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March 22, 1985 (Congress Hall at the Palace of Culture)

This is an eyewitness recollection written specifically for Jarkko Arjatsalo’s amazing, priceless and irreplaceable website – your one and only source of The Master Song.

The band:

Leonard Cohen – vocal, guitar
Anjani Thomas – keyboards, vocals
Mitch Watkins – guitar, keyboards, vocals
Ron Getman – guitar, pedal steel,  vocals
John Crowder – bass guitar, vocals
Richard Crooks – drums

The songs:

Part I

Bird On The Wire
Who By Fire
Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye
Dance Me To The End Of Love
There Is A War
The Gypsy’s Wife
The Law
The Partisan
Sisters Of Mercy
The Night Comes On
Diamonds In The Mine

Part II

Avalanche [solo]
Chelsea Hotel # 2 [solo]
The Stranger Song [solo]
Story Of Isaac
Lover Lover Lover
Famous Blue Raincoat
Passing Through
If It Be Your Will
So Long, Marianne
I Tried To Leave You
Tennessee Waltz
Bird On The Wire [encore]

LC-kolor-01-330Leonard’s Cohen trip to Poland in 1985 was as much welcomed as it was unexpected. Not included in the original schedule for the Various Positions Tour the four March dates were added at the last minute thanks to promoter Andrzej Marzec – the first independent promoter in Poland (responsible for bringing Bob Dylan in 1994 and still active in the music business). It was a thrill for a number of reasons. First of all PRL (Polish People’s Republic, as the state was called while under a Soviet regime) was not a concertgoer’s heaven. Quite the opposite. Foreign stars of popular music did not visit our country on regular basis and the memory of The Rolling Stones show in 1967 never seemed to fade. Another important thing: it was a sad and very dark period in our contemporary history. A martial law imposed on 13th of December 1981, only a year after an outbreak of “Solidarity” (the first semi-free trade union in the Eastern Block and also a major social movement) has deepened the economical and spiritual crisis in our country and it seemed there were no realistic solutions at hand. It was generally believed the Soviet Union would invade the country – as id did in Hungary in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia in 1968 – at the first sign of a real uprising. The spirits hit the bottom.
But the main reason was the artist himself. Leonard Cohen was a cult figure by that time, considered the greatest living songwriter, widely recognized and loved by the Poles as no other singer in the world. He was known to be a writer as well, although none of his works were available in Polish translations. His songs were sung with the Polish lyrics by Maciej Zembaty. I never liked his translations, but I recognize his role in making Leonard Cohen a household name in Poland. You would hear “Susanne” at every campfire in the country.

This is no place for literary analysis, but our appreciation of Leonard Cohen’s songs is easy to explain. We understood them. When he spoke about Susanne or about Jesus we felt his lyrics sound familiar, strike familiar bells. His poetry seemed to be a distant branch of the ages old tree of European literature. We dug the metaphors. He seemed – with all his originality – not unlike our own poets. Exotic – yes. Especially in his unorthodox treatment of sex and religion. But understandable. As opposite to the “Americana” of Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen.

All this added to the enormous interest in Leonard Cohen’s shows in Poland. There were four of them. Beside the Warsaw concert I joyfully attended (and recorded and took photographs of) there was a famous show in Wroclaw’s Hala Ludowa (Jahrhunderthalle in German) were Hitler addressed the crowds of his Nazi followers in the 30. Leonard Cohen made a comment on that and performing in the place of such a history gave him a very spooky feeling.

His latest album – “Various Positions” – came out few months before and Dance Me To The End Of Love was a major hit both on the radio and as the music video played continuously on Polish national television. Needles to say obtaining a ticket was a problem and it had nothing to do with a very high price (at the day of the show scalpers would get an equivalent of a monthly salary for a single ticket and people still considered themselves lucky to get in).

In front of the SPATIF office in downtown Warsaw (a central box-office for all entertainment tickets) a line formed with a week’s advance. It was controlled by me and my friends from a car parked in front of the office day and night. Anyone interested would get a number – without it there was no way of getting inside after the tickets arrived. Mine was number 2 (because a friend I brought with me get to the door before me and signed his name first). People may still remember a very red Peugeot 305 with a cover of “Songs of Leonard Cohen” (a vinyl copy since the CDs just started to appear at that time) stuck behind a windshield – headquarters of the Unofficial Ticket Committee. More then a thousand people signed up!

The communist authorities were ambivalent. The tourneé of Leonard Cohen in Poland was officially approved of – otherwise it would never happen. But it would only get the coverage from a local TV channels like Kurier Warszawski (a Warsaw Courier) in the capitol where a young blond journalist, Grażyna Bukowska, interviewed the artist every day during his visit. Unfortunately, a VHS tape of these interviews I recorded of the television, was later accidentally erased. As far as I know – and I spoke to Mrs. Bukowska recently – nothing remains in the archives. Luckily – there’s a video tape of the entire Warsaw concert itself.

I remember when Mr. Cohen heard a woman filmed by a TV crew in front of Kongresowa at the day of the show confess she spent her monthly salary on a single ticket. He said she shouldn’t have done so. In the studio he seemed really disturbed and said it wasn’t worth it.

Waiting for the concert was like waiting for a volcano to erupt. A funny feeling concerning how quiet and tranquil Cohen’s shows are. I knew basically what to expect. Although there was no bootleg material available and we had to be satisfied with the “Live Songs” album (quite satisfying I still say) I knew what to expect, cause I just got a tape of his Paris shows.

Another thing was a friendly welcome. And here comes my “WELCOME BACK sign story”:

LC-kolor-02-450wAs I said Leonard Cohen’s arrival to Poland – still broken after years of martial law – was an extraordinary event. To me it was a dream come true. So I’ve had an idea for a concert sign that some friendly wives helped to prepare. We made this sign with few white sheets sawn together and painted letters using – an important detail – two different colors (black and red for the LC initials). At the only existing photograph the letters seem brighter. It is in B&W.

The sign – when spread wide – said: WELCOME BACK. Neither imaginative nor appropriate, wouldn’t you say? Well, not necessarily. For the idea was to fold it. When Leonard Cohen entered the stage for the first time, we had the BACK part folded and shown only a friendly WELCOME. I swear he noticed – we had excellent seats at the first row of the amphitheater (best seats in the house, take my word on that) and the sign was huge. When Mr. Cohen left the stage for the intermission it was a humble COME BACK letting him know we’ll be patiently waiting. Needles to say, when he showed up again for the second part of the show, we had the triumphant WELCOME BACK waiting and he seemed slightly confused… Or maybe it was just our imagination overcoming our sign holders’ pride. I wonder if he remembers it at all.

As you should guess by now the encores (Tennessee Waltz and the second performance of Bird On A Wire that never made it to the tape of the show and hence to the bootleg album) had us waving: COME BACK, WELCOME BACK, COME BACK, WELCOME BACK, COME BACK…

I suppose doing a trick like this today would get me and my friends all over the news. Back then there was no Polish TV present at the show and almost no journalists (we attended the show privately smuggling our cameras and recording devices). A friend of ours – his name was Lelek and I have no idea where he is now – noticed our gang from a high balcony seat and taking one shot he got left in the camera memorized the moment and the sign. And an evening of hope and beauty I shall never forget. I am that young guy right above the “O” (25 years old back then), the Mickey Mouse hair at my right belongs to Tomek Nowak, a lifelong friend and one of today’s top Polish copywriters in advertisement business. Our girlfriends both bent down to pickup their purses. It is the very moment the lights went back on.

The show itself was a good one. Not a great one by Leonard Cohen’s standards and by comparison to the bulk of his recorded performances available these days in such abundance. The tension was almost palpable. People gathered for the extraordinary artistic event but they did not leave their political expectations at the door. They should have and they better would have but they didn’t. It may seem difficult to comprehend to people who grew up under normal conditions in free countries. But in a totalitarian country everything is political.

And so the Warsaw audience listened to songs – both smart and beautiful – but waited for a statement. A political statement. I felt it and I didn’t sympathize with that. I was different. This put Mr. Cohen in a very delicate position. He sensed that tension. He felt anticipation. There was also an amount of hope involved – no matter how silly it may seem today. But obviously he did not come as the Messiah to free the land and lead it’s crowds to freedom.

He came to perform his songs and it was more than we had the right to hope for. But he spoke, like he always does. The magic of his voice was making a contact but the tension prevailed. Everybody wanted to hear The Word – the one word that was both sacred and forbidden. Solidarity. He finally said it and the audience erupted like it was more important then any of his own words. Or songs. I still think it was sad. We were the oppressed people.

We didn’t realize then he was under different kind of pressure at the very same time. His band didn’t want any troubles. They came to play the music and get paid for doing it. They didn’t want anything to interrupt the tour. They had come from very safe Sweden and were on their way to very safe Italy. Poland was a “side job”. And they were all professionals.

As I mentioned before I recorded the show as many other people did. I also took some color photographs from the audience and a friend of mine took some B&W shots from the balcony. There is also a VHS tape of the entire Warsaw show – the one and only copy I kept safe and secret for 20 years. How I got a hold of it I rather not tell. The Warsaw bootleg album that appeared a couple of years ago for the twentieth anniversary of the show comes from the audio track of that tape. It was conceived by Artur Jarociński from Krakow – the greatest collector of the works of Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan in Poland. He got the photos off the official Polish website and the quality of the prints is very low. But it sounds all right.

I asked Artur (who was a little baby at a time of the show) to help me with this material and thus got all Leonard Cohen announcements wrote down by him so you can follow everything the artist said on the stage of Warsaw’s Sala Kongresowa in 1985. I wish Leonard Cohen comes back to Poland. It’s a free country now and we would listen to his words and songs all the more carefully. I hope he tours some time soon. I hope he comes back. Welcome back.

And you know what? When I really think about it now he helped us to become free after all. Exactly the way he likes it: “in other little ways” (as he put it in the book). Because a nation comes to freedom in thousands of steps – some of them huge leaps, the others little. And the evening with Leonard Cohen more than twenty years ago was an evening of hope. Difficult as much to him as it was to us. Not necessarily political but intimate. And I learned to appreciate the power of intimacy. There are moments when nothing can get between you and the other person. And when this person is Leonard Cohen himself you feel blessed. And you feel free.

Now, more then 20 years after the Warsaw concert, I am proud to be the Polish translator of the „Book of Longing”. It came out in Poland in November 2006. Thank you, Teacher.

DANIEL WYSZOGRODZKI ( Adres poczty elektronicznej jest chroniony przed robotami spamującymi. W przeglądarce musi być włączona obsługa JavaScript, żeby go zobaczyć. )
is a journalist, translator and author and lives in Warsaw

B&W photos by Lelek
Color photos by DW 


Len talk:

before Who by Fire

You know, I come from a country where we do not have the same struggles as you have. I respect your struggles. And it may surprise you, but I respect both sides of this struggle. It seems to be that in Europe there needs to be a left foot and a right foot to move forward. I wish that both feet move forward and the body moves towards its proper destiny. This is an intense country; the people are heroic, the spirit is independent. It is a difficult country to govern, it needs a strong government and a strong union. When I was a child and I went to synagogue every Saturday morning... and once in this country there were thousands of synagogues and thousands of Jewish communities which were wiped out in a few months. In the synagogue at which I attended there was a prayer for the government. We were happy and we are happy to pray for the welfare of the government. And I would like to say to you, to the leaders of the left, and the leaders of the right, I sing... I sing for everyone. My song has no flag, my song has no party. And I say the prayer, that we said in our synagogue, I say it for the leader of your union and the leader of your party. May the Lord put a spirit, a wisdom and understanding into the hearts of your leaders and into the hearts of all their councilors.


before There is a War

It was amusing to me that in an interview that I did in Poznan that the commentator after hearing a version of this song in Polish described it as decadent. My mother would have been very angry with him. She sang songs like that one around the house all the time. Was he saying that my mother was decadent? There is a war between the rich and poor, there is a war.

before The Law

Thank you very much, friends, this is a new song, it's called "The Law". There is a law, there is an arm, there is a hand. Beyond the sovereignty of any nation, there is a judgment, there is a reward, there is a punishment, there is a law, there is an arm, there is a hand.

before The Partisan

This is a holy land that has been sanctified by the blood of martyrs. There are still ashes in the air, there is still dampness in the ground. I feel the presence of so much undone. I feel the aspirations of so much unarticulated. It is to these ghosts, to these unquiet souls, to these brave memories that I dedicate this next song.


before Sisters of Mercy

It was very nice of the Russians to build this hall for me. My mother came from Russia, she spoke very highly of those people. It is a beautiful hall. And I thank your authorities for allowing me to play here. I wish we had a hall like this where I come from. I would throw a huge party here. I would invited everyone. Maybe I'd just live here alone by myself. I need a lot of space.

before The Night Comes On

I'd like to sing a new song, it's called, "The Night Comes On." I don't know if you've heard it yet. I don't know if you can get my records or hear my songs. I hope you can. I'm very touched by the attention that you've paid to my music over all these years. I've grown older every day, but you've kept my songs young, and I thank you for that. This is the song...

before Diamonds in the Mine

Thank you very much. I want to do one more song and then we'll take a break. If anybody doesn’t speak English, please translate to the person who’s sitting beside you, okay? Because I don't want anybody going home thinking they've paid all this money for this shorthanded concert... so we're gonna do one more song, we'll go back to our dressing room, and we're going to drink a lot of red wine, then we're going to come back and play a lot more songs. Does everybody understand that? I must say it's a very beautiful dressing room. I wish you could all come there. I haven't been in such a beautiful room since my bar mitzvah. Thank you very much for extending to me the hospitality of this institution.

before Chelsea Hotel #2

Every concert that I give, I dedicate this song to a great American singer that I met one night in an elevator in a shabby hotel in New York City. It was a... it was a fine elevator. We found ourselves there often... I don’t, I don’t know what she was doing there. I think she was looking for Kris Kristofferson. I told her that I was Kris Kristofferson. But she said, "I thought he was bigger." I said that I used to be bigger but I'd been sick. And we spent a little time together. And I loved the way that she sang... and she died for some other reason, and sometime later, I think I was sitting at a bar in a Polynesian restaurant in Miami Beach--I don't know what I was doing there, either... I have no program, I have no five-year plan. I just... (
applause) It doesn’t mean that you shouldn't have one! I just move from hotel to hotel, and from bar to bar, and by the grace of the One above occasionally a song comes, and I remember sitting at this particularly obnoxious Polynesian restaurant where they served a kind of coconut drink that was particularly lethal and sinister which contained no alcohol but a certain chemical that demoralized you entirely. And I remember writing on one of their very badly designed napkins, "I remember you well at the Chelsea Hotel..." so I dedicate this song to one of the great singers, Janis Joplin.

LC__Band_02_250before Hallelujah

Thank you very much, friends. You know, since I've been here many people have asked me what I thought just about everything there is in this vale of tears. I don't know the answers to anything, I've just come here to sing you these songs that have been inspired by something that I hope is deeper and bigger than myself. I have nothing to say about the way that Poland is governed. I have nothing to say about the resistance to the government. The relationship between the people and its government is an intimate thing. It is not for a stranger to comment. I know there is an eye that watches all of us. There is a judgments that weighs everything we do. And before this great force, which is greater than any government I stand in awe and I kneel in respect and it is to this great judgment that I dedicate this next song, "Hallelujah".

before If This Be Your Will

Thank you very much, friends for the real warm reception that you've given me here. I don't know which side is anybody on any more. I don't really care. There is a moment when we have to transcend the side we're on and understand that we are creatures of a higher order. That doesn't mean that I don't wish you courage in your struggle. There is on both sides of the struggle men of good will. That is important to remember. On both sides of the struggle, some struggling for freedom, some struggling for safety and solemn testimony of that unbroken faith which binds generations one to another I sing this song, "If It Be Your Will"...

before Memories

Thank you very much, friends, thank you. I grew up in Montreal in Canada which is a very wide and beautiful country . I come from a very curious city where there are many influences operating: European, French, English, Jewish, Ukrainian, German, Polish, Hungarian... I can't begin to name all of the influences that I grew up around. And always there was a symbol of the church. We were Jews. We had a very ambiguous feeling about the church, because we knew the history of the church, and we knew the history of the Jews. It is a curious thing, friends, that I find myself at this moment in a country where the greatest destruction of Jewry occurred. I have no thoughts about it, I have feelings that cannot be spoken. It has nothing to do with you, it has nothing to do with me, it is some matter between our great grandparents - your great grandparents and my great grandparents. This is a land of Chopin and Copernicus, of Solidarity, of Lech Walesa (
long applause). It is also the land of Iron Guard, this is a land of Auschwitz, this is a land of many terrible atrocities. I have no judgment. My song has no flag. My song has no party. My song has no border. It is for men of good will everywhere. Let us forget these heavy matters for a moment and return to my dismal adolescence in Montreal. There was a ball room that I used to go to on Stanley St. where I was one of the most notorious wallflowers of the season. It is into this song that I've place all my most irrelevant recollections of that particularly disagreeable period. It is called "Memories", here it goes...

before Tennessee Waltz

I'd like to play another song, so if you'd keep quiet for a second... Thanks a lot. I really  appreciate the reception you have given us tonight, and speaking for myself personally not only tonight but for the attention you've paid to my songs all through these years, I thank you very much for that. Don't clap now, because I want to say a little tiny thing: When I was in the... distinguished hotel Victoria in which (
off the mike: "Is that the name of it?" a band member nodding: "Uh-hmm", Cohen: "Yeah, that's the name of it.") You know, you got to see a lot of hotels when you're on the road, so sometime you forget the name, but we were very hospitably treated at the hotel Victoria and a young man came up to me this evening and he shook my hand and he was the President of the Country & Western Music Association of Poland. That's the kind of music that is very dear to my heart. I don't know if he made it to the concert tonight, but he gave me a very beautiful pen, he gave a few pens and I really appreciate that. And I don't know somehow that dissolves all the other concerns that we've approached this evening. And for this man--I know he was a man that worked hard, because his hand was callused, and he had done some hard work in his life, and I want to dedicate this song to him and to all of us, the song I didn't write, but it's a Country & Western song that I've loved.

The announcements were written down from the original tape by Artur Jarociński: Adres poczty elektronicznej jest chroniony przed robotami spamującymi. W przeglądarce musi być włączona obsługa JavaScript, żeby go zobaczyć.



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