An Irishman's Diary


PRIOR TO 2008, I had never suspected any similarity between Leonard Cohen and the No 10 bus. But after waiting years until then for a chance to see him to perform live, we are now being treated to his concerts with a frequency that borders on embarrassing.

And there was I, on a June evening in Kilmainham two years ago, thinking that what made the occasional special – apart from the wonderful music, the pristine sound, the atmospheric setting, the balmy moon-lit night, etc – was that this would probably be a last-in-a-lifetime experience.

It became fashionable for a while afterwards to claim (especially of the Saturday evening, when it didn’t rain) that it had been the greatest concert you’d ever seen: or variations on that theme. Which was partly true – it really was a great show.

But rarity added to its street value. As did the deep-seated human need to let friends who had not been there know just what they’d missed: especially once it was too late for them to do anything about it. This latter cause was helped by the almost-certain knowledge that, at 75, Cohen had been performing here for the last time.

Thus the high-point of those concerts was his song If It Be Your Will, with its prayer-like sentiment of resignation: “If it be your will/That I speak no more/And my voice be still/As it was before/I will speak no more/I shall abide until/I am spoken for/If it be your will”.

The moment was all the more touching because Cohen merely spoke the words, and then left the singing to “the sublime Webb sisters”, as he calls his duo of backing vocalists. In recent concerts he has used the Webbs’ soaring, angelic voices to offset his own, ever-huskier tones. And that night it was as if, through them, he was bidding farewell to live performance.

So it was slightly disconcerting when, only months afterwards, he was back in Dublin for another series of gigs, this time at the O2. The price of shares in the earlier concerts fell sharply at the news (and was further weakened by his “Live in London” album which revealed, shockingly, that all his on-stage quips – the ones we thought spontaneous and meant only for us – were repeated everywhere).

Even so, the new concerts were indoor, and there was nothing unusual about the setting. Allowing for the risk that this really would be his last time here, you could get away with missing them and then gently patronising those who, having belatedly caught up with the Lenny-live experience, raved about how good it was. That was my plan, anyway, and it worked quite well.

But now he’s returning yet again, this time with a Yeatsian twist. Never mind “The Second Coming”: his Lissadell House appearance will be the third in two years. Yet it also threatens to seriously up the ante on Kilmainham. Given the poet’s acknowledged influence on the singer, a 180-year-old big house in Yeats Country definitely trumps a 320-year-old military hospital as a Cohen concert venue.

And it’s not just any big house. Although he may not be officially billed as a support act, the ghost of WB will loom heavily over a setting of which he wrote: “The light of evening, Lissadell/Great windows open to the south/Two girls in silk kimonos, both/beautiful, one a gazelle.”

Speaking of which, if Countess Markiewicz and Eva Gore Booth (the gazelle) are not on actual backing vocals, they’ll be present in spirit too. I predict the sublime Webb sisters will be wearing kimonos. Either way, the evening promises to be something special.

In fairness to Cohen, he did anticipate his fans’ current dilemma at those first concerts: when he quoted a friend and Buddhist teacher, now 90-something, who liked to joke: “Excuse me for not dying.”

In a similar vein, Cohen also referred to the 15-year gap since his previous tour, when he had been “just a 60-year-old kid with a crazy dream”.

But even if, unlike some of his contemporaries, Cohen is not still singing about what it’s like to be a teenager, he does illustrate the dramatically increased longevity of 1960s rock-stars. They used to die at about 27. Now, thanks to much improved diets and lifestyles, some are threatening to achieve immortality.

This, given their tendency tour every year, means fans have to be much more selective about seeing them. In which spirit, I tell myself that it might rain on Cohen’s July concert. Or that “the light of evening, Lissadell”, might be occluded by an Atlantic depression that will give the Webb sisters laryngitis.

But somehow it has the look of an event that you could miss only at the risk of being gently patronised for years afterwards. Luckily, I have a whole weekend to wrestle with the question of whether its worth paying up to €115 for a ticket.

Which seems a bit on the pricey side, even allowing that the ghost of WB Yeats probably doesn’t come cheap.