Just back from a trip to London to see Phillip Glass’s setting of Leonard Cohen’s Book of Longing poems at the Barbican. I went to the Barbican at 5 to meet my friends and noticed as I approached about a dozen people gathered round in a huddle outside. I thought it was a group perhaps exchanging tickets or buying them from touts, but as I came up to them I realised that here was Leonard Cohen signing autographs on his way into the venue. He was short, thin and quite frail-looking, wearing an untrendy black raincoat over a light coloured suit. His hair wasn’t cropped as in recent photos but in a side parting, like his early photos, only white. He looked quite serious but every now and then the lopsided grin broke out and his eyes twinkled. When people thanked him for signing their book or CD, he would invariably thank them – ‘Thanks so much for coming. Thanks for buying the album.’ The fan in me was tempted to ask for an autograph, while another part of me wondered what for? (That’s not me in the photo!) But when people started asking him to stand with them for photos, and blocking his entry into the venue for yet another photo or autograph, he began to look first merely patient, then a little tired – like a man in his 70s – and I realised I could appreciate it without grabbing my bit of him too. Eventually he pulled back towards the door – the public entrance – waved, looked at everyone, thanked us all for coming and headed in. The small, rather stunned, crowed had the respect not to follow him in, but when I did go in five minutes later, I found him in the midst of a smaller group outside the artists’ entrance further into the complex. He quickly escaped inside.
The performance was preceded by an onstage interview with Cohen and Glass during which Cohen laughingly recalled a review in a London music magazine in 1970 – ‘Leonard Cohen is a boring old drone and should get the fuck back to Canada where he belongs’. They then had questions from the audience. Many of them sounded quite pretentious and Cohen took pains to reject being ‘claimed’ by a couple of questioners who introduced themselves as Buddhists and asked excruciating questions; ‘Actually I have to go on record as telling you I was never interested in Buddhism!’ said Cohen, saying he had only adopted the robes and ordination of a Zen monk in order to learn from Sasaki Roshi how to be ‘comfortable in the world’. If Roshi had been a Christian monk he’d have taken on those robes. Another, drawing on the title ‘Book of Longing’ asked him which he valued more, longing or fulfilment (yes, really). Cohen: ‘What does fulfilment have to offer?’ The only question that seemed to amuse or engage him was ‘Does Mr Cohen have any advice on how to grow old?’ Grinning widely, Cohen said ‘Oh yes, I can give you lots of advice, none of which comes to mind at the moment!’
The music was accessible and enjoyable, although it felt uneasy hearing Cohen’s words, some of which he’d already recorded as songs, sung in the careful enunciation of classically-trained singers instead of the man’s laconic drawl. I enjoyed the instrumental passages most, particularly the cello, violin and sax solo passages, and several pieces which played behind recordings of Cohen reading the poems.
Then it was back to my friends’ flat for a some beers and songs. At one point my friend A said ‘Do you realise we’ve been alternating Leonard Cohen and Norman Lamont songs and they hang together pretty well?’ High praise indeed, but he was (a) a very good friend (b) a good few beers into the morning.