Hello, Cleveland!

Communication with a large audience is a tricky business. But... "Hello, Cleveland!" Or "London! How ya doin'?" Crass, formulaic, false, it reduces a crowd of human beings to a generalisation. As ballad singers advise, there must be a better way. So, talk to us.

For instance, consider Leonard Cohen's remarkable approach: addressing 20,000 as if they were a collection of intelligent individuals. Imagine! He'll doff his hat, peer out and rumble, "It's wonderful to be gathered here on just the other side of intimacy." Which is funny--also perfect. Yeah, true, just on the un-intimate side of intimacy, that's where we stand.

Performers give us what they've got in the depths of their souls. Each of us receives it personally and responds. They hear our sighs, cries, chuckles, applause, but all mingled into one mass hubbub. The separation remains. And old Len invites us to share that acknowledgment, with mutual respect, humour, a degree of affection.

This is why artists who talk offer a little extra. Sometimes it's one-liners. Randy Newman noodling on the piano, sardonically muttering "I always give it the full 85 per cent" or "It's this kinda intro keeps me playin' toilets like this instead of the big rooms." Sometimes it's telling stories. Bruce Springsteen reminiscing about his hardline father or acting out his mythic encounter with God (a drummer whose eleventh commandment turned out to be "Let's rock!").

But when Springsteen recorded VH1's Storytellers show in a small New Jersey theatre, he brought home the same uneasy truth that Cohen trusts us to deal with. Anatomising "Brilliant Disguise," his song about the deceptions the inner self may commit in creating the outer self, he pointed at himself, declaring, "This is my public face." Oddly, the mainly fan club audience applauded. Springsteen reacted sharply: "What does that mean? You like my cheating, lying public face?" There's no answer to that...

So despite the immutable degrees of separation, this one-sided conversation can get too close for comfort. Not surprising that some of the most profound artists simply play their music and say nothing on stage--like Dylan, still, for all his opening up in the carefully scripted settings of Chronicles and Theme Time Radio Hour.

Well, maybe when Dylan gets to 74 he'll be squinting out at us and saying, "Friends..."--understanding, as Cohen does, that he knows we know he uses that word sincerely even though we get all the nuances and limitations involved. Understanding that this shared appreciation of circumstances liberates him to speak in exactly his own way. Elegant, precise... introducing a song with, "It was a while ago, when faced with some obstacles, that I wrote a song... well, it's more a prayer [meaning "If It Be Your Will"]"; saying good night with, "Thank you so much, friends, for your warm hospitality this evening. We are so privileged to gather in moments like this when so much of the world is plunged in darkness and chaos."

The best of him, the best of us, just this side of intimacy.

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