Story of Isaac[son]: Lenny and the Prince of Davka

I admit it. My behaviour can, at times, be strange. And in ways I can barely explain. Even to myself.

And my not even attempting to obtain tickets for the Morrissey (last year) and Leonard Cohen (last week) concerts in Israel was amongst the strangest. I am a hard-core fan of both singer-songwriters (add poet for Cohen), owning virtually their entire back catalogues, and both performed just a few miles from Melchett.

But I will at least try to explain (if only for myself) . . .

I guess I am a cultural snob. And, when Israelis suddenly feign interest in visiting musicians whose work I have spent much of my adult life exploring, it can just be too much. I mean it might be okay with your Depeche Modes and Madonnas (both of whom played Israel this summer), but more inscrutable artists like “Mozza” and “Lenny” should not be so easily accessible! It is not just a question of buying tickets, showing up . . . and catching up.

This distaste is similar to the one I have for football ‘supporters’ who only show an interest in their team when it starts to win (on that note, has anyone come across a Manchester City fan who goes by the name of “Seitler”?) . . . as opposed to loyal fools like me, who even go to watch them in shit holes like Scunthorpe (yes, I visited Glanford Park on my last trip to the UK).

No, the opportunist concert goer is no better than the “glory hunter”, or “part-time”, football fan. You don’t want to share your adoration of your idol(s) with either of them. Unlike you, they lack credibility (and snobbery).

And so it was, for the first performance by Leonard Cohen in Israel since 1975 – all 47,000 tickets were sold in less than 24 hours – I didn’t even pick up the phone. No, I voted with my feet . . . and cut off my nose, because a large part of me obviously wanted to be there.

In Israel, such behaviour is referred to as davka – loosely translated, in this sense, as “just to be contrary” – and I am the Prince of Davka!

Leonard CohenBut, last Thursday afternoon, staring blankly at yet another contract in my office, I started to become increasingly distracted by the thought that, a few hours later – while I would be walking Stuey and Dexxy along Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard – Leonard Cohen would be playing to a packed National Stadium just down the road, in Ramat Gan. And who were they to be there . . . and me not?!

At some point, the momentousness of the occasion then hit me even harder. It was three days after the Canadian’s seventy-fifth birthday. But, more poignantly, we were in the middle of the Ten Days of Repentance – between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – and Cohen would undoubtedly be performing a Holy Land rendition of Who by Fire, his cover of the High Holy Days’ “hit”, Unesaneh Tokef (as well as of other songs with Biblical themes, like Story of Isaac and Hallelujah).

I got into Leonard (and, indeed, Bob) in the sixth form at school, thanks to the precocious taste – for Hasmonean, at least – of my classmate, Jonathan Levene, to whom I am forever indebted. Who knows . . . if not for Jonny – who even now I believe, as a black-hatted frummer (called “Yoynosson”), occasionally (though perhaps clandestinely) still listens to Cohen and Dylan – I may have succumbed, like so many of my peers, to the relative poverty of Billy Joel, Elton John, Genesis, ELO, Meat Loaf, and even, God forbid, Dire Straits. I have seen Cohen “live” on just one occasion, at the Royal Albert Hall in 1993. (Any Lenny “virgins” would do well to check this out for starters . . . just to understand.)

So, leaving work on time for once, I raced home, threw Stuey and Dexxy into the back of the car without their customary early evening walk (thus risking bladders being emptied on the back seat), and headed down to Ramat Gan. Bringing the beasts meant that I wasn’t even going to be looking for a ticket – I just wanted to feel part of the “occasion”, and, if possible, hear just a little of the great man’s distinctive bass from outside the stadium.

Leonard Cohen (1969)I was not alone. There were a couple of hundred of us ticketless hobos, sitting on kerbs and the grass verges of the adjacent Ha’yarkon Park. I bumped into a journalist acquaintance, Lisa, who had hoped to bum a ticket through media contacts outside the stadium. But to no avail.

I fantasized, briefly, about approaching queuing Israelis (an oxymoron, I know), and posing a simple enough question (for any genuine Cohen fan):

Chelsea Hotel #2 refers to Lenny’s affair with which singer?”

I even planned my response for the (expected) failure to provide the correct answer (Janis Joplin):

“Right, get outta the queue! And gimme your ticket! It’s confiscated. Now go home!”

Back on planet Earth . . . following one round of the stadium perimeter, Lisa and I perched ourselves on the stretch of kerb where Cohen could be most clearly heard. To our chagrin, however, there were a couple of horribly annoying Israeli women also seated in the vicinity who insisted on vocally accompanying his every word. And not only that . . . but with the heaviest of “Hebrish” accents. Nauseating guttural noises accompanied Lover Lover Lover:

“Yes and love-airrgggh, love-airrgggh, love-airrgggh, love-airrgggh, love-airrgggh, love-airrgggh . . . love-airrgggh, come back to me.”

Lisa, eventually, could take no more and left. The opportunity I had been waiting for arrived when Stuey and Dexxy started barking at a passing canine, at which the irritating duet – far less attractive, I might add, than my hairy duo (otherwise I may have let them off) – had the temerity to deliver filthy looks in my direction. That was my cue. I assured them that I would keep the dogs quiet . . . if they would do the same with each other. I am becoming more Israeli by the day. (There was plenty other Israeli chutzpah on show – during the second half of the concert, for instance, as minibuses started rolling up, fellow freeloading kerb-sitters remonstrated with drivers about the noise of their engines!)

I had a hot date planned for later in the evening, and left early to avoid the departing hordes. To quote Suzanne, perhaps Cohen’s most well-known song, “[I] want[ed] to be there”. And, strangely, I felt as if I had been. It was well worth the effort.

In spite of having been ordained as a Buddhist monk (in 1996), Leonard Cohen still considers himself “one of us”:

“I’m not looking for a new religion. I’m quite happy with the old one, with Judaism.”

Legend has it that Cohen – who was performing for Israeli troops – shared cognac with Arik Sharon in the Sinai during the Yom Kippur War, and that he was plagued with guilt when he found himself relieved to learn that a passing convoy of bloodied bodies was ‘only’ one of Egyptians. He would later remark:

Lover Lover Lover was born over there. The whole world has its eyes riveted on this tragic and complex conflict. Then again, I am faithful to certain ideas, inevitably. I hope that those of which I am in favour will gain.”

The recollection of Israeli singer Oshik Levi sheds further light:

Leonard Cohen performing for Israeli troops (Suez Canal, 1973)“Leonard Cohen proceeded with us for three months, day after day, four to five – and sometimes eight – performances a day. And, in every place we arrived at, he wanted to be drafted. At one time he wanted to be a paratrooper, at another time in the marines, and another time he wanted to be a pilot. We would sleep in sleeping bags on the floor because there was no room, and Leonard – who didn’t want to feel like a star – refused when I tried to arrange a place for him in the Culture Room.”

Asked which side he supports in the Arab-Israeli conflict, Cohen has responded:

“I don’t want to speak of wars or sides . . . Personal process is one thing, it’s blood, it’s the identification one feels with their roots and their origins.”

Cohen hit hard times in 2005, alleging that his longtime former manager had misappropriated over five million dollars from his retirement fund (leaving just $150,000). And the Israel leg of his world tour will not have done much to help – Cohen donated all of the profits (estimated at two million dollars) to an Israeli-Palestinian charity (a political gesture, no doubt, in the face of pressure from the anti-Israel lobby).

Even international music legends are not guaranteed to make money here . . . though I am certain that Cohen will have enjoyed coming back to his “roots”.

God bless you, Lenny. And come back again soon (I promise, next time, to leave Stuey and Dexxy at home).

 

[For further photographs from, and discussion relating to, Cohen’s time in Israel during the Yom Kippur War, see the Leonard Cohen Forum. Other quotes and information from Wikipedia.]

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7 responses to “Story of Isaac[son]: Lenny and the Prince of Davka

  1. artandhistory

    Thank you for a splendid post – – delightful, beautifully written. I’ve been following LC’s tour on youtube, bought the Live in London CD early on.

    The war pictures and info are a revelation and very moving. Many thanks.

  2. One of the greatest poet-songwriters — ever! I wish I had been there. And thanks for filling in some important gaps.

  3. It sounded like a wise decision to opt out of trying to get in. More and more people seem to spend money attending stadium gigs and football matches than before. Spike Milligan used to sigh that the post war world was being proliferated with football fans. People tend to get their money’s worth by moaning and ranting about events they’ve attended for days, weeks and even years afterwards.

    Dylan’s raising some money for the world food programme with his Christmas in the heart album. He goes back and forth from Judaism to Jesus.

  4. Anthony Mammon

    You never cease to amaze me with your blogs. Excellent, although I do love Dire Straits, I also got hooked on Leonard Cohen, many years ago. I had set the VCR to record a movie or comedy show, and had accidentally set it on the wrong channel. When I finally sat down to watch the tape, I find myself watching a concert by LC, who I had never heard of. Excellent concert. Went out and bought all his albums, and I still listen to him today, on my ipod in the car. Wish I could have been in Israel to see him, as you said, appropriate time of year. Once again, thanks for a great and varied blog.

  5. The Choirboy

    Mike that frummer Yoynosson will have a lot to answer for after 120 for introducing you to that dreadful bitul zman called LC and Bob . If you want inspiring poetry read Tehillim like your alte zeidehs did . BTW enjoyed our chat this am . Give me a number I can call you on to give you mussar.

  6. Ay Ay Ay Ay Moosar (“to help me through the day”)? From Bob and Len to Modern Romance?! Admittedly, they were also nice Jewish boys (from Southgate, I seem to recall) . . . but all that Tehillim seems to have affected your taste, Yoynosson!

    As Morrissey one said, “There are indeed worse groups than Modern Romance. But can anyone seriously think of one?”

  7. Was very interested in Anthony’s story about how he got hooked on LC. I had never heard of him either until June 09 when I went to a concert in Belfast – Neil Sedaka. A patient asked me if I was going to the one with LC. I said who’s that. Came home that night and BBC-4 were showing an old documentary on LC – I taped it, watched it 2 days later and bang that was it, totally zapped, bought everything I could get me hands on, went to his Belfast gig July 29, absolutely gobsmacked and i was on my own, got the last ticket. Going to see him again in Sligo 31 7 10, can’t wait, where has he been all my life and so much i have missed.

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