Roscoe Beck and others remember touring with the singer-songwriter

In this archive feature from December 2008 (Take 139), we get the inside story from Cohen’s bandmates on their extraordinary year with the singer-songwriter that even Bob Dylan calls “a real poet”. Interviews: Michael Bonner, Nick Hasted and John Lewis. Photograph: Lorca Cohen 

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THE REHEARSALS: STUDIO INSTRUMENT RENTALS, LOS ANGELES, FEBRUARY/MARCH, 2008

Roscoe Beck [played on Cohen’s Recent Songs album in 1979; producer of Jennifer Warnes’ Famous Blue Raincoat album; bassist and musical director on the current tour]: Leonard called me at Thanksgiving and I flew out to LA and met with him. We started auditions for the band in January, and rehearsals in February. There were a lot of chord charts left over from the ’88/’93 touring band. Once the band was in place, Leonard would give guidance to the musicians, but he kinda sat back and said, “Let’s see what they come up with.”

We scheduled a lot of rehearsal time. Leonard cares about his music and he cares about the audience that’s going to hear it. When we were hiring, his only instructions to me were: “Rossie, I only want the best band on the road this year.” No pressure, then.

Sharon Robinson [back-up singer since 1979; co-writer on the 10 New Songs and Dear Heather albums]: I came in a month into the process, in March. Leonard was definitely adjusting to another mode of living. He’s somewhat of a perfectionist. That part of him takes over.

Roscoe Beck: Was Leonard rusty? No, I don’t think so. He’s a very modest man, and he claims that rehearsals were mostly for him. But I don’t buy that at all. He’d been practising guitar in advance of this and boning up on his own material. He was in good shape, musically as well as physically. He quit smoking five years ago, and mentally he was ready for this tour.

Anne Militello [lighting designer]: He was so involved in every aspect of the look – the drapes, the wardrobe of the band and even the clothing of the crew. They all had fedoras!

Bruce Rodgers [set designer]: I wanted the feel of the set to be like him, subtle and silvery grey and translucent, mysterious and full of light at times, dark and moody at others. As far as the design and layout he was very involved, the master planner of the placement of all his band members. He wanted his musicians as close and intimate as possible.

Roscoe Beck: When we ran over the list of songs we just found that there was so much we couldn’t leave out. People told him concerts don’t run that long. His own children said, “Dad, concerts are like 90 minutes and then they’re gone!”

THE FIRST SHOW: FREDERICTON PLAYHOUSE, CANADA, MAY 11, 2008

Wilfred Langmaid [reporter, Fredericton Daily Gleaner]: He arrived on Wednesday or Thursday, and the show was on the Sunday. It was the poorest-kept secret in the city. Maybe it was the nature of Fredericton, but he was walking around, down the path by the river, and no-one accosted him. The Playhouse is tiny, in the 700-people range. Leonard was obviously nervous. We were in the fourth row, and could see him pacing back and forth backstage. He came on to a two-minute standing ovation. He looked out with that nervous, shy smile, and kept bowing and nodding his head; a sheepish grin, but loving every moment of it.

Charley Webb [singer]: Leonard seemed really excited. For the first couple of gigs, there was a sense of anticipation, and nerves. Leonard does talk of his nerves that he’s had over the years. He occasionally has now what he calls his “nip” – his whiskey and soda.

Hattie Webb [singer]: One night I quite fancied a whiskey and soda in the interval, and he was pouring me one out as well [as his]. It looked a strange colour, and then we realised that he was pouring Guinness instead of soda. We both cracked up, and then he started afresh.

Sharon Robinson: He was nervous. More so than our performance, he was not sure how the audience was going to receive the whole idea. He takes all of his work very seriously. In that respect, he was a little worried before he went on.

Charley Webb: Hattie and I weren’t plugged into what to expect. We’d never seen Leonard live. It took a while to harden to being affected by grown men and women sobbing and screaming directly in front of you. But Leonard was warmed by that. It’s almost like he could part the Red Sea. He lifts up his microphone and everything settles.

Hattie Webb: It was a very smart way of Leonard to start the tour. Instead of being in an enormous arena with less personal connection, you could see the faces of the first 20 rows. Leonard immediately connected with people, and his own nerves dissipated within a couple of songs.

Leif Bodnarchuk [guitar technician]: I’ve never seen such a genuinely enthusiastic reception. I’ve see kids go wild, but this older audience was incredible. We were stunned!

Wilfred Langmaid: By the fourth song, “Bird On The Wire”, the nervousness was gone. He was gracious, he was thinking on his feet. At the start of set two, when he was getting the keyboard programmed for “Tower Of Song”, he pressed a wrong button, and laughed and had to put his glasses on. He was literally feeling his way.

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MILE ONE CENTRE, ST JOHN’S, NEWFOUNDLAND, CANADA, MAY 23, 2008

Roscoe Beck: Bob Dylan was playing the venue right next door to the hotel. It was a large venue, 16,000 seats, and the sound system was a little loud for us, and we were all trying to protect our ears, so we had to wear earplugs. They’ve known each other for a long time, and I know there’s a lot of respect for each other. Jennifer Warnes told me a story once that there was a dinner once, they were honouring Bob Dylan. And Leonard was there and Jennifer was there. And at one point, Bob Dylan took Elizabeth Taylor by the hand and said, “Come, let me introduce you to a real poet…”


THE FIRST EUROPEAN DATE: IMMA, ROYAL HOSPITAL, KILMAINHAM, DUBLIN, JUNE 13, 2008

Graham Boothby [fan]: I’ve been a fan of Cohen for 35 years. I never, ever dreamed I would see him live. I saw him in Dublin at 8am, walking down the street. I thought: ‘He’s mine when he plays tonight.’ So I let him be. It was the first night of the European tour. He had to get it right, and there wasn’t much interaction with the audience. He came onstage quietly, and the place erupted. “Hallelujah” was the highlight. I was just in tears. There was absolute silence. 10,000 people. After the second encore, people rushed down to the stage and sang along. It was overwhelming. Of course, all the buzz was that he had to tour because his manager had run off with his money. Well, thank you madam, I’m glad you did.

Charley Webb: We tried to say to him that if he put a baseball cap on, and a sweater and an old pair of jeans, he wouldn’t be recognised. But he’s always got his fedora on, and his long mac over the top of his suit. There wasn’t even a glimmer of thought that he might consider wearing anything else.

Sharon Robinson: He’s a devoted workhorse. He works harder than any of the rest of us, and has reserves of energy that no-one can quite tell where they come from. He’s quite a bit happier than when I knew him 30 years ago. We often talk about how hard the work is, being on tour. I asked Leonard once: “But aren’t you enjoying it?” And he did admit that he was enjoying the audience’s involvement in the music, that there was something very special going on.

Hattie Webb: We socialise and have a meal together before the gigs, at the venue. Leonard always has his nutritious smoothie.

Charley Webb: While he eats a very healthy diet, like a Zen Buddhist would, every now and again we discover he’s slipped out the back door and gone to McDonald’s to buy a Filet-O-Fish!

Roscoe Beck: After dinner we’ll be getting dressed. Then we meet in the Green Room about 15 minutes before we go onstage, just hang out and talk as friends before we hit the stage. That’s the way it goes, every time. There are nights out. But a night out with Leonard is not going to be a night at the disco. It’s a long dinner somewhere, coffee afterwards. Good conversation. He’s very open to those he knows.

Javier Mas [guitar; musical director for Spanish Cohen tribute concerts in 2006 and 2007]: He’s like a big brother. We’re together from 10 in the morning till 1 at night. We’ve become very good friends. The only difference between him and us is the age. He’s 74, he has a different day-time schedule, when he rests more than us. And we play concerts for three hours, sometimes more. He needs a lot of rest to make it good, and remember all the lyrics.

Charley Webb: Leonard doesn’t often go out after the show. We often don’t finish ’til 12.30 at night, and that also means there are people who’ve been to the concert around the hotel, seeing if they can see Leonard. It can be very intrusive for him. So often we don’t see him till the next day.

Roscoe Beck: The one concession he’s making for himself is that there’s no meet-and-greet on this tour. There have been quite a few celebrities who’ve come to the shows – and of course everyone wants to meet Leonard. He decided before the tour that meet-and-greets just take too much out of him. He gives everything he’s got into the show. When the show is over, he’s ready to go back to the hotel room.

GLASTONBURY, PILTON, ENGLAND, JUNE 29, 2008

Charley Webb: We stood there all together, and he peeked round the curtain, and said: “There’s a few people here tonight, friends…” And there were 100,000 people in front of us. I think he’s often a little nervous. Every time we walk on, he says: “Come on, friends, let’s go!” I think he feels an obligation to all of us. So he doesn’t like to show his nerves too much.

Mark Radcliffe [BBC presenter]: He was the only person at Glastonbury who refused to be televised. The excuse he gave was that the cameras interfere with his connection with the audience. Some people were thinking that was a little precious. But having seen that connection, you couldn’t argue.

Roscoe Beck: Someone called us “the world’s quietest band”, and it is the quietest band I’ve ever played in. He was concerned about whether it would work in front of 100,000 people. He’s a very humble man. It makes him want to give even more. He just wants to make sure everyone leaves with something they’ll never forget.

Charley Webb: Leonard will always choose the smallest or least comfortable seat in the room or on the plane, and he’ll always leave the nicest ones to other people. He insists on that, and if you try to change it he goes: “No, please, after you…” Total graciousness and gentlemanliness, all the time. But then surprising openness, with very amusing stories. He doesn’t make any apologies for the way he feels, and he’s not nervous to say what he thinks.

Hattie Webb: One time we were on the plane and it was incredibly bumpy, and all the people around me were very frightened. I was gripping hold of my drink and seeing my life flashing before my eyes, and I looked over at Leonard. He was completely and utterly calm, and said: “Don’t worry, darling, nothing can happen to you – it’s just the way it is.” That’s what we take from Leonard. He worries about the small things and deals with those. And with the big things, he lets nature take its course.

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THE LAST SHOW OF THE SUMMER TOUR: THE BIG CHILL FESTIVAL, LEDBURY, ENGLAND, AUGUST 3, 2008

Hattie Webb: Charley and I went into the festival a little early, and I walked backstage in a hippy festival dress, and Leonard said to me: “You’d better cover up your knees, darlin’, because there are old men in here!”

Charley Webb: I think everybody was quite happy to play that festival, but also happy that it was the last of the leg. We had been out for what seemed to be too long. Too long, certainly, for Leonard. When he was onstage you’d never have known, because he’s so professional. But offstage, he and all of us were weary.

Sharon Robinson: We were somewhat anxious to get back to our lives, and families and take care of things. It was time to go home. And so we went our separate ways. And reconvened at rehearsal.

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THE FIRST SHOW OF THE AUTUMN TOUR: ARCUL DE TRIUMF, BUCHAREST, ROMANIA, SEPTEMBER 21, 2008

Roscoe Beck: We took three or four weeks off, then we reconvened in Los Angeles again at the SIR studio for two weeks, just to brush up.

Charley Webb: The first show back was his 74th birthday. It was a good birthday. We talked the day before, as a band: “What shall we do on Leonard’s birthday?” And we agreed “nothing” was the right response. But people in Bucharest were charming and the show was punctuated with “Happy Birthday to you,” over and over. And then some people came up onstage with some enormous cakes that were heavier than Leonard, which he held for a few minutes, ’til we rescued him. He always tastes, but he never really indulges in an enormous portion.

Sharon Robinson: The set has changed a little on this leg. Leonard has added “The Partisan” to the show, and “Famous Blue Raincoat” is coming back in. There are no new songs, not yet.

Roscoe Beck: Well, he’s already got some things written. He’s played me two new songs. And there are more. I saw him writing on the plane yesterday, in his notebooks. And he’s talked to me about wanting to do a new record. But it will probably be when the touring’s done. We’ll break for Christmas, then I think we’re going to Hawaii, New Zealand, Australia and the Far East. After that will be the US and Western Canada. So there’s at least that much touring before we can start on a record. That will take us to at least October 2009 before we can even think about recording.

The December 2016 issue of Uncut is now on sale in the UK – featuring our cover story on Pink Floyd, plus a free CD compiled by Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner that includes tracks by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Sleaford Mods, Yo La Tengo, Can. Elsewhere in the issue, there’s TheDamned, Julia Holter, Desert Trip, Midlake, C86, David Pajo, Nils Frahm and the New Classical, David Bowie, Tim Buckley, REM, Norah Jones, Morphine, The Pretenders and more plus 140 reviews

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