Night Comes On By Leonard Cohen: A Dossier

After 25 Year Lapse, Night Comes On Reappears At Leonard Cohen Concert – Auckland 2010

This excerpt from a LeonardCohenForum post written by mwestern about his experiences at the second Leonard Cohen Auckland concert on October 29, 2010 succinctly and vividly describes the highlight of the night:

And the BIG surprise – when did Leonard last play Night Comes On? The answer is now Auckland, October 29, 2010. A completely solo version – no backing vocals, and I couldn’t see any others playing – they just stood around on stage watching Leonard. 12000 jaws dropped.

Rarely has jaw-dropping been more justified during the Leonard Cohen World Tour. The last time this tune was performed by Leonard Cohen in concert was 1985.1

Background on the song follows:

Night Comes On – The Studio Version

Night Comes On was released on the Various Positions album on Dec 11, 1984 in Canada (Feb 1985 in US & Europe).


“This is a new song about everything” Leonard Cohen Performs Night Comes On – Copenhagen 1985

Night Comes On was one of the six songs from the February 9, 1985 concert in Copenhagen, Denmark that were broadcast on Danish TV.1 Backing Cohen are Anjani Thomas (vocals and Keyboards), John Crowder (bass), Ron Getman, & Mitch Watkins (guitar), Richard Crooks (drums).

While the visual elements of this video are suboptimal, the audio is quite good. A bit of banter precedes the performance of the song.

Leonard Cohen – Night Comes On
Copenhagen: February 9, 1985
Video from messalina79


Leonard Cohen Performs Night Comes On – Warsaw 1985

When this blog last focused on “When Night Comes On,”2 it was to wax nostalgic3 about a rare 1985 performance of this song that had surfaced on YouTube. As I noted in that post,

The original [recording] was part of a film of the complete 1985 Warsaw concert4 that was never broadcast. This video copy is clearly imperfect. The colors, for example, never approaches hues found in nature. Leonard gives off a red aura while Anjani, who sings backup and plays keyboard on the video, is tinted blue.5 The sound quality, however, is good.

Screenshot of Anjani from Night Comes On video, before and after photo-editing

 Musicians: Leonard Cohen (vocals and guitar), Anjani Thomas (vocals and keyboards), John Crowder (bass), Ron Getman & Mitch Watkins (guitar), & Richard Crooks (drums)

Leonard Cohen – Night Comes On
Warsaw: March 22, 1985
Video from messalina79

Notes On Night Comes On

Cohen elaborated on “Night Comes On” in a 1985 interview for Paroles et Musique:

In men’s life the mother represents an authentic sense of protection, the life that strengthens. In the second verse, there is that fight and this idea, “I’d like to pretend that my father was wrong. But you don’t want to lie, not to the young”…the father represents this idea of a war forever fought. Then there is the marriage, which develops from a romantic idea, which we can’t make last forever, to a human responsibility towards children, an ineluctable responsibility, even if these very children will move away. Then the verse, “Now I look for her always…” is in fact, and concerning my case, about a songwriter’s work. Here there is this vision of the woman, neither the mother nor the wife, but another feminine presence that touches all the others and is responsible for the songs. “I lie in her arms, she says, When I’m gone, I’ll be yours, yours for a song.” It’s the feminine Muse. The last verse deals with the street, with “going back to the world,” with friends. I like this passage, “Yes, and here’s to the few who forgive what you do, and the fewer who don’t even care!” But obviously this cannot protect us from the idea of what has been lost and will never be back. So the singer is trying to come back his way but the mother, by saying to him again and again, “Go back, go back to the world,” keeps him alive.

Update: Leonard Cohen Identifies Voice In Night Comes On As “My Mother’s True Voice”

In a LeonardCohenForum thread, Meaning Of The Night Comes On, Tom Sakic points out a number of autobiographical elements in the lyrics:

I like how this song progress through all degrees of his life. It starts with mother, who died in 1978. In next year her absence/non-presence was very strong in Leonard’s life – Recent Songs was made for her, and Night Comes On is on the very next album, obviously the result of the period in the early 1980s when LC had to recollect pieces of his life and career (Book of Psalms is also a result).

Then in second verse he mention Egypt; he was in Sinai War in 1973 (Lover Lover Lover and some other songs were written there). His father died of war injuries when Leonard was a kid, and his absence (or non-presence) was the main force which built LC’s personality. Of course, everybody who has read Leonard’s biography knows that his father left him books and a gun. He said once that gun was only safety in his life; and it also was taken away. A thief stole it from his mother’s house in Montreal the night before she died. That is the very gun to which Joni Mitchell refers to in her song [Rainy Night House] about Leonard.

It was a rainy night
We took a taxi to your mother’s home
She went to Florida and left you
With your father’s gun,
Upon her small white bed
I fell into a dream
You sat up all the night and watched me
To see, who in the world I might be

I am from the Sunday school
I sing soprano in the upstairs choir
You are a holy man
On the F.M. radio
I sat up all the night and watched thee
To see, who in the world you might be.

You called me beautiful
You called your mother-she was very tanned
So you packed your tent and you went
To live out in the Arizona sand
You are a refugee
From a wealthy family
You gave up all the golden factories
To see, who in the world you might be

[emphasis mine]

Then it goes to religion and his wife and children. The next verse is about his life in Hydra. We have Leonard’s cat and Bill’s Bar in Hydra harbour where his old friends used to gather.

It is a very dark and deeply existential song, one of the best ever written that touches some deeper, non-understandable level of our lives. I don’t think there’s other such song in the whole world. Oh yes, I adore Hallelujah, and The Law, and Ten New Songs, but this one is special. The narrator wants to go home (to dead mother? dead father? lost friends? lost wife? lost gun?), but his life is here: his dead mother tells him “go back to the world”. That’s what the song, divine and profound, is about – the life we must accept.

Night Comes On: The 2012-2013 Tour

After appearing in that single 2010 Auckland show, Night Comes On showed up on the setlists of 30 Leonard Cohen concerts during 2012 and three 2013 concerts.6.

Leonard Cohen – Night Comes On
Amsterdam: Aug 21, 2012
Video by albertnoonan


Credit Due Department:

The photo atop this post was taken by LadyLilley, who has not only generously agreed to its use here but has also permitted me to convert it into a black and white image I felt best suited the song.

I was alerted to Daniel Wyszogrodzki’s post by a LeonardCohenForum entry by sturgess66.


  1. There was, it turns out, at least one earlier clue that a current rendition of “Night Comes On” was possible. In his blog, Daniel Wyszogrodzki wrote (as Google translates it) about attending the soundcheck prior to the October 10, 2010 Warsaw concert:

    At the concert of Leonard Cohen – my favorite artist – I visit for 25 years and has repeatedly written about them. Each one is unique, the magic of this man is a cause everyone is different. But the concert in Warsaw on 10 October Torwar this year recorded in the memory in a unique way. I witnessed history.

    Before he took on the nature of the historic day, I witnessed something more than history – a magical moment. 15:00 hours on an empty stage with a guitar enters Torwar Leonard Cohen. It begins with an attempt to sound (soundcheck). He is alone on stage, I sit alone in the audience, prepared to take a few hours five thousand spectators. Leonard palcuje some Spanish guitar chords – guitar players know what I mean. E major, F major, G major. Surprise in A minor, and the characteristic Fingersex at breakneck speed. What that is, “Avalanche”?

    No. Cohen begins to sing and to my surprise, it was his very popular and rarely performed song “The Night Comes On.” And what’s more, the execution is not the end. Soundman has long set the “vocals”, bass strings are no longer buzz in the guitar and sings Cohen – over and over again the same thing, incidentally repeatedly losing words. Meanwhile, the musicians begin to descend. I join him in turn. And when at the microphone are celestial two sisters Webb, the song acquires its full momentum. Not only am I the only spectator “private” concert Cohen, but this version takes more than 50 minutes! Played and they sound fantastic. But this is by no means the end of the warm-up. You are about to hear my favorite song “The Future”, then – the first time in my life – the premiere song “Feels So Good.” Perform even the “Dance Me To The End Of Love”, which always starts from the concerts. [emphasis mine] []

  2. Lyrics: The Night Comes On

    I went down to the place
    Where I knew she lay waiting
    Under the marble and the snow
    I said, Mother I’m frightened
    The thunder and the lightning
    I’ll never come through this alone
    She said, I’ll be with you
    My shawl wrapped around you
    My hand on your head when you go
    And the night came on
    It was very calm
    I wanted the night to go on and on
    But she said, Go back to the World

    We were fighting in Egypt
    When they signed this agreement
    That nobody else had to die
    There was this terrible sound
    And my father went down
    With a terrible wound in his side
    He said, Try to go on
    Take my books, take my gun
    Remember, my son, how they lied
    And the night comes on
    It’s very calm
    I’d like to pretend that my father was wrong
    But you don’t want to lie, not to the young

    We were locked in this kitchen
    I took to religion
    And I wondered how long she would stay
    I needed so much
    To have nothing to touch
    I’ve always been greedy that way
    But my son and my daughter
    Climbed out of the water
    Crying, Papa, you promised to play
    And they lead me away
    To the great surprise
    It’s Papa, don’t peek, Papa, cover your eyes
    And they hide, they hide in the World

    Now I look for her always
    I’m lost in this calling
    I’m tied to the threads of some prayer
    Saying, When will she summon me
    When will she come to me
    What must I do to prepare
    When she bends to my longing
    Like a willow, like a fountain
    She stands in the luminous air
    And the night comes on
    And it’s very calm
    I lie in her arms, she says, When I’m gone
    I’ll be yours, yours for a song

    Now the crickets are singing
    The vesper bells ringing
    The cat’s curled asleep in his chair
    I’ll go down to Bill’s Bar
    I can make it that far
    And I’ll see if my friends are still there
    Yes, and here’s to the few
    Who forgive what you do
    And the fewer who don’t even care
    And the night comes on
    It’s very calm
    I want to cross over, I want to go home
    But she says, Go back, go back to the World

  3. Given that DrHGuy didn’t take his acolyte vows in the Cohenite order until some 20 years after this 1985 performance, the waxing exuded in this past was, one supposes, technically nostalgia by proxy. []
  4. For more about the 1985 show, see Warsaw 1985 By Daniel Wyszogrodzki at LeonardCohenFiles. []
  5. This clearly presages her “Blue Alert” album. []
  6. Statistics courtesy of the all-knowing Roman Gavrilin aka Hermitage Prisoner []

One thought on “Night Comes On By Leonard Cohen: A Dossier

  1. love this song. Don’t think it’s on any CD, wish Adam made anothe DC with some oh these song ie: The wondow, The balad of of lost mare , The gusets……

Leave a Reply