Cohen almost came to Singapore

Esplanade CEO Benson Puah says the arts venue was in talks to get him to play here

Leonard Cohen, writer of Hallelujah, died on Thursday aged 82.
Leonard Cohen, writer of Hallelujah, died on Thursday aged 82.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

The Esplanade was close to getting Leonard Cohen to perform at the venue in 2010, says its chief executive Benson Puah.

The arts centre was in serious talks with his agents for him to play here, but the deal fell through as Asia was not on his itinerary then.

Mr Puah, 59, who has been a fan of Cohen's works since the 1970s, saw the singer-songwriter perform at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland in 2008 and was so struck by the performance that he still keeps the ticket stub as a memento.

"And I never keep ticket stubs," he says. "I was bowled over by how much spirit he had."

Staying in the same hotel as Cohen, Mr Puah saw him every morning at breakfast - the artist would dress in his trademark suit and fedora hat even while having his morning meal.


  • Saturday Nov 12, 7pm -- 8pm, Gallery II, The Arts House, Admission: FREE

    Leonard Cohen, one of the world's pre-eminent singer-songwriters, had left behind an estimable body of works which has influenced generations of creative writers. In this special memorial reading, seven Singaporean writers - Marc Nair, Desmond Kon, Yong Shu Hoong, Joshua Ip, O Thiam Chin, Deborah Emmanuel and Pooja Nansi - will pay tribute to the legend by reading some of his works as well as their own responses.


Our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.

LEONARD COHEN writing to his muse Marianne Ihlen after being told she had only a few days left to live earlier this year. She died in July

"That persona never changed, so it's quite deeply embedded in your consciousness."

If Cohen's Singapore show had taken place, Mr Puah would have held it in conjunction with the Singapore Writers Festival.

"I thought it would be wonderful to bring him here not just for a performance because he's greater than that. We could benefit from his worldview, his spirituality that influences his writing and his music," he says.

Indeed, poet and literary critic Gwee Li Sui, 46, says his works are deeply inspired by Cohen: "No one has noted it, but Cohen played a huge role in the growth of my writing. My rhythm is part-his.

"More than a writer and performer of music, he was an unmatched lyricist whose first commitment to language was poetry. He had mature, haunting, almost saintly sensibilities about people and the times and he brought a whole vocabulary to pain."

It was a long, ongoing problem of a disastrous and relentless indifference to my financial situation. I didn't even know where the bank was.

COHEN on hitting the road for the first time in 15 years for a gruelling world tour in 2008, driven in part by financial necessity

Singapore Writers Festival director Yeow Kai Chai says: "He encapsulated two of my deepest loves, poetry and music. He presented excellence in both areas, an equal embrace of the profane and existential, from sexuality to religion, always with a twinkle in his eye."

In a review of Cohen's recently released album, You Want It Darker, Mr Yeow, 48, also a music reviewer for The Straits Times, wrote that "it will take a lifetime, and the lifetime after that, to unravel the wisdom that resides within" the songs in the release, the artist's 14th full-length one.

Singer-songwriter and author Kelvin Tan, 52, noted how Cohen's music and lyrics "elevated popular music into the pantheon of true poetic literariness".

"Like Bob Dylan, he was a true visionary who looked beyond the music and raised the art form to the status of true greatness. And he did it with infinite soul and lived it in his long, fruitful life."

Poet Alvin Pang goes further, saying that Dylan's recent Nobel Prize in literature should have gone to Cohen instead.

These are all great songs, deep and truthful as ever and multidimensional, surprisingly melodic, and they make you think and feel.

BOB DYLAN, who recently was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, on why he found Cohen's songs so powerful

Pang, 44, who went to Melbourne to watch the late singer perform a few years ago, says that Cohen is "leaving the stage just when the world needs that kind of voice more than ever".

"Everyone's devastated because you've got the United States election and then you've got this, so it's not a good week. A lot of the things he writes about, warns about, the cynicism, the way people are easily manipulated, a lot of that seems to be quite prescient," he says.

"So I don't know what we're going to do without that kind of mind and gentle public voice. It's just a pessimistic time."

Singer-songwriter Alvin Wong, 39, is another fan who made a trip to see the artist in a concert in Hunter Valley, Australia, in 2009.

More than a writer and performer of music, he was an unmatched lyricist... He had mature, haunting, almost saintly sensibilities about people and the times and he brought a whole vocabulary to pain.


"Cohen was 75 when we saw him perform. But the energy in his performance and the timelessness of his music led us to believe that there was still more left in his tank. I had planned to catch him live a second time when he resumed touring," says Wong, a magazine writer, who attended the show with his wife.

"For someone who dabbles in music and writes for a living, having encountered Cohen's music and poetry, learning to appreciate both and getting the chance to watch him perform, the songs feel like an immense blessing to me."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 12, 2016, with the headline 'Cohen almost came to Singapore'. Subscribe