Please Don't Pass Me By
The following article is taken from the book,
Leonard Cohen: Zooey Glass in Europe
by Burr Snider
Somehow you don't expect the old Hollywood flash-visiting celebrity-Silver Screen hoopla thing to be surrounding a poet. Sammy Davis maybe, or Dr. Christian Barnard...one of those boys, but you sort of hoped against hope that Leonard Cohen would be able to pull off a European tour without all that attendant show biz clamor.
So you're disappointed to find in the immaculate, bland lobby of the all-plastic Airport Hotel outside Frankfurt, that a small pack of those scavengers who swarm around the spoor of hot copy has gathered. The photogs, the pompous radio interviewers, the hangers-on, the celebrity-seekers and the just plain curious, all out-cooling each other as they await the arrival of the Canadian singer-poet.
It's an uneasy mixture of journalists plowing the grounds of the Fourth Estate here. The spectrum ranges from the superstraights, like the pair of Jimmy Olsen types from Stars & Stripes (the house organ for the American military in Europe) eyes all a'shining at the prospect of some juice freebies from the nice, harried hotel P.R. lady, all the way over to hear German lensmen from some of the hipper Deutsche journals who are getting the paranoia shakes from being around all these bristly haircuts and black, ship Kripo soles.
And us, the Crawdaddy team, suitably scruffy in boots and jeans and Levi jackets, looking like a couple of whores in a cathedral, the rest of the press corps sort of avoiding us, benignly snubbing us.
Everybody's a little impatient because the poet is running about an hour behind schedule, and when the word filters down from his high-rise eyrie that the press conference has been called, the grumbling is unkind and many of the less hardy slip off to the bar muttering about the nerve of these lousy rhyme makers.
Finally, long past the appointed hour, he appears. Pops out of an elevator and comes striding through the lobby with a couple of his handlers, and suddenly it's all right that he's made you wait, all right that he is unable to completely escape the effluvia of flackery, because he is so obviously the Leonard Cohen who sings so warmly of the holy game of poker and the tea and oranges all the way from China that Suzanne brings you. Yeah, it's Leonard Cohen for sure -- his solemn face reflects the snowstorms he's walked through.
He's wearing yellow Peter Fonda shades (possibly protection against some of that secret psychic snow), a beautifully pressed safari jacket, fitted black trousers and a pair of handtooled boots so lovely you want to cry with envy. He's not a big guy, more trim and wiry, like a graceful, all-field, no-hit Latin shortstop. Or a matador. A suit of lights would fit easily across Leonard Cohen's shoulders. But then it hits you who he really is. No question, it's Zooey Glass. Remember how Salinger describes old Zooey? The part-Jewish part-Irish Mohican scout who died in your arms at the tables in Monte Carlo. Sure, Lenny Cohen is Zooey Glass in the flesh.
...striding along with his eyes down through this no-man's land of a lobby, trying to make it to that waiting cab before the vultures close in with their hand-held mikes and cameras and little note pads, purposefully pushing along, and all of a sudden the poet's eyes happen to chance upon your correspondent's boots.
Now the boots which yr. correspondent sports ain't really much as boots go. They might have cost a fifth of what those beauties he has on went for, but dig -- Leonard Cohen is maybe not too used to seeing boots and Levis in these crowds that cluster around in hotel and airport lobbies. And almost involuntarily his eyes come up off the ground, up the denim, up to the dungaree jacket and higher to the stubbled beard on the chin, all the way up in that split second to the nonhaircut and again almost involuntarily, he gives a salutory little wave, a fleeting nervous smile and he's out the door.
Outside the mob scene is intensified. Click, click go the photographers. Get the hell out of my click way.
From the serenity of his cab he looks up and grins that uncertain grin and once again he waves in the direction of my boots.
In this McLuhanesque age of non-verbal communication there has to be some special reason why a Canadian poet who doesn't sing especially well makes it in the vulgar milieu of pop entertainment.
The reason might be that Leonard Cohen is one of the few able to put into words the emotions that drive and wound the children of Aquarius.
Or it may well be that he possesses an alien grace that is eminently desirable in our graceless era. He wears his battered heart on his sleeve and waves his never-healing stigmata scars in our faces to show us what we've done to him. And then he smiles, sadly, gently, a little apprehensively, to let us know that he never expected it to be any different, and that not only are we forgiven for our callousness, but that he's thankful to us for it. Don't forget, he says...I told you when I came I was a stranger.
Before his performance at the Jahrhunderthalle in a Frankfurt suburb, the poet's grace was put to the test and found not wanting. He was tired and nervous, standing onstage trying to get this guitar tuned before the concert, and these people kept coming up to him interrupting saying, "Excuse me, please, could you sign these...?" And he'd smile that sad poet's smile and say, sure, even when a chick came up waving five tickets to be signed. "All of them?" he asked faintly. "Yes, please, if you would. I have a lot of friends." Sure, sure, he said again, still smiling and he signed them all.
For those who look for such things there is a lot to be learned from dressing rooms. Like a one-night-stand tourist cabin, the places where entertainers and athletes prepare for their particular battles give whiffs only of the soul of the immediate occupant. And these ephemeral scents are telling.
The dressing room of Ingemar Johannsen, for example, always crackled with the static of the highly-tensioned beautiful people. They say Red Skelton's has the fear and despair of a cancer ward. Canned Heat is stoned pandemonium. With Ray Charles before a show in the old days it was always a race against the clock as everybody sat around and waited for that certain man to arrive.
In the dressing room where The Leonard Cohen Army languidly prepare for its show in the unnatural cold of modern fluorescence, the only recognizable quality is one...what? Calmness? Contentment? Peace? yes, friends, cornball as it sounds, in Leonard Cohen's dressing room a lot of people sit around rapping quietly, drinking a ceremonial bottle of seka, while waiting to go out onstage to do something they would probably do even if nobody was paying them for it.
The army consists of Cohen's Nashville sidemen, as hip a band of unreconstructed hillbillies as ever escaped the Grand Ol'Oprey; a couple of those madegenius type technicians whose eyes never seem to really focus until they have some dials and knobs in front of them, and who do marvelous things with notes of music as they spin them through their gleaming, transistorized distilleries; and the two charmant young chicks in gossamer who sing a haunting angel's chorus to offset the low, gravely roughness of the poet's voice.
The most disturbing thing at first is that there's no egos parading around in here. My God, you go into a star's dressing room, the least they can do is offer you a nice, fat ego to plop down on right? Forget it, these people have cashed in their ticket on that trip. Nobody's trying to one-up anyone. Nobody's trying to make points with the star. There's no pre-show hysterics, histrionics or bitchery. Just a small group of nice people who dropped in to put on a show.
Leonard Cohen sits in a corner of the room taking it all in -- sometimes participating, sometimes contemplating.
The interviewer finally approaches him hesitantly. "Uh, it might strike you as kind of funny the way I'm not asking you too many questions. You have to understand, this is sort of a non-interview, just picking up some impressions like..."
"Yeah, right," he says nodding gravely. "I've been watching you, man. Don't worry about the questions, you're picking it up." The synch is in.
The people who came to hear and see Leonard Cohen are almost reverent. Many of them are the same ones who will tear up a hall after seeing the Rolling Stones or Steppenwolf. But tonight there's a wistfulness in the air. They've come to love as much as to hear.
And the poet returns the love. Introducing a song, he says, "I wrote all these songs so naturally I remember those emotions for you tonight."
Leonard Cohen is not Eliot, nor Pound, nor Joyce. Nor does he strive to be. He doesn't deal heavily in metaphysics or in the dazzling glare of pure intellectuality. His currency is sensuality, and what he hands you when he sings are his little personally-minted coins of sorrow. His voice even is a celebration of that sorrow, and when he misses a note, or hits one flat you somehow know that it is that lump of hurt in his throat that threw him off.
There's a spontaneous casualness to a Leonard Cohen concert that is wonderfully infectious. The indifference to the maxims of high powered entertainment is like fresh air to this Teutonic audience. They are delighted at Cohen's smiling apology when he begins a song several keys away from his band. And when a compromise is reached, they clap their delighted accord.
"Hey, did you get a look at that audience out there?" he asks one of his guitar men. "That really looks like a nice bunch of kids. I hope it's good tonight."
Somebody wants to open up a beer. "Hey, how do you say 'opener' in German?" he asks. "Aufmacher," he's told, and one of the angel chicks looks at the profferer of that information, looks at him slyly and says, "Hmmm, looks like you know your stuff about aufmaching there, man. Ever do any aufmaching around Pittsburgh?"
And, the synch being in, he picks up quick. "Can't say as I have. Did most of my aufmaching around Cleveland. Now there's where you run into your bigtime aufmachers."
For the next five minutes, the last five before showtime, a stoned rap on aufmaching is all that matters. Natural, you know, like the dressing room of a natural poet and his friends should be.
He's sung his songs a thousand times, but each time he mourns his way through a verse he seems to be discovering something new along with his audience. Another nuance, perhaps, or another shade of pain or a hidden chuckle and his wonderment is transmitted to the crowd.
They know their poet, this bunch. He need only go a short way into the first bar of a song before they are clapping recognition. And as each number follows another, the feeling that a love-fest is happening develops.
When he'd done his last number and walked offstage, Cohen looked worried. "I don't think they liked it," he said. "What are they doing out there?"
"They're standing up clapping, man," someone told him. "They want you back."
"No they don't," he answered. "They're just standing up to leave." And he had to be pushed and coaxed back onstage.
They did want him back, and they clustered in around the stage to show him.
This is the encore he gave to Frankfurt:
"Once I was walking along in a snowstorm in New York," he began, "and I came up very quickly behind a man who had a sign stuck to the back of his coat. The sign said,
'Please don't pass me by
"But when I looked at the man's face I saw that he wasn't really blind, at least not physically, and so I caught up with him at the next corner and asked him why he had that sign. He said to me, 'Man, do you think I'm talking about my eyes?' So I wrote this song."
And he began to sing his song, to sing it hoedown-style, to sing it twangy "...oh, please don't pass me by...oh, please don't pass me by...singing now to the ghosts of Germany...me by...been blinded totally...singing about tyranny...but you can see...oh, please, oh, please don't pass me by..."
By the end of it most of the audience is crowded onstage, singing along the chorus, patting the performers on the back, shaking hands all around, everybody's arms around everybody else, smiles breaking out like a happy plague had hit. And it suddenly dawned on just about everybody that his show had been a particularly nice gift, all wrapped up in a big pink ribbon and accompanied by an inconspicuous little card which read,
I send my prayer of thanks to my friend Sandy Merriman
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