Leonard Cohen was a one-off. The late artist was a literary magician who had a way with words that remained unparalleled, within music at least. One would presume that having as much talent as Cohen did would rid you from any glimmer of possible stage fright but, somehow, the musician lacked self-confidence when it came to performing live. Instead, Cohen came up with a characteristically genius method of coping with this issue.
Cohen’s legacy speaks for itself, and to millions across the world. The Canadian walked on water, just being in his presence to witness him perform live was a spectacle, and the man could do no wrong. Following the singer’s death in 2016, Nick Cave summed up his greatness perfectly: “For many of us Leonard Cohen was the greatest songwriter of them all. Utterly unique and impossible to imitate no matter how hard we tried. He will be deeply missed by so many.” This sentiment was shared by Bob Dylan, who beautifully said, “When people talk about Leonard, they fail to mention his melodies, which to me, along with his lyrics, are his greatest genius. As far as I know, no one else comes close to this in modern music.”
However, even though Cohen understood how dearly loved he was, that didn’t prevent him from becoming a nervous wreck before stepping foot on the stage. His nerves played a pivotal part in his prolonged absence from the stage in 1993, which would last until 2008. This period was a fascinating transitional point in Cohen’s life, one during which he spent a vast amount of time at a Buddhist monastery on Mount Baldy in California.
During his musical hiatus, the world pined for Cohen’s art after his time spent off-grid, which only made his fans realise just how important his voice was. In January 2008, Cohen finally announced details of his return. At the time, he didn’t think that there would be a great demand so just began the run with an intimate theatre tour of North America. However, the tour quickly escalated to arenas as the Canadian enjoyed his Indian Summer. On the run of dates, he developed the most unique method of dealing with pre-match nerves.
Ahead of his residency at London’s Wembley Arena in 2012, his backing singers, The Webb Sisters, spoke with The Independent. They offered a vivid insight into what went on before their performances on his comeback tour. The duo revealed: “Leonard always asks us to be there half an hour before the show, so we can be there together as a band. It’s a great way of everyone sticking together,” they explain.
“There’s a whole array of beverages and we often have a whisky. Leonard loves a whisky. He used to have to drink three bottles of wine before going on stage because of nerves. Now it’s just a whisky.”
After he had guzzled his whisky, Cohen’s final ritual was beautifully absurd as he emphatically led his band through a Latin song. “It’s in Latin: ‘Pauper sum ego, nihil habeo’ – ‘I am poor, I have nothing’,” the sisters recalled. “It comes from Leonard. The bass player plays a note, Leonard starts singing and we all follow. The 10 of us then walk to the stage singing it. It’s a great focusing ritual. It’s a way of reducing the weight of what we feel. It’s really unifying.”
This act may seem rather odd but, as The Webb Sisters say, it brought the band together and made them feel like they were part of a team. Considering this was at the latter stage of Cohen’s career and he had already achieved legendary status, nobody would blame him for keeping himself to himself before shows, but that wasn’t the kind of man he was.
Many stars would have thought they were above their bandmates’ station, but Cohen was a team player who knew this togetherness before taking to the stage would only enhance their chemistry during the show.