New use for PG Tips pyramid teabags, Leonard Cohen and more…

Thursday, November 8th, 2012

My last day in Austin and I’m in Guero’s to meet a friend for beer and pastors when I hear my name called. It’s Rafael Gayol, Leonard Cohen’s drummer. He’s sitting in a booth with Mark Andes, the bass player from Spirit – a band, it happens, that I heard for the first time on the album on which I first heard Leonard Cohen: a cheap sampler that came out in England when I was in my early teens, The Rock Machine Turns You On. That old vinly record, which I’ve still got, has a lot to answer when it comes to my musical education.
Rafael’s from L.A, but I met him for the first time in Austin, on Nov 30th, when (let me linger on this just a moment longer: aaaaaah! Okay now we can continue) I shared the stage with Leonard Cohen’s band. It was Roscoe Beck’s idea, Austin being his hometown, to organise an event at the Cactus Café – an acoustic club attached to the University of Texas – called ‘Leonard Cohen, A Life In Art,’ which would be broadcast and streamed by the excellent university radio station, KUT. He also gave an open invitation to his bandmates, and when they all said yes, it turned into an evening of music and words.
It really was something – this big band on a small stage playing a soft, stately, poignant instrumental version of Seems So Long Ago, Nancy. This was a song, coincidentally, Annie Girl and I were rehearsing just before I left for Austin – but no uke for me tonight. I’d already done my own music and words show at Waterloo Records earlier that evening, accompanied by Texan singer-songwriter Colin Gilmore on guitar, and by Russell Mystick, an Austin musician I’d just met that day on Theremin. But at the Cactus Café there were the Webb Sisters, with harp and guitar, doing Show Me The Place and Coming Back To You, and Sharon Robinson singing Alexandra Leaving so movingly that the whole room got to their feet in a standing ovation. No room for drums onstage, so Rafael came up at the end for the interview part of the show.
Then of course the next day was the band’s first show on the N. American tour with that good-looking guy in the suit and fedora with a liking for three-and-a-half hour shows. And what a show – it began with a dance (Dance Me To The End Of Love), ended with a dance (a cover of the Drifters’ Save The Last Dance for Me) and another 29 songs inbetween. The set list has varied since his show at Wembley in London, but then that differed slightly from the first concerts in Ghent. The second of his two sold-out nights in Austin would also be a touch different – evidence, probably of him feeling more comfortable this time around. He definitely appeared more comfortable playing a guitar, was clearly happy at having a violin player onstage with him, and looked, and sounded, younger than he did on the 2008-10 tour.
In the dressing room after the show, I think I discovered Leonard’s secret. Yes, I now know what this tour is fuelled on! Stacked up in a corner were multiple boxes of P.G Tips teabags- so many they couldn’t be just for the Webb Sisters. Being Leonard, he might just sit under one of the little tea-filled pyramids and meditate. Whatever he does with them, it works.
Well, I found it hard leaving Austin. I’d got into the habit of coming to Austin every year for SXSW – catching bands, seeing friends, maybe doing a panel, even playing a gig or two – and in the process I’d got out the habit of coming any other time of year. Now I didn’t want to go home. But I did bring back some great stories – I know, I should’ve blogged or tweeted them but I was having too good a time living them.
PS. Earler in the week, dragging myself out of bed, I went to the KUT
Radio studios to be on John Aielli’s show. What a character. Even in a city full of characters. I’m now a follower of a Twitter an Austin friend turned me onto called: ShitJohnAielliSays.
“John Aielli tells stories, jokes and things you never thought you needed to know. These are a collection of some of those choices bits of wisdom.”

Monday, September 24th, 2012

Yesterday I woke up in a child-sized bed in a tiny little room at the Big Sur Inn. If you want to feel like a character in a fairy tale, this is the place to go. Trees so tall they make you feel like Alice; a chilly fog wheeling and rolling up from the sea below. And this little wooden house – not much bigger than a garden shed but filled with books, a different kind of tool – with a big name: The Henry Miller Memorial Library.

The first time I went there was three years ago, almost exactly. Marianne Faithfull had asked me to come see her perform on the outdoor stage in the library’s grounds. The day before the concert, I’d sent off a proposal for a book I wanted to write on Leonard Cohen – a long proposal, 20 pages, around 15,000 words for the writers among you, a kind of textual GPS read-out on where I thought that the book might go, having no idea at that time of all the different side streets and tunnels and off-road adventures I would be led along in its creation. Driving back from Big Sur,  at that point when the roads stop winding quite so wildly and  phone reception returned, my mobile began beeping. The messages were offers from publishers for my book.

So it began. And I would have never believed that, three years later, I would be on the Miller library stage, reading my book, and singing Leonard Cohen songs. Big Sur’s not exactly a short drive from San Francisco, but Annie Girl (gtr) and Charith Premawardhana (viola) – she of Annie Girl and the Flight, he of the acclaimed Classical Revolution – drove down, played with me, then drove straight back for a late-night gig in Berkeley. And, as the night grew cold and the moon shone through the fog, Greg Ashley and his band played the ‘Death of a Ladies Man’ album from start to end, to the backdrop of rare film footage of Cohen.

This morning I woke up in L.A. Solid blue sky, blazing sun. Looking out the window I can see a pool with air-mattresses floating about, looking very seductive. So I’m going to sign off and hopefully see some of you at Book Soup tonight, one of my favourite L.A bookstores (my old friend Tosh Berman used to be manager until he left to concentrate on publishing books himself). Hoping tonight to play a couple of songs backed by Rob Laufer – check him out, an amazing singer-songwriter… not to mention ‘George Harrison’ in Cheap Trick’s ‘Sgt Pepper’ shows and at Sir George Martin’s Hollywood Bowl Beatles show.