A few years ago, in his round-up review of Leonard Cohen’s earliest three albums, the great American rock critic Robert Christgau wrote this: “If you think Leonard Cohen is old now, try to imagine how old he was when he was young.”
Some of us who attended the Glenn Gould Prize gala at Toronto’s Massey Hall on Monday did try to imagine. Perhaps the man of the hour did as well. Cohen, 77, was on hand to accept his recognition as the ninth laureate – an award sometimes described as the “Nobel Prize for the arts.”
From his seat in the left first balcony – royal blue bunting marked his front-row perch – Cohen watched some of his life pass before him. At one point, the English actor Alan Rickman expertly and appropriately read the lyrics to Going Home, from Cohen’s album of this year, Old Ideas. “He wants to write a love song,” recited Rickman, “an anthem of forgiving, a manual for living with defeat.” This was Cohen on Cohen – the night’s best summation of a long-time specialist in longing, loving and losing beautifully.
If there was failure to the evening, it was that in all the applause and praise, no other exact appraisal of what Cohen has been doing all these years was quite offered. I think there was too much shoe-horning in of the significance of the man for whom the night’s prize was named, that eccentric genius pianist.
Of course the comparison of Cohen with Gould was unavoidable. But then it had already been done so adroitly by the gifted music writer Robert Harris, who in the evening’s program booklet considered the Canadian psyche. “Maybe we’re not a timid, tightly trapped between Empires, hesitant and icy,” Harris wrote. “Maybe we’re what Gould and Cohen both were and are – passionate, powerful, ironic, yes… but with something immensely valuable the world responds to: An understanding of depth, of the bedrock of feeling, a Canadian Shield of soul that is quiet and contemplative, enduring.”
I can’t beat that. And neither could the elegant former governor-general Adrienne Clarkson, whose curious Picasso-esque dress suggested she had lost a wager of some sort. She reminisced warmly and easily over Cohen. Who knew she was such a fan that she travelled to nine concerts in four countries for the troubadour’s concerts? And who didn’t delight in hearing that she’d once shared Cheese Whiz straight from the ladies’ man’s own refrigerator?
Clarkson did us a great favour by suggesting that we use Google to track down a 1966 television interview she had conducted with Cohen. It’s absolutely illuminating; it should have been shown on the screen above the stage. An audience would have seen a dazzlingly young journalist Clarkson asking the perfect questions to an already worldly poet-novelist about his art. Posterity? “I’m not interested in an insurance plan for my work,” Cohen said, missing no beats. He desired a “horizontal immediacy,” rather than something to endure.
Cohen had no interest in doing this or that thing specifically – the poses of poets and singers were meaningless. “It’s just a matter of what your hand falls on,” he explained, “and if you can make what your hand falls on sing, you can just do it.”
When he suggested that he might like to design a building, Clarkson wondered why Cohen, no architect, would wish to dream up something that would likely collapse. “I don’t think the building would fall down,” was his response.
At Massey, they hadn’t come to question Cohen, but to bury him with praise and his own material. But the man of the hour deflected it all humbly and with poise, reassurance and calming appreciation. “I just want to say to the musicians and singers, if there’s any anxiety about singing my songs in front of me, let it dissolve immediately, because I go into immediate childish ecstasy and paroxysms of gratitude when I hear somebody covering one of my songs.”
And so an eclectic array of people fêted Cohen, doing so in the best and most charismatic ways they could muster. Highlights included soul-folk warbler Serena Ryder’s assured way with Sisters of Mercy, an elegiac gem from 1968. The novelist Michael Ondaatje read from Cohen’s 1963 book, The Favourite Game, and talked about the importance of literary topography.
John Prine is the great American songwriter who has written famously about desires as thunder and dreams as lightening, and that for some to believe in their struggles was a hard way to go. When he sang the first words to Bird on a Wire, the crowd softly moaned in recognition. A cowboy version of the song followed – “I have tried in my way to be free.”
At the end, after Adam Cohen’s less than climatic version of So Long, Marianne, host Colm Feore said something Elvis-y: “Leonard Cohen has left the building.”
And Cohen’s building of work still stands. No collapse coming. He hadn’t performed himself, but certainly was applauded for his donation of the $50,000 cash prize that accompanied the award to the Canada Council for the Arts.
His fans would have probably enjoyed hearing him and Hallelujah, but it wasn't happening. As the man sang downcast in 1969: “I cannot follow you, my love / You cannot follow me.” Being Leonard Cohen is a tough act, always has been that way.