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REVIEW: Leonard Cohen @ The Beacon Theatre in NYC - 02/19/09


One Too Many
In the autumn of 1995, Chad Friedman came to visit me at the gas station I worked at. I was 18 years old. This wasn't anything special; on most afternoons, he'd come by to chat for a bit, idly bouncing a basketball with a cigarette hanging from his mouth. He liked to talk about Bob Dylan, LSD, Hemingway, Jerry Garcia, and other random assortments of verbal food (or diarrhea, depending upon your opinion of Chad Friedman). Well, on this day, he came bearing a gift -- a mix tape he made, all for me.

When he left and the evening rush hour workload died down, I popped it into the boom box and sat back, skeptical but curious. Most of it was tracks lifted from an acoustic performance Jerry Garcia gave at Oregon State Prison in the early 80's. There was a Traveling Wilburys song, a few from Bob Dylan, some sort of solo Bob Weir thing, and then, suddenly, the monotony broke -- who the hell is this baritone voice? And where in the world did he get these fantastic words from? And how can this be so catchy if I've never heard it? And why am I getting this sensation that I'm listening to an old wise man chanting down absolute truths from a mountaintop like some modern day Moses? I felt corny and fascinated and ridiculous and riveted, and I sat there and played these songs -- "Famous Blue Raincoat," "Susanne," and "The Stranger Song" -- over and over again for the rest of my shift, and then the rest of my week, and then for the rest of the year. And that's how I discovered Leonard Cohen.


The following week, I took my shiny new paycheck to Tower Records in Northeast Philadelphia to search out this man's material. I didn't know anything about him, which is why I was so surprised to find nine albums by him sitting on the shelves, the earliest one bearing a prehistoric (for me!) copyright date of 1967. I spent over $100 in cash that day purchasing all nine, a hefty sum considering my income in 1995, and proceeded to spend the next several months familiarizing myself with his material in a nearly obsessive fashion. In 1995, there was no Wikipedia, no search engines, no true internet at all to speak of, really, and so my knowledge of his work was based exclusively on his work. I only came to find many years later the imagery his songs illustrated for me was completely accurate; his work reflects him, exactly.

I'd occasionally make calls to Ticketmaster to ask if there were any scheduled Leonard Cohen dates. There never was. And again, it was only years later that I came to discover, to my crushing dismay, that the last time he played a live show was a year before I discovered him, in 1994. And so time wore on, and I accepted my fate that his recorded work was all I had. He became a bit of a soundtrack to the better part of my life in my 20's. And when the internet finally became The Internet that we all know today, I researched.

After his tour in 1994, he retreated to the Mount Baldy Zen Centre in California and lived in seclusion until 1999 as an ordained Buddhist monk. He came out of it releasing a new album in 2001. Now is the time that he'd tour, of course. But at 67 years of age, could he? The weeks and months and years wore on with no announcements until 2004, when he released another album at age 70. Rinse, repeat, nothing. Throughout this time, he was releasing books; stories, poetry, even penning a soundtrack here and there and writing songs for other artists. As prolific as he was, he wouldn't poke his head out of seclusion. This was a theme throughout his life; unmarried, isolated, private.

Over these years, his work would break the surface of mainstream music occasionally due to other artists covering his songs -- this is the curse of Leonard Cohen; a critic and musician favorite, mostly known for other people's interpretations of his work. From Jeff Buckley's "Hallelujah" to R.E.M.'s "First We Take Manhattan" to literally thousands of other covers, so many people have enjoyed his work without even knowing it.

Then comes 2008. An odd amount of activity. Leonard Cohen is inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame and announces... a tour. A tour, a tour, a tour! Throughout everywhere, it seemed, except for the United States. Ugh. My lifelong stance was that, were I ever to be given the opportunity to see Leonard Cohen live, I would sell as many belongings as I needed to in order to travel and see it. This was not something I could realistically do anymore (i.e. - I grew up, blah), and I had to sit on my loins and read reviews of the shows instead. I was disappointed in myself, I'll admit, and regretted my decision to sit the tour out.


And then, in January of 2009, the announcement came that seriously changed my life; Leonard Cohen, for the first time in 15 years, would play one show in New York City at the intimate, 2800-seat-capacity Beacon Theatre on February 19th, 2009. To circumvent scalpers, a riddle would be posted on a webpage that would give the password you'd need to purchase tickets. The riddle, of course, could only be solved by those familiar with Leonard's work. I sat at that page, refreshing mercilessly until the riddle was posted. I made short work of it, and I suddenly found myself clicking a shiny, divine "submit" button to confirm my purchase of two tickets. And because I was one of the first 200 people to purchase tickets, I was given VIP access, allowing myself and my guest entry to the theatre two hours before showtime with "special guests and gifts." Incredible. Thirty seconds after clicking "Submit," the show was sold out.


Most things from that point until February 19th, 2009 were a blur, but my girlfriend and I departed from the taxicab at about 5:15pm on February 19th, 2009 in front of the Beacon Theatre under a marquee that confirmed, without argument, what was actually happening. People from every continent on our planet Earth were huddled outside in the freezing cold talking amongst each other, and I briefly felt unworthy in the luckiest sense. Upon admission, we were each handed a complimentary canvas tote bag and t-shirt, which was a nice touch (I was actually really excited about it). We soaked in the warmth (me using heat, she using wine) and (im)patiently waited for showtime.


Once in our seats, we assessed our surroundings. We were in the left-center Loge section, essentially the very first balcony overlooking the stage, in the very last row. This last row was a bit of an island, in that it only had 7 seats across and seemed to be added to the venue as an afterthought. Nonetheless, we had a fine view of the stage. To our right was a group of three and then a person going solo, and to our left was another person there by themselves. We sat back and waited, lumps in throats.

And then the lights go down. And then the band takes the stage. And then Leonard walks out with a smile, in the flesh, and the entire place is on their feet, giving the first of what felt like one hundred uproarious standing ovations. It was the exalted masses releasing 15 years of pent up wanting all at once, and I stood with them, and we made the theatre tremble to the tempo of our racing blood.

When that all-too familiar baritone thundered through the sound system, time stopped... until, during the third song of probably the most amazing night of my life, a Beacon Theatre employee approaches our oddball row and asks if there were any groups there with just two members. My girlfriend and I were the only ones, and we confirmed. "Would you be okay if we moved you elsewhere?" the woman asked. "There's a handicapped man with a cane, and he needs a place to sit." Our row was handicapped-accessible, and we obliged. She asked us for our two tickets, she gave us two new tickets, and told us where to walk. This is all happening very fast now, so we're just following her lead, and twenty seconds later, we're in our new seats. In the first row of the first balcony, dead center.

Dead. f$#king. center. in. the. first. row.



And there we sat with an unobstructed, perfect view from the best seats in the entire house while we watched Leonard Cohen meander and slither through his repertoire with ease and pride and dignity and respect, from his earliest to his latest material, with the most phenomenal backing band I've ever seen, through 27 songs, three encores, and enough standing ovations to rival a State Of The Union address.

And throughout it all, the overlying sentiment was that we were being gifted, that we were in a special place that could never be recreated, that we were guests of Leonard's in his own temple, and all 2800 of us sat together and watched The Master masterfully show us what happens when legends and geniuses don't die prematurely.

There is no true end to this because it's all still reverberating in my bones.

Two videos my girlfriend took with her camera: Hallelujah (excerpt) and In My Secret Life.

For his fans, the setlist:

First Set:

01) Dance Me to the End of Love
02) The Future
03) Ain't No Cure For Love
04) Bird On a Wire
05) Everybody Knows
06) In My Secret Life
07) Who by Fire?
08) Chelsea Hotel No. 2
09) Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye
10) Sisters of Mercy
11) Anthem

Second Set:

12) Tower of Song
13) Suzanne
14) The Gypsy's Wife
15) The Partisan
16) Boogie Street (sung by Sharon Robinson)
17) Hallelujah
18) I'm Your Man
19) A Thousand Kisses Deep (Spoken Word)
20) Take This Waltz

First Encore:

21) So Long, Marianne
22) First We Take Manhattan

Second Encore:

23) Famous Blue Raincoat
24) If It Be Your Will (sung by The Webb Sisters)
25) Democracy

Third Encore:

26) I Tried to Leave You
27) Whither Thou Goest


I'll Lock Up
Your joy really comes through your writing. I'm envious, but I know that I couldn't have enjoyed it as much as you. Congratulations on such a great time.


I'll Lock Up
Corsicana, TX
A truly spiritual man.

Dumbjaw, This is the second time that Leonard Cohen has been in the forefront of my day recently. Thank you so much for a wonderful recounting of your truly amazing experience and the video links.

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