THE BARD ON THE WIRE Leonard Cohen

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Three new DVDs serve up, in equal measures, fresh and vintage glimpses of a musical genius.

BY STEVEN ROSEN

Not only has Leonard Cohen changed a lot in the time between
just-released Bird on the Wire (a
1972 world tour; released by MVD Visual) and the Sept. 14th-due Songs From the Road (the 2008-2009 world
tour; Columbia/Legacy), but so too has the purpose and style of concert-tour
documentaries.

 

Bird on the Wire was shot by the British filmmaker Tony Palmer (All You Need Is Love, 200 Motels), and supposedly had some kind of
theatrical release in 1974. Not much of one, however, which apparently didn’t
bother Palmer since it had been edited without his approval.  But he recently discovered 294 film cans with
bits and pieces of “lost” footage and, given Cohen’s resurgence, decided to
reassemble it to create a new print closer to his original intentions.

leonard_cohen-songs_from_the_road_a_1

Songs From the Road, on the other hand, is state-of-the-art in its production and marketing. Filmed
in such clear high-definition you can see stubble on Cohen’s intent face, it
features complete, reverential footage of 12 of his performances in 10 cities
(there are three from London). It’s available as part of a DVD/CD package, or
separately as a Blu-Ray. In most of these performances, the audience is an
afterthought – exceptions being the vast crowd at Tel Aviv’s Ramat Gan Stadium
and the youthful crowd that momentarily sings along to “Hallelujah” at
Coachella 2009. For those who liked last year’s Live in London, this is similar.

 

Songs From the Road’s director/producer, Ed Sanders, knows that the customers for this DVD want the
Leonard Cohen concert experience in hi-def and nothing else. They don’t want
directorial intrusions or commentary. So this DVD is not about the crowd; it’s
not about the backstage. It’s certainly not about the director as a
cinema-verite journalist poking around the edges of an icon’s world tour
looking for a greater truth. (There is a “special feature” of some 20 minutes
of interviews with band members conducted by Cohen’s daughter.)

 

Cohen is in his celebrated late-period chanson mode –
wearing a hat and well-tailored dark suit, singing in his low voice with great
emotion if not range, sometimes falling to his knees for emphasis as the
stage-light colors accentuate his songs’ moods. The DVD is there for that, and also astutely observes his
empathetic backing band under music director/bassist Roscoe Beck. The band’s
work has the restrained, elegant melancholy of Astor Piazzolla’s groups –
especially Javier Mas on 12-string guitar and several exotic stringed
instruments. And the female back-up singers, Sharon Robinson and sisters Hattie
and Charley Webb, cushion and soothe his voice when it threatens to get too
raw. The music’s quality is indisputable.

 

bird

 

Back in 1972, the approach to filming musicians at work was
different. After D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t
Look Back
, Murray Lerner’s Festival and especially the Maysles’ Gimme
Shelter,
good documentarians were expected to probe behind the songs. They
were after the greater truth, whatever that might be. They weren’t just there
to record a show.

 

Palmer, based on this new print of Bird On a Wire, wanted to do that. But this kind of fly-on-the-wall
approach (Palmer never formally interviews Cohen) has its drawbacks.  Watching a few concertgoers bitch about the
sound system then isn’t very important now; watching the film cut away from
Cohen in mid-performance to concentrate on something else feels like too much
directorial ego.

 

But when it works, this is essential Cohen viewing – as
important as I’m Your Man. Cohen was 38 when this was made – old by singer-songwriter
standards of the era but looking awfully young now. On this tour with a small,
excellent band (including producer Bob Johnston playing organ and back-up
singers Jennifer Warnes and Donna Washburn), he was the still a folk-based
troubadour, playing guitar and establishing friendly rapport with his European
and Israeli audiences. And many of his now-classic songs were still pretty new
– the lyrics and especially the slower, more soulful Van Morrison-like
arrangement of “Chelsea Hotel” here are markedly different from the more
familiar version.

 

Bird On a Wire reaches its apogee in a long sequence at the end where Cohen (raised an
Orthodox Jew) starts to cry both onstage and backstage at the tour’s final
concert in Jerusalem.
The sequence is a little hard to follow, either because Palmer had to piece it
together from odds and ends, or because of the impressionistic way he wants to
present it. The actual performance footage jumps between Jerusalem and another
show, and there are mid-song cutaways to old home movies of Cohen as a child in
Montreal. (He was a cute kid.)

 

But the narrative that does emerge is that Cohen is unnerved
by performing before such an adoring crowd in a city that has so much symbolism
for him. He seems to believe his performance isn’t up to it, although we see
nothing to indicate that. Before intermission, he quotes from the Kabbalah to
explain his misgivings: “Unless Adam and Eve face each other, God does not sit
on his throne,” he says. “Somehow, the male and female parts of me refuse to
encounter one another tonight, and God does not sit on his throne. This is a
terrible thing to happen in Jerusalem.” (Can you imagine Justin Bieber giving
the same excuse for an off-night?)

 

Backstage during intermission, uptight and smoking, Cohen
panics and wants to call off the show. His band members and manager try to
convince him otherwise, and he takes refuge in shaving to relax himself. Once again
onstage for the final song – a transcendent “So Long, Marianne” – tears start
to form. Backstage afterward, openly crying as the crowd stomps and hollers for
an encore, he’s afraid to go back out. “I can’t go out to cry in front of
people,” he says, clearly in the middle of his own private, wrenching moment.
He’s as moved as you’ll ever see him, and it’s impossible not to be equally
moved.

 

heroes

 

A third Leonard Cohen-related DVD, Leonard Cohen’s Lonesome Heroes, is due on Oct. 19th (via Chrome Dreams). While this does have short, archival excerpts of Cohen
performances and interviews, it’s primarily a deeply researched, scholarly and
thoroughly engrossing look at his influences and origins as first a
poet/novelist and then a songwriter. Chapters focus on the Beats, Henry Miller,
Jacques Brel, Hank Williams, Federico Garcia Lorca, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, the
folk revival, Judaism and Zen Buddhism. Among those interviewed are Cohen
biographers Ira Nadel and Stephen Scobie, Beat Generation expert John Tytell,
Garcia Lorca scholar Leslie Stainton, rock critic Anthony DeCurtis and Buddhist
monk Kigen.

 

Perhaps the best of the interviews is with Judy Collins, who
recounts how she discovered Cohen as a songwriter when she recorded three of
his compositions – “Dress Rehearsal Rag,”
“Suzanne” and “The Stranger Song” – for her 1966 album In My Life.  She explains she was most drawn to “Dress
Rehearsal Rag,” which she presumed was a song about suicide, because she was
moving away from pure folk on In My Life and planning to record some darker material – a song from the musical Marat/Sade and “Pirate Jenny” by
Brecht/Weill. Cohen fit in. Among other things, Leonard Cohen’s Lonesome Heroes establishes what an important album
In My Life was for its time – it
doesn’t get the credit it deserves.

 

***

 

Taken altogether (but not quite as a de facto trilogy), these DVDs further establish Leonard Cohen as
one of the preeminent bards of his generation. Not that anyone needed to be
reminded of that fact, of course, but it’s reassuring to know that successive
generations will also have these aural and visual documents available for
consultation, edification and inspiration.

 

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