Budapest, Hungary. Monday, 31st August, 2009.
“We don’t know when we will pass this way again, so we’re going to give you everything we got.” In his mid-seventies, face deeply etched by a life that has been lived, Leonard Cohen gave us his all, and more besides. He was on stage for three hours, played six encores, and held a mainly non-English-speaking audience in the palm of his hand for every minute. In Dublin, additional dates had to be added; I think he sold out three concerts, if not four. In Budapest, another thousand people could have easily fit in the arena where he played one night only.I saw him live in Amsterdam last year. An outdoor venue. Me, JD and a few thousand aging hippies, high as kites, standing in a field, in the rain. That night was special for many reasons and is forever etched in my bones. I knew I was in the presence of greatness, of humility, and of something else that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Tonight…tonight, I finally got it.
What Leonard Cohen has is respect. He puts it out, he gets it back. He wasn’t sure when he would pass this way again, so he gave us everything he had. And more. He thanked us, as he did in Amsterdam, for keeping his songs alive all these years. There was none of this ‘Budapest, I love you’ crap that modern-day megastars seems to enjoy bellowing at an audience who have paid through the nose to hear their pitiful, between-song rhetoric. There was none of the egotistical prancing and strutting around the stage (Grafton Street, God, and what’s-his-name come to mind). There was none of the flashiness or pomp that is too often used as an excuse for talent. Am I jaded? Perhaps a little.
The man kept it simple. He bowed to his band. He repeatedly acknowledged their talent and how important they are to him. He even thanked his bus drivers and the girl who looked after their hats. The man knows people; he appreciates what he has; and he understands the importance of humility and respect. So his voice isn’t what it used to be but the poetry that is his music is all the richer. I heard words tonight that I’ve never really heard before although I have ironed my way through his songs a hundred times. But the experiences of mindless singing along and really listening to what’s being said are light years apart. Tonight, I had the time to listen.
Back in the day, we’d light our matches or wave our cigarette lighters in the air at concerts: the ultimate accolade. Tonight, the luminous screens of mobile phones lit the arena, as people recorded songs to listen to later. I was reminded of something Tiziano Skarpa wrote about in his book Venice is a Fish. He reckons that as tourists, we’re too busy taking photographs to really see what it is we’re looking at; too busy capturing the memory to really experience it at the time. And I wonder, of those who could understand the words, how many really heard them.
Tonight Leonard Cohen spoke to me and said: ‘My darling…I hope you’re satisfied.’
Yes, Leonard, I am.