The Time I Cried At A Leonard Cohen Show

Photo courtesy of Michaela Bekken

I grew up steeped in the poetry and songs of Leonard Cohen. I was always mesmerized by the world of his music, longing to taste the “tea and oranges that came all the way from China.” At the age of seven, I was introduced to this magician for the first time, and I used to wonder: how does a single brain have enough space for so many words and so much music? To me, Leonard was a word wizard and that raspy, raw voice drew me in every time. There was an aura about him, something that I couldn’t quite pin down. Sometimes I was haunted by his ripe words and I wanted to linger long enough to get to know a fraction of the man behind the fedora. I could listen to a song a dozen times, and still there was another layer to uncover. He was mysterious, yet tender. He was a wise sage, yet playful and witty. After a while, I started to feel as though I had come to know him. With his Canadian roots I hoped that one day I would get to witness him live. As I embarked on my own journey as a songwriter, I turned to Leonard’s poetic technique, evocative storytelling and unique melodies as a blueprint for what was possible.

One day my mum told me a story of the time she visited the Island of Hydra in Greece. She was travelling with her friends in April of 1975. On a sunny afternoon they were visiting the sea, sitting at the wharf while watching locals play backgammon. Suddenly, a young man approached their table requesting a light for his cigarette. My mum’s friend immediately recognized the glimmer in his eye...you guessed it, there was Leonard in the flesh. Sun-kissed flesh. Eventually it was revealed that everyone had roots in Montreal and so a cigarette light turned to an evening of illuminated conversation. My mum’s friend explained that she was a songwriter, and in need of a guitar while abroad. Being the gentleman (and woman-magnet) that he was, Leonard graciously offered her his nylon string to borrow. Leonard was on retreat in Greece, and had plenty more guitars to choose from. He invited everyone back to his place, where they sat in his kitchen surrounded by brick walls, open windows, sea breeze and homemade bread and chicken soup off the stove. My mum describes being so in awe of the unfolding events that she was caught speechless. She recalls watching Leonard flirt with her friend, and being in disbelief that she was sipping soup made by Leonard Cohen.

On the fourth of December 2012, almost 20,000 people gathered in Toronto’s Air Canada Centre to worship, weep, laugh and to bask in the world of Leonard Cohen. My mum and I had been counting down the days for this event. Leonard was nearly 78 at the time, but the way he greeted his adoring fans you wouldn’t have thought he was a day over 30. Limber, lean, leprechaun-like and suave as ever in his black suit, fedora and shiny shoes. The classic Cohen look. He ran on stage with legs that carried him as if he was floating on air. His long fingers holding the microphone with a gentle strength, and perhaps a touch of arthritis. His eyes were cast into shadow by the brim of his hat. Suddenly he looked up into the vast space and his slight smile was illuminated. Perched in the top seating section, my mum and I felt the distance dissolve. It was as if Leonard was in arm’s reach. He seemed so at home amongst this sea of faces, he welcomed us with warmth and wit. That was the night a colossal stadium transformed into a temple, an intimate tower of song.

Soon the booming applause turned to silence as Cohen set the stage with “Dance Me to the End of Love”. Gracefully he lowered himself to his knees, as if praying on the rug while he delivered “Bird on a Wire”. The cabaret-style melodies were woven together by gentle high-hats, sensual bass lines and a fiddle, adding a flirtatious zest. The nine-piece band played as if they shared one body, and Leonard was the ringmaster. Each song guided us into a different state of mind, memories flooding in for both my mum and I. He seemed to transcend human form, and yet was so deeply real. He whispered with a slight growl, “The older you get, the more lonely you become, and the more love you need...There ain’t no cure for love.”

When the time came for “Hallelujah” the audience was primed and ready. The silence was so palpable that you could almost feel it surrounding you like a veil. I took my mum’s hand and we exchanged a glowing glance as the guitar progression touched our ears. “I heard there was a secret chord..” The silence broke for a brief moment with feverish applause, people rose to their feet, then together we landed in a meditative stillness. The people in our row became our neighbours, as we joined voices and the entire stadium sang in harmony through the chorus. We shared this brief moment in time where no matter who you were, no matter what seat you could or couldn’t afford, we were all together in a shared reality. Heartbeats synchronizing and voices melding into one resounding “Hallelujah.”

Long-time collaborators of Cohen’s, The Webb Sisters and Sharon Robinson chimed in with their gospel-like harmonies. I remember the goosebumps cloaking my body, and the tears flowing through me from the depth of my belly. This song that I had heard hundreds of times, this song sung by hundreds of artists was suddenly new to my ears. Landing with fresh mystery and an undiscovered depth, I closed my eyes and let the collective voice wash over me like the medicine I didn’t know I needed. My mum and I wept and sang together, feeling closer and more aligned for having shared this sacred moment. It was as if we were sitting in Leonard’s kitchen, enjoying homecooked songs. The word-wizard, the musical magician that I worshipped became the human that I will continue to admire. There are times when I pick up my guitar and think of his chapped hands holding his acoustic on stage that night. He caressed the strings with an intimacy I will never forget. I imagine Leonard is hanging out in a place where the drinks are cold, the songs are flowing and there is a fedora for every occasion.

- Michaela Bekenn, singer/songwriter