Comedian Arthur Smith reveals to Francine Wolfisz how the songs of Leonard Cohen have helped him deal with his mother’s dementia
When he first suggested a show based on the songs of Leonard Cohen, stand-up comedian Arthur Smith jokes that it was possibly the worst idea he had ever come up with.
“It sounded like the grimmest kind of entertainment imaginable,” he quips. “But I do enjoy singing on stage, so this is a good excuse for me to do so.”
The audiences liked it too and now, 15 years after he debuted the show, he’s back with an updated version: Arthur Smith Sings Leonard Cohen – The Extended Remix, which he will perform as part of JW3’s UK Jewish Comedy Festival on 3 December.
Smith, known as “Radio 4’s bit of rough” and a familiar face on BBC2’s Grumpy Old Men, has long been a fan of the prolific Jewish-Canadian singer (pictured above), who recently turned 81.
From the moment Smith’s older brother brought home Cohen’s records as a teenager, the comedian says he felt “a connection with his doleful tones”.
Smith adds: “He’s a wonderful poet and he’s got an astonishingly large repertoire. Amazingly, even at his age, he’s kept going. Some of his songs and poems are just sublime – plus he’s very good with the ladies!”
Cohen’s poignant lyrics are also a useful vehicle for Smith to reflect upon an issue close to his heart – namely that of his 86-year-old mother, Hazel, and his experience of watching her decline into dementia.
When we first approach the subject, the craggy-faced performer uses his trademark humour to lighten the moment. “It’s very fashionable, dementia. We’ll all have it soon, especially the longer we live,” he jests. Jokes aside, Smith admits the past few years for him have been “a whole long and hard journey”.
The long-time resident of Balham adds: “My mother’s mother had dementia and it was my mother’s greatest fear that she would get it. After my father died, she began to feel that something was happening and it was really hard.
“I remember one time that she came into my room, asking is it tomorrow, today or now? I thought it was a rather good encapsulation of how she felt.
“We looked at many places and she’s now in a residential care home. Dementia affects people in many different ways. There’s some who are very angry and many who are silent. My mother is just benign and still remembers me and my three brothers.
“It’s really not turned out too bad and the situation is miles better now than five years ago, in a way, when she could feel it coming on. “You have to accept it’s not quite the same person, that some of their personality is erased. But I can still see my mother there. I guess one of the consolations of dementia is that people forget they’ve got it.”
Of Cohen’s songs that Smith has selected for the show, he reveals a “current crush” for Crazy To Love You, which explores loss, love and youth.
Famous Blue Raincoat is another favourite, as well as If It Be Your Will, which is performed solely by his tongue-in-cheeked named backing singers, The Smithereens.
“I really love it – partly because I’m not in it – but also because it’s a very beautiful, spiritual song. In fact, you can hear his Judaism is very present in many of his songs.”
Indeed, Cohen’s strong Jewish identity was fostered from a young age, having been brought up in a traditionally orthodox family. His mother Marsha, was the daughter of a Talmudic writer, Rabbi Solomon Klonitsky-Kline of Lithuanian-Jewish ancestry.
His paternal grandfather was Lyon Cohen, the founding president of the Canadian Jewish Congress. For a while he dabbled with scientology and, in later years, became involved with Buddhism.
He was ordained as a Buddhist monk 20 years ago, but Cohen still places importance on his Jewishness.
“He still considers himself to be a Jew and it doesn’t clash with his zen beliefs,” adds Smith. “He’s had some pretty wild times – and for a Buddhist monk, he’s had quite a prodigious appetite for the ladies!
“I was also interested in the Buddhist name he took, Jikan, which means “the silent one”, because here’s a man whose job is the opposite of silence, so that’s quite a stimulating contrast.
It says a lot about Cohen and the two sides to him.” Smith tells me he enjoyed seeing Cohen perform at the O2 in 2013, and again at Glastonbury – but you’ll have to come along to the show to discover if the two actually met.
Anecdotes aside, Cohen is however apparently aware of Smith’s show dedicated to his songs. With that in mind, I ask the seasoned performer if he thinks Leonard Cohen might want to one day sing the songs of Arthur Smith?
“I’m sure he would get some laughs for that – mind you, he can actually sing!”
• Arthur Smith Sings Leonard Cohen – The Extended Remix at the UK Jewish Comedy Festival, 3 December at 7.30pm, at JW3, Finchley Road. Details: www.jw3.org.uk or 020 7433 8988