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:

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.

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’