14 years is a long time to wait for a sequel to the original Arthur Smith Sings Leonard Cohen – but he has given in to temptation and returned with another hour of pithy meditations on life and highlights of the Cohen oeuvre. And this time he has his band the Smithereens to help out. Prior to his Soho Theatre run (Feb 16 – March 2), LiF invited Arthur to rifle through the archives of his (presumably distance) relationship with Cohen, and pick out the most significant moments .
1. Paris, June 5, 1976
Near the end of my year as a teaching assistant in a French lycee, I take my French girlfriend to see Leonard Cohen in concert at l’Olympia. Monique is a Sorbonne student who is also enormement jolie – we have enjoyed some fabulous Parisian evenings together, but in 3 months I have failed to get her into bed. At the show she is, like any right-thinking woman, entranced by Len’s wise songs (especially Suzanne, which he sings three times in his encore) and afterwards, for the first time, she invites me back chez elle … Thank you for that, Leonard.
2. South London, Feb 2000
I have decided to do a show at the Edinburgh Fringe in August called Arthur Smith Sings Leonard Cohen, a title I have picked as a joke because it seems to offer “the grimmest evening of entertainment imaginable”. At a gig in Nunhead I get Ronnie Golden to accompany me on guitar and I sing a Cohen song (Suzanne of course) in front of an audience for the first time. I find this experience disconcertingly enjoyable; no-one boos and I think maybe I really will do what the title of my show suggests.
3. NYC lower east side, nearly New Year, 2001
I am frozen and drunk but living out, and singing softly to myself, the opening lines of one of Leonard’s most haunting songs, Famous Blue Raincoat: “It’s 4 in the morning, the end of December / New York is cold but I like where I’m living / There’s music on Clinton Street all through the evening …” Next day, in further pursuit of the Cohen oeuvre, I book into the Chelsea Hotel for the night and hang around the lift hoping to meet my own Janis Joplin
4. Glastonbury, June 29, 2008
It has been a glorious weekend at the festival; I have enjoyed Seasick Steve, Amy Winehouse, Jimmy Cliff and Joan Armatrading so much that I fear he is certain to disappoint – he is 74 after all – but as the sun lowers behind the Pyramid stage, Leonard strolls elegantly on, doffs his hat, and sings Dance Me To the End of Love with such conviction that I know immediately the next hour-and-a-half will be unmatchably cherishable. So it proves. Afterwards I take up my invitation and head backstage …
5. Soho Theatre, Feb 16, 2014
I am on stage at the Soho in London surrounded by the three gifted musicians and backing singers who make up The Smithereens. I have just sung the last lines of Goin’ Home, which concludes Arthur Smith Sings Leonard Cohen (Vol 2): “I love to speak with Leonard, he’s a sportsman and a shepherd, he’s a lazy bastard living in a suit.” In the next instant the audience will realise the song – and the show – have ended; the texture of their applause will tell me and The Smithereens how much they have enjoyed themselves.