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.

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.

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.