Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 31 August 2014

Alf McCreary: Why Cohen is a spiritual and secular genius

The remarkable Leonard Cohen at the Odyssey ArenaWhen the famous Ulster writer CS Lewis finally embraced Christianity, he said that he was “the most reluctant convert” in all of England.

Last Sunday evening I went to the Odyssey Stadium in Belfast to hear the poet, writer and entertainer Leonard Cohen, not as a convert, but certainly ‘reluctant’ to buy all the hype from my journalist colleagues and others that this man is a ‘genius.’

However, I was curious to find out for myself. My wife, who had persuaded me over many years that Van Morrison is not just a grumpy old Ulsterman but one of the world’s greatest song-writers, also has a similarly high opinion of Cohen.

Perhaps, I thought, I might become a Leonard Cohen convert too, but not just yet. The Odyssey was almost packed to capacity with everybody who was somebody, or wanted to be ‘somebody’, and those who merely wanted to tell their children and grandchildren that they had heard Leonard Cohen ‘live’ in Belfast.

Certainly there was no mistaking the atmosphere when the sprightly mid-70’s Cohen moved briskly on stage to a standing ovation — even before he had uttered a sound.

This was pure adulation of the kind which I had not encountered since I watched the late Pope John Paul II ‘play’ the crowd in the huge basilica at Knock during his visit to Ireland. The Pope, of course, was a consummate showman and he swayed gently to the rhythm of the mass audience as they sang (for no reason I could fathom) Viva L’ Espana. This prompted a French journalist at my side to murmur cynically “This man is also ‘Top of Ze Popes’.”

Last Sunday as the huge crowd in the Odyssey listened intently to Leonard Cohen’s songs and poetry, there was almost a kind of fervour apparent.

Unfortunately, Cohen’s delivery was difficult to follow. Like Bob Dylan, he is a superb song-writer but not necessarily the world’s best singer. So I was left to pick up the words as best I could, or try to remember them from his CDs, while the rest of the congregation worshipped at the Cohen altar.

After a while the words did not seem to matter as Leonard Cohen led his audience through a familiar path of song, poetry, philosophy and a little humour — all the time backed by an outstanding group of musicians.

However it was Cohen himself who began to fascinate me. What was the secret of this 70-plus man who could hold a huge audience of sophisticated and wordly-wise people in the palm of his hand for nearly three hours?

Apart from the words and the music, which other people knew better than me, there was a sense of grace and great dignity from a man who had drunk deeply from life’s pleasures and experienced its tribulations, and who was trying to pass on his wisdom in the twilight of his life.

His material was not ‘religious’ in a denominational sense, but it transcended what we have come to accept as ‘religion.’ Cohen is deeply spiritual, and it is a rare entertainer in today’s world who can end a major concert by quoting from the Book of Ruth and also leaving his audience with part of the Old Testament’s beautiful Aaronic Blessing “The Lord Bless you and keep you, The Lord make His face to shine upon you, and be gracious unto you and give you Peace.”

As I noted to a journalistic colleague, who also wrestles with these things, “This evening we saw the spiritual and the secular in one” and he replied “Exactly.”

The remarkable Mr Cohen reminded me of a celebrated series of lectures given in the 1950’s to American universities by the theologian Paul Tillich. He told them, even then, that if the Churches lost the art of sharing sublime truths with the ordinary people, this would be taken over by the world of writers, artists and performers. Just like Leonard Cohen.

I am still on the way to being a Cohen ‘convert’, but I am now going to read his poems and play his CDs again and again.

And if I had the opportunity to attend another of his concerts tomorrow night I would go like a shot.

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