Neil Young and Leonard Cohen: A Canadian Homecoming

Music Features Neil Young
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From the prairie outback to Rue Frontenac:
November in Vancouver with Neil Young and Leonard Cohen

When I was just out of my teens, I left my home in Vancouver, Canada to travel around Europe, hoping that the time away would help me decide what to do with the rest of my life. I worked on a farm in France before traveling south and finally ending up in Greece. But, no matter where I went, one question followed me everywhere, and that was “what part of America are you from?” I had never been one of those Canadians who puts a flag on his backpack in order to distinguish myself from my globally unpopular brothers and sisters from the South, but the more I was asked this question, the more annoying I began to find it. I’d never felt the least bit like an American. To me, the differences between our two countries and the way we were brought up to see the world couldn’t be more obvious, so why couldn’t anyone tell us apart?

I think that every Canadian of my generation—and the ones that preceded it—grew up feeling as if we were living out our lives in the shadow of a giant. It’s interesting the way our two countries have evolved so differently. After all, the people who left the old world to come to Canada and the United States all left to find better lives in a new land. Both groups of settlers had to deal with harsh climates, unfamiliar terrain and native peoples who already occupied the territories. The differences between the histories of the two nations begin to emerge there, however. Whereas most settlers to Canada left Europe for the simple reason of poverty, many early American settlers came to flee religious persecution or untenable ideologies in their homelands. New Canadians essentially coexisted with the native people without feeling any great desire to kill them all, though some historians have said that the diseases immigrants brought from Europe wiped out thousands of them and precluded the need for war. Canadians never had any concept of manifest destiny; we didn’t need to have a war of independence in order to gain nationhood. The provisional government of Canada simply asked England, who by this time had gained control over the nation’s French territories, for freedom which was granted in 1867. The downside of this of course was that we remained a part of the Commonwealth and followed Britain into its wars for nearly a hundred years after that. Still, as a nation, we’ve never had conflicts about religion, and one’s faith has never been an issue in our politics. In addition, the twin pariahs of nuclear war and communism haven’t really troubled us much. No one has started reading Das Kapital because we have state-funded medical care, but we have spent a lot of time worrying that when your enemies try to blow you up, the nuclear fallout will kill most of us, too.

The differences between our two countries are so ubiquitous that they almost never cross my mind, but that all changed last month when I read that two of Canada’s most popular expatriate performers, Neil Young and Leonard Cohen, would be playing back-to-back concerts in Vancouver on consecutive nights at the same venue in November. Of course, I’ve had the chance to see each of them in concert many times over the past three decades, but the instance of them touring in such close proximity to one another, and the predictable flurry of newspaper articles that accompanied the concert announcements, claiming that they each represent something essential about the Canadian spirit, started me thinking.

As reluctant as the average Canadian is to engage in nationalist rants, it’s surprising the lengths that we will go to when claiming our cultural heroes as our own—especially when it concerns artists who long ago left the country to seek their fortunes elsewhere. If both Neil Young and Leonard Cohen are quintessentially Canadian, and their music is so different, what—if anything—does this reveal about the complex nature of our country? This is probably not even a question that would be asked in America. The sheer volume of music of every genre that gets pumped out of the nation’s recording studios to be sold and played on radio stations all over the world makes such questioning unnecessary. The world has been blanketed in sounds that are familiar to you. Canada, for its immense landscape, is a country with a small population, most of which lives hugged up close to the 49th parallel that divides our two countries.

Both Neil Young and Leonard Cohen have said countless times over the years that when they were growing up, there was no option of launching a musical career in Canada. In those days, it was necessary to migrate south, so they—along with contemporaries like Ian and Sylvia, Joni Mitchell and The Band—left their homeland to gain access to the much larger American market that could, in turn, open the doors to global recognition. Today, thanks in a large part to their efforts, Canada’s homegrown music industry is thriving with artists like Feist, Broken Social Scene and Arcade Fire—to name a few—establishing lucrative careers at home before extending their reputations beyond our borders. (Please forgive us for Justin Bieber.)

It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to suggest that Neil Young and Leonard Cohen each embody different aspects of Canada’s cultural identity. As a Quebec native, Cohen’s upbringing and background evoke old worlds and ideas as well as the duality of the French and English dreams and perspectives that built the country. Neil Young’s Canada is a nation of open spaces, new possibilities and discoveries that have replaced dreams and associations with the past. His is an outdoor nation of childhoods spent in bare feet by the lake. Leonard Cohen’s Canada is inner and ancient. It is a frightening place where explorers landed their boats, aware of the eyes that were fixed on them, peering out of the wilderness. In Cohen’s lexicon, nature is terrifying, or at best, a reminder of human insignificance in the face of God’s omnipotence. His poetry describes the new world as a bare, ruined place with battered crosses dotting windswept shores, with its inhabitants torn between the romance and security of the familiar, and the shifting terrors and hopes of the unknown.

Cohen’s Canada is infinitely smaller than Young’s. The vast spaces and highways that connect our nation’s few big cities offered a vision of freedom and discovery for Young that was never explored by Cohen who contented himself with trawling the backstreets of post-war Montreal. His is a place of darkened cafes and smoky nights, and when nature intrudes at all, it is sensed from a distance or heard through the window. Rivers are far away, lulling and sacred and for Cohen the perfect aid to seduction. Hearing the boats go by, the running water reminds the listener of the passage of time. With the realization that “this too shall pass,” what better way to spend our limited time than locked in one another’s arms? For all of Young’s perceived hippie optimism, his songs are often darker than Cohen’s. Rivers in his songs aren’t preludes to romance or the soundtrack of seduction; in Young’s art rivers are full of regret and death with bad deeds just around the corner. With the white boat coming down to bring murder and disaster, Neil is the everyman, all of our ancestors, who had to deal in the moment. When he sings, “Daddy’s rifle in my hand felt reassuring,” nobody who hears it feels any better or believes that safety is at hand.

Leonard Cohen often communicates from the perspective of the misunderstood outsider who is rarely called to action. The people he sings of slip more easily into the quietude of regret, and they let more pass them by than the characters in Young’s songs do. Cohen’s passion is muted, annotated for future reference and examination. There is a sense in all of Cohen’s work that he is trying to ward off chaos with religious observances and discipline. By contrast, Neil Young’s art represents discovery in the moment, and an acceptance that uncertainty leads to trainwrecks and moments ruled by passion. Neil’s life, art and live expression are defined by caprice and stories heard on the wind. The difference between them lies in Young’s acceptance of the gifts of a moment grasped rather than Cohen’s endless study and rumination over casual spoken words and events. For all of his work ethic, Young has never favored advance preparation and has always created music with the tape rolling, trusting intuition, and believing that the moment may never come again, so he’d better be prepared to capture it. By contrast, Cohen spent years in his basement writing “Hallelujah” in his underwear and he still wasn’t satisfied with it. While Leonard spent a long time listening, waiting from lonely wooden towers, Neil was ripping down the highway in his old Cadillac, seeking Cinnamon girls and new frontiers.

As the dates of the concerts grew nearer, I started to reflect on all of the other times I’d seen each of them play live over the years. I was just a kid when they first came to Vancouver, so it wasn’t until the ’80s that I had the chance to hear them play, and by that time they were suffering from the slump many ’60s-era artists were experiencing at the time. Young was slashing around somewhere in between the electric sounds of Trans and the wobbly rockabilly of the Shocking Pinks while Leonard Cohen had just recorded Various Positions, perhaps his best album, which at the time of release was only available on a boutique Canadian label. Cohen’s band was small and loose in 1985; the theatrical performance of “Hallelujah” where he mimicked being tied to a chair was erotic and vital, and nothing like the elegiac performance of the song that has evolved over the years.

As the decades have passed, both Young and Cohen have gradually accepted the legendary mantles bestowed on them as each found his way to embrace his past and assume a sense of pride and responsibility for all they have created. So, when they rolled into town last month, as much as they may have wished otherwise, they weren’t simply musicians who had come to entertain: they were national legends who were expected to communicate a mythology that had interwoven itself deeply into the souls of millions of Canadians. It was a lot to take on, but thankfully both artists, as their concerts demonstrated, were more than up to the task.

Neil Young may have recently quit smoking marijuana, but judging from the huge clouds of BC bud combusting outside of the Rogers Arena as we made our way inside, it’s obvious that many of his fans still love to indulge. Cohen’s audience, the next night, despite the singer’s shared proclivity for smoking pot, were more obviously hanging around the stadium doors to have a last cigarette—his other favorite vice—before going inside. In this and so many other ways, the audiences who gathered to hear their favorite singers were very different. For all of Young’s hipster cred, cardigans and trim beards were in short supply as the majority of Neil’s audience appeared to be comprised of rugged-looking people who appeared like they had spent their lives working with their hands, planting trees or building houses. It seemed as if the term “salt of the earth” was invented for them as a shuffling parade of calloused, wind-blown and rain-swept individuals with calloused hands, tousled hair and faded lumberjack shirts past security to find their seats.

When Neil Young and Crazy Horse took the stage to the sounds of the Canadian national anthem, 17,000 surprised-looking people got to their feet. In over 30 years of attending musical events, this was the first time I’d ever heard a concert begin this way in Canada. While a friend sarcastically leaned over and said, “Neil’s sure milking the Canadian thing! He’s been in America too long!” the majority of the crowd was moved, some to tears, before the band had played a single note. And, when they did start playing, the effect was astonishing: in one movement, the people who had just sat down, shuffled to their feet again as Crazy Horse’s music had a tribal, almost mystically transformative, effect on the crowd. It was a truly amazing spectacle to see a stadium full of mostly middle-aged people fall under Young’s spell as they began to lurch and sway in unison like Neanderthals around a campfire. It wasn’t so much a concert as a primal communion in which the disparate crowd of laborers, lawyers, bankers and hippies swayed towards catharsis as they were bathed in drenching feedback. Nearly two hours later, just over half the time that Leonard Cohen typically plays for, the audience and the band were drained by the time the last notes of “Roll another Number” reverberated around the arena. Even though they looked like they could have played longer, Young obviously knows when the audience has been satiated; Crazy Horse’s music is a heady brew that needs to be sipped cautiously.

My ears were still shot and my head was still fuzzy when I made my way down to the stadium the next night to hear Leonard Cohen. While stepping across the beer-sticky floor, I thought of how my companion from the night before said that he wouldn’t come with me to tonight’s concert if his life depended on it. Hearing “Suzanne” once nearly 30 years ago was enough for him, and as I looked at the gathering crowd I wondered how many of the people here had bought tickets to both concerts. It was impossible to tell. If so, they’d all changed out of their plaid shirts and into black turtlenecks, jackets and fedoras.

Like Neil Young’s crowd, Leonard Cohen’s audience also spans a wide range, but to judge by outward appearances, his is comprised of a seemingly more well-heeled and polished collection of people than had turned out the night before. Both crowds were peppered with people from many generations, from the young kids in their twenties trying to catch the last hippie wave from Neil Young’s guitar to the bearded nouveau bohemians who hoped to soak in the elegance of the fin de siècle despair illuminated in so many of Leonard Cohen’s songs.

In concert, Leonard Cohen doesn’t create the same kind of tribal, primal communion that Neil Young conjured; his show relied far more on elegance rather than the powerful pagan energy that the guitarist commanded. With Cohen at the helm, the words and music waltzed and swayed like a joyous mass for hopeless sinners who had somehow conned their way into paradise. The love that the audience showered Cohen with wasn’t like the unruly fist pounding worship that greeted Neil Young; it was quite unlike anything I’d experienced before. The instant Cohen skipped onto stage, a radiant, physical, wave of love that caught me in the back of the throat, pulsed through the stadium as more than a few people around me burst into tears. The only other time I’d experienced anything close to that was when I heard the Dalai Lama speaking on his birthday to a crowd of Tibetans in India.

While on stage, Cohen, himself, seemed very aware of the grace that had carried him this far, having said over the years that he never expected to be alive at this point, much less playing in front of the largest audience of his career. In response to this, he spent much of the concert on his knees with eyes closed as he listened with appreciation to each of the other musicians on the stage with him. A particularly good solo would contort his face, while Sharon Robinson’s vocals would often bring him near to tears. If, as he said in one of the songs on Old Ideas, the music provides a manual for how to live, Cohen’s absolute immersion in this music was its living embodiment. If after an hour and a half, Neil Young’s audience was reaching satiation, over three hours after Leonard Cohen first took the stage, he still had the entire crowd eating out of his hands.

It’s not that Cohen offers his audience more than Young does; it’s simply that the demands of each concert were completely different. A Crazy Horse show is brash and assaultive, exhausting and orgasmically satisfying, while the Cohen experience is more like a sacred pilgrimage taken a step at a time. Which concert was better, people have asked me? There’s no way to answer that. It’s like the difference between flying down Highway 1 in a ’57 Mustang or cruising Monaco in a Rolls Royce. How do you choose? Like troublesome old relatives you can’t live without, both Cohen and Young have become so idiosyncratic, downright weird and irreplaceable over the years, that all you can do if you can’t forget them is love them more. I don’t think we’ll ever see their like again.