|Leonard Cohen touches the audience's perfect body with his mind|
Readers of my previous posts may be familiar with my Leonard Cohen fandom. Up to now, though, I've never thought of myself as having much in common with the man. We're both Anglo Montrealers and we both share an introspective fascination with the darker sides of our nature. Other than that, we have different cultural and religious backgrounds, different career paths (some might say one of us is more successful than the other), are of different generations and a have made a few very different lifestyle choices.
It's fair to say that the vast majority of my live performance experience is in comedy. Whether it be in improv, sketch, stand-up or even in theatre, I've dealt with many different types of audiences and I've seen more than my share of tough rooms. Dealing with crowds like that is often just a case of reading their mood, figuring out what they want, giving it to them on your own terms and then taking control of the show so you can move on. It's something you pick up really easily after the first 10 years of 4 or 5 nights a week of live comedy performances (forgive my vague generalities on the subject but all will all become clear later on).
I've also done my fair share of dramatic performances but I've always thought that different rules apply. In my mind, that level of hyper awareness of the audience is only necessary when you're trying to get something as precarious as laughter out the audience.
I've been rethinking that assumption lately.
One of my Xmas gifts this year was the Blu-ray disc of Leonard Cohen Live at The Isle Wight 1970.
Just as a geeky side note: this is an excellent Blu-ray disc and a must for any Cohen fan. The HD picture quality is really good, even considering that the original materiel is a 40 year old 35 mm film. And, man, did those techs ever get a nice 5.1 HD sound out of what were most likely some very primitive 1970 recordings.
K, back to my point.
Leonard Cohen Live at The Isle of Wight 1970 (you really gotta work on that title, boys) is not just a concert film, it also tells a story. The Isle of Wight is, as one may guess, a small island off the southern coast of England. Back in the late 60' and early 70's, the little island was the site of a massive annual music festival.
The '69 festival featured acts like The Band and Bob Dylan (who actually played that fest and Woodstock back to back). The '70 fest line-up followed the bigger and better formula of festival expansion. Booked for that year's fest was The Doors, The Who, The Moody Blues, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Donovan, Jethro Tull and Kris Kristofferson. Thrown in for good measure were the mellow folky acts of Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell and the unclassifiable talent of an up and coming Canadian poet and novelist turned musician by the name of Leonard Cohen.
It was a pretty rough festival that year. Attendance hit a record number of 600,000 people. Despite the fact that the ticket prices were the equivalent of about seven bucks Canadian for five nights of music featuring all the above acts and more, this festival had the same problem Woodstock had a year earlier. Many people showed up refusing to pay. Back in the 60's, see, everyone thought music should be free, man, for like anyone who wants to hear it, man. It's not like musicians have to make a living or anything. That's Establishment sell-out thinking.
It was no Altamont but no Woodstock either. Fences were torn down. Scuffles bordered on riots. Even the better behaved members of the crowd made for a pretty restless audience. There is a clip on the Blu-ray disc of a festival organizer (who looked not unlike Spinal Tap's manager) scolding the crowd, calling them "pigs" for behaving badly at a festival that he had put a year of his life into organizing. Buddy, I get the frustration, but very few performers can pull that kinda shit off without years of experience (and even then...). The effect of a speech like that on a borderline aggressive audience is akin to actions involving a bee's nest and a baseball bat.
Leonard Cohen was scheduled as the penultimate act, following Jimi Hendrix. And, really, even at the best of times, who the hell would ever want to have to follow Hendrix at a music festival in 1970?
Cohen was not necessarily a good fit for the peace, love and LSD crowd. He would certainly not be considered an Establishment sell-out but, really, Leonard Cohen is, if anything, a product of the Beatnik generation. He is a tad mellow in comparison with Hendrix.His songs are, at best, only indirectly about drugs and youthful rebellion. For the uninitiated Cohen's unique vocal style is often an issue. As Cohen himself said at the Junos a few years back, "Only in Canada could I win an award for Best Male Vocalist". At the risk of belaboring a point, add to that that Cohen was 35 in the "don't trust anyone over 30" era.
The festival atmosphere was not getting any better as Mr.Cohen's set approached. There had been incidents of fans storming the stage (event security was still a radical new concept in 1970), Kris Kristofferson had beer bottles thrown at him while being booed off the stage the night before and that night the stage had been set on fire...by Jimi Hendrix.
It was nearly 2 AM when Cohen finally took the stage. He did so to, what was for an audience of 600, 000 people, near silence.
Leonard Cohen's second album, Songs From a Room, was charting at no. 2 on the UK charts at the time. All those people who bought his album were not there that night. Many of the songs did get recognition applause but they sound like maybe 200 people (out of over a half a million).
Ya gotta hand it to Lenny, though. Cohen did not seem phased in the the least. You do not see him trying to pick up the energy or change his approach. He did not suddenly decide to do more upbeat songs (not that he had them anyway). No. Cohen took his time with everything. There was perfect calm between each song, regardless of audience reaction. It was truly amazing to watch.
At the same time, Cohen was not oblivious to his surroundings. Not at all. He very clearly had a sense of the mood of the crowd.
At one point during his set, someone comes from back stage and hands Cohen a note to read to the audience. My guess is that was some kind of crowd security related announcement or something of that nature. Whatever the case, it was an announcement the organizers felt important enough to hand to a performer in the middle of a set. Cohen then calmly took the piece of paper, read it and then looked up a the audience. In that classic earnest Leonard Cohen voice of his, he said "They have the island surrounded".
Broke the tension instantly.
It's certainly not uncommon for Lenny to make a subtle joke or two during his shows. That Leonard Cohen has no sense of humour, really, is a myth perpetrated by people who don't know his work all that well. But it wasn't the humour that impressed me so much as his seemingly innate performer's intuition.
It's as if he just instinctively knew that that audience did not want to hear another announcement about "stop doing this" or "be careful about that" or "the neighbours have asked up to keep it down" or anything of that nature. Clearly, that crowd had enough of that.
God knows what the announcement really was but Cohen was able to use the moment to make a connection with the audience. And I doubt he was pandering. I'm sure that Cohen himself felt that the announcement was unnecessary; this crowd was going to do whatever the hell it wanted to anyway.
Then Cohen sealed the deal. He said, "Someday we will own this land." Huge cheers and applause. Suddenly it sounded like 600,000 people were there. Then he added "But we are not strong enough yet". Less applause but that did not matter. He had just found an incredibly canny and subtle way to send a "so simmer down" message to the crowd. .
It worked. He had them in the palm of his hand
Each song after that seemed to get an ever increasing amount of attention and applause. He managed to make further connections throughout the show. For instance, he introduced this classic song as "A great song to make love to." (sexual appetite is certainly something Leonard Cohen had in common with the hippies):
Leonard Cohen closed his set that night with a song about suicide. He ended on massive applause and cheers. He got an encore.
Cohen pulled off something that I've seen many great comics pull off. In comedy terms, he "read the room". He gave 'em what they wanted, connected with them and then used that connection to take control of the show. It was an incredible thing to watch.
I would never have imagined that an act as esoteric as Leonard Cohen who ever have to deal with a "tough room" nor that he would be able to do so in such a familiar manner. He managed to win over an massive and unruly audience who were in the mood for something very different than him.
The style and the manner were very different but the essence was something that I knew very well.
Turns out Lenny Cohen and me have more in common than I thought.