Why Not Ask For More?

A lot of times, live music impresses, or fails to, based on your expectations going in. We’ve all been surprised by some obscure opening act. We’ve all been disappointed by a familiar headliner. But there are some performers who are so iconic that their mere presence is off-the-charts exciting. I felt this way about seeing Miles Davis and Chuck Berry years ago, and I felt it again this weekend in Toronto.

Leonard Cohen could’ve hobbled on stage and croaked out a half dozen tunes and I would’ve been happy. Instead, the 73-year-old trotted out to an explosive welcome and sang his heart out for three hours. Of course, singing is a relative term when it comes to Leonard. His foghorn, lovelorn voice is better suited to recitation, as he proved with a straight read of A Thousand Kisses Deep. Still, he gave plenty of songs everything he had…crouched over, knees bent, microphone clutched with both hands. The band was good – Hammond B3, bass (mostly electric), drums, two guitars and a sax player, plus three backup singers – but Leonard acknowledged each and every soloist, and the resulting applause kinda took you out of the flow of the song. That wasn’t a problem during Suzanne, which he sang pretty much on his own, accompanying himself on guitar. After listening to that beautiful song so many times, for so many years, it was a real thrill to hear those first notes and then the voice: “Suzanne takes you down… to her place near the river.” It was the first song on his first record, which came out in 1967, but Leonard rarely took the audience back that far. Most of the songs were more recent: Dance Me to the End of Love, The Future, Democracy, Anthem, No Cure for Love, I’m Your Man, Everybody Knows, Hallelujah. And there was a good amount of patter. At one point, he described how he tried to apply himself to a rigorous study of religion and philosophy, but “cheerfulness kept breaking through.” Cheerful isn’t a word that leaps to mind when you think about his music, but it’s in there, in a way. In the dogged documentation of hurt, he tips his hat to hope and humor, too.

As we left the theater, we walked by a homeless guy sitting on the sidewalk with his hat out. He said “God bless you” to everyone passing. I thought of another highlight from the show – and my favorite Leonard song - Bird on a Wire…

I saw a beggar leaning on his wooden crutch,
He said to me, you must not ask for so much.
And a pretty woman leaning in her darkened door,
She cried to me, hey, why not ask for more?

Maybe life is like live music. A lot of it depends on your expectations.