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Notes From an Evening With Leonard Cohen Part I

Notes From an Evening With Leonard Cohen Part I

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Published by Cole Louison
New York Times and GQ contributor Cole Louison ventures to Radio City for a sold-out performance by a 74-year-old legend.
New York Times and GQ contributor Cole Louison ventures to Radio City for a sold-out performance by a 74-year-old legend.

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Published by: Cole Louison on May 30, 2009
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Notes from An Evening with Leonard Cohen By Cole Louison LEONARD COHEN MAY 16 AND 17 SOLD OUT!

is in lighted letters that curve around the bottom of the Radio City Music Hall sign and go down 50th street. A few blocks down, David Hyde Pierce is introducing his husband at a gay pride rally with a really loud PA. A guy in a tuxedo wears a sign that says enter down the block. Across 50th, scalpers with cell phones face police, selling back row tickets for $100. The line is moving briskly between the barricade and wall, past a nice big goateed guy in a doorman’s coat who asks how we are while he looks at our tickets and points us towards the curtained doors. Pretty soon we’re all under the sign and its light bulb ceiling and moving through the wall like an hourglass. This is my first time here. Walking in it’s perhaps easy understand why my seat cost what it did and why they sold every single one, twice. The walls are goldish paper and have the same pigment in the window curtains. The carpet is thick and reddish and there’s a little ticket booth with an iced glass sign lit from somewhere by a tiny green light. The air feels rich and the people look famous. This is about six feet inside of Radio City. People take the subject of Leonard Cohen so personally that it’s doom to try any kind of review of his work or even life. But if you don’t know much about him or see why he’s a big deal, you might listen to his records or ask your Dad, or Mom. He was a recognized poet before he was a famous singer slash songwriter and has made as many books as he has records and at 74 continues to write, perform, explore, and live. He’s a devout Jew and a Zen Buddhist. When Allen Ginsburg asked him how he mixed the two and he said “no conflict.” He’s lived in Montreal, Nashville, New York, Hydra, and Los Angeles. Five of his years in LA were spent in a mountaintop monastery, where he wore a monk’s robe and a shaved head (but still smoked) and during which his manager Kelley Lynch stole all of his money, one reason—he admits—he’s back on tour for the first time in 15 years.

Just before his tour started a month ago, Cohen sat down with the New York Times. The guy nasally asked him about his Zen practice and being on the road. Here’s part of his response, in a sanded baritone you just want to keep hearing:
There’s a similarity in the quality of the daily life. There’s a sense of purpose. I don’t mean purpose with a capital P. I mean just . . . focus. It’s very hard to focus, generally speaking, in one’s life. So there’s a very specific focus. Because of that focus a lot of extraneous material is discarded without any effort. So you tend to sleep carefully, because you need to sleep. You need to eat carefully, because you need your body in a certain kind of shape. You tend to exercise with a certain kind of modest regularity because you’ve just got to be able to do that three-hour show.

The lobby of Radio City is a huge high oval with balconies and heavy curtains that hang 60 feet from the ceiling and stop an inch over the carpet. The left wall is mostly a mirror that reflects everything in a golden tint and the right is bright old paneled wood with 10 foot spaces left open for the second and third mezzanine people to look down. Every window has leaners. The top row of windows touch a ceiling that’s covered with gold paper. The walls seem to bend towards the other side of the room, with the curved red stairway and one heavenly golden mural that deserves its own story. People are sitting all the way up the stairs. No one’s telling them not to. My ticket’s for the first mezzanine, seat 412. The seating people wear vests and bow ties and have tiny scuba flashlights with soft green bulbs. There’s a tiny outlined black plaque at the front center with 412 in gold, held to the wood with two tiny tacks. The wall in front of us is like two feet high with a wood rail edged in leather that feels good to rest your chin on. The second and third mezzanine are each farther back so from here you don’t know they’re there. Seat 412 is the center seat in the front row on the foremost crest above the house. It’s hard to look at any one thing but it’s also hard not to just keep looking at the curtain. It looks like stone and whirling sand and water in the wind. It spans the whole stage and disappears maybe 100 feet up at the top of the house’s last arch wall. It’s like we’re at the back of a giant shell. There are piles where the curtain’s fabric touches the stage. It breaches liquidly, fluidly out across the floor. It pours and billows and rises and falls, like how a canyon looks from an airplane. The gap in the curtain is maybe a third of its whole size, and where the stage is set in black.

From here the spotlight on the centermost rug is a little more like an oval and aligned with the pale black kick drum and the gong hanging over the drum set. Crew keep coming out and touching the instruments, all wearing hats like the one Cohen’s going to wear. People seem to have cameras though the ticket said not to. It’s 7:57. The murmur’s mixed with chatter. I just want to look at that curtain. The bass is far left and red. A fat five-string you know they’ll turn up. Farther back on a riser is a keyboard facing us and interlocking with a B4 facing the drums. The drums are centered back on the highest riser and have the best view of the house. Further right is an assortment of amps and guitars. Sort of in front of that is what looks like a black bar or table with a microphone. Next to the table are the horns. Between the horns and closer to the crowd is a red velvet chair and two 12string instruments that look very old. Tall sets of screens eek in from either side and enclose the back half of the stage setting. A single-file row of Lite-Brite lights gleam at the bottom of each screen. Somewhere are some much more serious lights because the whole thing looks like an embryonic autumnal sun setting at the bottom of a well. The $300 seats are half full. There’s a flash from the floor. EX1IT is off to the right of the floor and then there’s a curved carpet staircase going up to the lobby. More than half of the phones are iPhones. We’re full up here. Hanging centered over the stage is a long black board with four squares of lights that hit us as the band appears and Cohen runs out to center stage.

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