Leonard Cohen. I could leave it there, really. That name contains more than anything these flimsy hands could put into words. To many, including myself, hearing that name is like pressing one’s ear to a seashell and finding that it contains an entire ocean. In it, it’s possible to hear the echo of a man whose sonorous voice came to represent an entire way of life, a new type of artistic expression, one both new and old in the same breath.
Cohen’s presence as a performer is iconic, and, arguably, it was always in his blood. Born in the suburb of Westmount in Montreal, Canada, Cohen’s mother was the daughter of prominent Talmudic writer and Rabbi Solomon Kloninsky-Kline. No wonder, then, that so many have defined Leonard Cohen by his almost messianic ability to transfix and mesmerise.
However, Cohen’s career as a songwriter, unlike that of his contemporary Bob Dylan, wasn’t what many would have expected of him. For much of the late 1950s and early ’60s, Cohen was pursuing an ambition to be a writer. He wrote numerous books and poetry collections, some of which gained a lot of attention from the Canadian Press, leading one commentator to claim: “James Joyce is not dead. He is living in Montreal under the name Cohen.” But literary success eluded him, and by the late 1960s, Leonard Cohen was living as a musician in uber-bohemian New York. The rest, as they say, is history.
Today, Cohen is regarded as one of the most prominent songwriters of his generation. He has come to be understood as an individual who used his art to explore the quiet corners of the human heart, a man whose obvious sensitivity to the profound complexity of the world – of which he was a part of – allowed him to create some of the most transcendent music of the 20th century.
Below, we will be looking at some of Leonard Cohen’s most iconic performances. As a man who released numerous live albums but who also had a complicated relationship with live performance, these five iconic live moments offer a glimpse into the inner life of one of music’s enigmatic characters.
Leonard Cohen’s greatest performances:
The Isle of Wight Festival 1970
This list wouldn’t be complete without talking about Leonard Cohen’s legendary performance at The Isle of Wight, so I thought I’d mention it straight off the bat. The 1970 event was an absolute behemoth. After the organisers decided to make it free for all, the festivities – if that’s not too soft a word – got a little bit out of hand. I’m talking about rioting, looting, arson, mob rule, and a lot of upset local residents. Yes, it was all distinctly un-peace and love, but that doesn’t negate the fact that it featured one of Cohen’s most stunning live performances.
Drunk on both power and actual alcohol, the nearly 600,000 strong crowd, which had gathered at the Isle of Wight, had been booing musicians off stage left, right, and centre all day — going as far as barraging Kris Kristofferson with beer bottles. The organisers knew they needed someone to quell the fire. Kristofferson remembers: “Everybody had been sittin’ there in the filth, in their own squalor – half a million people there- for five days. And Leonard Cohen finally comes out of his trailer and he was wearing his pyjamas. I never have known why they didn’t just hoot him off the stage.”
But from the off, it was clear that Cohen was the only performer with the power to charm the beast. As his band line-checked their instruments, he began to tell a story about going to the circus as a child. He was bleary-eyed. He was unshaved. He was wearing a safari jacket and jeans over his pyjamas. And yet, his call for everyone in the audience to light a match, “So we can see where we all are”, created a wave of calm which is evident even from the video footage of that night. This performance has to be on this list because, simply put, it’s iconic Cohen. The entire performance is speckled with stories, anecdotes, and personal confessions, all of which reveal the tenderness at the heart of Cohen’s act.
‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ – German Television, 1979
Broadcast the same year as the ‘Field Commander Cohen’ tour, one which the man himself would later describe as his “best ever”, this performance is a worthy addition to the list. It sees what is possibly one of Cohen’s most sublime renditions of his drawling ballad, ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’.
The power of this performance stems from the band’s ability to navigate the intricacies of Cohen’s song-craft without becoming intrusive. This allows for the track to grow and expand like a living organism. The highlight of the performance comes just after Saxophonist Paul Ostyermaster finishes his solo. Cohen sings: “And what can I tell you, my brother, my killer? What can I possibly say? Guess I miss you. Guess I forgive you. I’m glad you stood in my way.” And behind these words, the combined voices of Cohen’s backing singers blend with little ripples of Saxophone to create a surge of warmth which rises up and up, beyond the cold monitors of the tv studio and out into the cold German air.
‘The Partisan’ – Live in Warsaw, 1985
The 1980s saw Cohen undergo a vast musical transformation and undertake his most ambitious tours to date. After the release of his ‘Various Positions’ LP, he toured Europe, Australia, Canada, and the US extensively. However, he also took part in a number of controversial concerts in Poland.
The fractured nation had only just emerged from martial law and was simmering with political tension. The political situation which provides its backdrop gives this performance undeniable electricity. The energy in the room was surely heightened further by Cohen’s decision to perform ‘The Partisan’, a song which had been adopted as the anthem of the polish solidarity movement.
‘Hallelujah’ – Live in Frederiction, 2008
This fuzzy recording of Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ might seem like an odd choice. “Why not his performance of the same song at Glastonbury?”, I hear you say. Well, whilst that was a beautiful moment, it lacks the contextual weight I was looking for when I was putting this list together. Because, despite seating only 700 people, the Frederiction Playhouse in New Brunswick was the venue in which Cohen broke a near ten-year silence.
With his passion for live performance fading, Cohen spent much of the 1990s and early 2000s in a Buddhist monastery near Los Angeles, seemingly content to never play another live show again. By 2008 he hadn’t performed live since 1993, offering some explanation as to why his return was so understated. Clearly, he was a little anxious that his fanbase might have disappeared. But this performance – the first to reveal Cohen’s newly gravelled voice – seems to prove that his anxieties were ill-judged. Cohen’s comic-wit is evident throughout, as is the audience’s sheer bafflement at having such a legend in a venue that had previously played host to nothing more noteworthy than an amateur production of Guys and Dolls.
‘Save The Last Dance For Me’ – Live in Auckland, 2013
This, the final performance of Leonard Cohen’s gargantuan ‘Old Ideas’ tour, would also be the last of his life. The tour was his most ambitious to date, with 123 concerts across three continents, each lasting around three hours in total. In retrospect, it’s hard not to think of that tour as being the final breath of an artist who famously revelled in the discipline which hard graft requires.
Less than a year later, Cohen released ‘You Want it Darker’, an album which – with its bleak existentialism – suggested that Cohen had spent many a long night evaluating the meaning of his long and varied life. It is an album that says exactly what it means to: “I’m ready my lord.”
In this final addition to the list, we see a man whose life is written all over his face. Cohen’s joy seems to radiate from every fibre of his being. He seems to be celebrating all the good stuff: friendship, music, and of course – for someone who was famously danced to the end of love – grooving.