Performing Live On ‘Austin City Limits’ In 1988

Watch the singular singer-songwriter deliver his ‘ACL’ debut on Halloween 1988.

By Nate Todd Sep 21, 2022 9:54 am PDT

Leonard Cohen was born in Montreal on this date in 1934. A lauded poet performer, Cohen’s stunning body of work exists in a space all its own, resonating with his rich baritone. Cohen sadly died on November 7, 2016 at the age of 82. His legacy lives on in his writing, music and performances. On Halloween 1988, the wordsmith delivered one for the ages on the iconic Austin City Limitswhich JamBase takes a look at in honor of Leonard today.

When Cohen passed in 2016, Austin City Limits shared his debut appearance on the program, which aired in 1989. Cohen’s connection to the city of Austin stretched back 10 years before. While on his 1979 tour, documented in the live album Field Commander Cohenhe teamed up with the Austin jazz fusion band Passenger to create the core of his backing group on the road.

Going back even earlier, before the mid-1960s, Cohen’s craft flowed mostly through the written word as a poet and novelist. His 1967 debut album, Songs Of Leonard Cohen, didn’t arrive until he was 33 years old. So it’s not too surprising that the singer-songwriter’s performance is on Austin City Limits in 1988 at the age of 54 was his major American television debut.

However, Austin City Limits executive producer Terry Lickona noted, “Leonard was not much aware of ACL until his Austin friends and cohorts convinced him to do the show.” Lickona went on to share his recollections of the occasion.

“The band played a late show in LA the night before and took the red-eye straight to Austin, arriving just in time for rehearsal. They were all wearing the same clothes (Leonard never did change), and his only request was for a bottle of tequila, which the band easily dispensed with. The show was mesmerizing, as was the reaction from viewers who had never heard or seen anything quite like him. Leonard told me some years later that that Austin City Limits performance ‘saved his career in America’ at a time when he had all but been forgotten.”

Cohen’s band for the ACL performance consisted of guitarist/pedal steel player Bob Metzgerkeyboardist/violinist Bob Furgodrummer Steve Meadorbassist/trumpeter Steve Zirkeloud player John Bilezikjian and keyboardist Tom McMorran. Backing vocalists Julie Christensen and Pearl Battle are also prominently featured throughout the performance, which kicks off with “Frist We Take Manhattan” — the opening track on Leonard’s 1988 LP, I’m Your Man.

Cohen naturally leaned heavily on the record, performing I’m Your Man tracks “Tower Of Song,” “Ain’t No Cure For Love,” “Jazz Police” and closer “Take That Waltz.” Also included were additional Cohen favorites “The Partisan,” “If It Be Your Will” and the gorgeous “Joan Of Arc.” It was perhaps fitting that the performance was captured on Halloween as Cohen’s music and voice are beautifully haunting.

In honor of Leonard Cohen’s birthday today, watch his ACL debut in 1988 below with a note the sync is off at points:


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