Getting Back To The Cat In The Hat
This shot of Leonard Cohen rehearsing for his upcoming World Tour in his Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes3 is intriguing and even a tad mysterious.
How, for example, does he look so good in that hat? Why does he look like an illustration for the dictionary definition of “dapper” wearing a double breasted jacket while 97% of the men that don them (including Dave Letterman, who wears one almost every night on his show) resemble nothing else as much as a corpse being fitted for a shroud? Why is he fingering a keyboard when he typically plays a guitar, if he plays any instrument, in his concerts? Why does he have only one hand on the keyboard? Is the one hand in the pocket stance essential as a component of the not quite insouciant slouch?
And what the heck is with that gong in the background?
Now, those queries can be answered.
The Fedora And Spiffy Attire
Nonetheless, the natty look produces, as is often noted in concert reviews, an atypical stage presence for a card-carrying member of the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame and enhances in Cohen’s dignified stage persona.
Even more striking is the effect created when Cohen’s fashion is reflected in the dress of his onstage companions. I’ve previously noted that I am especially taken by Russell Baillie’s description of Cohen’s band and back-up singers in Review: Leonard Cohen at Vector Arena:6
Somehow, Cohen’s ensemble, a sort of gypsy-soul rock-noir cabaret outfit dressed, as was their fedora-ed double-breasted leader like particularly stylish members of the French Resistance, were able to shrink the vastness of the venue down to the intimate scale of the music.
I was, in fact, inspired to put together a montage of Leonard Cohen’s musicians that can be viewed at Leonard Cohen’s Gypsy-Soul Rock-Noir Cabaret.
While certainly not a recent addition to the Cohen closet, the consistently worn fedora has become a handy and emblematic prop for Cohen …
… and a symbol that, in the minds of fans, is far more readily associated with the Leonard Cohen: World Tour 2008-2009 than is the official insignia. Of course, that problem could be fixed …
Similarly, the keyboard itself is nothing new, having first appeared on Planet Cohen during his work on “Hallelujah.”7 As producer John Lissauer explains,
He had just discovered the Casio keyboard. Somebody had given it to him as a toy, but he found it so easy to write to.8
And, as seen in this screenshot from a 1988 performance of “Tower of Song,” Cohen was playing with his toy in public over a decade ago.
Never before, however, has he used the keyboard so explicitly as a prop for jokes.
The Tower Of Song Patter
Tower Of Song has repeatedly been one of the best received songs during the Tour and appears to be the one, judging from his facial expressions and his animation, that Leonard Cohen most enjoys performing. Because it is crammed with humorous moments and because it often follows directly after Leonard Cohen’s introductory comments to the crowd (which I wanted to capture), I have been unable to find a single video that captures all the important aspects of the presentation. The first Tower Of Song video (Geneva) starts just before the talk about the keyboard begins. For the purposes of this demonstration, you can stop the video once he begins singing, which is the point at which the next video begins.
1. Leonard Cohen – Now, I don’t want you to get alarmed, I’m going to start up this machine … . Lead-in To Tower Of Song (Geneva. October 27, 2008)
As a wannabe raconteur, I tend to recycle well-received anecdotes and figures of speech, sometimes adapting or embellishing them and sometimes reproducing the unaltered original version.9 While I’ve previously pointed out, as have others, that Leonard Cohen has closely followed the same script in concerts throughout this Tour, his reutilization of what we Ozark hillbillies call “good ‘uns” is hardly limited to intratour patter.
The most quoted line from Cohen’s monologue, for example, may well be “When I was last here in [name of city or theater], I was 60 years old, just a kid with a crazy dream.” Before the Tour began, Cohen, in discussing Philip Glass, who had presented his interpretation of Cohen’s music, remarked, “It’s his 70th birthday, and he’s just a kid with a crazy dream.”10
In this instance, a substantially longer interlude separates the current joke and its antecedent. The bit, used before the start of the Tower Of Song in most of the World Tour concerts, that begins “Now, I don’t want you to get alarmed, I’m going to start up this machine … ” echoes, to my ears at least, the mock warning issued by Cohen about his instrumentation in his next number during a session recorded and broadcast by the BBC in 1968.
2. Leonard Cohen – Continuation of Tower Of Song Monologue (Sofiero Sweden, July 3, 2008)
Cohen’s first words (competing with the applause) are “No hands.” Also lost in the crowd’s response to his keyboard solo at 1:30-2:00 is his acknowledgment “You’re very kind.”11
Bang The Gong Slowly
Q: And what the heck is with that gong in the background?
A: Watch and learn.
Leonard Cohen – The Gypsy’s Wife (Oakland, 2009)
The Off-Keyboard Hand Placement
Why does he have only one hand on the keyboard? Is the one hand in the pocket stance essential as a component of the not quite insouciant slouch?
As explained earlier in this post, the one hand on the keyboard technique is part of the shtick.
But the reason Cohen’s other hand is stowed in his pocket is another matter. After considering (1) the primary motivation for this tour (his fiscal catastrophe caused by the misconduct of his previous business manager) and (2) the timing of the photo (taken just before the tour began, i.e., before any revenues have been realized although expenses have begun to come due), I am convinced, although I lack documentary evidence, that Leonard Cohen had his hand in his pocket to assure that his last $18.64 didn’t somehow disappear the way his $5 million did.
Why am I so certain? Because, Baby I’ve been there before.
- 27 April 2008 [↩]
- As listed in the original post, the photo is by Lorca Cohen and is used by permission of Leonard Cohen via Ed Sanders. [↩]
- Or would these be Leonard Cohen’s “Sabbath-go-to-meeting Clothes?” Or his “Sabbath-go-to-synagogue Clothes?” Such are the perils of the culturally sensitive blogger. [↩]
- See The Talented And Iconic Leonard Cohen – Sony/ATV Music Publishing CEO Makes It Official [↩]
- Dressing well is not a casual matter for Cohen, whose father owned a clothing store in Montreal. When delivering his elegiac homage to Irving Layton, a poet he admired and a close friend, Cohen observed, “I taught him how to dress, he taught me how to live forever.” While this statement praises Layton’s gift as being disproportionately more important than Cohen’s own, it also establishes that Cohen believed it worthwhile to instruct his old colleague in the sartorial mysteries, which, given photographic evidence of Layton’s cavalier approach to selecting clothing ensembles and the repeated occurrence of words such as irascible, irreverent, Rabelaisian, and demanding in reports of his temperament, was likely to have been no small task. [↩]
- Review: Leonard Cohen at Vector Arena By Russell Baillie. New Zealand Herald. Jan 23, 2009 [↩]
- Greatest Songs Ever: “Hallelujah” by David Peisner. Blender. December 9, 2008 [↩]
- Ibid [↩]
- I’ve found, in fact, that the degree of merriment apparent on the faces of individuals who hear, in public, my hilarious story about Uncle Foster for the 14th time to be a useful litmus test for identifying especially good friends and outrageously wonderful women. [↩]
- See Leonard Cohen, Philip Glass, And The Iceberg, quotingJust Two Old Guys With ‘a Crazy Dream,’ Ben Kaplan, CanWest News Service, June 1, 2007 [↩]
- Also of interest: doff of hat at “hair has turned gray,” audience singing along and wildly applauding “I was born like this, I had no choice/ I was born with the gift of a golden voice.” (starts about 2:10), Cohen points to head in concert with the line, “You see, I hear these funny voices” (about 3:27). [↩]