I realised the best part of a 20-year dream the other day: I saw Leonard Cohen up close and personal. And I arrived at one distinct conclusion: he’s very small. Almost as small as me, in fact.
This is how it happened. A few weeks ago I got an email from Marie Mazur, who runs several Cohen-related websites, including one of the original and best, Speaking Cohen. Thanks to the internet, Marie is one of those people who I can say is a true friend despite never having met her: she keeps me (and thousands of other die-hard fans) up to date with LC’s movements and projects and in turn I’ve contributed a piece or two to her site. She also did a fantastic thing for me last year in obtaining a signed copy of LC’s recent Book of Longing fresh from the man himself at a Toronto promotional event. One day I hope to return the favour.
The email Marie sent was a heads-up to a small gig LC’s partner-in-music-and-life Anjani was performing in London on 26th March to promote her excellent Blue Alert album, which was co-written and produced by LC. The showcase, at a place called the Cuckoo Club in the West End, wasn’t open to the general public, but a couple of pairs of tickets were kindly being put up for grabs by Anjani’s people. Needless to say, I put my name in the hat, wondering only secondarily how I would manage to juggle attending the gig with both a new job I was due to start that very day and the care of two small children. Thankfully, at least, the job was located only a few minutes’ walk from the venue, and my wife said that if I won she was happy to stay home with the kids while I went along by myself – as long as I didn’t make a habit of it! In any case, a fortnight or so later it was clear I needn’t have worried, as the draw took place, and I didn’t win. Disappointment gave way to relief when I weighed up everything else that was happening on the job and home fronts, and I forgot all about it.
Songs of Love and Hat
Then, on the evening of Sunday 25th, I came home from an afternoon out to find another email from Marie saying that one of the original winners of the tickets had pulled out due to unforseen circumstances, so they were up for grabs again. Completely forgetting my “relief” at not being able to go, I put my name in this second hat… and lost again. I have to say at this point that it was to Marie’s eternal credit that she didn’t pull any strings on my behalf, and kept the draw fair and square. However, determined not to be too disappointed, I decided I would go along to the venue anyway after work on the offchance of spotting the Cohens on their way in. It was a long shot, but as the venue was just a short walk away, I had nothing to lose.
My first day in my new job went very well and it was a pleasure afterwards to stroll through the West End in the unseasonably warm afternoon. I’d never heard of the Cuckoo Club, nor recalled ever walking down Swallow Street (some bird confusion here surely?), but now here it was, a quiet little alleyway off the bustle of Regent Street just past the wonderfully-named Man in the Moon Passage. Apart from two dapper doormen hovering outside an anonymous building beneath some impressive stone architecture, there was nobody around and no indication that anything Cohenesque was going on. Their nifty royal purple-colour rope barriers looked optimistic: maybe I’m naive but I had expected at least a small crowd of faithful fans – or maybe the true faithful had already been and gone?
Undeterred, I hung about and after a few minutes people started to show up. Some identified themselves to the doormen and following a check on the guest list were directed straight in, while others formed a loose queue. Among the non-queuers were a couple of rock journo characters in black leather jackets and a tall blonde ex-groupie-type in a near-psychedelic pink outfit who embarked on a flurry of air-kissing, disappeared inside and re-emerged a few moments later armed with a glass of white wine, a cigarette and her mobile phone. There was no sign, however, of either Anjani or LC, and as it was now getting on for 6pm and the show was due to start at 6.30 it seemed unlikely they weren’t already inside.
Bird on the wine
By now the queue was snaking along Swallow Street’s narrow pavement and the doormen started to let us in. I was about halfway down the queue and feeling distinctly uneasy, as not only have I never blagged my way in to a club of any sort, still less an event like this, I had no intention of doing so. Nonetheless, I was here, and so were Leonard and Anjani, and although it wasn’t part of my plan it seemed fairly pathetic just to go home without at least giving it a go. In addition to the doormen there were now a couple of PR-type women checking names, so I did my best to convince myself it was worth trying on a bit of the old Thoughtcat charm. I wasn’t particularly confident however, so it was with some relief that I turned round and spotted someone in the queue I recognised from… a Russell Hoban event. As you do. I mean, how likely is that? There have only ever been about three Russell Hoban ‘events’ in the past 20 years, and I organised the one we were both at myself, so it was a lovely coincidence, but a coincidence all the same.
It was great to chat again with Deena, who is possibly the only other person I know in the world who’s quite as nuts about both Len and Russ as I am. Even more oddly, she told me she was the person who’d originally won the tickets in Marie’s draw, but then had to bow out, causing the second draw – and although she was now re-available to attend, the tickets had of course been won by someone else, so she was practically no more confident than I was of getting in. That the situation seemed only to be getting more and more unlikely was confirmed when we got to the door and, albeit after a few moments of uncertainty, she was actually allowed in, yet despite her efforts to persuade the staff to let me in with her, I was asked to ‘try coming back at 6.30’. Fairly sure this was a brush-off (albeit a polite one), I bade Deena and her partner a great evening and they went inside.
Waiting for the miracle
One by one the guests went in, then, and I was left lurking ever more uneasily in Swallow Street. I decided not to risk going for a stroll in case (a) it was a ruse (they closed the doors as soon as I’d gone, (b) it was a test (how long would I actually wait?) or (c) I got sidetracked or held up, and rushed back to find everything had started and I’d blown my already slim chance of entry. While I stood there I thought about my wife at home feeding, bathing and putting to bed both our 2-year-old and 2-month-old by herself, which was difficult enough for the two of us. Shouldn’t I perhaps be realistic and do the honorable thing, and go home where I belonged? Then again, given that home was still the best part of an hour away a
nd I would thus already be nearly too late to be of much help with the kids, would it not actually be more honest, now I’d got this far, to stick it out to the bitter end? I mean, surely if a guy’s going to bunk off his domestic duties to any extent, it should be for a good cause…
Such thoughts circling in my head I almost missed the re-emergence of the lady with the frizzy hair who had earlier let Deena in. ‘Can you come in now, please?’ she said. I looked around: was she talking to me? It seemed she was. There was almost a sense of urgency about it, as if I were, actually, quite an important guest. Of course, any urgency was really due to the fact that it was now 6.30 and they had to get the show on the road. ‘Sorry you had to wait around,’ she said as we went inside, ‘but it’s such a small venue that we had to make sure there was enough room to spare.’ I couldn’t believe it: firstly I was being ushered in, secondly they were apologising for keeping me waiting, and thirdly I was in anyway…
Finally I broke into the prison
The club was small, darkish, a bit smoky and packed. There was a small stage set up for three or four musicians, but no drum kit. In the ceiling hung a mesh of lilac-coloured lightbulbs. A bar which my memory is telling me was hung with silver and gold drapes took up one wall. The lady with the frizzy hair disappeared and I wasn’t sure if this was a good or bad thing; now I was on my own and everyone around me seemed achingly trendy, or at very least Of Some Import in the World of Rock. Among those I recognised was Mark Ellen, ex- of The Old Grey Whistle Test and founding editor of Q, Mojo and now The Word rock magazines. (Oddly enough, I’d also ‘bumped into’ him at the 2002 Concert for George, which I now realised with some embarrassment was the last gig I’d been to before this one.) Even Deena, who I couldn’t spot anyway, looked infinitely more the part than I did. By contrast, who was I? I was nobody, in most guests’ terms; wouldn’t they all give me funny looks? Who’s this guy, I imagined them thinking. He doesn’t look famous, or trendy, or Of Import in the World of Rock, or even particularly tall.
Almost disappointingly, my paranoia turned out to be unfounded as I squeezed past some of the approximately 100 guests. I tried calling my wife to confirm I’d got in and would be late after all, but couldn’t get a signal; I just hoped she’d get the message by my non-appearance. I made for the bar. Glasses of still water, lager and wine were lined up three deep; such was my innocence of these matters that I had to ask one of several barmen whether the drinks were free; of course they were, as were the assorted delicious bites circulating around the room on trays held aloft by small but perfectly-formed and permanently smiling young women. This was the life, I thought as I reached for some cheesy chicken-on-a-stick and surveyed the stage just a few feet away, where it still seemed impossible that Anjani and, possibly, Leonard too were about to perform.
Crumpled in love
But perform they did. The lights went down, three smartly-dressed musicians came on and took up their keyboard, double bass and guitar respectively, a door opened beside the stage and from it emerged the small but distinguished frame of the Grocer of Despair. The reception was warm, as only it should be: apart from being a living legend, this was the first time LC had taken any sort of UK stage since 1993. ‘Welcome, friends,’ he said. Now 72, comfortable in a grey suit and blue shirt, top button fastened, cropped grey hair on its way to white, he looked thinner than I remembered and smaller than I ever thought he was, and his voice, while still deep and resonant, was unexpectedly soft. He looked slightly crumpled, in fact. But, he had presence in spades in his own low-key way and anyway, it was Leonard Cohen, for fuck’s sake! My hands were trembling; I was sure someone was about to come over and ask me to leave, having sussed out that I shouldn’t be there after all; I barely wanted to blink in case I missed anything; I remembered my phone had a camera feature, I reached for it, I didn’t know whether to grab a photo of the moment or enjoy the moment, I took it out and got a blurry lo-res shot which in no way resembled what I was actually seeing…
‘I’m new to this “showcase” business,’ LC began. ‘I asked backstage, “What’s the audience like?” And they told me: “Industry people”.’ [cue audience laughter.] ‘This brought to mind a crowd of extras from Night of the Living Dead…’ [cue more laughter.] It went on in this vein for a few moments; I was so busy trying to concentrate on not missing a word he was saying that half of it went in one ear and out the other. In any case, ever the gentleman, he cut himself short and introduced ‘Anjani.’ (Well, that cleared one thing up, at least – up til then I’d been calling her ‘Anjani’.)
She’s in her early forties and wearing something tight
Now this was a pleasure. It’s not as if I hadn’t been really looking forward to seeing this lady perform – what I’d heard of Blue Alert, criminally still unreleased properly in the UK, testified to a fantastic singer and fine musician – but it has to be said that LC’s presence was hardly an insignificant attraction. Nonetheless, both her voice and the woman herself were even more beautiful in real life than on the CD in question, and a quick look and listen by anybody with an ounce of taste would know that’s saying something. When someone sings (and, moreover, plays – her jazz-influenced keyboard licks were a sheer delight) songs as good as these as well as this, and yet is still having to drum up interest and curry favour by doing free shows, you have to wonder what on earth people have to do to get on in music these days. Still, after the first number alone – Blue Alert‘s delicious, smoky title track – I doubt there could have been anyone in the room who didn’t think she should at very least be selling out Ronnie Scott’s for a few nights in the coming months.
In between sips of tea, and with LC sitting coolly at a stageside table sipping bottled beer, Anjani and her excellent trio went on to perform faultless versions of half the Blue Alert record, namely Half the Perfect World, Never Got to Love You, No-One After You, and Thanks for the Dance, two of which were duets with LC, and a further duet, an unreleased song which may have been called Whither Thou Goest. It was the definition of smooth and tasteful. Throughout the performance my eye was caught by a strange lighting effect in the adjacent stairwell, like smoke or dry ice swirling around a gently swinging lightshade; I still don’t know exactly what it was, but it complemented the music perfectly. Although Leonard’s voice didn’t sound as robust as in previous years, this surely wasn’t surprising, and it was anyway more than made up for by (a) his register coming nearer the level it was when he started out than the deep baritone he’s latterly become famous for, and (b) the simple fact that he was singing anything at all when he could easily be forgiven for taking it easy – assisting Anjani’s career notwithstanding. That’s not the point, I know, and in the unlikely event that he reads this I hope he doesn’t think even for a second that that’s a reason for him not to embark on the world tour he has been much rumoured to be planning for later this year and early next. But the truth is that at 72 years old, half that time spent playing concerts and making classic albums, I don’t feel he owes anybody anything, least of all returning to the road. I’d like to think he was doing t
his purely for pleasure, and, if the look in his face was anything to go by as he duetted with Anjani, lurve.
Came so far for Leonard
Before I knew it, it was all over. To much applause, Leonard and Anjani disappeared, the house lights went up and everyone went back to doing what they were doing before L&A; turned their heads. Mark Ellen said to someone ‘Wasn’t that fantastic?’ and I re-found Deena and caught up with her for a few moments. We were both quite staggered by the event and were so busy talking about it that we didn’t notice that a queue was slowly forming at the stage for Leonard’s autograph. Deena seemed quite happy to return to her table for another beer and bask in the aftermath of a lovely evening, but for me it was too good a chance to miss. It wasn’t terribly clear where the queue began and ended and after some confusion I staked a claim to a place somewhere in it. The speed at which it moved was the definition of agony, LC just feet and finally only inches away, yet unless you were right in front of him you almost may as well have been a thousand miles away. At last the three people who had monopolised him for a quarter of an hour let him go, and now there was only one person between me and the man himself… but at that precise moment, another of Cohen’s annoyingly pleasant entourage appeared and spirited him away.
If I was momentarily crushed I realised with a laugh that it really would have been too good to be true if I had actually managed to speak to him – and anyway what would I have said? I’d had at least 20 minutes – if not 20 years, if you count the time I’ve loved his work – to think of something to say, but I’m sure I would have only ended up babbling. Equally, as I hadn’t expected to get in, I didn’t have anything on me for him to sign – I had wondered for a moment about proferring him the novel I was currently reading, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, whose title might have summed up my evening if the music hadn’t in fact been at a perfectly reasonable volume. And although my phone had the aforementioned camera feature, it would’ve felt a bit daft asking a stranger to take a photo of the two of us, plus the result would’ve probably been another blur, and what would I have done with it anyway? Apart from, that is, splash it all over the website and print off several dozen copies of it and hang them up all round the house and have a CafePress t-shirt, mug and possibly a thong printed with it and bore the pants off myriad innocent friends, family, children and grandchildren for the rest of my life with it… my point entirely.
Don’t go home with your hard-on
Thus, with Anjani now circulating amongst sundry muso bigwigs, Len putting his feet up backstage and time getting on, I said my goodbyes to Deena and the lovely lady with the frizzy hair who let me in, and headed home, wondering whether my wife had managed OK. Once in Piccadilly the phone signal returned so I called her up. ‘I got in!’ I said, fairly redundantly, and explained that, er, ‘I nearly met Leonard Cohen.’ I had to admit it didn’t sound particularly impressive. ‘Oh, really?’ she said, sounding tired, ‘what happened?’ ‘I’ll tell you about it when I get home,’ I said.
Such is my lack of spare time these days that it’s taken me this long to put this post together and attempt to do the experience some justice (thank heaven for Easter, eh). So what do I think of it all, having now had some time to reflect? It might sound like sour grapes but in a way there is a benefit to not having met Leonard Cohen. I would surely have embarrassed myself, had nothing much to say or had too much to say in the few seconds I had to say it. I would likely have been disappointed, not by the man himself but because the brevity and impersonality of the situation would have made it so. I would have gone away thinking either I’d achieved one of my great dreams or that I’d blown my only chance to say something useful to him or ask him a Big Question, and I’m not sure which of those would be worse. It’s best to go away from an experience like that wanting more, and although I’d had a great evening of fine music and wonderful company, that was certainly true, both on the relatively mundane level (I wanted to see more of Anjani live) and the deeper one I’m talking about. Perhaps it’s as well I didn’t speak to him because then the dream or the search would’ve been over, the dream would’ve become reality, and what do you do when that happens?
If I’m honest it was fantastic to stand a few inches away from Leonard Cohen but I hardly feel as if my life has changed as a result, and I doubt I’d feel much different if I’d actually spoken to him. That’s impossible to say for sure, of course, as he might have said something utterly profound, but at the end of the day I would still have had to go home, have a late dinner, get up the next morning, change a nappy and go to work… but still. I could go on and on reflecting and wondering but I won’t. It was a fantastic evening, one I’ll always remember, and I’m truly grateful to Marie and the lady with the frizzy hair for letting me in.
I still can’t get over how small he was, though.