soft and that’s what we’ve been listening to for three or four months. As Sharon Robinson said, Bob Dylan has a secret code with his audience.”
Watching the master at work can often feel otherworldly and Cohen agrees, suggesting: “If someone came from the moon and watched it they might wonder what was going on.” It’s a fair assessment when Dylan takes the stage something otherworldly appears to have landed. “In this particular case, he had his back to one half of the audience and was playing the organ, beautifully I might say, and just running through the songs,” he added. “Some were hard to recognize. But nobody cared. That’s not what they were there for and not what I was there for.”
The Canadian songwriter added: “Something else was going on, which was a celebration of some kind of genius that is so apparent and so clear and has touched people so deeply that all they need is some kind of symbolic unfolding of the event. It doesn’t have to be the songs. All it has to be is: remember that song and what it did to you. It’s a very strange event.”
A strange event that one must experience in their lifetime. Nobody does it quite like Bob Dylan. Even Leonard Cohen knew that. In an interview with Pitchfork, Dylan spoke of Cohen’s death, in reference to countless others at that time, Dylan responded: “We were like brothers, we lived on the same street and they all left empty spaces where they used to stand. It’s lonesome without them.”
If you can’t do that then you’re best off checking out Dylan’s cover of Cohen’s masterpiece ‘Hallelujah’ below.