Barbra Streisand and Leonard Cohen: Timeless, but not ageless

Last week in Los Angeles, Leonard Cohen fell to his knees.

He did this a half-dozen times over the course of his three-hour show at the Nokia Theatre, because it’s all part of his act — and at 78, Cohen is not about to start trading off his trademark moves. He still wears that hippie-chic fedora, for instance, and hoveringly croons over the mic as if telling it a secret it will keep. But the knees are another matter.

With this stunning feat of agility at an age when others are walking with canes, the troubadour proved he is as nimble of body as he is poetic of mind. Only, these weren’t the falls of a young poet, laying himself bare in art and in love; this was the shimmering plunge of a long-lived man, humble and grateful before his fans. It was the fall of a man who knows that soon, he will not be able to rise again.

Barbra Streisand, on the other hand, playing to a sold-out Hollywood Bowl that same week, isn’t really the type for knee-dropping. Instead, the legendary diva did the most un-diva like thing: singing two nights in the wintry cold, compromising her costumes to stay warm inside her coat. Her 70-year-old voice, once unparalleled in pop music, is now softer and huskier and less likely to hit the high notes, but her performance was still grand — a feat of endurance, devotion and generosity (and plenty of Jewish schtick). 

For two iconic entertainers, age is just a number and the show must go on. Even in the shadow of their younger, abler selves, Streisand and Cohen proved that time hasn’t re-written every line as much as it has offered a chance to repeat the best ones. After all, whose voice wouldn’t be a little tired after seven decades of so much to say?

Still, reality spun its mortal coil. 

Cohen was frank with his audience from the start: Would this be the last time they meet? The implication was clear, and so he promised to give them everything he had. When he sang, “My friends are gone and my hair is gray /I ache in places I used to play,” it was impossible to hear those words as distant poetry and not personal confession. Cohen was singing his life, offering his prayers, writing his own epitaph.

“Reach into the vineyard of arteries for my heart / Eat the fruit of ignorance and share with me the mist and fragrance of dying,” he wrote in “The Spice Box of Earth.” As an aging lion with a storied past, he does not wish to retire or retreat, but to invite others to accompany him in old age.  The love he never gave, he wants to give now. 

“I had wonderful love, but I did not give back wonderful love,” he wistfully told a Swedish reporter in the 1990s, according to The New York Times. “I was obsessed with some fictional sense of separation. I couldn’t touch the thing that was offered me, and it was offered me everywhere.”

Growing old means admitting regret, and it has made his music more melancholy. 

That sense of humility and authenticity was also evident during Streisand’s show, which felt a little like a living-room gathering but with nearly 18,000 friends. Streisand talked as much as she sang, reminiscing about time gone by (she recalled how it felt during her first Bowl performance, back in 1967, when she discovered Warren Beatty was in the audience) and shared the things that matter most to her (she sang a touching duet with her 45-year-old son, Jason Gould, and screened a video montage of mother-son photographs Jason had made for her 70th birthday). Her openness and candor offered a rare glimpse into her fiercely protected private life. 

She also knew when she needed a break. And though she puffed up her absences with other “gorgeous” acts, they couldn’t compare. For the consummate perfectionist, there can be no changing of the guard (Really, who could possibly replace her?), but it was, perhaps for the first time, Streisand letting her guard down. 

The personal, sermon-y style of her show seemed to be a tacit acknowledgement that if this wasn’t going to be her best performance, it would be her most intimate. She even took time to answer fan questions submitted to her Web site, and answered them with the same wit and verve that made Fanny Brice her “Funny Girl.”

More than 40 years after that role made her a star, Babs can still deliver a song that radiates with the full force of human emotion. As Stephen Holden wrote in The Times after her performance in Brooklyn last month: “Like few singers of any age, she has the gift of conveying a primal human longing” through sound.

One gift time has given to both Babs and Cohen is that their own primal need to be center stage has slackened. When once they needed to be stars, now they share their spotlight. As Cohen said, these are the days to reply to love, to give back some of the extraordinary blessings their talents wrought.

One way not to die, it seems, is to help others live. And to keep singing past that ephemeral peak until forced into silence.