Multi-Grammy winning producer, musician and musical director Roscoe Beck
Hallelujah!: LEONARD COHEN SPECIAL
In the December issue of Uncut, we celebrate Leonard Cohen’s comeback by getting the inside story from his bandmates on their extraordinary year on the road. Here at uncut.co.ukover the next month, we’ve been posting the full, unedited transcripts of those interviews in an exclusive seven-part online series.
Today we present: ROSCOE BECK.
Another veteran of the Field Commander Cohen campaign, Beck played on Cohen’s Recent Songs album in 1979 and went on to become a multi-Grammy winning producer, helping Jennifer Warnes create her well-received Cohen covers album Famous Blue Raincoat. Musical director of Cohen’s current tour, he recently released his debut solo album, Walk On, and, by the way, has had two Fender basses named after him.
Final part of the series coming this Friday (November 21)!
UNCUT: You’ve known Leonard Cohen for a long time, since the late Seventies. Did you keep in touch after the 1994 tour finished?
BECK: We’ve kept in touch, off and on, through the years. I was involved with him in 1979 and 1980. And then during the years I lived in Los Angeles of course we kept in touch. And then we worked again in 1986 on the Jennifer Warnes record Famous Blue Raincoat. And following that he asked me to help him with his I’m Your Man record, and I worked on that in 1987 and ‘88. And in ’88, I was his musical director, I put the touring band together for him in 1988, but I didn’t go that time. I had some other things going on, but I put the band together. And that band lasted together from ‘88 – ‘93. And from that point until really maybe two, two-and-a-half years ago we’d trade an occasional email. But we weren’t involved, just friendly correspondence.
What were your immediate thoughts when he contacted you about touring again?
I was kinda surprised when he called me up to say he wanted to go back out on the road. By the time he actually called me, I’d seen the I’m Your Man documentary where he kinda hints at going back on the road, but I was still very surprised. My personal opinion is, I think he would have gone out again, anyway. He missed it. He really does love performing live and performing to an audience. And there was such a demand building for him to tour. I’ve been involved in three different touring bands now, and I’ve never seen the kind of demand or response for Leonard that there is now.
What can you tell us about the process behind the rehearsals?
Rehearsals started in about February. Leonard and I started working last year. He called me around Thanksgiving and I flew out to LA and met with him – I was the first one hired – and we started talking about things and I think we started auditions for the band maybe in January. We held auditions for the band and there were a lot of chord charts and such left over from the 88/93 touring band, and of course anything written since ‘93 we didn’t have charts for. Once the auditions were concluded, and the band was in place, in the early stages since many of the musicians were new to the band, except Bob Metzger and Sharon Robinson and myself, Leonard would give guidance to the musicians, in terms of learning the songs. But the musicians are of such a high calibre that he’d let them learn the material and kinda sat back and said, “Let’s see what they come up with.” Leonard has been very positive all along about this tour. Of course, choosing the musicians was difficult and we had many good players and good singers to choose from and that was a little difficult, but I’ve said since – the right people just showed up, the right people came to us.
And how were the rehearsals themselves?
The rehearsals were very comfortable, we scheduled a lot of rehearsal time – two months – which is pretty much unheard of. Leonard hadn’t done this in a long time and he’s always very… I want to say concerned, but that sounds too serious. He really cares about his music and he cares about the audience that’s going to hear it. And he really wants the performance to be something very memorable. He cares about each and every performance, he really does. And he wants the band to be very good. When we were hiring, his only instructions to me where: “Rossie” – that’s what he calls me sometimes – “I only want the best band on the road this year.” No pressure, then.
Did he seem rusty..?
No, I don’t think so. He’s a very modest man, so he claims that rehearsals were mostly for him. But I don’t buy that speech from him at all. He’d been practising guitar in advance of this and boning up on his own material. He was in really good shape, musically as well as physically. He was really up for this tour. He quit smoking five years ago, and mentally he was ready for it, and musically ready for it.
How would you describe Cohen?
He’s one of the most modest people I’ve ever met. He is a very generous man, with wonderful manners – almost Old World kind of manners. One of the most interesting people you’d ever want to meet. The kind of person that if you’re in the room with him, he makes you feel like the most important person in the world. He gives you the attention. A good friend. I love them man.
Do you have an anecdote you could share?
What pops out in my mind is his incredible generosity of spirit. The crew stay in the same hotel as the band does, for instance, and if not enough rooms can be found in the hotel of choice, well then we’ll go the second choice or the third choice. He treats everyone equally; he cares about all the musician’s families. He’s offered to bring musician’s spouses or children, to fly them out sometimes to meet the band. And that’s really uncommon.
Does he hang out?
He’s definitely one of the guys. He keeps somewhat to himself, just to conserve energy. But we have dinner or hang out in the hotel lobby, or take a little walk and have a coffee in a café. We’re friends as well as co-workers.
What would a night out with Leonard involve?
A night out with Leonard is not going to be a night at the disco..! It’s probably going to be a long dinner somewhere, coffee afterwards. Nothing extraordinary. Just good conversation. What kind of stuff do we talk about? Everything, really! From love and relationships to politics – obviously the economy is in the news right now, and we’ve all got opinions about that. The most personal details, we’re close friends. He’s very open to those he knows.
How’s he dealing with the rigors and obligations of the tour?
Quite well, it seems. The one concession he’s making for himself is that there’s no meet-and-greet on this tour, with no exceptions really. There have been quite a few celebrities who’ve come to the shows – and of course everyone one wants to meet Leonard. He just decided before the tour that meet-and-greets really just take too much physically out of him. He gives it all away in the show. The shows are three hours long and he really gives everything he’s got into the show, and when the show is over he’s finished, he’s really to go back to the hotel room. So the decision was made up front there would be no meet-and-greets after the show, when the show was over Leonard’s on his way back to the hotel. I think that helps to conserve his energy. He just turned 74 the other day, on the 21st, and I think that’s allowing him to keep up with the rigorous schedule the tour demands.
Why 3 hour shows?
When we ran over the list of songs we just found that there was so much we couldn’t leave out. I think many people told him that concerts don’t run that long. I know many people told him that. His own children said, “Dad, concerts are like 90 minutes and then they’re gone!” So he kind of had that in mind during the rehearsal stage when he was making up potential set lists, but he found there was so much he couldn’t leave out. So immediately it looked like we had to do a two hour show, to do the material he wanted, then the two hours grew into two and a half hours, and then you add the encores onto that and that’s three hours. And it’s always been that way. My first tour with Leonard was in 1979 and the concerts then were at least as long. I can remember returning to the stage as many as eight times in those days. We’d finish, we’d leave the stage, we’d come back, leave and come back… He doesn’t have to do that now. We leave the stage maybe three times and come back. But we won’t come back and do one song, we’ll come back and do three songs and leave the stage. And then we might come back and do two more and leave the stage. And then just when you think it’s over, we do an a cappella cover, a verse from The Bible, called “Wither Tho Goest”. So he always wants the audience to leave feeling like they’ve really got what they came for. They want to see and hear something that they’ll never forget. Very generous in spirit.
Are there any rituals or routines?
We have routine that we all get dressed for the performance. There’s kind of a routine that there’s always a set time for the soundcheck, after the soundcheck will be dinner, after dinner we’ll be getting dressed. And then we just kind of meet in the Green Room about 15 minutes before we go on stage, we just hang out for 15 minutes and talk, and just hang out as friends before we hit the stage. That’s the way it goes, every time. Leonard’s most always relaxed, it depends probably where it is and what the circumstances are. I remember when we played Montreal he was a little nervous before that show, because it’s his hometown. So occasionally nerves might be on edge depending on how high-powered the show seems to be or something. Or what the sound is like, that’s very critical. If the soundcheck went well, we have a good show. If the soundcheck didn’t go well, then people might be a little nervous.
What do you remember of the 1st show, at Fredericton?
Actually pretty easy. We had so much rehearsal, we had two months rehearsal in LA, plus if I’m not mistaken we had 3 days in Fredericton on stage at the venue to rehearse, so there was a lot of the normal anticipation one would expect. Not only on the part of Leonard. We rehearsed so much, I couldn’t imagine anything going on.
And the first European show in Dublin?
It was a difficult show, because it was outside. Previously, we’d been playing theatres in Canada. The monitor desk had to be replaced. And there was some concern, but actually the Dublin shows stick out in our memories as some of the most incredible shows we’d played. We had some video of the shows, because they had large screens so there were some cameras feeding the large screens, and the audience were just so with us. There were three nights, and on the second night it just started pouring down, raining, and no one moved. It was the most incredible thing. Everyone stayed in their seats in the pouring rain. It rained the other night in Bucharest also, and when Leonard sees this, he says, “Well, if you need to go, please go. No one needs to sit in the rain.” But no one moves. And no one moved in Dublin. And there was something about that gesture that touched us. They just huddled there in their raincoats.
How does Leonard respond to this kind of adulation?
It’s all heartwarming, of course, you can’t help but feel that when the response is so heartfelt. The other night at Bucharest, people sang “Happy Birthday” to him about three times.
How did he take that?
With humility. 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.
And what about Glastonbury…
… We drove down in the van.
A van? With Leonard sitting upfront..?
Ha, no not like that. We got down there a few hours before we played, because there was no soundcheck, which was a concern. And it was a very large audience. So that’s not exactly an intimate sized audience. I think, if I’m not mistaken, he said, “It’s so wonderful to be with you on the other side of intimacy.” I think he sees our performance as a kind of intimate affair. Someone called us “the world’s quietest band”, and it is a very quiet band, quietest band I’ve ever played in. So he was concerned about whether music intended to be played in front of a few thousand maximum would really work in front of 200,000 people when there were other stages going on. We play so soft we could easily be drowned out by a rock band playing another stage. But once again, we all came away from the show thinking it was really wonderful.
Did Leonard stay around and watch any bands?
We left after a short pause.
Talking about the loud thing – I read a report today when you went to see Bob Dylan recently and Leonard was wearing ear plugs…
That was in St John’s [Newfoundland], and, yeah, Bob Dylan was playing the venue right next door to the hotel. We could go to the venue without even leaving the hotel, you just walk through a corridor and you were there. It was a large venue, 16,000 seats, and the sound system was kinda loud. We had a box and it was fairly near the stage. And the sound was a little loud for us, and we were all trying to protect our ears, so we had to wear earplugs. I did, I think Leonard did as well.
Did he and Leonard hang out after..?
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 BMI [Broadcast Music, Inc] 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…”
So what happened after the first leg of the tour finished?
We took three or four weeks off, then we reconvened in Los Angeles again and SIR rehearsal studio for two weeks, just to brush up basically. That’s where we rehearsed the first time – Studio Instrument Rentals.
Any changes to this latest leg of the tour?
Not so far. The set list hasn’t really changed. We’ve only played one show so far. We had to play it without Sharon Robinson who had a health concern which has turned out not to be a problem at all, so she’s joining us in Vienna. As she was absent, we had to cut one song in the set.
And new songs forthcoming?
Well, he’s writing. He’s already got some things written. He’s played me two of the songs. And there are more new songs. 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. Just because we still have dates – we’re in Europe until December 1, 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 probably take us to at least October 2009 before we can even think about recording.
Well, you know, these things are always subject to change, and I do know a couple of titles but I wouldn’t want to give them away in case somebody took them…