Austin musicians talk about playing with Leonard Cohen


Editor’s Note: This story was originally published April 2, 2009.

Leonard Cohen: Poet, singer, seeker, scholar. Leonard Cohen: devout Jew, ordained Buddhist monk. Leonard Cohen: Man of elegance, man of melancholy. Leonard Cohen: Master of economy. Leonard Cohen: The voice of fire in “Joan of Arc, ” the cry of renunciation in “Story of Isaac, ” the ghost of Lorca in “Take this Waltz.”

Leonard Cohen: A man who knows how to use a suitcase.

“If you watch him pack, the way he folds a suit is different from anyone else. He has a tailor’s hands,” says the singer Jennifer Warnes, a friend and collaborator since 1972. “His father was a tailor, a clothier.” Growing up in Canada, “Leonard was raised behind a sewing machine on his summer vacations. He had to learn to do a hem and sew a seam and do buttons.

“This is an integral part of how Leonard Cohen assembles a song. He knows what makes a suit hang well. He knows about interfacing and linings, the drape of gabardine. If you buy what was once a beautiful suit at a second-hand store, just once in your life pull it apart and see how it’s assembled. That’s what Leonard knows.”

Austin fabric

Cohen, 74-year-old the song tailor, is on the road again, in the midst of his first world concert tour in 15 years. After spending most of 2008 in Europe - where his wistful, triumphant shows routinely ran three hours - Cohen begins a new American leg of his tour this week in Austin. It’s a fitting choice because many of his musical friends, past and present, Warnes included, have deep connections to our city (see box, next page).

Austin bassist Roscoe Beck, the musical director of Cohen’s touring band, says this tour was conceived here. Cohen phoned him in mid-2007 and told him he had some important business to discuss eye-to-eye. Over lunch at El Sol y la Luna, Cohen and Beck agreed to work together and spent five hours planning the work ahead.

“Leonard prepared for this tour, ” Beck says. “We did about two months of auditions, two months of rehearsals. His voice is very strong right now and very genuine. He no longer smokes, no longer drinks - just a nip, now and then. To stand on stage with Leonard every night is nothing short of an honor. They are sublime experiences.”

Words

“Leonard studied all the sacred books, ” says Warnes. “He studied the sacred Jewish books and Christian books, the Persians and (Spanish poet Federico García) Lorca. Metaphysical books. He’s studied with great Eastern teachers. He once said to me: ‘There’s a reason why a sentence or one great phrase stays for centuries. It has to do with the way the line is weighted or placed, the way a sentence is constructed.

“Leonard writes words that address what it means to be in a human skin. I’ve read poetry that has as much beauty as Leonard’s work, but in the world of music, Leonard is a rarity. He’s heavy, weighted heavy on the side of describing things that go on inside a heart, what it feels like to be here.

“He might err on the side of the dark because his own depression has informed everything. His loneliness has informed everything. Being a Jew has informed everything. His mother escaped the Russian pogroms; he’ll err on the side of lament.”

The road

Steve Zirkel: “One of the amazing things about going on tour with him was just hanging out with someone who has so much command of the language. One day (in 1988) the monitor man asked Leonard, ‘How’s the monitor mix?’ Leonard said, ‘Poisonous.’ ‘What? Poisonous?’ And Leonard said, ‘It doesn’t hurt that bad right now, but in the course of a three-hour concert, it will be a long, slow painful death.’ The band went wild. We all pulled out our notebooks and wrote it down.”

Julie Christensen: “We were off one night, in Dublin (also on the ‘88 tour), and I said, ‘Leonard, you want to go to a poetry reading with me?’ He said, ‘I don’t really like poetry, darling. I just got into it to get girls.’ I’d ask him what some song was about, and he’d say, ‘They’re all about sex, darling.’ He has a charming way of putting that and still being the consummate gentleman.

“Of course he loves Lorca, of course he’s read poetry. But the poetry of following your own muse is what’s important to him. He put it to me, another time: ‘Poetry is the language of women.’ Because if he’s making poetry and on his game, he’s more able to have a language that speaks to women. And he loves women. He’s never married one, but …”

Austin 1969

Forty years ago, Cohen played Municipal Auditorium, on the site we know today as the Long Center. It was 1969, maybe 1970. At one point in the show, Cohen knelt down on the lip of the stage, reached out to the crowd and pulled someone from the audience onto the stage. It started a chain reaction.

“He started waving to people, come on up, and all of a sudden there are 30 or 40 people up on the stage, with the band, while he was singing, ” recalls Robert Zirkel (Steve Zirkel’s brother) who was in the audience that night. Panicked, the auditorium staff “cut off the power to the microphones, chased everyone off stage.”

“So Leonard Cohen tells us: ‘Go back to your seats; we’ll finish the show. But I notice you have a great park across the street. After the show, let’s just everybody go over there and have a party. Me and the band will meet you over there.’ And that’s pretty much what happened. Everybody went to their cars and got their bottles of wine and their stashes of whatever.

“We all converged at the lake. I ended up talking for a long time to Charlie Daniels, who was the bass player then. There was a guy in the band who rolled ‘the fastest joints in the world.’ Cohen was there, mingling with the crowd, a big party on Auditorium Shores.”

Ritual 2009

“We meet in the green room 15 minutes before we go on stage, everyone dressed and ready. It’s very relaxed, ” Beck says. “Leonard has a cup of coffee. And there’s a little chant we do, a vocal exercise, that Leonard taught us back in ‘79. We brought it back for this tour.

“It’s three lines, sung, I think, in Latin. Translated into English, it means: ‘I am a poor person. I have nothing. I need nothing.’ Actually, we sing it in a round. It’s very cool, and it kind of centers you a little bit. Sometimes we do it walking to the stage.”

The road

Warnes: “The experience of touring with Leonard Cohen in 1972 was mind-boggling. I’ve never seen anything like it before or since. It was like being in one of those big poetry books, inside the relationship between (Jack) Kerouac and (Neal) Cassady, being way deep inside something live, like Hermann Hesse’s magic theater.

“I was 24 years old, new to the world in every way. I’d never seen Europe. We went all over Scandinavia, ended up in Jerusalem. And here I am standing behind this man who thought it was brave to invent songs in front of people, right there. And he did that! We invented a song in the middle of every concert, just for that audience. There was absolute worship for him in Europe. He was like François Villon. Flower children, everywhere. … I’d never seen people on trips before … in these beautiful opera houses. …”

Beck: “Leonard wasn’t making up songs on the ‘79 tour, when Passenger was the back-up band - but there could be big surprises. I think we were in Oslo one night, and right in the middle of the set, he said, ‘You know my back-up band? They have music of their own.’ And then he walked off the stage! We were totally unprepared for that moment. Or he might just start talking for five or 10 minutes in French. Anything!”

Zirkel: “He would get nervous on tour. Steve Meador and I noticed before our opening concert of the tour in 1988 that Leonard drank half a bottle of tequila. I’m talking half a fifth and his hands were still shaking. We were like, dude, are you all right?. But he basically said: ‘You guys are professional musicians; you were performing a few weeks ago in front of crowds. But unless I’m out on tour, I don’t do this. I haven’t stood out in front of a crowd and sung in six or seven years.’ He smoked cigarettes and drank on the road. And that’s the only time he did it. He called it ‘going to battle.’”

Christensen: “What a voice! I used to put my ear up to his back and listen to it rumble when we were on tour, practicing in some hotel room.”

Presence

Beck: “I’ve known him for 30 years, and he’s been a Buddhist all that time. One gets a definite sense with Leonard that he has this practice. He’s often quiet. He goes off by himself after sound check, to have a little sit or meditate. You see it evident when you’re sitting in the airplane. You might cast your eyes backwards and Leonard might be sitting cross-legged in the seat, back straight, eyes closed. It’s part of who he is.”

Christensen: “He would often say, at the end of a wonderful meal, ‘This is the best meal I’ve ever, ever had.’ Often! Because the things that were ordinary really are extraordinary.”

‘First We Take Manhattan’

Warnes recorded this haunting Cohen tune, right after it was conceived, for the “Famous Blue Raincoat” album of 1986. Her version is bruisy, gritty, with Stevie Ray Vaughan on lead guitar. Cohen recorded his rendition, a year later, on the “I’m Your Man” album. His version is synthy, gloomy, ominous.

Warnes: ” ‘First we take Manhattan’ is Leonard Cohen being prophetic. He won’t admit it. But I think he sensed what was going to happen. He called it, back in those days, before 9/11, a terrorist’s song. Leonard has a prophetic nature to his nature. He knows ahead of time what’s going to happen in some cases; I’ve watched it happen many times.”

Beck: “Leonard played me the song for the first time on the phone, a track cut with a rough vocal, while we were in pre-production for ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ in Los Angeles. I was shocked when I first heard it - and a little frightened. It was unlike anything I’d ever heard from him. I remember my emotional state was: ‘What is this song? And who is singing?’”

Warnes: “Leonard is informed by his understanding of the Holocaust. (You see it) in the line ‘You see those lines that are moving through the station? ” I am one of those.’ And the slow and steady revolution of people who must do what they must do. ” His antenna is very high, really high. I’m not so sure he wasn’t getting gut feelings that something was going to happen to Manhattan. I don’t know who the ‘We’ is, but after 9/11, I realized I could never sing that song again.”

Discipline

Christensen: “Leonard’s perceived as a very glamorous guy. But he’s a craftsman. A songsmith. My understanding is that he would get up in the morning, sit with the monks at 5 a.m. at the downtown monastery, then he would come back and spend the rest of the morning writing.

“Between the tours in 1988 and 1993, I would go over to his house for a grilled cheese sandwich or something and hang out a little. You know ‘Democracy is coming to the USA?’ I saw many, many different verses of that song, and he’d pull them out every once in awhile. I’ve seen the drawer with all the extra verses in it.

“Leonard likes to say, ‘My songs have the half-life of a Volvo.’ They have longevity. ‘The Future’ and ‘Democracy’ are just as timely as the day they were written. That line: ‘I’m neither left or right, I’m just staying home tonight/getting lost in that hopeless little screen/but I’m stubborn as those garbage bags/that Time cannot decay.’ I just cry when I think of that. ‘I’m junk. But I’m still holding up this little bouquet: Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.’”

Intersection

Beck: “I took Jennifer and Leonard to see Stevie Ray Vaughan at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles. It was after ‘Famous Blue Raincoat.’ I remember Leonard’s reaction to that. He watched Stevie and said, ‘There. There. That’s it. That’s what I’ve been trying to get my guitar players do for all these years: Make the guitar talk.’”

The Aperture of the Heart

Zirkel: “He was a really interesting character to hang with in 1988. He’d come back to the bus and he’d put on pajamas and we’d put on pajamas and make popcorn. I had the great experience of getting to share with him the first time he ever saw ‘Spinal Tap.’ It was riotous good fun. He was very much the child. I have enormous respect for him because he never separated himself with us. The band was sort of like his best friend. He considered us his fellow warriors against the world.”

Warnes: “Leonard was the catalyst, the figurehead, the leader for a world in which you understand the people you’re with on stage in a way that some couples don’t know each other. That’s a secret that’s very seldom discussed.”

Zirkel: “You didn’t realize how comfortable you were in that space until the tour is over. It was like getting ejected out of this great day-care camp. He treated us so gently. Before I toured with Leonard Cohen, I was playing happy jazz with Beto y Los Fairlanes, wearing Guatemalan clothes. I was a vegetarian, didn’t smoke and drink. When I got back from the tour, my marriage broke up. I started drinking, wearing black. I started playing guitar and singing Leonard Cohen songs to myself under the moonlight and drinking tequila.”

Warnes: “When the tour with Passenger ended (in 1980), everybody fell into a depression. Two or three divorces right after the tour, and I think they were simply because the mates couldn’t understand what had happened. There had been severe altering of personalities. Roscoe started wearing Armani suits. It was a mess. We’d call each other and say, ‘What do we do now?’ The aperture of the heart had been broken open.”

Finale

Beck: “Leonard does his best to present himself as he is. He does not try to be something he’s not. In that sense, he’s turned his own frailty into an asset - in the sense, vocally speaking, that whatever frailties exist in his vocal presentation make him seem all the more human and genuine.”

Rafael Gayol: “We definitely feel an exchange with people coming to the concert. They’re hanging on every syllable. We did three nights in Dublin last June, and it was like 12,500 people a night. One of those nights it rained and nobody flinched. They just put their hoodies on and threw open their umbrellas. And we went on with the show. As you know, we put on a three-hour show. Nobody gets up for anything. The only time you can make noise is in between the songs. It’s so quiet you can almost hear dust collide.”

Beck: “I do have the sense that Leonard is actually bidding farewell to his audience, that this is probably the last touring band. But he’s certainly not retiring. He’s writing as much as ever. There may be another record, there may even be another tour in 2010 after the next record.”

Gayol: “This tour is definitely one for the books, and I’m so up for whatever comes next. Leonard asked me, back in November, ‘Do have any plans for next year?’ I said, ‘My plans are watching your back. And until you say otherwise, I’m right here.’ And he said, ‘Good.’”


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