Laughing Len Live

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Leonard Cohen Live from Macleans Magazine on Vimeo.

I blame Mel Gibson for the loss of my phone. I was due in Southport yesterday lunchtime, for , a conference on censorship that is ending as I type. It was a big day, as I was seeing Leonard Cohen in the evening, and I woke up early. Failing to go back to sleep, I thought ‘sod it, I’ll get to Southport early and see Mel Gibson’ (no, not that Mel Gibson, I mean the UK academic who specialises in graphic novels). So I got on the Manchester train, and kept shifting my stuff on and off a seat so that people could sit down. I wasn’t paying too much attention because I was trying and failing to grab a bit more sleep. It was only when I got to Southport and went to text the organiser that I was there early that I realised my phone had gone. It had slipped out of its custom pocket at the front of my jacket which, in my tired state, I’d forgotten to button.

To add insult to injury, when I got to the conference, Mel Gibson had cancelled. But it was a good do. I met academics and librarians from all over the English speaking world and had a chat with US YA novelist Barry Lyga. Then I did my bit for an extra 15 minutes because lunch had been moved forward. I started by talking about Leonard Cohen, and how I’d been shocked when he changed the word ‘anal’ to ‘casual’ on a live BBC performance sixteen years ago. I thought the BBC must have told him to, but then a friend told me that he’d done the same thing in concert, so maybe he’d censored himself, thinking that the words (first line, second verse of ‘The Future’) could be construed as anti-gay. In my opinion, the new wording compounded that misreading and, moreover, didn’t scan. Then I went on to discuss self censorship and the age-ranging stuff I talk about in the post below, before giving an account of attempts that have been made to censor my novels. There were lots of questions and it was an enjoyable talk to do.

In Manchester, I had a plate of great gnocci at Carluccio’s, a stone’s throw from the Opera House. Our seats, while in the the gallery, were much better than I expected: neat the front, not too high and pretty close to the stage. It’s an intimate venue and has the best acoustics of any I’ve been to (only Birmingham Symphony Hall comes close). Leonard took the stage at 7.30 prompt. I’d avoided reviews but my expectations weren’t high. His last album and scattered appearances suggested that he didn’t have much voice left. How wrong this turned out to be. He must have had some training because, at 74, he sounded terrific, singing with a slightly different register to when I heard him in the seventies – a bit gruffer, sure – yet more powerful, more committed.

The songs were mostly from his later albums, which suited me fine, not having seen them done live, with a few early classics, like a superlative ‘Sisters Of Mercy’, thrown in. ‘The Future’ came second, and he’d changed the words again. Now the line is ‘give me crack and careless sex’, which not only scans but also more clearly articulates what I take to be the original line’s intention. Seeing him from above emphasised his stagecraft, the masterful use of the Fedora hat for expression and the theatricality of the feline, devilish pose he takes in some of the songs. The musicians and arrangements were as good as any Cohen show I’ve seen or heard. The whole show lasted three hours, with only a fifteen minute break. The audience was more concentrated and more rapturous than at any other gig I’ve been to. Astounding.

The last train back to Nottingham went three minutes before the show ended, so I’ve come home by a circuitous route. After the show I went with friends to the Derbyshire village of Parwich (which some readers may know from my novel, Denial) where we stayed up until two talking about what we’d just seen, the consummate performance, the self deprecating style, the passion he put into the show’s highlight, where he reclaimed ‘Hallelujah’ from all the cover versions. Most of all, we talked about the humour which has always been the defining aspect of Cohen shows, both in the banter and the songs – particularly, last night, in numbers like ‘Tower of Song’ and ‘I Tried To Leave You’. Which is why I call him ‘laughing Len’. Thanks to ‘Oscar Wilde’ for the photo from the Toronto show. The Macleans interview is worth watching, and the full, fascinating transcript is here.

It’s been a stressful few days since my last post, for reasons too tedious to go into, so a slow journey home suited me fine, allowing me to unwind. The only bus from Parwich went at 8.30 in the morning and the bus from Ashbourne to Derby is only every four hours, so it took a little planning. I got a lift to Ashbourne where I caught a bus at two, then a slow wind through the countryside in time to catch a train to Nottingham. I walked through the city centre, stopping in at Selectadisc and Page 45, where I picked up the latest ‘Young Liars’ and the final issue of ‘Local’ before hopping on one of the Routemaster buses that have recently appeared (literally hopped on, I mounted the running board while it was stopped in traffic, to the amusement of various passengers) that brought me back to Sherwood.

And, while I was sad to miss Mel, I won’t be missing my phone for long. After three phone calls this morning, I tracked it down at a left luggage office in Liverpool, and it should be posted back to me on Monday. So here I am, relaxed and ready for the weekend, so relaxed that I’ve only just got round to checking what happened in the football last night. Scolari seems to have discovered the curse of Chelsea. Next legend? Lou Reed giving the penultimate performance of his masterpiece Berlin, this coming Thursday. I’m looking forward to it immensely, but there’s no way it can top last night.

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