My life with Leonard Cohen

Comic Arthur Smith is back singing his songbook on stage. Here he charts his enduring fandom

I first did Arthur Smith Sings Leonard Cohen back in 2000.

 Originally, way back, my plan was to do a trilogy of Arthur Smith Sings… shows. The first one was Arthur Smith Sings Andy Williams, which I’ll grant you sounds like a bit of a joke, and the second was Leonard Cohen. I thought singing Cohen promised the grimmest evening of entertainment possible; it was almost anti-comedy, and I liked that, I liked it a lot. So much so, that I never did complete the trilogy. Instead I’m back now, with Cohen Volume 2.

I have my reasons. Leonard Cohen is coming up on 80, I’m coming up on 60, and as clichéd as it sounds, the man has provided the soundtrack to my life. There hasn’t been a single album of his, I think, that hasn’t left me going “woah!” over at least one track. I love his maudlin croak, the melancholy of him; the humour, too, which I think is often overlooked. He’s funny, Leonard.

Of course, there’s another reason I wanted to do this: just as every politician secretly wants to be a comedian, so every comedian secretly wants to be a rock star. And Leonard, I thought, was the kind of rock star I could aim for. I’m no great singer, but then he never called himself a great singer, either. “If I want to hear great singing,” he once said, “I go to the Metropolitan Opera House”. Same here. My voice is in the same range as his, and I even resemble him, vaguely.

I must have been 16 when I first heard him. My older brother brought back one of his albums, and I thought he sounded so cool: a poet with a transcendent air about him. 

And then, in the mid-1970s, he did me a very big favour. I was living in Paris at the time, and I’d been seeing this French girl, who I fancied like crazy, for three months. Things were going well, but she would not let me into her boudoir. Then I took her to see Leonard in concert, and later that night… she did. I’ve been grateful to him ever since.

In that first show I did on him, back in 2000, I talked about addiction a lot. I was interested in Leonard’s – apparently he liked speed, which leads me to conjecture what his songs might have sounded like without the speed – and I was also considering my own attachment to booze. I suppose I advocated that we embrace our addictions. Ironically, not long after, I was admitted to intensive care with pancreatitis caused by alcohol. It was pretty serious; I nearly died. I don’t drink any more: well, the odd glass of red wine with my steak every now and then, perhaps, but little else. A Leonard lyric that I particularly like is from “Take this Waltz”: “This waltz, this waltz, this waltz. Waltz – with its very own breath of brandy and death...”

You will be relieved to hear that my new show isn’t about addiction. It’s about decline, departure, dementia and death. Leonard’s last studio album, Old Ideas (2012), ran along similar themes. The opening track, “Going Home”, would be perfect for funerals. But it’s a wonderful album. He sounds miserable as hell, but there is always a little uplift at the end of every song, always a crack in the ceiling where the light gets in.

I like to think the same is true of my show. In it, for example, I talk about my mother’s dementia. She started being found wandering around the streets, and conversations between us turned increasingly into some kind of Samuel Beckett play, with their endless repetitions. It was very concerning at times, but then she also said such funny things, too. In one of Leonard’s old songs, “Love Calls You By Your Name”, he sings about stumbling into movie houses and climbing into the frame. That struck me as the sort of thing my mother was doing, climbing into different frames. It was a very difficult time, but I loved her, she loved me, and it was our love, I think, that got us through.

As to whether I’ve met the great man, I couldn’t possibly comment, not here, not now. Anyone who is interested will have to come and see the show. But I would like to point out that I’m a fan, not a stalker. There’s a difference.

He’s dealt with a lot in his life, old Leonard. He struggled with depression, and even became a Buddhist monk, sitting for hours on end in silent meditation and contemplation. It must’ve worked, because you look at him now, and he seems so graceful and serene. When he performs, it’s like there’s an inner light within him. I guess the moral is that if you live long enough, you end up resolving your demons. I’ve had a few myself, demons, so it’s encouraging to look at him the way he is now, a magnificent 80-year-old.

He’s my inspiration. Always was, still is.

As told to Nick Duerden. ‘Arthur Smith Sings  Leonard Cohen (Volume 2)’ is at London’s Soho Theatre from 16 Feb to 2 March.

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