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Pop Music Review : Leonard Cohen: Mainly, A Man Of His Words

June 11, 1985|ROBERT HILBURN | Times Pop Music Critic

Leonard Cohen, a songwriter and poet who examines despair and guilt to achieve understanding and hope, is pop's patron saint of those who consider themselves sensitive searchers.

St. Leonard made his first local appearance in 10 years Sunday night at the Wiltern Theatre and the faithful sat in rapt attention, eager to hear songs--like "Bird on the Wire" and "Suzanne"--whose lyrics they have known for years by heart.

There were times when the sense of audience devotion was a bit much. You got the feeling that half of the nearly 2,000 fans in the cathedral-sized theater would have genuflected if Cohen did nothing more than read the Western Avenue bus schedule.

This reverence has to be heady for a performer--and there's a side of Cohen that invites it. He sings his generally dark songs in a monotone style while wearing a black suit and strumming a black acoustic guitar. He also knows how to tell witty, disarming stories that personalize the songs in ways that never destroy their (or his) mystique.

But Cohen, too, knows that fan worship can be suffocating, and he tried repeatedly Sunday to step down from the pedestal. When someone finally broke the audience silence between songs by loudly requesting a number, Cohen's face brightened and he said, "Ah . . . a human voice! Speak more. "

He also demystified himself by singing a version of "Tennessee Waltz," the old country standard, with such innocence and longing that he showed that you can find honesty and truth in songs far from his own "poetic" tradition. In fact, Cohen even blended the two realms by adding a verse of his own that carried the song's mood to a more sophisticated conclusion.

And he closed the main portion of the concert with the unlikely "Memories," his rowdy, good-natured rocker about sexual anxiety at a high school prom. It's amusing to think of St. Leonard, a man of much culture and reserve, being stuck on a high school campus and having to deal with ordinary teen-age concerns. Even he laughed when a fan asked him the name of his high school. "Westmount," he replied proudly.

Mostly, however, Cohen centered on the songs that helped establish him--along with Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, both of whom were in the audience--as one of the pioneers in bringing a poetic sensibility to rock.

But his strength isn't merely in appealing or seductive rhymes. Like Dylan, Cohen lives up to the integrity and obligation suggested by the term artist. Rejecting commercial compromises, he pursues the path that he articulates in song.

His message: You must be willing to face solitude and failure if you are going to find wisdom and comfort.

"Bird on the Wire," which was the opening number Sunday, is one of Cohen's most popular numbers because it romanticizes the mistakes and setbacks that are bound to accompany any meaningful search. Sample lyric: "Like a bird on the wire/Like a drunk in a midnight choir/I have tried in my way to be free."

Since writing that song in the late '60s, Cohen has addressed the theme repeatedly, alternating between spiritual, romantic and artistic quests. The tension in his music comes from the conflict between the selfish, frightened side of man and the compassionate, dreamer instincts.

It was fitting that Cohen made his return to live shows at the Wiltern, a marvelous old movie theater that was almost destroyed a few years ago before a renovation project saved it. With its wonderfully spacious interior and marvelous acoustics, the Wiltern is now a terrific addition to the local pop concert scene.

Cohen, too, was all but written off by record companies in this country. Though his songs have been recorded by dozens of artists--from such '60s folk figures as Judy Collins to contemporary post-punk heroes like Nick Cave, he has never been a big seller here, and giant Columbia Records gave up on him years ago. His latest album, "Various Positions," was released by the small Passport label.

But Cohen was given a hero's welcome Sunday as he sang both his early and recent songs. The material wasn't uniform. Tunes like "The Gypsy's Wife" and "The Law" reflect little of the captivating vision of his best songs. There is also a sameness in his simple, straightforward melodies.

Cohen did a good job, however, in overcoming the latter drawback as he used his five-piece band to give the songs varied musical shadings, sometimes spotlighting country-flavored steel-guitar or female backing vocals to add color.

But the music and arrangements are a secondary item with Cohen. He is mainly a man of his words--and the heart of his material is among the most affecting in all of folk and rock. The most heartening aspect of the evening was that the rewards weren't only in the oldies.

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