They say – tongue in cheek – the best thing many artists can do to gain wider recognition and, naturally, rake in the ensuing material rewards is to shuffle off their mortal coil.
A certain Vincent van Gogh, to cite one striking example, died in extreme penury. What, one wonders, might the Dutchman have done with the $40 million one of his Sunflowers portrayals brought in when it was sold in 1987, just before art prices began ramping up. Just three years later, his Portrait of Dr. Paul Gachet was sold for a cool $83m. Preposterous, eh?
Thankfully, Leonard Cohen had a couple of pennies to rub together before he moved on to celestial domains. Not that he didn’t have his financial struggles, particularly after his manager absconded with most of his money while the legendary Canadian singer, songwriter and poet was holed up in a Buddhist retreat near Los Angles.
But Cohen’s loss was his fans’ gain. In the aftermath of the vexing misdemeanor, he embarked on a worldwide concert tour. He simply had to generate some income. What else could he do but return to the stage in what became an ongoing wildly successful phenomenon. The then septuagenarian rediscovered his love of performing live and the immediacy of audience response.
His last worldwide circuit kicked off in August 2012 and ran through until the end of 2013. Almost every one of the 124 concerts was sold out, grossing close to $62m. in the process. Not quite stratospheric Rolling Stones takings, but not bad for a 79-year-old one-man act, and certainly enough to pay off the bills and the bank loan on a house he had to mortgage in order to sue the aforesaid former employee. Cohen died in November 2016 at the age of 82.
Unfortunately, Geva Alon did not get to see the iconic Canadian troubadour in action – Cohen last appeared in this country at the end of his 2009 global tour – but the celebrated 43-year-old Israeli singer-songwriter gets to convey his heartfelt respect and, indeed, adoration for Cohen and his musical and textual oeuvre next week when he performs in the Who By Fire concert at Beit Avi Chai alongside popular cellist-vocalist Maya Belsitzman.
What is behind the Leonard Cohen tribute show in Israel?
It is a multifarious production which takes place on September 12 in Hebrew, and in English on the morrow. In addition to the musical twosome, the lineup features internationally renowned singer Ester Rada, who serves as MC for the evening, and venerated TV personality Kobi Meidan as narrator, with Canadian-born Jerusalemite journalist and best-selling author Matti Friedman reading excerpts from his 2021 book Who By Fire.
The title of the book, and of the show, comes from a Cohen number that originally appeared on his 1974 New Skin for the Old Ceremony record and was inspired by the Hebrew prayer “Unetaneh Tokef” recited on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
New Skin for the Old Ceremony was released in August 1974 just 10 months after the Yom Kippur War erupted and caught Israel unawares.
Cohen did not glean the lyrical concept from news reports of the regional altercation. Incredibly and unexpectedly, he caught the battlefield vibes almost firsthand when he made a spontaneous decision to pop over here to help keep our hardy IDF lads’ spirits up by performing for troops stationed around the Sinai Peninsula, desperately keeping the advancing Egyptian Army at bay. That curious episode in Cohen’s career serves as the springboard for Friedman’s book.
DESPITE NEVER seeing the great man doing his peerless soulful thing on stage, over the years Alon dug as deeply as he possibly could into Cohen’s work and personal backdrop. That investigative odyssey, in fact, began quite some time ago.
“I think I was around 25 or 26 years old when I got a bootleg recording of a concert at Heichal Hatarbut [in Tel Aviv],” he recalls.
The gig in question, which took place back in those halcyon days of 1972, when Israel was still in the illusory grip of the post-Six Day War euphoria, has since taken on something like mythical status. Like much of Cohen’s output – literary, live or recorded – it was an emotive affair.
I caught Cohen on stage a couple of times in Britain in the mid-1970s and here in the early 1980s, and I was more than swept away by the power of his tortuously crafted lyrics. There was something magnetic and hypnotic about the man. There was never any holding back or playacting to get us going. When Cohen was out there in front of you, it was naked, undisguised passion and the deepest of emotional undercurrents. You could not help but be drawn into a vortex of visceral yet tender emotion.
Alon says he got a palpable sense of that from the “nonkosher” recording but was also knocked off his feet by the artistry of the man. “I played that record day and night. It wasn’t a long concert, only around 40 minutes. But those 40 minutes were full of amazing performances. And the sound quality of the recording was excellent.”
They were more innocent, less intrusive and controlled times. There was Alon, a fresh-on-the-scene professional musician finding his feet in the Israeli pop-rock industry, trying to take in this veritable maelstrom of stirring energy and vibes. And all without the help of Google. There was no residual information, little in the way of white noise. This was a definitive “what you see or hear is what you get” state of affairs.
“I wondered why he came to Israel to perform. Before the Internet, there was room for imagination. When you were a kid, you’d look at the record cover, and that was the only sliver of information available to you.” Well, that and the liner notes, although not every LP or CD came with that. “You try to glean as much information from the picture on the cover and the few details on the back and inside. You try to understand as much as you can by your own means. That’s all you have.”
Ah, yes, they were more tranquil times, times when you weren’t bombarded with commercials, breaking news and God knows what else at the click of a mouse button or swipe of a phone screen.
THE INFORMATION vacuum also pertained to the Cohen foray slap-bang in the middle of war, which could easily have seen Israel wiped off the map.
Here was this rock-pop-folk artist from Canada, who had already come to global attention, who, among other headline-grabbing events, had performed at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival in front of over 600,000 people. And there he was in the middle of the desert performing for battle-weary soldiers, some of whom looked like they might have preferred to be catching a couple of hours of shut-eye rather than be stuck with this strange character, complete with rumpled IDF army uniform, strumming his guitar and ardently singing ditties about romantic quandaries and philosophical musings about life and all the rest.
As Friedman notes in the preface to his book, there was almost no media coverage of this incongruous occurrence, and one of the few journalists on hand to report about it was, almost involuntarily, swayed by Cohen’s earnest demeanor and plaintive delivery in the vast sandy expanses of the desert, betwixt tanks, jeeps and APCs.
I recall hearing an interview with Cohen about that time on Army Radio, probably broadcast in the early ’80s, which included a live performance of Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat” of his 1971 record Songs of Love and Hate. The last line of the original lyrics reads “Sincerely, L. Cohen.” In the live version Cohen replaces that with his Hebrew name: “Sincerely, Eliezer Hacohen.”
Alon believes that was not just a whimsical switch, to possibly curry favor with his Israeli audience. “There is something about Leonard Cohen and the way he conveys his Judaism. It is very powerful. He is always in some dialogue with God, with the Bible. It is very interesting.”
Cohen may have been up front about religious allegiance, but, says Alon, that didn’t mean we were let in on his deepest-held beliefs. “You never really knew where he stood on Judaism. There is always a fine line with him. You never really know what he really thinks about things.”
“You never really knew where he stood on Judaism. There is always a fine line with him. You never really know what he really thinks about things.”Geva Alon on Leonard Cohen
That may be the case, but Cohen generally wore his heart on his sleeve. He was given to emotional outbursts on stage, once memorably opting to quit mid-performance, in Jerusalem in the 1970s, because he felt he wasn’t being honest with his audience, that he wasn’t able to give his all. Eventually, he was coaxed back to the stage by his pleading and applauding patrons. It is hard to imagine the likes of, say, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen or Lady Gaga having to cope with a similar predicament.
THE TITULAR number will, naturally, feature in the Beit Avi Chai repertoire – in both the Hebrew- and English-language shows – along with such nuggets as “Lover Lover Lover,” the lyrics of which, legend has it, were spontaneously scribbled down on a scrap of paper in deepest Sinai; “Suzanne”; “If It Be Your Will”; “So Long Marianne” and “Hallelujah.” The latter came out on the 1984 release Various Positions and introduced the Canadian to a new generation of admirers.
There will be nothing lacking in the way of star value on the Beit Avi Chai stage with Belsitzman, a bona fide member of the upper echelons of the music industry here.
Alon says he and the cellist-vocalist have adopted a softly-softly approach to the source material. “We will play her and my arrangements – minimalistic arrangements. Some will be close to the original, and some are very different.”
Sounds like an intriguing show is on offer. Then again, Alon says he is not certain how it will all pan out on the night – actually, nights. “For me this whole evening is a riddle. Until we actually get on the stage, we won’t really know how it is going to work out.” That should keep things fresh.
But it is about more than just the music and the words. “This is a country that constantly experiences wars,” Alon notes, adding that the intention is not to dwell on the militaristic side of things. “It is very important to show all the facets when you find yourself in that sort of situation.”
It is indeed, and Who By Fire, under the artistic direction of Avishai Huri, with Moshe Huri as stage director, endeavors to cover as many Cohen bases as possible.
“There will be some very interesting video clips, and we have Ester Rada, too. It will be outdoors in the Beit Avi Chai yard. I think it will be a special evening.” And, Alon says, “accessible, too. That’s why we are doing the English show. We want everyone to be able to enjoy this.” The late great balladeer would, no doubt, have applauded that take.
Perhaps, by the end of the show, we will be a little wiser about why Cohen dropped by here in the middle of a war. ❖
For tickets and more information: https://www.bac.org.il/events