Crazy Old Man, With Golden Voice

“I was born like this, I had no choice,

I was born with the gift of a golden voice.”

As I intended, I went back to the Leonard Cohen retrospective at the Art Gallery of Ontario to watch the two multi-media installations, “The Offering” by Kara Blake and “Passing Through” by George Fok.

To the Mind and to the Senses

Blake’s is chronological, drawing heavily on Cohen’s writings, reviews of his work, and his interviews. It is ironic to hear Cohen’s early novel Beautiful Losers trashed by long-forgotten critics, enjoyable to hear him teasing his interviews (“I’m getting a tattoo?” “Where?” “A place on rue St. Catherine.”), and enlightening to hear him explain the path he took.

If Blake’s installation speaks to the mind, then George Fok’s appeals to the senses. The show is projected on screens on the front and two sides of the room, and there are often two or three different images on the screens. The installation focuses on his performances, especially in his later years. And the screens simultaneously show Cohen, his backup musicians, and the audience. The installation gives you a powerful sense of being right there, on stage or in the crowd, at the concert.

Crazy Old Man

I was fascinated by Cohen’s presence in his later concerts. Cohen was forced to go on the road because he was swindled by his manager, but he shows no resentment, only joy in his reinvention. By his late seventies, Cohen’s face is gaunt and lined. His aquiline nose is prominent, and his shirts sit loosely around his turkey neck. But his eyes are shining, even fiery, and there is an eloquence in the gestures of his hands and arms. Cohen wears suits with dark shirts and a fedora. Is he presenting himself as an unfashionably dressed old man or a geezer channeling his inner hipster?

We see and hear Cohen singing, in a voice that has turned from gold to bronze, his famous songs of decades earlier: “Suzanne,” “So Long, Marianne,” “There ain’t no Cure for Love,” “First we Take Manhattan, then we Take Berlin,” and of course “Hallelujah.”

As a senior citizen, I’m captivated by the spectacle of an old man performing the work he has created; supported by the talented, energetic, young, and attractive colleagues of his backup band; and receiving the love and adulation of crowds of all ages, but especially young people.

What an inspirational vision of aging, of maintaining one’s talent and continuing to exercise it to the delight of younger generations.

It seems to me that anyone who is semi-retired in the sense that they continue to spend at least some of their time practicing their metier aspires to this model. I know I felt it last year when I was teaching and it was clear to anyone in the room – once we returned to a room – that I got the students on my wavelength (to quote Cohen) and their evaluations later confirmed it.

Appreciate a Master

I encourage you to see the Cohen exhibit, especially the two installations. For me, it is not only about enjoying his music, but especially about watching a man who remained a master performer to the end of his life. In one of the interviews Cohen says, “whether you can go for the long haul is not your choice.” Adversity took Cohen’s metier to a higher level, and he was able to go for the long haul.

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