Cohen Cohen Gone Part II

Thursday, July 11th, 2013

Yes, still in New Zealand, and liking it every bit as much as in Part 1 (which you will find down under). I’m sure I was misting up a bit as I said goodbye to everyone in Auckland, but there was still one more show to go.

The sign at Wellington airport – the only capital city in the world that I know of named after waterproof boots – welcomed us to “the middle of Middle Earth” – yes, the very nub of hobbitdom. Look up and there’s a giant Gollum hanging from the rafters. There was talk among the locals of renaming the city Wellywood – Peter Jackson still has a home there down by the water, though from the sound of it he has properties all over the country – but it was voted down. I was met by some friends who drove me a couple of hours out of town, through a magical, drizzly landscape of green mountains – so dense with greenery that it felt like the foliage was sprouting more foliage before your eyes.

This gig was in Carterton, in the south of the north island. It was put together by an old friend of mine from London, Mark Rogers, who’d moved to NZ with his wife and kids and made his name as a promoter of some very interesting shows. For this one, Mark corralled some of the best artists within miles to come and play Leonard Cohen songs: Jesse Sheehan, French for Rabbits, EB & Sparrow, John The Baptist and Bear Bailey. There was brass band (Brassed Off), that played a moving ‘Hallelujah’) and, joy of joys, there was a contingent from the Wellington Ukulele Orchestra. I’d first heard of this eclectic bunch (who had described their sound as “skeletons pissing on a tin roof” – via my friend Howe Gelb of Giant Sand, who had sung with them once and brought me back a T-shirt. Doing ‘Dance Me To The End Of Love with them was great, and it was gorgeous having Jesse Sheehan join me on ‘Sisters of Mercy.’

The show began with an interview, conducted by Simon Sweetman, the Wellington newspaper journalist who also writes ‘Blog on the Tracks’. Here’s his preview of the show:

http://tinyurl.com/kdg423m

The train ride back to Wellington the next day took me past more green-pillowed mountains and drizzly skies. But it arrived to bright sunshine – perfect for exploring a city that struck me as a slightly more sprawling San Francisco invaded by Portlandish vintage shops and cafes. But too soon it was time to leave New Zealand and fly to Australia.

Sydney Harbour

The Sydney Writers Festival was a whirlwind. Ten minutes to check into the hotel down by the harbour and drop off my case, then it was straight to work! The first event was a couple of piers away in a bar called the Dance Café – a stage interview with radio host Dom Knight. Dom’s a bit of a uke fan, I hear. The guests also included a guitarist, Bruce Mathiske, and classical conductor and national treasure, Richard Gill, all of us talking about music.

After that, armed with a borrowed bottle of wine and glass (I hadn’t had time to change any Australian money), I headed off in the cool night rain, uke over my shoulder, map in hand, in search of the next gig. This was ‘The Chaser’s Empty Vessel’, hosted by two very smart and funny guys, Chris Taylor and Julian Morrow. Turns out it was not an easy venue to find. So I turned up late, as bedraggled as a lost cat. But Chris and Julian took it in their stride – maybe the bottle of wine helped! – and we had a great time, uke and all.

The next morning I was up bright and early for a lunchtime panel on the Art and Ethics of Biography – Gideon Haigh, my new pal from the New Zealand festivals, was one of the panellists – and a bunch of interviews for newspapers and TV. Then an evening off, spent (thanks to Simon Sweetman) at the Sydney Opera house, seeing Kraftwerk’s 3-D production of ‘Autobahn’! I’d heard about these shows just before leaving San Francisco. I was chatting with Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark in a funny little hotel in the Tenderloin – just down the road from the Regency Ballroom where they were performing – and, misty-eyed, they were rhapsodising like a couple of young fans about seeing Kraftwerk play the Tate Modern in London. “Here we were”, said Paul, “shaking each other going, ‘I can’t believe they’re playing Antenna!’ – we were so excited.” The songs transported them right back to when they were kids, sitting in the dark in the back room of his mum’s house, listening to Kraftwerk albums.


Then came the deluge. The next morning, as I was getting ready for an early (for me) 11 am event, I opened the closet door to get dressed … and water came pouring out! It was coming down through the light fixtures, puddling on my t-shirts and running off my clothes. I grabbed everything off the hangars and threw it to one side of the room. Then water started flooding down that wall too. It was sort of like ‘The Shining’ except this (fortunately)was not bright red. So there I was, running about the room in a state of undress, tossing all my belongings into the corridor with one hand and making frantic calls to the hotel operator with the other, which were met with indifference. In the middle of all this, one of the festival people showed up, wondering if I was ready to go. With her help, everything was hauled off to a new, dry room and I got to the gig, damp and frazzled but on time! With the help of a stiff brandy that another of the lovely festival people conjured out of nowhere, and a great audience and interviewer, I was as right as, er ,rain.

After the deluge

So. My last night in Australia and my last gig of the tour – Closing Time, as Leonard Cohen would say. And what a place for it: the Petersham Bowling Club, a little venue that looked like it fell out of a time machine. Imagine an English bowling green and clubhouse as painted by Edward Hopper, or directed by David Lynch. The gig, a musical tribute to Leonard Cohen, had been set up by a friend, Stuart Coupe. who runs the Laughing Outlaw record label.


Such a sweet night. Mike Anderson (who did some lovely songs with Corrina Steel) joined me on ‘Sisters of Mercy’, and my friend Matt Wilkinson, who flew in with his wife from Melbourne, jumped up to join me on ‘Midnight Cowboy’, a song I wrote, late one night, while writing my Leonard Cohen book. I’ll try and get those videos up some time soon.

But here I am, in this video, alone on a stage that said ‘Lone’ – which is how it felt up there, not being able to hear myself sing or play, the sound system being a fickle creature – playing a song of Leonard’s that’s been such wonderful company throughout the tour: Famous Blue Raincoat. I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that something about the place, and the good people in it, has been absorbed into the music.

(There’s some sound problems at the beginning, so maybe fast forward a little way.)

Later that night, in Matt and Sarah’s room on the 20th floor of the Shangri La (fantastic hotel, as you’d expect of a place named after the best girl group of all time!) we sat in the window seat, singing songs, and looking out as a light show played across the harbour and on the giant lotus petals of the Opera House, like it was auditioning for a Pink Floyd concert. The bridge seemed to sway like a happy drunk in the breeze. A cruise ship bejewelled with lights glided beneath it and out into the dark, like an old dowager on a big night out. Back in my own hotel room I watched it disappear into the distance and out of sight.

Cohen, Cohen, gone again

Wednesday, June 5th, 2013

Well, as some of you know I just got back from three weeks on the road in New Zealand, plus a detour to Sydney, Australia. So many stories… so little time.

I’m sitting here with a half-packed suitcase – same clothes, different electrical appliance adaptor – waiting for my driver Eric Drew Feldman to take me to the airport (yes the bassist/keyboard player for Beefheart, PJ Harvey etc; nothing but the best for this diva!) (oh and he’s cheap for a musical legend; all he’s charging for his services is a multipack of  Marks & Spencer’s socks) for my flight to London for an even longer tour – a big bunch of UK events and, this time, a detour to Berlin.

This is the moment when you should abandon this blog en masse and rush to the tour page, scroll down past the picture of me with New Zealand singer-guitarist and giant Adam McGrath, and make plans to come and see me somewhere. The best bit about being on the road is the people you meet. And the stories.

Ah the stories. They began in the airport lounge at Auckland airport, 5.55 in the morning – not a time of day I’m much familiar with, outside of airports – waiting for the connection to the first leg of the tour: Christchurch. A tall, lean, bespectacled man with the look of a vicar or an Oxford don came ambling over and said, in a very English accent: “You’re Sylvie Simmons.” At 5.55am I am rarely sure who I am, so this was useful information. He added, with a tone of delight, “I just googled you on my device.” Wiping the sleep of a 13-hour flight from my eyes, I recognised who it was: Sir Max Hastings! The great British historian, editor, writer,  and war correspondent. The first time, I think I can say with conviction, I’ve ever been googled by a knight.

Since he was billed on some of the same festivals as I was and billeted in the same hotels, I often found myself  larging it with Sir Max over  breakfast. He would usually be reading some book or other on his kindle, before stopping to share some great stories of his own. One day, I think the last day I saw him, in Auckland, he came into the club room clutching a tome under his arm. It was Proust’s A La Recherche. When he was young, he said, he had been given some excellent advice: to on no account read Proust until he was in his fifties. In his sixties now, he had read it a number of times, and shared some of his favourite passages.

Christchurch was a great little city that looked so much like England I kept having to do a double-take. Even the streets had the names of English towns (confusingly, especially for someone with a sense of direction like mine, in the wrong geographical order at times.) The view from the hotel was of old brick buildings, weeping willows and ducks on a pond which all looked like they’d all snuck out of Hampstead in the dead of night and got on the same plane. The place still bears major scars of the 2011 earthquake that killed 185 people and destroyed not just buildings but neighbourhood including almost all of downtown. But the people couldn’t have been nicer. Since the galleries were gone,  there were some great pop-up displays around the city – a weird sculpture on a roof, a giant reproduction of an old master from the museum on the wall of a half-swallowed building – and even a temporary downtown of shops and cafes had been constructed out of shipping containers.

The day before my first Christchurch Writers event, I went to meet my volunteer guitar player du jour, Adam McGrath – a very big man who lived in a very small wooden house that sat like a grounded ship on top of a hill above the stunning Governor’s Bay, where we sat and played some songs. Adam’s songs have a kind of Steve Earle quality to them  – good stuff – but we thought we’d better stick to Leonard Cohen’s for the show! Here we are backstage.

If you want to see more pictures from Christchurch, check out the event’s facebook site.

https://www.facebook.com/chchwritersfest

Meanwhile onto Auckland, another place full of wonderful friendly people and to a dream of a Writers & Readers festival. More welcome parties than you could have asked for, ranging from the cocktail variety to a Maori ceremony, and some unforgettable events: sharing the stage for an evening of story-telling with great writers like  Jackie Kay and  Gideon Haigh (who has just won two more awards for his latest book in the time it’s taken me to write this blog!) and, another night, with Noelle McCarthy at a packed show called ‘Mr Cohen Revealed.’.

But if I had to pick a highlight, it had to be the show that ended the festival: a double-bill with the great singer-songwriter Don McGlashan, ex the Mutton Birds, where, without a rehearsal, just a quick drink in the bar before stepping out before a sold-out crowd, we sang four of his songs (including the gorgeous ‘This Is London’ – if you don’t know this song, check it out) and four of mine (yeah, yeah, I know, but I’ll find time to record them one day, honest!) and four of Leonard Cohen’s, taking it in turns to sing lead. What a night. If someone reading this was in the audience with an iPhone and videoed, or even shot, any of it, please put it up on YouTube or send it my way. Meanwhile, here we are at the closing time party.

Talking of which, it’s time to go. I’ll get to Masterton, Carterton and Wellington, NZ, and Sydney when I can.

Doors and windows

Tuesday, May 21st, 2013

Sitting in a room in New Zealand,  staring out the window, listening online to a BBC radio show from England, and they’re playing The Doors. Light My Fire. It was the first song of theirs I ever heard. Ray Manzarek, the DJ said, was dead. 74. His age surprised me. It wasn’t long since I saw him, in San Francisco, and he looked much the same as he had in the ’60s, lean and intelligent – I would say professorial, except there was that edge. He told me once, back when he was a lad of 60 or so, that he was surprised he’d survived that long, and with good reason. I remember him saying that the musical high point of the Doors for him was L.A Woman, because it was “alive and free and young and wild.” The last words he told me were, “One only thinks about the eternal present and I’ve no idea what’s coming in the future. There’s never an end.” RIP Ray, and thanks for the music

A bottle full of sad

Saturday, April 27th, 2013

So, George Jones has gone, taking a great chunk of country music with him. Real country I mean, unairbrushed, unautotuned, okay not adverse to a schmaltzy production, but still, at its core, a simple, honest conversation about life and love. George Jones was an honest man. You could see it in the way he lived his life and you could hear it in his voice, particularly in all those heartbreak ballads, equal parts dignity and despair – which, when it comes down to it, is a good enough description of life.

I remember a conversation I had with Leonard Cohen in 2001, about what makes a singer great. Leonard, unsurprisingly, made disparaging comments on his own vocal skills, to which I replied that one of the things that had first drawn me to his voice was its honesty. I felt I could trust this singer, I said, even though I was too young to really understand what he was saying. Leonard nodded. What drew him to a singer, he said, was “that feeling of trust; I had never put it that way, but I think that’s so. Did you hear the last George Jones record? It’s a really great record. I like country music, but I love George Jones. His is the best voice ever. He’s working with the best musicians in Nashville and it’s an absolutely impeccable production – but still you hear it in the voice. That feeling of trust.”

Frank Sinatra once called Jones “the second best male singer in America”, presumably taking the top spot for himself. Jones’ phrasing, though different to Sinatra’s, was every bit as good. He knew instinctively how long to linger on a note to wring out its sadness and when to leave, before poignancy turned to pathos. He could turn a few simple words, just by the way he sang them, into a resonant, believable story.

He used to say that singing all those sad songs about pain and sorrow, about the bad things a man can do to a woman or a woman can do to a man, had been what drove him to the bottle. He would get so lost in the despair of the song, he said, that he drank. A lot. Many of his great records were made on alcohol. He was so drunk at shows sometimes that they had to help him onstage and prop him up. There were so many gigs he didn’t even make it to that they started calling him ‘No-Show Jones’ – a name that stuck so firmly he bought license plates for a half a dozen of his cars that began with the letters NOSHOW. There’s a famous story about Tammy Wynette, his third wife, confiscating his car keys, thinking it would stop him going into town to buy more liquor. He got on his tractor, and drove that instead. The marriage was as turbulent as his life was; by all accounts their divorce was the man-woman story that pained him more than anything else.

George Jones, one of the greatest voices America has produced, was midway through a farewell tour when he died today, the 26th April, 81 years old. R.I.P.

Phlog

Tuesday, March 26th, 2013

I am, as some of you may know, a flag-flying, gold-medal technophobe. My friends at MOJO will confirm that when I walked into the office they would hug their computers close to their chests to protect them from my destructive analog energy. And my nine-year-old mobile goes to a special school for un-smart phones. So I suppose it was a bit ambitious to buy a mini i-Pad. So far I’ve managed not to break it (though I did break something digital – my big toe!).
Since I seem to be getting along better with taking photos on its camera than typing words on its little keyboard, may I present, as a tribute to my new device, a mini Phlog.

Starting with a mini video, a few seconds from the gig ‘The Night Before Leonard’ at the Marsh in Berkeley, the day before Leonard Cohen’s show at the Paramount Theatre. That’s Matthew Szemela on violin, Colleen Browne on bass and colour-coordination, and me being pale and mysterious on the uke.
— oops, just as I was feeling confident, my first failure. It won’t upload.

So let’s move straight onto: Sylvie (plus Julie, Perla and Ronee) Goes To Austin!

En route to the airport: We really must address the disturbing issue of suicidal instruments before it’s too late. At the subway station I spotted this tragic recorder just after it threw itself at the live rail.

We must address the disturbing issue of suicidal musical instruments before it’s too late. On the way to the airport I spotted this tragic recorder on the subway just after it threw itself at the live rail.

Here we are in sunny Austin, brilliant sunlight, a perfect day. Greg Ashley and I have arranged to meet up to run through a few Leonard songs together the day before my gig at South Congress Books. Since everywhere in Austin’s mobbed with people during SXSW, we drove down a back street, parked and set off on foot to find an empty sidewalk where we could sit and play, and we spotted this place on the way, which was selling a PA system. One of the songs we did was True Love Leaves No Traces – from ‘Death of A Ladies Man’, the album Leonard Cohen made with Phil Spector. Greg’s band has recorded a cover of the whole album, released in cassette-form, perfect for technophobes.

Jesus Deaf Church, Austin, TX, speakers for sale

And here’s Greg in the bookshop’s parking lot the following day. In the doorway, John Barton, my old friend from Austin who arranged the gig. Thurston Moore was there too, but I forgot to get my i-Pad out for that.

Same parking lot but me this time, with my uke and a free pair of sunglasses promoting something or other, which I’ve fallen unreasonably in love with.

Free sunglasses!

This is the poster for the gig Julie Christensen, Ronee Blakley and I did at Austin Java, a cool cafe on Barton Springs Rd. The acoustics were so sweet and warm – which I credit to them having a huge tree indoors, too big to hug, growing up through the floorboards and out through the roof.

Austin Java

And finally… I Want You, one of the newish US TV pop idol contest shows, has seen sense and become I Want Uke!

I Want Uke

Well, thanks for watching. Next stop: New York City!

Digital taping

Saturday, March 23rd, 2013

It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon and I’m just back from taking my broken toe for a walk. Big toe, right foot, a week ago exactly, on my last day in Austin, TX but you all know the first rule of SXSW. What happens in SXSW stays in SXSW. Oddly, I broke the same toe exactly ten years ago, in London. That time it was on the way to interview Buffy Sainte-Marie, and tripped in my brand new scarlet Doc Martens and snapped my toe. Pro that I am, I jumped in a cab and hopped into her hotel room not a minute late; sweetheart that she is, she unlaced my boot, rushed off to fill her ice bucket, put my foot in it and would have probably made a splint out of the bedpost if I’d let her. Turns out that all they can do for a broken toe is tape it up, tell you not to play (English) football or let anyone step on it for six weeks, and not to take it personally when everyone falls about laughing and says you walk like a duck.

digital taping

digital taping


So far I’ve followed their advice. But now I’m faced with a wardrobe dilemma. This evening I have to be at Walnut Creek’s Authors under the Stars Gala – it’s a benefit for their library system, where people pay a couple of hundred dollars apiece to sit with me or the participating author of their choice (see list below – and hooray, my table’s sold out!) – and I’m expected to dress for the occasion. Hmm. So it looks like it’ll have to be a little black dress and… Uggs.
But let’s time travel back to the day when all my digits were fully-functional and high heels an option: South by Southwest. I had a brilliant time. There was the usual insane scrum of people, of course (an aerial view of 6th St on Friday night would definitely have been a contender for the Bosch painting lookalike award) and long lines outside a lot of the cool shows, but one of the great things is that you keep running into people on the street that you know and like and don’t expect to see. Like my friend Phil from London, who’d popped over at the last minute on an assignment for Q. Or Thurston Moore, who just happened to drop by South Congress Books – where I was doing a reading and playing some Leonard Cohen songs with Greg Ashley – to buy something. I don’t think I’ve spoken to him at any length since my Serge Gainsbourg book.
But the big highlight of the week for me was my panel ‘Leonard Cohen and his Women’, with three of my favourite such women, Julie Christensen, Perla Batalla and Ronee Blakley. We ended up going overtime, and closed with a few spontaneous songs. To sit next to Ronee while she sang Hank Williams, acapella (Leonard Cohen loves Hank) and Julie and Perla as they duetted on Anthem – and then have them sing backing vocals to me and my uke on Famous Blue Raincoat (and thank you Colin Gilmore for being my uke roadie) is so many kinds of wonderful. If and when SXSW posts their video, I’ll pass it on.

SXSW: ‘Leonard Cohen and his Women’

http://www.austinchronicle.com/music/2013-03-15/leonard-cohen-and-his-women/

Inquisition, cyber-style

Monday, March 18th, 2013

It once was lost, but now it’s found: a facebook interview I did with Roch Parisien one recent Sunday which, by accidentally hitting the kind of delete button that can nevermore be undeleted, he consigned to a black hole in cyberspace. Usually that’s the sort of thing I do, being a gold medalist in technophobia. So, sad as it was that two hours of speed-typing answers to his questions had been for naught, it did give me a secret smile that I wasn’t the one to blame!
But Roch, with the help of various facebook users, managed to retrieve bits and pieces of the interview, a question here, an answer there, and finally put it back together, almost-whole. And here it is:https://www.facebook.com/events/478882812161108/479778318738224

Roch Parisien’s Rocon Communications
My guest for today’s ‘Facebook Music Interview’ session is music journalist SYLVIE SIMMONS, author of the recently published definitive biography ‘I’M YOUR MAN: THE LIFE OF LEONARD COHEN’ (McClelland & Stewart).

Sylvie is an award-winning writer and one of the foremost music journalists working today. Born in London, she moved to LA in the late-’70s and started writing about rock music for magazines such as ‘Sounds’, ‘CREEM’, ‘Rolling Stone’, ‘Kerrang!’ and ‘Q’. She is the author of acclaimed fiction and non-fiction books, including the biographies ‘Serge Gainsbourg: A Fistful of Gitanes’ and ‘Neil Young: Reflections in Broken Glass’, as well as the short-story collection ‘Too Weird for Ziggy’. Residing at various times in the UK, US and France, she currently lives in San Francisco where she writes for ‘MOJO’ magazine and the ‘San Francisco Chronicle’, and plays the ukelele.

Sylvie’s latest biography, ‘I’M YOUR MAN: THE LIFE OF LEONARD COHEN’, chronicles the career of the courtly, elegant singer-songwriter, poet, and novelist, from his first band in Montreal (a country-and-western trio) and his early days in New York, where he lived at the famous Chelsea Hotel, to his most recent world tour, during which the 70-something Cohen literally skipped onstage. Sylvie includes fascinating anecdotes – Leonard meeting Judy Collins, who would later record one of his signature songs, Suzanne; encountering fellow Canadian Joni Mitchell in Greenwich Village (Mitchells A Case of You was inspired by Leonard); scary recording sessions with the gun-toting record producer Phil Spector, and spending time at a Zen monastery. She also discusses at length Cohen’s impressive body of work, including poetry and prose as well as songs (his iconic Hallelujah has been covered by more than 300 artists), mentions his numerous bouts of depression, and recounts his unfortunate financial difficulties when his former manager stole funds from his retirement account.

Thank you for ‘taking this waltz’ with Sylvie and me today as we contemplate the current state of music journalism and all things Leonard!

Roch Parisien’s Rocon Communications

Ok all, we’re ready to start…thanks for joining us everybody…and welcome Sylvie! Let’s kick off with a couple of standard questions I Iike to warm up with: what was your first single and/or album that you bought as a youth with your own money? And what was the first concert you attended?

Sylvie Simmons
The first record I remember buying (so many records, so many years…) was one I got with a record token I won for clarinet playing. Yes, in my secret life before the uke. It was The Animals, “House of the Rising Sun”. The first concert I went to was in London, at the Finsbury Park Astoria. My dad took me. It was one of those package shows, with Joe Brown & The Bruwers, [Bruvvers] Heinz & The Saints, and PJ Proby. The trouser-splitting episode still stays with me, and warms my heart on lonely nights!

Roch Parisien’s Rocon Communications
How about on the music journalism side? What music journalists would you consider your most influential at a formative stage, and was there one music biography or work of music journalism in particular that made you say “wow, I want to do this”?

Sylvie Simmons
I’m sure I was a sponge, absorbing everything around me, but looking back, I felt more like own little island floating in the same water. I loved music – I mean loved it, obsessively. When I was a tiny girl, I was onstage singing and tap dancing to it. When I was a doe-eyed melancholy teenager, I plunked away at the four chords I could play on guitar and sang it. I collected records and memorized the liner notes. I even kept them in alphabetical order – I guess I have some male genetic code or something. But I wasn’t a guy, and most of the British rock journalists were, so I guess I copied bits of their style and then acquired my own. But certainly it had to be music writing: I could think of no other life I wanted.

Roch Parisien’s Rocon Communications
What would you consider the best, and/or most entertaining music biography of all time?

Sylvie Simmons
Hah! That bit of male genetic code I mentioned was unfortunately not the part that predisposes me to ‘Best Of’ lists. Working for MOJO, I used to have problems with those lists all the time. Okay, now I’m going to cheat and look at the bookshelves behind me which are stacked with books – ‘Shakey’, Jimmy McDonough, love that one, Willie Nelson (Joe Nick Patoski), the Marianne Faithful autobiography, ‘Hammer of the Gods’ of course, Rod’s new one – I’m currently reading and enjoying Ginger Baker’s ‘Hellraiser’. My least favorite so far has been Neil Young’s memoir.

Roch Parisien’s Rocon Communications
The music industry has been shifting dramatically in recent years, and so has the world of the print and publishing. What’s your view of the recent evolution of music journalism from inside the trenches? What do you foresee for the future of the genre and what advice would you give a keen young writer wanting to break into it today?

Sylvie Simmons
The music business and the publishing business are f***ed. Sorry, but I’ve not been awake long enough to find a politer version. Okay, to tone it down a little, it’s the ‘Wild West’ out there, and maybe at some point the bloodshed will settle down a bit and we’ll know what’s going on. My advice would be to write because you want to write…which is really the only reason to write anyway. I’ve been blessed in never having to do a regular job in my adult (I use the term loosely) life, but now it’s a damn hard way to even live like an undergrad, let alone a graduate, student on music writing income.

Roch Parisien’s Rocon Communications
Sylvie, there have been a number of Leonard Cohen biographies already published over the years, many relatively recent. What led you to choose him as a subject, and what did you believe you could bring new to the table?
…and Will Birch asks:
Sylvie, what really attracted you towards Leonard as a biographical subject?

Sylvie Simmons
It’s hard to answer the first part without coming across as arrogant – “Hey, what Leonard Cohen needs is a biography by a music-loving, uke-playing woman, so I did it.” Though I did decide to write one because I felt he was more than a little underserved by the biographies available. Some would be drily (or worse, pompously) academic, focusing on Cohen as a poet who dabbled in the world of pop music; others would be rock biogs that alluded to the poetry, and others were good but outdated, etc. I’ve a shelf and a half of good books on Dylan, but couldn’t think of that many on Leonard.
I’d been thinking of writing one since 2001, when I did a three-day interview with Leonard in London for MOJO magazine – ah, those were the days of rock journalism! And, like every other interviewer, male and female, I came out with a blush in my cheeks and an imaginary cigarette and the feeling that I had the best LC interview ever – only to read through the pages upon pages of transcript and realize that, though I did have the odd new insight, the old charmer had hoodwinked me just as he’d done with all the rest. I started reading books on him in earnest then. And when I had, that made me feel I had to do one myself. It just took me a while.

Roch Parisien’s Rocon Communications
You apply a very creative style to biography writing, integrating descriptive and structural elements of story-telling that are more common to good fiction. Is this an approach that came naturally to you, or something that you had to work deliberately to develop?

Sylvie Simmons
I never thought about it, Roch, so I guess the answer is that it came naturally over time. Actually my last book before this, halfway between Serge Gainsbourg and Leonard Cohen, was fiction, a series of interlinked short stories, ‘Too Weird for Ziggy’ (which, incidentally, was originally titled ‘Too Weird for Iggy’ until Iggy Pop objected, so his then-manager said, on the grounds that it was too weird for him. The best bit about writing stories about fictional people was that I could make up what they say; you don’t have to transcribe endless interview tapes, and you don’t have to double- and triple-check everything you read or hear. There was a time, back when I first started writing about rock in the mid-late seventies, when pretty much you could write whatever you wanted, in whatever style you liked, at whatever length you felt like (no doubt to the chagrin of many readers). I miss that element of creative freedom; music journalism has become so much more micro-managed these days.

Roch Parisien’s Rocon Communications
How did you secure Leonard’s approval and participation in your project, and has he reacted to the finished book yet?

Sylvie Simmons
I borrowed the book I found in his archives on teaching yourself hypnotism and put it into action…it worked!

Roch Parisien’s Rocon Communications
Ha ha! And his reaction to the book?

Sylvie Simmons
When I last saw him, briefly, backstage at the Austin TX show last Halloween, neither of us mentioned the book. I was gratified to see how many members of his band had read it though. You know, I don’t even know if he read it. I was in the very happy position of him giving his support without him ever asking to read it for approval. The one thing he said on the subject, during our last interviews for the book, was that he didn’t want a whitewash. A very decent man, that Leonard Cohen.

Roch Parisien’s Rocon Communications
As the book more than confirms, Leonard is a seductive figure on many levels. Was it difficult to maintain journalistic objective and distance? To not succumb to his charms and ‘fall in love’, metaphorically speaking, with your subject while writing the book?

Sylvie Simmons
Okay, let’s start with ‘literally': the Petraeus question. Fortunately, having been a music writer for 35 years and having spent not just days but nights, on tour buses, with rock stars, I quickly learned to resist temptation. ‘Metaphorically’? Well, I was already ‘in love’, if you like, with the artist, and the man is very difficult to dislike. But when you examine a life in as much depth, and for such a long time as I did on this biography, in a way you start identifying with them, more than actually loving them. The distance seems to disappear. And you can’t fall in love with yourself (well I suppose you can, but hey, it’s not a lot of fun!)

Roch Parisien’s Rocon Communications
The flip side of this, is that sometimes when an author is submerged in the years of research and writing of a biography, the after affect can be that the author does not love the subject anymore. Was there anything that you wished you had not found out about Leonard? A failing or disappointment that might have tarnished any initial perceptions?

Sylvie Simmons
Yes, that is always the fear. Yes, he had failings, but if he hadn’t then it would have been a hagiography, which would be so lacking in humanity that we’d have all been very disappointed.

Roch Parisien’s Rocon Communications
You state in the book that “writing is about uncovering”. What was your single most treasured personal moment of revelation as you put the book together? And what did you learn about yourself in the process?

Sylvie Simmons
The ‘revelations’ that come instantly to mind range from the sublime – that he used to be a ukulele player (!); that he was not, in fact, cured from depression by his five years living on a mountain in a hut in a Buddhist monastery but that the experience made him so depressed that he went off to Bombay and found a new Hindu guru – to the ridiculous: that he liked to wash down a McDonalds Filet of Fish with a glass of good Margaux; that he enjoyed the Jerry Springer Show. So many things. What did I learn about myself? Hmm, I guess I realised that I was as stubborn as my exes always said I was (mostly fighting to keep my book as I wrote it, and not change it to what editors and publishers felt they wanted.)

Roch Parisien’s Rocon Communications
Our main interest here at ‘The Facebook Music Interviews’ is, obviously, the music side, but with Leonard, it’s difficult to divorce literature and music, isn’t it? From the very beginning of his career, his poetry would often be described in terms of ‘song’, and of course his songs have always been considered highly poetic…there’s this constant cross-pollination.

Sylvie Simmons
Absolutely. He bought his first guitar at the same age that he discovered Lorca, the poet he has always said gave him a voice, or allowed him to find his own voice. When he read that first poem of Lorca’s, outside a secondhand bookshop in Montreal, its effect on him was to make him think of the music of the synagogue, which likewise made the hair stand up on his arms. He has said often that there is music behind every word, and doesn’t feel there is a difference between poetry and song (other than of course the expected practicalities of applying words to music).

Roch Parisien’s Rocon Communications
You write, “the great songs, the ones that keep drawing us back again and again, are mysteries.” Which do you believe is Leonard Cohen’s greatest song, and album, and why?

Sylvie Simmons
I refer to my previous answer about “best” lists. My favourite of his albums are the ones I heard as an adolescent, the first three, ‘Songs of Leonard Cohen’, ‘Songs from A Room’ and the wonderful ‘Songs of Love and Hate’, which in my mind make up a kind of trilogy. There have been wonderful albums since, but I guess there’s something about music you hear as a youngster, at a time of your life (and at a time in history) when there were few distractions, few anything, that could have that kind of power and impact on you as a record, a voice and a song. There was a kind of nakedness to his recordings back then – even on the quite highly-produced debut – that had a kind of intimacy and authority that made you feel you were hearing something important (even if you didn’t entirely understand what it was.)

Roch Parisien’s Rocon Communications
The nominations for Canada’s Juno Awards were announced just last week. Do you think Leonard would appreciate the humour and irony of being up against Justin Bieber and Carly Rae Jepsen for ‘Artist of the Year’ and ‘Fan Choice Award’?

Sylvie Simmons
Oh yes!

Roch Parisien’s Rocon Communications
Who was the most interesting of Leonard’s ‘muses’ for you to meet and interview?
(You mention that Marianne would likely be the ‘People’s Choice’ award winner…)

Sylvie Simmons
Loath as I am to dive into another of these ‘bests’ lists, among the most important muses I spoke to were Marianne Ihlen, who lived with Leonard during the key period when he moved from the literary ‘business’ into the music one, Suzanne Elrod, the mother of Leonard’s children, Rebecca de Mornay, the actress to whom he was engaged to be married before he decided instead to become a Buddhist monk (as Rebecca told me, laughing, “It’s done wonders for my reputation with men: ‘After you they become monks, what did you do to them?'” and Anjani, Leonard’s most recent partner. Each was a fascinating interviewee.

Roch Parisien’s Rocon Communications
In my recent session with Barney Hoskyns about his oral history of Led Zeppelin, we were discussing the quote “music is always the best excuse for bad behavior”, that society often condones excess from artists and celebrities as a way of vicariously breaking the rules and taboos of mundane everyday life. Do you believe Leonard got a free ride in this way for the aspects of his own ‘bad behavior’ over the years?

Sylvie Simmons
Well it’s certainly true that many of us have the tendency to live vicariously through artists and celebrities. It’s also true (and this is a subject that inspired by MY book of short stories, actually) that celebrity has a tendency to corrupt and absolute celebrity to corrupt absolutely. But with any grand statement of this kind, there are many exceptions, or at least nuances. Leonard took a great deal of drugs in his day – acid, speed (!), Mandrax – but you could argue that they were a (not always useful) form of self-medication as much as they were recreation, for his depression, or even as a form of ‘doping’ to help him write a novel or get through stage-fright. Yes, all good excuses I know. As for sex, his celebrity certainly made women available, and he availed himself of them often. But I never got the impression of him using his celebrity to (excuse the expression) thrust himself upon someone.

Roch Parisien’s Rocon Communications
When Leonard’s longtime manager stole his entire fortune, some saw it as a tragic event; others expressed disbelief that Leonard could be so naive and trusting; and yet others suggested there was karmic justice of sorts for his single-minded self-absorption over so many decades and the people who were hurt along the way. And yet, if this had not occurred, we would have been robbed of his incredible comeback and some of the most dramatically spectacular concerts of the ages. What are your thoughts on the interrelationship between these two events?

Sylvie Simmons
I’m going to be that annoying author and say, ‘It’s all in the book’, because it is, and it’s too long to summarise, other than with a glib oversimplification. First of all, I take issue with it being karmic justice for Leonard’s bad behaviour. I have no evidence that he hurt or used people any more than the average human being, and I’d say much less than the average artist/poet/musician/ celebrity. You cannot be an artist without some sort of self-absorption, and the laws of Karma, if they are just laws, would know that. My contention is that the laws of Karma worked in Leonard’s favour, and far more efficiently in the courts of law, in getting his money back. As I wrote in the book, somewhat tongue-in-cheek but not entirely, if it were a bible and not a biography, Kelley Lynch (the manager who emptied his accounts) would have the Judas role – yes she betrayed him for money, but at the same time her betrayal led to the resurrection of his career as a performing artist and to this mass, worldwide adoration ever since.

Roch Parisien’s Rocon Communications
You mention that in the past, Europe has traditionally been a better fit for Leonard’s “dark humour, old-world romance, existential gloom and poetry.” Why is North America now “getting” the new Leonard, in terms of broader commercial acceptance?

Sylvie Simmons
Being British, I could never understand why North America didn’t get him before. Leonard was loved in the UK and across Europe from the outset, touring there regularly, selling out venues, then returning to a vast blank of incomprehension as soon as he came back. Who knows? Certainly his popularity in the US picked up in 1988 with I’m ‘Your Man’, where the humour was more obvious, less dark, and there were those cheery, Eurodisco synthesisers rather than rumbling Spanish guitar. It stayed up with ‘The Future’ – dark and apocalyptic, but yes, somehow cheerier-sounding than ‘Songs of Love and Hate’, say – but then he disappeared to the monastery for five years – and stopped touring for 15 years – and did not release albums whose songs a postman could whistle on his rounds. Certainly the press attention from the lost bank accounts helped get him back into people’s consciousness, as did the Hal Willner tribute concerts, the film, and the crazy story of “Hallelujah”. And for some happy reason, when he came back the audiences were there for him, everywhere he went.
Roch Parisien’s Rocon Communications
Sylvie, time to respond to some of the questions posted by our visitors!
Hans Kloss asks:
What surprised you most when you met Leonard Cohen for the first time?

Sylvie Simmons
Hi Hans. Sometimes, when I meet an artist, they’re not how you expected them to be, but what surprised me was how entirely and utterly ‘Leonard Cohen’ he was: immaculately dressed, humorous, flirtatious, impeccably good manners (stood up when a woman entered the room, etc.) and spoke in those perfect answers he gives.

Roch Parisien’s Rocon Communications
Will Birch asks:
When you set out on a biography like the Leonard one do you do the research first, before you commence writing, or do you research and write as you go? Or a bit of both?

Sylvie Simmons
Hi Will! I started with the research – and I started the research where Leonard started his life, in Montreal, in Winter, wandering around like a bag lady in fifty layers of clothes, two hats, two pairs of gloves, and still freezing to death. (Canadians, you are a mighty people). This went on for about nine months, going to the many and various places he lived, then I started writing. But the research and new interviews were going on right throughout the next few years of work, some important ones coming very near the end of the process. I decided to wait until the very end before I spoke to Leonard, because then I’d know exactly what I needed to find out.

Roch Parisien’s Rocon Communications
Dan Derbridge asks:
Was working with Phil Spector all that bad for Leonard?

Sylvie Simmons
Hi Dan. Yes it was – but at that time things were bad for Leonard even if he hadn’t been working with Spector. Leonard was going through a very dark and depressing period (if you’ve read his poetry book Death of a Lady’s Man you’ll see what I mean), as was Phil Spector, and both were drinking heavily. The combination was not good. The writing process was relatively easy, but the record process was the opposite – and yes, guns were used in the making of that album.

Roch Parisien’s Rocon Communications
Carl Schultz asks:
‘Hallelujah’ has been recorded by everyone and their dog. A happy situation as far as Cohen’s bank account but how do you think he feels about the amount of exposure that song has gotten?

Sylvie Simmons
Hi Carl. Leonard’s always spoken with gratitude about anyone who’s covered one of his songs – yes, even those most of us would consider atrocities – but when a journalist asked him about the outbreak of Hallelujahs everywhere from sex scenes in superhero films and on X-Factor/American Idol and suggested a moratorium, Leonard agreed that that would be a fine idea. It certainly helped win Leonard a new, younger audience though (I was at the Coachella festival a couple of years back, and when he played it you could see a few kids scratching their heads and wondering why this old bloke in a suit was covering a Rufus Wainwright/Jeff Buckley/American Idol song).

Roch Parisien’s Rocon Communications
James Sharp Roberts asks:
How would you sum up Leonard Cohen in one sentence?

Sylvie Simmons
Hi James. If you white-out all the full-stops/periods in my book, that 195,000-word sentence will say it all. But if you want the Twitter version: A serious writer, a survivor, someone who believes there’s no borderline between music and words, and who knows darkness but still sees the funny side. And a deep man, very deep. Two sentences.

Roch Parisien’s Rocon Communications
Sylvie, to sum up – the need to love (or at least, be loved) and yet the need for solitude so he could ‘miss his muse'; an equal passion and instinct for love and fighting, and fleeing; the desire for an audience coupled with a need for self-abnegation…do you feel you have succeeded in not only uncovering, but resolving any of the paradoxes that make up Leonard Cohen?

Sylvie Simmons
Resolving? Ah, if only I could do that I’d be elevated to sainthood. Uncovering? Well, I did my best. Mostly it was a case of taking all these strands, all these elements of his life, that some have treated as if they took parallel lines through his life, and bring them together into some sort of helix, because it seemed to me they were all essential parts of what makes Leonard Cohen Leonard Cohen – because without one of these strains, the music, the word, the depression, the religion, the women, the need for discipline, self-abnegation, even for war, the whole thing would crumble.

Roch Parisien’s Rocon Communications
You quote Virginia Woolf…”a biography is considered complete if it merely accounts for six or seven selves, whereas a person may well have as many thousand.” Have you done a head count on many Leonard Cohens you’ve managed to capture within the pages of ‘I’m Your Man’?

Sylvie Simmons
Haha! Counting is another skill, along with technical ability, that was not granted to me. If anyone finds out, perhaps they’ll let me know…

Roch Parisien’s Rocon Communications
If we were to frame your book as “The Fable of Leonard Cohen”, what would you want the ‘moral’ or key message to be at the end for the reader?

Sylvie Simmons
Hmm, there might be an answer for each of the Leonard Cohens. In some ways it’s a story of undying faith, of perseverance, of redemption, if you like, or of finally finding a way to get through life, which isn’t always something a ‘tortured artist’, in other words a serious artist, manages to do. Most stories about musicians and celebrities tend to have an unhappy ending, and Leonard’s doesn’t. To quote Leonard, “This world is full of conflicts and things that cannot be reconciled. But there are moments when we can transcend the dualistic system and reconcile and embrace the whole mess.” See, he always says it better than the rest of us.

Roch Parisien’s Rocon Communications
What’s on deck now, for the book in terms of promotion, readings and the like?
…and Hans Kloss asks:
Any plans of you reading your book in Europe especially in Berlin/Germany?

Sylvie Simmons
In tribute to Leonard (though I guess Dylan started it), I’m on a never-ending tour with my book and ukulele. I’m still running around the US with my book and my uke, snatching up some poor unsuspecting musician in every town to accompany me on some Leonard songs. (Every now and then, some kind soul in the audience does a video, and you can see some of them on my website sylviesimmons.com under ‘Sounds’.)
I’ll be in Austin at SXSW in March, doing a panel called ‘Leonard Cohen and his Women’ with the lovely Perla Batalla, Julie Christensen and Ronee Blakley, all of whom have sung with Leonard, and doing a couple of music and reading events of my own which are free and open to the public. (See sylviesimmons.com under ‘Tour’ for details.) Then I’m going back to New York to perform at a salon in the E.Village, accompanied by the fine Fred Nicolaus on guitar, and after that to New Zealand and Australia for book festivals and all sorts.
But Hans asked about going to Berlin. I wish I could. But the flights from San Francisco are too expensive – and, with the exception of Canada and New Zealand, the publishers won’t contribute any money towards travel expenses, which is why (since I’m paying, and because I keep getting invites) that [DELETE] my tour’s mainly been in the US.
I do hope to get to London in June though – around the same time Leonard goes back to the 02 – so I’ll see what I can work out.

Roch Parisien’s Rocon Communications
And what’s next for Sylvie Simmons? Do you already have another music biography underway or planned? Are there others you have your sights on for the future?

Sylvie Simmons
Nothing planned. I’ve never been one to go straight from writing one book to the next (reading books, that’s a different matter!) My brain is still full of Leonard Cohen.

Roch Parisien’s Rocon Communications
Where is the best place for people to exchange currency for multiple copies of ‘I’M YOUR MAN: THE LIFE OF LEONARD COHEN’ as gifts to all their friends and family?

Sylvie Simmons
I’m a big fan of independent bookshops, so if you have one such bookshop near where you live, be happy and proud of it and, if you can afford to pay the mark-up, show your love by buying it there. I think there’s a link on my website to Amazon; I’ve not tried it, but maybe someone can give it a go and report back. I’m thinking of buying an ebook myself, so I don’t have to keep carrying the book on trips. There’s going to be an audio-book too, very soon – I won’t be reading it, though; apparently my voice isn’t male enough! – and, at last count, 12 foreign language editions.

Roch Parisien’s Rocon Communications
Sylvie, thanks so much for your time today…and big thanks to all our visitors for sticking with us through this session…Cheers all!

Sylvie Simmons
Thanks Roch and everyone. Hope to get to see you one of these days.

(This interview was first published by Roch Parisien’s Rocon Communications music chat page at http://www.facebook.com/pages/Roch-Parisiens-Rocon-Communications/208757673971)

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For more information on ‘The Facebook Interviews’:

http://www.suzemuse.com/2010/02/music-journalist-finds-clever-use-for-faceboook-comments/

For more information on Sylvie Simmons and her latest book:
www.sylviesimmons.com/

http://www.sfweekly.com/2013-01-09/music/sylvie-simmons-on-leonard-cohen-black-sabbath-music-journalism/

www.mcclelland.com/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780771080425

Spring forward – look back

Monday, March 11th, 2013

Last night the clocks went forward, but me and my blog still seem to be in retrograde. Every adventure I’ve had these past week (tons) I’ve meant to hit the keyboard and blog about it. But instead I’d hit the hay, then head off the next day for another escapade. Hard to imagine sometimes that less than a year ago I was stuck at my desk, staring at 600 sheets of paper, the manuscript of my Leonard Cohen book. Now I’m running about all over, book under one arm, uke under the other.

I’m just looking at my tour page to remind myself of what I’ve been up to these past weeks and grinning broadly. Like getting up onstage with a San Francisco Prog Rock band, Hot Lunch, or playing in my singer-songwriter friend Lucas Ohio’s band. Or being invited by another friend, Victoria Zackheim, to join her and a bill of great women writers, including Zoe Fitzgerald Carter, Barbara Graham, Mara Purl, at a weekend of ‘Women’s Voices’. Or being part of the brilliant ‘Word Performances, with Doug Cordell, Tim Toaster Henderson, Crystal Reiss, Cybele Zufolo Siegel, Sarah Griff, Phil Lumsden and more.
Here’s a link to Part 1 of my reading: http://youtu.be/vu98fNzr-LY And here’s Part 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3JxulAHopd8 – –with this solo uke spot in the middle http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AFVSM0wI16w&feature=endscreen&NR=1

One of the craziest nights was a Litquake/Noisepop event called ‘Way Behind The Music’, in which a bunch of musicians and writers (including my pals Eric Shea from Hot Lunch and John Doe) were handed passages to read onstage from celebrity autobiographies. I got Rod Stewart – whose book I’d read, so I had an idea what to expect – and David Cassidy, which I hadn’t. So I found myself standing under the spotlight, narrating an unexpected, over-the-top tale of Cassidy, a groupie and a cholestroload of butter. I cracked up a few times, but with the help of a margerita managed to make it to the end!

The past week I’ve been back on the Leonard Cohen trail. With Leonard coming to the Bay Area for a concert at the Paramount Theatre, I did a free show called ‘The Night Before Leonard’ in the cocktail lounge of a theatre called the Marsh. I had two great accompanists – Matthew Szemela on violin and Colleen Browne, formerly of Pale Saints and the Wronglers, on bass. The following morning I was on a plane to Portland and a theatre full of people (450- my Woodstock!) for Live Wire! radio.

So now I’m home, busy writing an article for MOJO – Stephen Stills, who I interviewed the other day, and who told me this great story about Neil Young and his mum…. oh, I’ll tell you that later. As the late, great Douglas Adams once said, “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” A bit like everything else right now. Take care, and I’ll check back in soon. xx

It was 35 years ago today…

Tuesday, January 15th, 2013

… that Johnny Rotten, Sid Vicious, Steve Jones and Paul Cook band played at Winterland in San Francisco. 14th Jan 1978. It was the last night of the Sex Pistols first US tour. Less than two weeks later, Johnny announced that the band had split up.

I was browsing through facebook this morning when I saw a post by my L.A rock journalist pal Chris Morris that reminded me of the anniversary.  At that time I was a rookie rock journalist living in LA, and like Chris and, it seemed at the time, half the city’s population, I got on a plane to S.F to report on it.

Reading Chris’s post, two very strong memories of the event immediately flooded my head. The second (I’m omitting the first because it concerned a guy I was seeing then, who was also there) was a memory of going backstage – I seem to recall it was after the second band played and before the Pistols went on (the Nuns and the Avengers were supporting)  – and seeing the Pistols for the first time. They were sitting slumped and crumpled around a coffee table that was laden with glasses, ashtrays and discarded food, pale and tired and looking like cigarettes with three-quarters of the tobacco poked out.

Then I went to my filing cabinet and dug out this article I wrote about the event in January 1978. I’m not claiming it’s a masterpiece of rock journalism – like I said, I was still wearing my L-plates, but hey, I seemed to have stayed sober long enough to take a ton of notes – and it’ll make for a damn long blog. But , but for anyone who’s interested in the Sex Pistols and what went on that fateful day, here it is:

The Sex Pistols in San Francisco, 14th January 1978     by Sylvie Simmons 

Most of the flights from Los Angeles to San Francisco are fully-booked, Undaunted by the Pistols choosing Northern California over the South for their first US tour, punks, poseurs and the press were making the 400-mile trip to check out the action and check out each other – the principle being, if the Sex Pistols won’t come to LA, then L.A must come to the Sex Pistols.

(Millions of LA TV owners had the pistols beamed into their living rooms last week – on prime time, no less. A variety programme including other great names of our time, like Barry Manilow and Farrah Fawcett-Majors. Footage of Rotten and co singing ‘Gold Save The Queen’ met with polite applause from the Moss Brossed audience, description of Her Majesty as “she ain’t a human being” met with laughter even. No-one it seems was moved by moral outrage to put his foot through his television screen. These “revolutionaries of rock”, said another broadcaster, were originally refused entry into the US for fear they might incite “moral turpitude.” So far the Pistols have been protocol itself. When Sid Vicious was hit on the nose by a Texan punkette, he did little more than spit blood at the audience.]

Chaos at San Francisco airport. Someone has planted a bomb on the runway. Sitting there waiting for the big bang as the experts carry it away. Anarchy in the USA?

The Miyako Hotel in Japantown is plush, expensive and respectable. It is also within spitting distance of Winterland, tonight’s venue. The Pistols are staying here and so is everyone else. The lobby is full of record company executives with punk buttons, and publicists – not all of them from the band’s US record label Warner Brothers either – and photographe, dozens of them, from the nationals, locals, mags and fanzines. No pictures, said the Pistols, making the press pay the $4 for their own tickets in a vain attempt to keep them out.

Tonight is the Sex Pistols’ last gig in N.America, and their biggest of the tour. Bill Graham’s Winterland, is a tatty white building, once a hippy haunt, now featuring anything from CS&N to the Rods. At the moment Sex Pistols graffiti dominates – the sentiment: fuck the Grateful Dead.

All 5000 tickets have been sold and because the chairs have been removed and entry’s on a first-come basis, by afternoon there’s a sizeable queue outside the hall. US punks with plastic macs over their Iggy Pop T-shirts and ad hoc punk regalia brave the storm to guarantee a position within gobbing distance of the stage  – and to wave at the TV cameras conducting on-the-spot interviews with them for the elucidation of America’s parents. (Interesting fact: a promoter estimated only 15-20% of the crowd were real punks; the majority were “just checking it out.”)

I joined the queue at 8pm. By the time I was searched and frisked and inside (heavy security tonight, plus police cars patrolling the lines and selecting random punks for individual attention) the first band had been and gone. The place was already full, and if the people in the front 12 rows hadn’t been asphyxiated yet it was only through divine intervention. An emcee onstage was organising audience participation by getting all present to give the finger (US version of the v-sign) and to recite shock-the-TV-camera phrases such as ‘Fuck You’ and ‘Suck Your Mother.’

Interval. On a screen above the stage is projected Sid Vicious’s face, while Sid himself is onstage, plugging in his bass. There’s interesting film footage of Pistols quotes and interviews that the blurred sound and vision render almost indecipherable, except for the ‘Today’ theme tune. The band that everyone talks about knowingly and hardly anyone’s seen or heard. Never mind the bollocks, here’s the Sex Pistols – and they open with ‘God Save The Queen’.

Johnny Rotten is a contortionist. He can sing with his head upside-down, playing Quasimodo, crouched behind the mic like a victim of spinal disease – better than Steve Harley at the rockspastic game. Johnny is really the Sex Pistol that scares old ladies, outrages citizens and upsets Tony Blackburn. He also possesses the most positive/negative stage presence of any rockstar ever (and that includes early Mick Jagger). He’s as much as a showman as Gary Glitter – but there’s something in his eyes, something dangerous – like he knows things.

Added to that, he is really very funny. “You’re a queer lot” are his first words to the crowd, encompassing the punks, clean-cut kids and the sexual inclinations of some of the men in the room in one little phrase. The audience seems to have read the reports and studied well how they’re supposed to behave, spitting and throwing things. A mini smoke bomb is tossed onstage and Rotten is half hidden in smoke. Someone else jumps onstage and pats Sid on the back  before being hauled away. The show has begun.

‘I’m A Lazy Sod’ is harsh, defiant, no-frills – musically much more what rock ‘n’ roll is about than the safe middle-of-the-rock that’s taken hold of America. It’s as subtle as a kick in the balls but this and their – yes – charisma is precisely what makes them such a stunning live band.

The crowd is appreciative though not quite as frenzied as you might expect. They continue to toss hard objects at the stage like kids throwing peanuts at caged monkeys, trying to make them mad enough to rattle the bars. A calm-looking Rotten refuses to be baited, merely commenting, “That’s not enough presents. You’ll have to throw up something better than that.” (A master of double-meaning, this man; in event of another interpretation the staff have already sawdusted much of the floor.) “Can we have a couple of cameras?” asks Vicious with a leer. Back to the music with an animated, venomous version of ‘EMI’. The stage now resembles a jumble sale. “I could get rich this way”, says Rotten.

The rest of the album follows in no particular order: energetic, outrageous, entertaining, all the things you knew it would be, with JR controlling the crowd and maintaining momentum, with a little help from Sid, who has started a saliva battle in the front row with the help of a can of beer. All arrogance and aggression, he kicks the outstretched fans and – piece de resistance – blows snot at the front row. The cameras are having a field-day. Someone jumps the stage and Vicious heads towards him with his instrument raised.

“I think it’s funny”, chortles Johnny. “Do you want your ears blown out some more?” The audience cheers and applauds. “That’s a blow to my pride”, says Johnny and introduces the next song, “a song about you, it’s called ‘Problems.'” Sid and Steve Jones are leaping around onstage like madmen (at one point Sid falls flat on his face), while Rotten stands still in the middle of then with his arms crossed, looking like Peggy Mount. Can’t take your eyes off him. The song ends with a hypnotic, echoed chant.

Next up is ‘Pretty Vacant’, a gem. The old spotlight-on-the-crowd bit results in much frenzied pogoing, with a couple at the front getting dangerously close to Rotten, who is smashing the microphone stand into the stage, rhythmically, of course. “Tell us, what’s it like to have bad taste?” is his response to the rapturous applause. Final song: ‘Anarchy In The UK’, substitute ‘USA’. The crowd predictably goes wild. The ultimate live number. What a singer! What a showman! What a show!

They do return – ultimately – for an encore, ‘No Fun’. But the sound’s going, Rotten’s fighting a losing battle with the microphone, managing to spit/growl/scream the song and crouch, crooning at the front-rowers from the edge of the stage. Steve meanwhile is competing with Sid in the gobbing stakes. (Paul Cook, apart from laying down a solid beat, has maintained his reputation as the Quiet One.) It’s a long number that seems to stop in mid-air, leaving some perplexed-looking punters. Exit band, Johnny with the parting comment, “Ever had the feeling you’ve been cheated?” (Whether it was aimed at themselves or the crowd, who knows.)

Word has gone around that there’s a party after the show, and there’s almost a riot at the backstage door. The Pistols’ road manager, scarlet and fuming, is trying to push his way through the crowd. No-one seems to believe he’s who he says he is. “This is no way to treat the press” says one unhappy woman in what might be the quote of the evening. Meanwhile Sid is back onstage selecting tonight’s groupies from among the punkettes who remained behind when the lights went on and pulling them onto the stage and round the back.

The party is in full swing – popcorn, beer and hot dogs used more as missiles than for their food value. Apart from a brief walk-through appearance with assorted young ladies in tow, the Sex Pistols declined to attend, leaving the spitting, screaming, rioting and general obnoxiousness normally attributed to them to the support act, who seemed to be making the most of the amount of press people looking on and pouring food and drink over whoever got in the way. Someone spotted The Tubes at the party. But without Cook or Jones or Vicious or Rotten, the party fizzled out. Time to go home.

Meanwhile, back at the hotel the cops are everywhere, checking up on the unlikely people pouring through the automatic doors. Downstairs in the bar Britt Ekland – one of the many “in” people who flew up to see the band – is dancing to the Japanese disco band. Steve Jones is propping up the bar. Otherwise not another Pistol in sight – no spewing in the corridors, no spitting in the exotic fish tank, nothing. The next stop on the tour, apparently, is down south in Rio, doing some gigs for the notorious Ronald Biggs. Jones stayed at the bar till 2am, the police stayed all night, and that was that.

Back in LA, the Sex Pistols get the top spot on the evening news: “A motley crew that defies description and are renowned for their grossness hit San Francisco. Some say they’re no more than musical morons.” There follows some film from the concert – Johnny Rotten leering manically at the camera, the crowd evidently having a good time. The woman newscaster looks bemused and disgusted. Her male colleague finds the episode even more amusing. “Just goes to show”, he says, “that beauty isn’t everything.”

[Postscript. Less than two weeks after the Winterland show, Johnny Rotten announced the band had split up.]

 

Tuesday, December 25th, 2012

NOTES FROM NEW YORK

The words of the prophets are written… 

There’s a plaque on the wall of the Chelsea Hotel confirming that Leonard Cohen had been there, but nothing at the Radisson Martinique to indicate Leonard had been there too. In the late 60s, when Leonard was studying Scientology, that was where the classes were held. Suzanne Elrod took classes there too. She had been living in the upscale Plaza hotel with another lover in 1969, when she and Leonard met, but soon moved out and into the downscale Chelsea with Leonard. Of course there was no Leonard Cohen plaque back then, and this one, erected only a few years ago, shares the wall with plaques to some other famous Chelsea residents, Dylan Thomas, Arthur Miller, Brendan Behan, Thomas Wolfe. Impressive company. But only Leonard’s can boast a quotation from a song that alludes to a celebrated blow-job.

…on the subway

I spent just two nights at the Martinique then moved to Brooklyn to stay with friends. On my first F train ride to Prospect Park, I spotted two separate women reading ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’. On my last – same F train – I saw two different women were reading cook books. You can hear the Zeitgeist yelling, ‘What do women want?!’  (Oh, and check out my Brooklyn friend Cathy’s fab cooking website, whatwouldcathyeat.com),

Martha Stewart,  Heavy Rock.

I’ve been invited on the Martha Stewart Living show to talk about Leonard Cohen. Hmm, what should a girl wear to a Martha Stewart show…?  Ah, okay, it’s radio, not TV. So all I’ve got to worry about is this Rock Book Show I’m doing straight afterwards, because the instructions say to come “camera-ready”. Right. Maybe a nice plaid skirt and blouse for Martha (I seem to recall a magazine with lots of plaid décor) and I can pop into the restroom on the way out and change into a rock T-shirt and black pants.

Well, as it turns out the Martha Stewart Studio is a No Plaid Zone. The chairs don’t have fancy seat covers that tie at the back, either – and as for matching china, her assistant brought me coffee in a paper cup. There was no Martha Stewart either – the interview was done by another woman, and a very fine job she did too.

The studio was way up high in a glass-walled skyscraper with a view of the city that went on forever. It was the building equivalent of an eternity pool. But on one of the inside walls there was a poster of a Certain Heavy Rock Star who, the assistant told me as she led me out, had been on Martha’s show. ‘Ah yes, Certain Heavy Rock Star,’ I said, recalling a story that involved a helicopter, a photograph and a powdery substance… without my permission, my brain had decided it was a good time to warm up for the Rock Book Show.  Which, as it turned out, was conducted outside in the cold on a busy New York street, sitting at a little folding metal table on  metal folding chairs, trying to ignore the group of foreign tourists taking pictures from behind the movie camera or the old guy in the yarmulke, coming up to the table, peering at the copy of my book and, clearly unimpressed, shuffling off again. Another very nice interviewer. And here we are, in a state of utterly accidental colour-co-ordination; Martha Stewart would have been proud.  http://tinyurl.com/dy52q7d

 Questions

Funny how in one fell swoop I’ve gone from my usual job of asking interviews to answering them. Or in the case of WFMU New Jersey DJ Irwin Chusid’s first question, not being able to answer. To paraphrase, it was: Leonard; ladies; man; did he get a lot of STDs? Irwin is one of those great old-school DJs – smart, funny, informal and with a real passion for music. We spent a great hour together talking and listening to Leonard Cohen songs – most of them sung by Leonard, and one, ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ sung by me with my uke. (Irwin, sweetheart, made a copy of my solo Cohen cover – you can find it on my website’s News page I think -and played it again the next week.)

He was still playing Leonard Cohen songs when I ran back to the PATH station and to Manhattan, where were more questions waiting for me to answer. Alan Light, whose book on Hallelujah was about to come out, had put together a panel at Housing Works bookstore with me and two of Leonard’s friends, the producer John Lissauer and singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega. One story Suzanne told still makes me smile. She and Leonard were sitting outside by a hotel pool, talking, when he offered to read her something. As he began reciting his words, she saw over his shoulder that the women who’d previously been lounging about the pool started to stir and move closer and closer to him, as if mesmerized by his voice. When she mentioned this to him later, Leonard grinned and said, “It works every time.” Certainly seems to have worked – right back to his adolescence when he taught himself hypnosis and tested his skills on the family maid, successfully putting her in a trance.

The maid, incidentally, had been a ukulele player. So was Leonard. As for Leonard’s uke-playing biographer, the highlights of my visit were getting to play with Fred Nicolaus, guitarist with Dept. of Eagles, at Book Court in Brooklyn, and with Fred and Jimi Zhivago – at the soiree my friend Brian Cullman put together in NYC.

Serge Gainsbourg, Leonard Cohen

In 2001, the first time I sat in a room with Leonard Cohen, interviewing him for MOJO, he told me had met Serge Gainsbourg. I was fascinated to hear this – I only I wished I’d heard it before. My book on Serge Gainsbourg, A Fistful of Gitanes,  had just that moment come out. A decade later, while writing my book on Leonard, there was a number of times when I’d nod to myself and think, yes, Gainsbourg and Cohen had several things in common. Maybe one of these days I’ll do a blog on the two of them. But I’d best not get distracted from my New York notes or I’ll never get this posted.

Coincidentally, on my first day I was interviewed by John Schaefer of WNYC, who pointed out that the last time I’d been on his show was to talk about Gainsbourg. And on my last day – after going for a run through Prospect Park that ended up at the Brooklyn Museum and me finding myself all alone in the Egyptian Mummy room – I stopped for coffee in a place that I noticed on leaving was called Couleur Café – the title of a Gainsbourg song. And which made the best latte I’d had since leaving San Francisco. Which is where I am now, poring through the notes written on the three napkins and the back of a plane ticket.