When Leonard Cohen passed away at age 82 last November, he was mourned as an iconic elder statesman of singer-songwriters the world around. How much of a statesman, exactly? When Cohen played the Walnut Street Theater 32 years ago today, it was a comeback show: his first U.S. performance in ten years, and he had over two decades of music to draw from in compiling his setlist.
As you can hear in the below recording we dug up on YouTube, Cohen wound up playing two sets totaling 26 songs over almost two hours that night. His most recent album at the time, the previous year’s Various Positions, was represented with “Dance Me To The End Of Love,” “Coming Back To You” and his sublime version of “Hallelujah.” Older cuts like “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye,” “Suzanne,” and “Lover Lover Lover” were in the mix as well. He performed with five bandmates — they absolutely shine on “So Long, Marienne” — and started the second set with four solo numbers, including the timeless “Chelsea Hotel #2.”
Besides being Cohen’s return to the stage, not to mention the remarkable set of songs he played, this performance was notable for another reason. It was the gig where a young Ken Tucker — now the resident music critic at NPR’s Fresh Air, then writing for the Philadelphia Inquirer — somewhat famously fell asleep, later slagging Cohen for being a self-absorbed bore.
To be fair, I have a long history of falling asleep at quiet shows — it was YEARS before I could stay awake through the entirety of a Tin Angel gig — so I totally empathize with Tucker’s plight. The recording, as you’ll hear above, is somewhat muffled but very very downbeat; I imagine the clarity was greater in person, but still, if that’s the pulse of the room I had to contend with, I too would have been struggling.
Pictorial as ever in his review, Tucker wrote how “Cohen — dressed in a black suit, black shirt and shoes, hugging a black guitar and sipping occasionally from a suspiciously black-looking drink in a tiny glass — sang his profoundly romantic songs in a deep, croaking voice. He was a Byronic bullfrog.”
Were this the media landscape of 2017, that phrase “Byronic bullfrog” would have been the first two words of the headline, later repeated in numerous clickbaity pieces the web around, and a Twitter beef may or may not have ensued. As it stood, this was an era where the nuanced critique of formal music reviewing and the merciless snark of the Lester Bangs school could coexist in the same piece — so Tucker was able to talk about wanting to tickle Cohen in an attempt to crack his dour facade, then bestow sincere praise on his band (Richard Crooks on drums, John Crowder on bass, Mitch Watkins and Ron Getman on guitar, Anjani Thomas on keys) as well as his back-catalogue.
The kicker, though, is this conclusion:
For his part, Cohen gave an impeccable performance — his croak has never sounded so lulling. His guitar playing, a deceptively artless combination of American folk and Spanish flamenco strumming, was soothing. In fact, shortly before the intermission, I had just slipped into a dream about soaking in a black bathtub filled with black water, a black rubber duck bobbing gently against my toes, when a hand gripped my arm and a latecomer whispered intensely, “Has he sung ‘Suzanne yet?'” Instantly snapping to and realizing that this was one of those rare moments when a critic might actually be of some use to someone, I said crisply, “No, he hasn’t yet.” I’m pretty sure he played it later in the evening, though.
Indeed Cohen did. And he played the Walnut Street Theater the following night as well, and somewhere in between, he must have happened across Tucker’s review in the Inquirer, which he addressed before performing “A Singer Must Die” in Boston a few nights later on the 4th of May — listen below.
Thank you very much. It’s been a long time since I played in this country, and it is a real pleasure to be able to understand… understand the reviews that I get for the concerts. I read my first American review in ten years the other night after my very first concert in this country in Philadelphia. And it’s genuine wit. I say this without any sense of irony. The first half of the column he reviewed my suit. I’m going to relate this news to my tailor. But I bear no grudge. He also called me a ‘Byronic bullfrog’. That man has his finger at the very heart of things.
Somewhere along the line, though, Tucker and Cohen must have patched things up, as Tucker wistfully shared his 1985 review on social media last year when news of his passing broke.
RIP, Leonard Cohen. I wrote this review in 1985 about falling asleep at his concert. He said it was “sweet.” Gotta love him. pic.twitter.com/3QBcLY8UKG
— kentucker (@kentucker) November 11, 2016
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