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Leonard Cohen, Martyn Joseph and Vin Garbutt: something different is now written between the lines of what these men now sing

2009 January 1
by Paul Vallely

They are not departed or gone. I’m not sure that George Bush was in Leonard Cohen’s mind when he sang those words on the final night of his world tour. But these have been an odd few months. The world has crashed from downturn to recession and even to slump in the words of the economic commentators. Terrorists have perpetrated a new milestone in outrage in Mumbai. To those outside the United States it seems extraordinary that the world turns at so furious a pace and yet the leadership of its most powerful nation lies in a state of suspended animation. A lame duck president is in default mode as the global economy stalls and a lame duck Secretary of State shuttles with empty urgency between Delhi and Islamabad in an attempt to ensure that the war on terror does not erupt into a war between two nuclear powers. Washington is in hiatus.

For a country that regards itself as a synonym of modernity it is a bizarre anachronism that a new president can be elected in November and then sit on his hands until January while the world dissolves, or whatever. (It used to be worse, the interim once lasted till March, to allow a gentleman farmer to put his affairs in order before assuming the presidency.) The blogs of America blithely ignore this political caesura and concern themselves only with who has what ticket for the ceremonial of the inauguration while the world goes to hell in its post-modern handcart.

But Bush and Obama are not my subject. If democracy is coming to the USA I am more concerned with Leonard Cohen’s view of the phenomenon. Until last month I had abandoned Cohen along with my cheesecloth shirt and loons at the end of the sixties but everyone had told me that his performances, at the age of 74, were the concert of the year. So I had resolved to catch him and had left it until the very last night of his 2008 tour.

The week before I had seen two other singers perform live. Each had offered a counterpoint to different periods of my life. I had remembered Vin Garbutt from my schooldays in Middlesbrough. He was a golden youth with wild ringlets who would appear at parties – Happenings they were called at the end of the sixties – and produce an array of penny whistles from his pocket – ‘What key do you want?’ – and he’d then magic old Irish tunes from the air. Now here he was, before a capacity audience at the Lowry theatre in Salford – talking about his heart op and announcing that he was 61 – but still singing the plangent songs of poetry and protest which had been the soundtrack to the days of wistful revolution that were my youth.

Then Martyn Joseph had visited the arts centre up the road from where I live in Sale. For me he conjures Iona, Traidcraft, Greenbelt and a world of faith made flesh. His is a sharp contrapuntal commentary to a world in which those who make decisions all too often forget those people who carry the burden and pay the price. He reminds us that there is a dark side to incarnation.

These three singers for me played into a hiatus of a rather different kind. For we are living in a kind of a phoney war, a no-man’s-land between the distant rumble of the global banking crash and the impact that is bringing to the real economy and the real world, in ways which everyone dreads but no-one can yet fully envision or articulate. Their old songs speak to a new world. There is something different now written between the lines of what they sing. But it is hard to say what.

A number of commentators have glibly suggested that recession will make us all more spiritual. There is a bogus secular piety about the idea that we will all now seek some unspecified less materialist alternative to the stuff and the security that are to be snatched away from us. It is facile because its is born of an easy dialectic; it does not yet speak from a place of suffering or displacement.

But in these times we are already listening out for something else. Vin Garbutt tugged at the emotional cost of that empathy. Martyn Joseph seemed depressed by it; it may just have been because his foldback monitors were playing up that night but he communicated the ache that he wanted to tell us a story for which he did not yet have the words. Leonard Cohen skirted around it but realised it was too big, or too inchoate, for anything more than the most vague genuflection. He teetered on the brink of this new dispensation and peered into its darkness. But he backed away and instead took refuge in a nostalgic optimism: he had tried all the drugs and religions, he said, but found cheerfulness constantly breaking through. I smiled but was not convinced.

This time it was a warm Hallelujah – the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall – that the baffled poet-king composed. ‘If it be your will,’ Cohen recited towards the end, ‘I speak no more’. And yet he would not be silenced, and we were pleased by that. But what now to say? ‘God bless,’ was Lenny’s final word. And he left us to greet a New Year in which we await the judgment of the future on a past which feels gone forever.

Martyn Joseph’s new album, Evolved, is available from Pipe Records. Vin Garbutt’s Persona Grata is available from Leonard Cohen’s most recent record is Dear Heather.

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