Leonard Cohen in 1988 at the RAH.

I remember it well, a cheap Bloomsbury hotel (and we’ll leave that line there…)

It was one of those nights, made of music, chance and love that come occasionally and rarely. It’s cold tonight and the world aches for many  reasons but I have a memory of hope that will have to do until true hope emerges again.

She was my first real girlfriend and we’d managed to get away for a couple of parentless nights in London.  I don’t recall that we had planned anything except the opportunity to share some private intimacy unrushed.  We found a cheap hotel and a copy of Time Out and that Leonard Cohen was in town.

She wasn’t the one to introduce me to Cohen but together our listening habits grew. ‘Winter Lady’ I suddenly remember was her favourite.  

We had to ask directions to the Royal Albert Hall but we got there, two young people more naive than we knew.  There were tickets available on the door.  “£9 for a restricted view or £12 for good seats.”  This, history tells me, was the start of a resurgence in Cohen’s popularity in the UK but we I think were a little surprised at a choice of tickets.  

We took the good seats.  The woman on the box office directed us. “Up the stairs to the left, door number 3.”  Only when we entered door 3 did we realise the obvious.  This was the Royal Albert Hall and we had a box.  There were four seats but nobody joined us.

Of course the view was great and the acoustics too.  The band entered and then the man in the suit.  “Dance Me To The End of Love” I remember as the opener. It remains one of my favourites but I don’t know what I remember of that performance. It was too soon in the set I was still stunned.  

We don’t always think enough on the musicians beside the great songwriters. A few songs in John Bilezikjian played an extended melodic introduction on the oud before “Who By Fire.”  The delicate picking offering space to the incantatory lyrics.

I remember asking my girlfriend what one song was, it was from an album I didn’t know so well back then.  “The Gypsy’s Wife” she whispered. 

And at one point a voice shouted a request.  Someone replied “Shut up!” 

Cohen paused “Are you speaking to me or to your friend?” Gently chiding with the gravitas of that voice and his distinctive wry self-deprecation.  

From our box we saw the band laid out beside the singer, participants in the waltz.  I may be projecting from 28 years later but it feels like there was when I began to understand how songs breathe.  “Bird On A Wire”, “Everybody Knows”, “Famous Blue Raincoat” that we now loved in Jennifer Warnes’ cover.  The backing singers Perla Batalla and Julie Christensen, beautiful and slinky in little black dresses alongside the handsome man in a suit, had a musical chemistry with Cohen. I remember glances between them.  And later I recall a Tanita Tikaram interview where she talked about this same concert and observed that she was sure he was sleeping with at least one of the singers.  

But then he spoke and you could hear his smile:

About a thousand years ago I was living in a hotel in New York City. A brief murmur of anticipation. Those were simple times. In the mornings and in the evenings I used to ride the elevators. It was about the only technology I could master in those days. Laughter. 

After a while I began to notice a young woman riding the same elevators and she seemed to take the same pleasure in pushing the buttons as I did.  After a few days I picked up the courage to ask her:

“Little lady, are you looking for somebody?”

And she replied: “Yes. I’m looking for Kris Kristofferson.”

A wave of laughter sympathetic to Cohen’s self-deprecating plight.  

“Little lady, ” I said, “you’re in luck. I’m Kris Kristofferson.”  Cheers now.

Well those were generous times, and she didn’t let on that she knew I wasn’t tall enough to be Kris Kristofferson.  

A few years later I was sitting in a bar in Miami, the sort of place with palm trees all down the street but they serve the drinks in plastic coconut shells. The sort of place I hope I never bump into you.  Thanks, I think.

That young woman’s presence came back to me strongly and I wrote this song for Janis Joplin in the Chelsea Hotel.

I don’t know if it was common knowledge that “Chelsea Hotel #2” is about Janis but it was new to me and to my girlfriend.  It remains a favourite from that night for that introduction. 

What else do I remember? It was the I’m Your  Man tour and Cohen seemed (from a distance to make eye contact with women in the front rows during the supllicatory title song.  His whispers built and filled the hall for “Tower of Song” then the band took over to swirl through “Take This Waltz.”

There was an interval after which Cohen performed a couple of songs solo. “The Partisan” and others.  More classics, “Suzanne” of course, and “Hallelujah” though that was just another great Leonard Cohen song. (“He changed the words” my girlfriend noticed.)

There were others, encores and applause and a prayer in song poetry “If It Be Your Will.”

I remember we barely spoke as we left the auditorium. Walking to the tube people seemed stilled by the experience. I remember that feeling. 

It was June 1988 and the relationship with that girlfriend barely made it into the following year. That’s all, I don’t think of her that often.

The night we saw Mr Cohen, I can’t forget.  Thank you sir.  Goodnight. 

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About Kev McVeigh

Review of literary matters, mostly but not all SFF , and digressions into music and other arts. Engagement welcomed.
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