The magic of Mr Cohen

Through the generosity of a friend, I got my first glimpse of the O2 arena – from the inside – this month. Transformed dramatically from its original incarnation as an exhibition centre, it was transformed again for me by the presence of Leonard Cohen – poet, songwriter, singer, Canadian Jew, shepherd and lazy bastard living in a suit.

That last bit is his own self-mocking description. It is typical of his modesty and his wry sense of humour. Now in his late seventies, he would not be the first choice of a novice impresario intent on filling 20,000 seats. There is no glamour, no self-glorification, no ambient racket.

Instead there is a quiet but stunning magic with both words and music. Backed up by formidably talented musicians who he praises often on stage, Mr Cohen presents a range of inspired songs, from the widely known and much abused (by other singers) Hallelujah to sparkling gems admired by a much narrower circle.

It is typical of the man that two of his finest songs are given to his backing singers. Alexandra Leaving – a breathtaking piece of poetry – is sung by the multi-talented Sharon Robinson; and the fragile and beautiful prayer, If It Be Your Will, comes with all due delicacy from the Webb Sisters. It is a matter of personal preference which works best: I liked the latter, while my friends preferred the former; suffice to say that it takes a major performance from anyone to come anywhere near the master’s versions.

Mr Cohen’s magnetic presence shrinks the arena into an intimate setting, with the audience as friends who have dropped by, and who the singer is surprised and delighted to see. His injection of spiritual awareness into everything he writes gives a depth that is lacking in so many modern lyrics, and the musical arrangements come with matching profundity, but with lightness too.

The O2 is not perfect. The toilets, for instance, are woefully inadequate. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen such a long queue of quietly desperate men. The audience, too, is not perfect. Someone thought it was a good idea to bring a baby, and a thirsty middle-ager in sweat shirt and glasses mistook the event for a cricket match and marched regularly out and in with fresh glasses of beer, beaming round as he went.

He seemed to think he was the star. But there was no doubt who the star was, and it was great to be there, light years away from the ordinariness of what we so often mistake for reality, basking in the warmth of something truly out of this world.