Is is a rather sad feeling to wake up one morning and realize that last night you’ve witnessed the highest possible level of artistic perfection though you’ve only got eighteen years behind you. A rather early climax; but oh well, Leonard Cohen is Leonard Cohen.
I arrived at the venue about four and a half hours before the concert partly due to misarranged transportation and partly because I really hoped to run into the man as he came to the venue. Sadly, I was a bit too late for the second. Still, I had my Book of Longing with me and Ülker Arena had its own little outdoors café. I was also –curiously enough- able to resist the temptation to try and snatch a ALL ACCESS pass card from one of the many crew members sitting at the café and make a desperate run for it, so all was well. About two hours before the concert my mother, whom I’ve made an ardent fan in the past couple of years, joined me. Actually, our two tickets (at least our initial ones, I’ll come to that) were the first thing ever I bought with the money I truly earned myself—the reward from a poetry contest. It is only fitting that reward was used to see the man who inspired me to delve into the world of lines.
Now, the actual thing. The venue was quite graceful –and with unexpectedly flawless acoustics- for a basketball stadium. I really was surprised at the clarity of the sound when Mr. Cohen first muttered a “Thank you, friends.” to a roaring standing applause and the band began Dance Me. The stage itself was also extremely low, probably just a little higher than two meters or maybe not even that, and that made for some interesting moments during the encore that I’ll talk about.
I’ll go through the set list: Dance Me to the End of Love was extremely strong with the usual violin highlight. I’m and ardent follower of Mr. Albert Noonan’s Youtube channel and I regularly watch numerous other Cohen concert recordings from over the net (So many more than I should, probably, you know…)—but still, the great ease with which Mr. Cohen was able to alternate between the rougher, deeper mode and the higher, crystal clear tones on that song surprised me. The Future followed after another thunderous applause; and the songwas really crisp and energetic with Mr. Cohen going to high notes unusually often. (I was slightly upset with that as I thought Going Home was omitted again—I should’ve checked the Dublin setlists more carefully.)
Bird on the Wire was an absolute highlight. For the duration of my obsessive compulsive Leonard Cohen fandom, I’ve never ever heard him sing that song with such force, emotion, depth and longing. I checked the Dublin IMMA videos to make sure if it’s about the new arrangement; but no, the Istanbul performance was truly unique. Mr. Cohen was nearly wailing as he sang the lines and at one point I did turn to my mom and asked “Wait a second, is he weeping?” The song is not one of my absolute favourites normally; but it felt a nose-crushing punch two nights ago.
Everybody Knows was also great, one of the verses he just recited, standing on the edge of the stage and just looking directly at the audience. Javier Mas’s solo before Who By Fire was unbelievable, probably the single most beautiful, heart-breaking thing I’ve ever heard; and he received three
full house applauses before
Mr. Cohen presented him to the crowd and started singing the song.
The atmosphere became really subdued and harmonious during the Darkness-Sisters of Mercy-Hey That’s No Way to Say Goodbye sequence, during which Mr. Cohen played the guitar. I personally felt the music made me able to turn completely inwards and make peace with quite a few disturbances of the soul.
A fabulous, cleansing, perfectly balanced Amen and a healing Come Healing that made me wonder why Hattie and Charley Webb are still hiding their angel wings followed immediately. I felt personally that without the guitar, Mr. Cohen’s singing became more spontaneous and conversational, his performance more engaging and engaged. During In My Secret Life the energy between Ms. Robinson and Mr. Cohen almost tangible and made for a superb performance. Different Sides was sung with Mr. Cohen’s signature dry, intelligent humour, almost conversationally. And then came, much to my joy, came a simply flawless Going Home. The audience especially loved the sportsman/shepherd/lazy bastard living in a suit verse and did not refrain from clapping, shouting and appreciative whistling at all. In return, we were rewarded with the Flood before a beautiful Anthem.
I want to drop a line about the audience-artist interaction. I think Mr. Cohen himself was not quite sure what to expect from this rather faraway audience (neither was I); but he really, really warmed up to the strong Istanbul crowd and started enjoying himself a great deal once it became clear this audience’s tone was one of absolute enthusiasm, respect and affection.
One anecdote—somewhere towards the middle of the first half, during a longer pause between two songs, someone shouted something inaudible to Mr. Cohen (‘Boogie Street,’ possibly). Following up on that but with full intention of making myself heard, I took the opportunity and howled “HAPPY BIRTHDAY!” I spoke to a couple of friends and a teacher who were sitting at the far corners of the stadium and they said they were able to hear and understand the birthday wish—so did Mr. Cohen, I think, as we got an extra “Thank you, friends.” right after my roar.
Now the second half. Tower of Song was utterly cool with the usual “golden voice” roar. Mr. Cohen didn’t take his sunglasses off until after Suzanne and Night Comes On. Both were beautiful; but a really dark and raw Night Comes On really sent shivers up and down my spine, especially with my own dear mother sitting right next to me. Heart With No Companion made things cheerful again for a few minutes until The Gypsy’s Wife broke all the hearts again. The Partisan and a gritty Democracy were especially well-received, the audience visibly adoring Mr. Cohen’s mouth harp performance in the latter.
Coming Back To You was angelic as always. As was the case in the concert three years ago, the Webb Sisters were especially liked and respected here. Another phenomenon that I also observed in the 2009 Istanbul concert is that the Turkish audience simply goes wild for Sharon Robinson. I’m quite proud to say that we almost succeeded in bringing the roof down after a perfect Alexandra Leaving.
I’m Your Man brought Mr. Cohen back to the spotlight. He mimed many of the lines standing on the edge of the stage, showing the ‘old mask’, striking himself, extending a hand to the audience saying he’ll do anything for us. Quite a few ladies kept screaming at him, playful whistling was constant and the occasional male shouting were also there. We had a really subdued, emotional, purifying Hallelujah. It is a real favourite here in Turkey despite the strong Christo-Judean theme and Mr. Cohen sung, unusually, the “You say I took the name in vain.” verse as well. A sweet Take This Waltz with the usual band instructions made the perfect transition to the encores.
Now, the encores. Unbelievable thing…the stage, as I wrote earlier, was extremely low and not very separated from the audience at all, so when a large group of people moved right to the front, there were mere feet between us and Mr. Cohen. I was standing at the very front, in fact, and there were times when I was no more than a meter and a half away from the great man. How Mr. Cohen was having fun and enjoying the roaring audience at this point was especially visible from up front. It was a moving experience to be able to hear his naked voice when he was singing parts of Manhattan with the microphone down and watch him say something to Ms. Robinson and make her laugh during a bridge.
I had my moment during the very last encore, Closing Time, which cheered things up for the finale after Famous Blue Raincoat invoked many, many sighs. Around the beginning of the song, someone threw a bouquet of white flowers on stage. Mr. Cohen picked up the bouquet, held it for a short while sang a few lines towards where the flowers came from; and then gave the bouquet to Ms. Robinson (clapping, shouting, whistles). This made me feel a terrible urge to somehow interact with the man –you don’t stand a meter away from your great idol and icon every day, do you?-. I remembered the two plush monkeys that are the veterans of the last tour (The two monkeys were there, by the way, sitting comfortably on some piece of equipment off stage.) Sadly, though, I didn’t have any plush monkeys or polka dot blouses on my person and the only projectile of any value and meaning I had was…my own fedora. So I took it off, thought that I probably shouldn’t do it and it’s a very good hat for a moment. Then I looked at Leonard Cohen, said “What the hell, I gotta give the Man something back…some kind of a birthday gift, certainly.” inside, and threw the hat on stage.
My fedora landed squarely at Mr. Cohen’s feet, who quickly noticed it. He gave it a puzzled look, then knelt slowly, picked it up, rose, gave it another little “What the…” glance. He looked at the front to see who threw the thing and somehow understood that it was me. He slightly smiled at me, went back and put the fedora on the usual ‘gift spot’ beside Mr. Beck. At this point he had come to the lines “I loved you for your beauty/But that doesn’t make a fool of me,” which of course he did looking at the entire audience; but somewhere along “You are in it for your beauty, too” he turned towards me and again we had eye contact for the next couple of lines which I was also singing. I find it a surprising thing that I survived that part of the evening…I’ve still got no words to describe how I felt, really. (The forum name is completely incidental
He ended Closing Time with the rare “Never got to tell you/ how beautiful you are” lines. He thanked us and gave the usual blessings.
Yet his very last sentence was “And may you find peace in this great country.” Seeing him offer such a needed and appreciated blessing to Turkey and its peoples—a place and population that he doesn’t need to know much or care about at all…it reminded me once more why I think, correction, why I know that Leonard Cohen is simply the greatest one of them all. It also made me think for a moment that the audience was bringing the house down. As Mr. Cohen waved goodbye and left the stage, the applause and the cheering was not merely about artistic appreciation. It was Istanbul’s display of pure, undivided love for this man; love for the way he stands, the way he smiles, the way he sings, the way he thanks and runs up and down stage, the way he cares—the way, the unique, matchless way, he exists.