“Nobody listens to me round here. I feel like a Leonard Cohen record.” – Neil, The Young Ones
Faced with a time consuming and not particularly brain consuming task at my computer the other day, I threw out a request to my Twitter chums. I’d listen to the first album somebody suggested. The suggestion that came back was Leonard Cohen Live At London.
Leonard Cohen? I thought I knew all about Leonard Cohen. Growing up in the seventies every house had an unplayed Leonard Cohen LP. Usually one with the stetson wearing misery merchant peering out in black and white. The finite nature of LP collections being what it was, when bored you might well put on a disc that wasn’t part of your normal listening menu. You rarely got to the end of one his.
It seemed natural to me because that was what I grew up with. But the reality was that the state of technology was such that being a successful recording artist was a really good niche to get into. The cost of vinyl was low and reproduction was quick and easy. At the same time there was relatively limited bandwidth in terms of television and radio. It you could get onto a radio playlist and start selling your music, it wouldn’t take too long for the royalties to start rolling in. It was not at all easy to break in, but the rewards were enormous if you could.
Pop and rock stars at the top of the tree became enormously wealthy. With great wealth comes great pomposity. Having made a fortune the next thing they wanted was artistic integrity and respect for their creativity. Amazingly they got that too. Albums started getting reviewed in the Sunday newspapers. Pop stars became ‘artists’. The most lauded were the singer/songwriters who were supposedly reflecting on life on behalf of the rest of us. ‘I’ve suffered for my music. Now it’s your turn’ as the joke went.
Leonard Cohen was very much the epitome of this kind of approach. I remember reading an interview with him where he explained that the only thing that motivated him was writing better and better songs. He was uninterested in the reaction they got from the listener. As my reaction was inevitably to turn it off, this was perhaps just as well.
Well the world trundles on, things change and we change with them. I gave Leonard Cohen very little thought as the years went by. I got married and one of his records ended up in our joint collection. We played it once – if I recall correctly the first line was ‘ I broke back into the prison’ or something equally cheery. Many years later I noticed that it had got broken in a move so I threw it away without any regret.
To be entirely fair he did have a song which I don’t think was a hit but was played a lot called Suzanne. That was quite nice.
So it was with some trepidation that I looked up Leonard Cohen Live In London on Spotify. What I wondered, had I let myself in for? The first surprise was the date. 2009. He is still going? Good grief! Next surprise, his voice. I had remembered a rather monotone and dull vocal. The 2009 LC was deep, resonant and charismatic. It was a voice you wanted to listen to. Next, the music. I remembered him as a singer songwriter accompanying himself with a guitar. This performance was accompanied by a band with a rich and sumptuous sound. It was the perfect foil for the voice.
The only recognisable element was the songs. These still have a morose tinge to them, but they were more varied and interesting than I remembered. Some were really moving. He does have a particular outlook and there aren’t many toe tappers. But to my surprise I found myself really enjoying it. I think the liveness helped – it gave the performance a point. It also revealed a little of LC’s character – the little he chose to reveal at any rate. He came across as a warm and humble man, not at all the pretentious and self centered one I remembered from the seventies.
So thanks to Jeanne Yseult on Twitter for suggesting this. I can see myself listening to this again soon.