Leonard Cohen performs in Bird on a Wire

During his lifetime, the late Leonard Cohen was often described as ‘the Canadian Bob Dylan’. On the surface,  it seems an apt comparison: neither Leonard nor Bob could be accused of possessing a great singing voice, and each chose to write literate, elliptical, and deeply personal songs that both invite and defy interpretation.

Dylan, however, was a pop star by the time he was in his early twenties, while the unambitious, lugubrious Cohen wouldn’t achieve fame until attaining middle-age. While Bob always seemed to belong to the counterculture, Leonard came from the more traditional worlds of prose and poetry: Bob sang about a leopard-skin pillbox hat; Leonard looked comfortable in a tweed jacket.

Cohen’s discomfort with his role as popular musician is all too clear in Bird on a Wire, a concert film that’s taken over 40 years to reach its intended home on the big screen. Opening at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater on Friday, March 24 (no East Bay play dates are currently scheduled), the film follows the reluctant Cohen on a 20-date international tour designed to give his then flagging recording career a boost.

Directed by documentarian Tony Palmer (All You Need Is Love), Bird on a Wire remained incomplete from the time it was shot until 2010. Cohen retained possession of the film for decades, his intention to finish it eventually ending in 2009 when he returned it to Palmer, who completed the editing process and released the film on DVD.

The film begins with something you generally don’t associate with a Leonard Cohen gig: a fistfight between overzealous, orange-clad security guards and members of the audience. This bizarre, disquieting vision echoes the Maysles Brothers’ Gimme Shelter but happily ended sans fatalities, as Cohen’s interjection “there’s no point in starting a war right now” proved considerably more effective than Jagger’s “just be cool down there in the front”.

Palmer uses complete performances of such Cohen standards as “Avalanche,” “So Long Marianne,” “Suzanne,” “Who by Fire,” and the titular song, and while some are less than brilliant others are pure magic. In addition, there’s a wealth of fascinating backstage footage: see Leonard trying to pick up women! See women trying to pick-up Leonard! See Leonard go off on his road crew for failing to keep the PA in good working order (except in Glasgow)! See Leonard almost breakdown after what he perceived to be a poor performance!

In sum, Cohen was a poet passing as a rock star, and a self-deprecating one at that. “Anything that is popular”, he says (describing himself), “is often not really good”, and when asked “what do you like to talk about?” he answers “I prefer not to speak at all.” A man after my own heart.

‘My Love Affair with the Brain’

Marian Diamond and a friend

There’s not much I can add to Kate Darby Rauch’s recent and very thorough Berkeleyside article about the venerable Marian Diamond, but I feel I’d be remiss not to mention this week’s KQED airings of My Love Affair with the Brain. A loving and well-deserved tribute to one of UC Berkeley’s most popular instructors, this terrific piece of television will give you a new perspective on both neuroscience and hat boxes.

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...