Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2017
Images from the Internet
Leonard Cohen: The Live Broadcast Sessions 1985-1993
Go Faster Records / MVD Visual
118 minutes, 2016
When Leonard Cohen died in November 2016, he was a Canadian, certified Zen monk and orthodox Jew who often sang songs using Christian symbolism, and he left the world a better place. There are many who call him “Canada’s Bob Dylan,” but honestly I would say it was the other way around, and Dylan was “American’s Cohen,” even though Dylan achieved fame first. Sure, Dylan has a way with words, and he’s now won a Nobel Prize for his songs/poetry, but if there was any justice, Cohen’s poems would be more recognized as they were more striking, lyrical and, structured. Dylan likes to rhyme lots of words together, but Cohen built his words into a tower of song, if you will.
However, one thing they definitely have in common is that their voices could be considered less than – err – culturally standard. Dylan’s is generally high and whiney, where Cohen’s is a low rumble, like a storm coming over the horizon.
I came to be a Cohen fan late, after his seminal Various Positions LP (1984), still my favorite set of his tunes, perhaps rivaled only by his Best of collection. I feel extremely lucky to have had the chance to see him perform live a couple of years ago, during his final tour. Sure I sat towards the rear, and yet it was a magical evening.
For this DVD, they compiled some live footage from European television during three tours. Being the day of VHS (or most likely PAL), the images have been significantly cleaned up (or taken from the master tape), though are still a bit grainy – though better than the clip below – but the sound is clear.
The first four cuts are from June 1985, at the Kalvøyafestivalen (Kalvoya Island Festival), in Sandvika, Norway. The 26-minute section starts off with a doo-wop tune (of all things) called “Memories,” from Death of a Ladies Man (1977). On stage, he is smoking a cigarette, puffing during the musical interludes of the songs. The last few albums were nearly whispered, and I wonder how much of that had to do with his heavy leaning on ciggy-butts at that time, because while his voice may not be the prettiest, he has some strong lung power and hits some notes at full volume. Also interesting is how he uses 1950s wrappings to discuss the possibilities of seeing his date’s naked body, or vice versa. “Heart With No Companion” is from Various Positions, a country-tinged tune (there is more than one on this release), mixed with a militaristic marching rhythm. It’s a tricky song because the verbiage sounds negative (e.g., “I sing this for the captain, whose ship has not been built”), but it’s actually about sending love to those who are suffering.
“The Story of Isaac” is from 1969’s Songs From a Room. It tells the Old Testament story of Abraham taking his son up the mountain to sacrifice to the new God to prove his devotion, but it’s taken from the perspective of the young Isaac. The set ends here, and Cohen leaves the stage to come back for the encore, with the apt “I Tried to Leave You,” from New Skin For the Old Ceremony, in 1974. Thematically it’s similar to Paul Simon’s “Overs,” in that the topic is the failure of a relationship breakup. This song goes on for a meandering 10 minutes as Cohen riffs commentary while introducing the band. Honestly, I was getting impatient after about the halfway point of the intros.
The second set, from May 1988, was also recorded in Norway, this time at the Oslo Konserthus (Oslo Concert House). This section is 50 minutes long, but also intersperses short interview segments; more on that later. This was aired as a complete program titled “Take This Waltz,” and it is shown here complete, including the full end credits, I’m happy to say.
The first cut is the powerful and heavily orchestrated “First We Take Manhattan,” a nice way to start off. It comes from the 1988 I’m Your Man record. The band here is tight, and the two women doing the background vocals are killer synced. This is one of the weirder songs in Cohen’s canon, as it is more opaque than most of his others as far as figuring out just what the significance is, and it has been discussed many times. It’s a great one and oft quotes (well, paraphrased), but I still don’t know what “First we take Manhattan / Then we take Berlin” means.
It’s also worth noting the stark difference between the previous 1985 show and this one. Only three years later and there is a cognitive shift going on. The first is still in the tail end of Cohen’s folk-singer-songwriter phase, but this is a turning point into full tilt mode. He’s mostly put down the guitar and began in earnest his trademark way to grasping the microphone cord; his look is also more stylized (which he would keep to the end, though no hat yet) including the loss of his trademark 5 o’clock shadow; his sound is more honed and pre-arranged, and his use of a wider orchestration is in play.
This is even true with some of the older songs, such as the next, “Joan of Arc,” from 1971’s Songs of Love and Hate. Here we are presented with an imagined conversation between Joan and the fire that would envelop her. It’s a brilliant piece that I’ve always liked from the first time I heard it. Here he shares the vocals ably with Julie Christensen (of the California alt-country punk band, The Divine Horsemen!), supported by Perla Batella. It’s an odd love song followed by one of an extreme level of lust, “I’m Your Man,” the title track off the 1988 album. Parts of it have the lyrical tone of Tom Lehrer’s “Masochism Tango,” or a list of possibilities like the Temptation’s “Can’t Get Next to You,” but with Cohen’s basso slow burn in sharps and flats with his patterned growl, it’s way more sensual.
Actually, it makes sense that this would be followed by “Ain’t No Cure for Love,” also from I’m Your Man. If I may digress for a second, between each songs are interviews by Vera Kvaal, who hosted the “TopPop” show at the time, from which I believe this was taken. Cohen discusses his writing, his mother, and his life, among topics. While it’s all very interesting, it kind of takes away from the music. For some songs that’s literally true because we only get to see an excerpts, starting while the song is in progress after the interview clip, and then it cuts away a few times after during the tune. Let me say, sighhhh.
Next, since he’s doing love songs, it’s time for an anti-love one, so he picks up his acoustic black Gibson tell does “Chelsea Hotel #2,” from New Skin…, which is about his brief fling with Janis Joplin. It’s a slow, explicit ballad that is touching and sad, like Harry Chapin’s “Taxi,” of a love that never grew beyond the physical. It’s full of remorse and nostalgia.
For the first of two times on the DVD, is his most covered song, “Hallelujah,” from Various Positions. While it’s a great number, for me it’s overplayed to the point where I’m getting a bit weary of it, when played by another than Cohen, surprisingly. Here, though, they only show part of what’s known as the “profane” version of the lyrics. This is followed by the quasi-doo-wop influenced paean to music, “Tower of Song,” from the I’m Your Man collection. With just the vocal back-up and Cohen on Technics electric piano with a pre-set rhythm keeping time, he gives us a love song not to a person, but to what he’s given his soul (music). Well, that’s how I interpret the lyrics, with music being anthropomorphic in a similar way as Chuck Berry did with a car in “Maybellene.” He finishes this segment with “Take This Waltz,” again from I’m Your Man.
The final 43-minute grouping is from May 1993, recorded at the Palau Municipal d’Esports, in Barcelona, Spain. It starts off strong with one of his then-later songs, “Closing Time,” off of his 1992 album, The Future. Again, this is a complete program that aired on Spanish television that they titled after his opening tune. It says something about the man that nearly 10 years later, he is still being backed vocally by Christensen and Batella. As for Cohen, his hair if definitely graying but his voice is still holding strong, with perhaps a bit more bass to it.
While the previous two shows were visually cleaned up digitally, here you can see a bit of the noise of the PAL transfer as lines will occasionally break out here and there. It’s definitely a fuzzier image than the earlier clips, but it’s also pretty clear relatively, especially when the lights are their brightest. Plus all the songs are captioned in Spanish, and the sound is still great.
Next up is the whispy and whispery “The Sisters of Mercy,” from Cohen’s first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, in 1967. A tribute to prostitutes, I found the original recorded song a bit “tinny” on the vocals, but here they are quite a bit smoother as his voice has aged. The next tune is also a ballad, from I’m You’re Man, “I Can’t Forget.”
This time when we hear “Hallelujah,” we get most of the song without interruption, in all its (if you’ll pardon the pun) glory. It starts a couple of stanzas in, with “Baby, I’ve been here before…” and I don’t understand why they don’t just play the whole (again the pun) damn thing. His voice definitely has more growl on the powerful parts. Following is the repeated, lovely “I Tried to Leave You.” And again, it’s a long version, as Cohen introduced the band as each member plays a solo.
The final cut is “Democracy,” from The Future. This is a sarcastically timely song at the moment, especially since his death the day before the American election, as the line “Democracy is coming to the USA.” We can only hope that it will return soon, but I digress. This is one of the more powerful songs from his later period, in my opinion, so it is a good choice to close out the collection.
Leonard Cohen is sorely missed. I can honestly say that we own every one of his records (in various forms), though there are some I know better than others. If you are curious to know what you are missing, this is a nice collection through his work (well, until 1992, or course) to give you some idea of why he is mourned so deeply by so many. His death has definitely been a crack in our musical history, but a DVD like this is how the light gets in. RIP, Leonard, and thank you.
1985 Set List:
Heart With No Companion
Story of Isaac
I Tried to Leave You
1988 Set List:
First We Take Manhattan
Joan of Arc
I’m Your Man
Ain’t No Cure For Love (excerpt)
Chelsea Hotel #2
Tower of Song
Take This Waltz
1993 Set List:
Sisters of Mercy
I Can’t Forget
I Tried to Leave You
From the 1988 set in Norway: