This review was originally published by Monday Magazine.

The title of this review will, no doubt, offend many a reader: “How dare you put Leonard Cohen, Canada’s National Treasure, next to a wiener, much less behind a wiener (plus, isn’t ‘dog’ spelled with an ‘o’? Show some respect, man!)”. Hopefully, you didn’t stop reading there—and if you have managed to come this far, maybe you will come a bit further. Hot dogs are not really the point, of course, and though they do have their place (as you shall soon see) let us shift our collective gaze from mechanically separated meat products to Canada’s long-reigning poet laureate.

Leonard Cohen has made a career, and a long one at that, of analyzing dichotomy in poetry, prose and song. His second novel’s very title, Beautiful Losers, a seeming contradiction in terms joined together by the poet himself. Beautiful Losers was successful and quite controversial due to, amongst many other things, its strange pairing of sacred and profane. Cohen is able to see the beauty in an asshole (and lips too), but he can also see ugliness in a dove. His unique ability to yoke disparate, if not outright conflicting, binaries may very well be the key to his enduring success.

With Cohen’s penchant for dichotomy in mind, the venue for Tuesday night’s concert (Save On Foods Memorial Centre) was the perfect fit. While many would have undoubtedly preferred to have seen Cohen at one of Victoria’s many more beatific venues, there was something poignant in watching people eat popcorn, pound double fisted draught and, yes, shove hotdogs into cavernous, salivating mouths while waiting for Cohen to show up with his holy poetic anointing. When the lights dimmed and Cohen finally took the stage, many (if not all) were blessed.

He hit the stage running too, his suit and athleticism masking a well hidden fragility. For just over three and a half hours—Cohen joked, before going into his last song, that he and the band would stop at 11:30 exactly, regardless of whether or not the song was finished, in order to adhere to our town’s strict policy; thankfully, they bent the rules a bit and finished the song— Cohen walked, kneeled and bowed his way through a set that represented every stage of his forty year career. While Cohen stopped short of spraying the first four rows with a foam gun as Ozzy Osbourne did in the same venue just a few weeks prior, he managed to get his point across sans suds.

Cohen’s entire concert was an exploration of dichotomy. All of the musicians, Cohen included, were dressed in black and white. The show was divided into two distinct and very different sets. The band featured twin vocalists (literally), each one beautiful in her own distinct way. And Cohen, the man we all came to see, managed to play the roles of both front man and spectator throughout, often stepping out of the spotlight to allow various members of his band take over, sometimes for an entire song. Cohen looked on adoringly, happy to see his words issuing from the mouths and instruments of his long time bandmates, holding his hat to his heart as he watched them play; the front man doubles as spectator.

Cohen’s humility is unfathomable. He is the man we all came to see. He is the man who caused an inordinate amount of traffic in West Fernwood before and after the show. He is the man who has written a thousand poems, successfully seducing millions of women worldwide in the process. He is the one who, before even starting a successful musical career, wrote and published two novels. He’s our man. And yet, he so willingly and graciously shares the stage, introducing, in the most spontaneously poetic and long winded of ways, each member of his band by name. He didn’t stop there, either. He went on to thank the sound people, the light people and even the monitor dude. He thanked all of us too, several times, for coming (and after the brief intermission, he humbly said “thanks for coming back” as if genuinely surprised that we did). With Leonard Cohen, greatness and humility reside in the same, all-too-mortal, space.

And so, for three and a half long—but all too short—hours, we Victorians were able to catch a glimpse from both near (thanks to the massive screens which flanked the stage) and afar (if we chose to shift our gaze from screen to stage) Leonard Cohen, the legend and the man. After several gracious bows, Cohen slipped back into his secret life, leaving us to contemplate the powerful distillation of his inordinate wisdom which is too often ignored in our often frivolous cultural climate. And maybe all of this black/white, good/bad stuff is just a ruse, my roundabout take on Cohen’s indisputable genius. Maybe I’m the “dealer [who] wants you thinking, that it’s either black or white, [but] thank God it’s not that simple, in [Cohen’s] secret life.” Maybe. Maybe not.

February 19, 2009: Leonard Cohen performs at a sold-out Beacon Theatre.

 

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