How Leonard Cohen dealt with stage fright



We mourn the passing of Leonard Cohen and rightly so. I can’t add anything new to the many excellent tributes already published about his poetry (because he was an established poet for some time before he also began singing and hence broadened his appeal and earning power.

I want to talk about an aspect of his performing life that many performers will sympathise with: his stage fright, or performance anxiety, or whatever you like to call it. We know now that fame and experience don’t necessarily get rid of stage fright: Judi Dench, John Lennon and Henry Fonda have all admitted to it, if I pick just three stellar names. Leonard Cohen’s was at another level and therefore the way he dealt with it was fairly drastic, at least it was at first.

I first became aware of this when researching a speech I was about to give at a Toastmasters International meeting and have in fact given many times since. My chosen topic was “what can we speakers learn from other performers, when it comes to pre-performance rituals?” I could have chosen actors or instrumentalists or athletes as examples of other performers but I chose singers; and popular singers in particular. Why was that? Because we know a lot about them and because Noel Coward was right when he said: “Extraordinary how potent cheap music is.”

My singers and their rituals were Chris Martin of Coldplay, Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac, Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin, Beyonce, Elvis Presley and … wait for it …. Leonard Cohen.

When I wrote that speech Cohen was over 80 and was still performing. However he used to suffer badly with stage fright. His strategy was twofold. He recited Latin chants with his backing singers and he drank a whiskey.

The whiskey (or whisky, if one’s preference is for that spirit to come from Scotland, or rye from his native Canada, rather than Ireland or the States) is not unusual but Latin chants certainly are. Leonard Cohen truly was unique.