Late But Great – An Irishman’s Diary about Leonard Cohen’s Indian Summer

Photograph: Diego Tuson AFP/Getty Images

Photograph: Diego Tuson AFP/Getty Images

 

The late Leonard Cohen was not much associated with the concept of “crack”, in the Irish sense of that term. But as people who attended any of his glorious, late-career concerts here will know, he had a highly developed sense of it, even so.

His on-stage patter was full of humour, usually at his own expense. One of his favourite jokes played on a life-long reputation for gloominess. In a grave voice he would describe how he had spent decades studying deeply in all the major religions and philosophies.  

Then he would add, just as gloomily: “But cheerfulness kept breaking through.” It always got a laugh.

Still, it was in a different sense that the word “crack” came to define his work and worldview, via the great song Anthem, with its message about the impossibility of perfection and the enlightenment that imperfect things offer. “There is a crack in everything,” he sang. “That’s how the light gets in.” 

Comeback

The last decade of his life seemed to be an accidental parable on this theme. I don’t mean to encourage financial fraud, naturally, but had Cohen’s manager not robbed him of his pension fund, circa 2005, he would surely not have made his extraordinary comeback in old age, doing world tours and recording new albums into his late 70s and beyond.

Like thousands of people, I would therefore never have seen him perform live, which in the event he did, astonishingly, on the other side of my back wall in Kilmainham during several extraordinary evenings in 2008.  

As he told us then, it had been 15 years since his previous tour, when he was a mere 60 – “just a crazy kid with a dream”. I thought that would be the first and last time I saw him play.

Balmy

And the occasion was so (nearly) perfect, from the brilliance of the musicians to the balmy weather, that I was slightly annoyed when, like the No 10 bus, he was back again shortly afterwards. 

But I subsequently saw him being equally transcendent on a damp evening in Sligo, where the concert could have been improved only if WB Yeats had joined him for one of the encores. Then, a few years later, he played my back garden again, so I could hardly not go to that one too. And imperfection be damned, if there was a crack in any of those relentlessly polished performances, I didn’t notice it.

Speaking of walls, it seems a little ominous that Cohen should depart this world now, in the week his adopted country elected the would-be Mexican-wall-builder president. Such timing, from a man who sang “I’ve seen the future, baby, it is murder”, is not reassuring.

Then again, that apocalyptic song (and the 1992 album, also called The Future) was written against the backdrop of a wall falling, in Berlin.

And unlike most of the world, Cohen wasn’t entirely sanguine about the event. As if to confirm his image as the gloomy one at the party, he foresaw “a lot of suffering” as the outcome of the wall’s collapse.

Ideals

In the meantime, almost as contrarily, he turned his attentions homewards with a song called Democracy is Coming (to the USA). Which might have sounded satirical in the circumstances, but was actually a statement of faith in the US as the ultimate laboratory of democratic ideals: “It’s coming to America first/The cradle of the best and of the worst.” 

Cohen wasn’t nearly as prolific a songwriter as Bob Dylan of others of his vintage.

But as somebody once said, he did average one really good song every year, or near enough. This meant that, by the time he did those late concerts, he could play for three or four hours, with nothing but classics.

Ballad

For this and other reasons, he probably wasn’t tempted to reprise his old cover version of Kevin Barry during any of his latter-day Irish performances, although he really did once sing that ballad in concert, in the early 1970s.  

It’s among the odder things you can now listen to on YouTube, not least because he describes it as being written “in 1916”, when, as we know, the “lad of 18 summers” was only 14.

Historical errors apart, Cohen really did sound rather gloomy back then. But he seems to have lightened up with age. He survived 82 summers himself in the end, and I’m very grateful to have seen him during several of the later, Indian ones, when he was still producing flowers.