Review Summary: Throwing away the poem
It’s a difficult thing, not to romanticise the artist. Leonard Cohen in particular, well into his old age, carried himself with a charm that, in conjunction with his numerous works, developed him an audience that was more cultish than not. In Bird on a Wire
, the 1973 documentary, one sees Cohen at his most vulnerable. Twice throughout the film, he’s approached by beautiful young women, one a famous Israeli singer; both he turns down, and both misinterpret his awkward politeness for something less despairing. It is, on the one hand, difficult to witness: one wishes to, at the first sign of tears, retreat. On the other hand, these scenes capture something more honest about Leonard Cohen, and in a manner more obvious than any one of his songs. There is ugliness beneath the surface, beauty beneath the façade, and, most importantly, pretense at every level.
That isn’t a demonisation of Cohen. If anything, it’s a celebration. Bird on a Wire
is as much a remonstration of the artist as it is of the listener. At various points throughout Leonard Cohen and the Army’s 20-city tour, concerts fail; 15 of 20, if Cohen is to be trusted. The first, held in Tel Aviv, ends violently as Cohen beckons far-away audiences to breach the unreasonably distant barriers. Security are quick and brutal in their response; Cohen tries, and fails, to bring peace to the outburst. Later on in the tour, PA systems burst and audiences demand refunds. It is, again, difficult to watch. Were it not for these scattered moments of tension, one would be forgiven for assuming the experience far more beautiful. And to some extent, it is; but not in the way expected.
On the band’s final night, held in Jerusalem, there are no technical failures. The band is ready, the audience appropriately respectful. Cohen, however, in the middle of ‘One of Us Cannot be Wrong’, breaks. Through held-back tears he announces the band’s temporary departure and, following laughter at a coded reference to Kaballah, does just that. It’s clear from the laughter and cheers heard from the band’s dressing room that the audience, once again, misinterpret his actions for something less despairing. While Cohen, clocked beneath his guitar, shakes and wipes tears from his eyes. His bandmates attempt to convince him otherwise, but Cohen, motivated either by fear or cowardice, or, perhaps, a mixture of the two, politely refuses; and it’s only as beautiful as ugliness itself.
Despite all this – the violence, the stubbornness – it’s difficult not to take Bird on a Wire
in through rose-coloured glasses. It’s the persistent beauty of smoke, and the strange allure of soft blemishes. It’s a romanticisation that, in some ways, damages the soul, though that, to the contrary, makes more affecting an artist’s torment. And perhaps that’s unavoidable. Perhaps it’s necessary. In ‘Queen Victoria’, the final song sung in Live Songs
, Cohen murmurs: “Queen Victoria, do you have a punishment under that white lace"”
A fair question, Leonard. A fair question.