I saw Leonard Cohen two years ago in Baltimore, at what I thought would be my last opportunity.
He played in an outside pavilion in a miserable cold rain, but onstage he radiated all the warmth of the center of the Earth. He took his hat off after every song and embraced the applause like a man who would never hear another clap again.
What Leonard Cohen seems to be saying: Soak this up. We don’t know how long we get, you with me or I with you.
I decided right then, watching this old man who’s written more brilliant lyrics than everyone in the world combined, that if Cohen could be graceful in the swirl of applause at the end of his life, then there’s no reason for me to ever be ungrateful for anything. I try to live this way, and then forget. It’s hard to keep in mind we’re all going to die someday. There will be moments where I can hold an image of Cohen’s smiling, crinkled face in my mind, and I can embody that as I receive some bounty on my plate and respond to the giver that I am thankful. But then, at the next meal, I’m back to sulking with my elbows on the table, pushing the Brussels sprouts to the far end of the plate, begging to be excused to watch some mind-erasing television program.
We’re all kids at the dinner table, no matter how old we get.
I don’t know how Cohen got to such a place, but his spirit left a bigger impression than any guitar solo or drum fill ever has. I would try to squint my eyes and wish his band away; polished as they were, they were just too fancy for such a show. I was hoping to just have Cohen and nothing else, though the contrast between him and the overzealous musicians was probably what made everything so striking. How many times have you left a concert floored by someone’s humility?
Maybe his is a groundedness discovered in the Buddhist monastery where he spent several years, or in the loss of his savings to a manager who stole it while Cohen was meditating. Gratitude is certainly not a trait you find in songwriters from the ’60s still performing today.
If you see Bob Dylan live, you don’t get the impression he particularly cares that you’re there at all. See Paul McCartney and you feel like you’re just another cardboard-cutout fan in the Disneyland ride of his life. But go see Cohen and you really feel like you’re participating in the knighting of a saint, or the sainting of a knight, or you’re getting to eulogize someone while he’s still alive and beaming with pride about his good fortune.
I can’t say Cohen’s transition from soft-voiced folk singer to strip-mine-voiced soft-jazz growler was easy for me as a listener. I once bought a cassette of his 1992 album, The Future, for a road trip, somehow hoping to hear echoes of the man who sang “Suzanne” so tenderly. I couldn’t handle the doom in his voice as he sang about crack and anal sex, and I had to throw the tape out the window to hold onto my image of him, like spitting out a sip from a corked bottle of wine.
I was unwilling to embrace Cohen getting older. And it’s usually such a diminished road to follow your favorite singer into his 60s and beyond. But when I saw Cohen on that stage in Baltimore, it was like seeing him perform from the afterworld. All the weather and wear was in his voice, but none of the bleakness. It was like watching your grandfather sit on top of your family tree, singing you to sleep with every lullaby your mother never sang you.
Nick Jaina is a Portland-based songwriter, musician and writer. His tour diaries and columns can be found at wweek.com.
SEE IT: Leonard Cohen plays at the Rose Garden Wednesday, Dec. 8, at 8 pm. $49.50-$200. All ages.