I was just about bursting with excitement for Friday night's Leonard Cohen show at Madison Square Garden. Aside from Neil Young, who I still haven't seen, Cohen was the one favorite artist of mine who I felt would be able to deliver the goods this late into his career. I figured that, in Cohen's case, age might even add a measure of stature to his music, which had the power to transcend the inherent cheesiness in this risky set-up: playing songs forty years later to aging fans in a gaudy arena. I felt strongly that he would still make it seem classy and first-rate. As the rain fittingly began to fall, my girlfriend and I made our way through the Chelsea streets, up to MSG, where we made it to our seats by 8pm—two sections up but directly in line with the floor's tenth row—and prepared to take in three glorious hours of majestic music.
Things started well enough, as he played a newer song, coated in the glaze that has always teetered on the edge of becoming too Weather Channel/smooth jazzy for my tastes. But this was the new Cohen, and when he sang the chorus on "The Future," I was on board. I assumed that when he journeyed into the past, he would make the necessary changes to the musical presentation.
And then came another slightly jazzy groove, which I didn't recognize until he started singing, "Like a bird, on the wire," and I had a crushing realization. Nobody else seemed to mind the cheesy new glaze on this classic song—especially those holding lighters in the air—but in that opening line, my balloon of excitement started deflating. Without saying anything, I looked at Holly, who looked back at me with similarly disappointed eyes. She knew it too. We stayed for an hour, then left to catch up with friends back in Brooklyn.
Let it be known: I am not here to say that Leonard Cohen, his band, and basically everyone except us was wrong. Time changes things. But when you have an idea in your head and that idea reveals itself to be the thing you desperately didn't want, it's impossible not to feel crushed. In recent years, I've sworn off going to see the "old greats" for I understand that the environment, as well as the ticking of the annual clock, will always turn the event into a disappointment. This show was the final nail in that coffin. The next morning, we woke up, laid in bed, and listened to Songs of Leonard Cohen as the overcast sky cast a gray light over our bedroom. This was what I'd wished for all along.
(ADDITIONAL NOTE: I now no longer feel as critical of the documentary Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man. At the time when I saw it, I was outright offended by the overriding cheesiness of the musical presentations, the session players and "noteworthy" singers doing covers of Cohen songs in that Weather Channel style. But after seeing Cohen's current approach to his own music, replete with a "master" guitarist and "soulful" saxophonist, I realize that the documentary was more accurate than I would allow myself to acknowledge.)