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.

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: And here’s Part 2: – –with this solo uke spot in the middle

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

Notes from Canada

Saturday, December 1st, 2012

So there I was, in Canada, three weeks ago, and here I am, in San Francisco, three weeks later, violating all the laws of bloggery by blogging about it. Of course, the immediacy of Twitter might have led to some relaxing of the rules on posting blogs. But just in case, I’ll restrict myself to the notes I made along the way.

Toronto, day one. Up at 5.30 in the morning for breakfast TV. My schedule tells me to be “camera-ready.” Even when I stay up till 5.30 I’m rarely what you’d describe as “camera-ready”, so this is my first challenge. I will come to discover over the next few days that breakfast TV  -and the same applies to lunch TV and afternoon TV – is a strange universe with bizarre rites and practices all their own. There are a few minor differences. Sometimes your segment lasts four minutes, sometimes seven, at one time nine. Sometimes you’re questioned by one perfectly-coiffed person and sometimes by a perfectly-coiffed male/female pair. My first one, I was questioned by four, all of us sitting around a desk the approximate size of Luxembourg, which was in a large room with a plate-glass wall that opened onto the street so passers-by could watch.

What they all have in common though is: The Make-up Person.

In the daytime TV equivalent of a sheep dip, before you’re led before the cameras, you’re taken to a side room where your face is covered in orange makeup and your lips are painted with strawberry lipgloss.

My Leonard Cohen book’s No.1 in the Non-fiction Chart in Canada – well, in two out of three of them; in the third it’s Neil Young’s autobiography. It’s funny, I wrote a biography about Neil Young once, a dozen or so years ago when I was living in London. Now I’m living in Northern California, not that far from where Neil Young lives, but here I am in Toronto – which looks so much like London sometimes that it stops me in my tracks – and arm-wrestling him for the top spot in the Canadian book charts.

So I’ve been given the rock star treatment: flowers in my room, even a note of congratulation from the manager of the hotel, and an escort to take me to all the interviews they’ve arranged for me to do. The list’s daunting. There’s ten in one day. In the cab between radio stations they’ve programmed some press interviews by mobile phone. We stop in one bookshop to use their back room for a phoned-in radio interview. We stop at another shop for me to sign  copies of the book.

Hey Porter. I have fallen in love with an airline. True love. My eyes have a misty glaze just thinking about it. It operates out of an enchanting airport in the middle of the city named Billy Bishop, that you have to reach by ferry boat. The airline staff dress and behave like they were beamed in from some retro parallel universe where they like their passengers and can’t wait to ply them with services, all for free. If Porter weren’t just six years old, I’d marry it.

Montreal, and more about Airports. So far, Canada is really impressing me  in matters airportable. I am meant to go straight from here to an afternoon TV show, but I linger awhile to use the free wifi, have a coffee and prepar to speak French. Oh and Montreal is the only airport I’ve been where the women’s bathroom has a machine selling banana and ice-cream flavoured condoms.

Toronto, last day. Standing outside on the ferry deck, soaking in some sun on the ferry from Billy Bishop to the city. A couple of hours off to go to the farmers market and prepare an indoor picnic (despite the sun, it’s barely 0 degrees) for Kate Maki and Fred Squire when we rehearse for the gig the three of us have at Soundscapes tonight. Kate is a great singer-songwriter I met through our friend Howe Gelb of Giant Sand, who produced her album before last. During the research for my book, when I pored through the Leonard Cohen Archives in the University of Toronto rare book library, I stayed with Kate, and we’d sit up late at night singing together, she with her guitar, me with my uke, joined by a book of classic pop songs and several bottles of wine. Maybe I’ll put some of our tunes up online sometime. Since I last saw her she fell in love with singer-songwriter Fred Squire, and they and their baby son live four or five hours outside of Toronto. There was barely time for a rehearsal of the songs we’d decided on – Famous Blue Raincoat, Old Revolution, Sisters Of Mercy and So Long, Marianne, before taking off for the gig.

Soundscapes is a fantastic little record shop. If I lived in Toronto I’d be there all the time (well, all the time that I wasn’t hanging around Porter and Billy Bishop Airport). The people who run it have the best taste in music. I left with the new Arvo Part album and a rare Lee Hazelwood record.

In the morning I’m off to New York City. Where it looks like I’ll be spending my first night in the hotel where Leonard Cohen and Suzanne Elrod used to go in the late sixties for Scientology classes…




Leonard and the Theremin, a soon-to-be consummated love story

Monday, October 29th, 2012

Tuesday at 5pm, at Waterloo Records in Austin, history will be made. Yes!!! I’ve found me a Theremin player!! So come see the first (and quite possibly last) ever stage performance of Sisters of Mercy featuring a uke-playing biographer, a guitar-playing Texan singer-songwriter and (mmm, just let me relish this a moment longer… Blame it on old horror movies and the Beach Boys’ beloved Good Vibrations but the very thought makes me tingly) a Theremin solo!

Hoping there’ll be people with smartphones. Once Leonard sees the YouTubes you know he’s going to want to make at least one addition to his band.

Well I heard that Leonard and the band are already in Austin. The Webb Sisters gave the game away when they tweeted from Whole Foods (Austin has the Magic Kingdom of Whole Foods; the place is so big and flash it ought to have theme rides – Pirates of the Polenta and the like – and staff dressed in themed animal costumes (organic, grass-fed). The Webbs – and Roscoe Beck, Sharon Robinson, and a bunch of other band members – are going to be on a panel with me at 7.30pm on Tuesday, all about Leonard and his life in art. This is definitely going to be recorded and videoed, by KUT, the university radio station.

I was on another panel Saturday night, as part of the Texas Book Festival. My fellow panelists were David Menconi, the author of a book on Ryan Adams’ Whiskeytown years, and Ken Caillat, who wrote a book on Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Rumours”, an album he engineered. I’d met David in Nashville a few weeks back so it was good to share a stage. Except it wasn’t a stage, it was metal chairs out in the back yard of a bar under a full moon.

It was 40degrees F, not far off freezing point. Still, there was a pretty big crowd, around 75 people – I figured they’d come for the earlier panel on sex and drugs and didn’t so much stick around for the rock n roll part but were frozen to their seats and unable to escape. Still, when a man came up and offered the loan of his jacket, I knew there must be some Leonard Cohen fans in the crowd. That and a couple of shots of whisky set me to rights.

Cohen, the Carpenters and calls from far-off lands

Monday, October 22nd, 2012

In Mumbai in the 90s, where he’d gone to study with a Vedanta guru, Leonard Cohen happened upon a record shop and decided to go in and ask if they had any Leonard Cohen albums. They did. He could find them, they told him, in the ‘Easy Listening’ section (filed in the same bin as the Carpenters). Some things you learn in the making of a book are not only mind-boggling but delightful.
So far I’ve had no calls from Indian newspapers asking for interviews or would-be publishers offering deals, but I’ve had no end of emails from China. Leonard, they’ve all told me, is huge in China. On Friday night, 15 hours behind Shanghai time, I did an interview with a charming journalist named Ting. Today, at only five hours difference, I had a lovely long phone call with a writer named Andre Barcinski from the biggest newspaper in Brazil – and all of them with this connection with, and their own conception of, Leonard Cohen.
Some people have written to ask if there are any more foreign language editions besides Germany, Netherlands and Spain. Well yes, there are, or there will be, some I can name, others I can only hint at, contracts being what they are, but I’m hoping to see it in Hebrew, Danish, Norse and Polish, possibly French too – details to come.
Wherever they are, I hope they’ll bring me over for a book tour. For now though, I’m going to be wandering around the US, and the left-hand side of Canada, with my uke and my book. If you’re going to be anywhere near Austin, New York, Toronto, Montreal or the beautiful Bay Area, come by and say hello.

TV – uncut

Friday, October 19th, 2012

Sitting here on a scorching hot San Francisco day looking at footage shot on a freezing cold San Francisco night only a few weeks ago. The TV show Thelma Blitz carved out of it for her Manhattan Public Access programme is up on my website in the ‘Sounds’ section, if you want to watch. And if you have, and you want to see more of Joseph Pope’s perfect curls, hear more questions answered, see some rare photos of Leonard Cohen and witness his biographer playing a one-hand version of Bird on the Wire on a celeste (the other hand being otherwise engaged with a beer bottle), here’s a link to the uncut, one-hour tape.

New York Times bestseller!

Friday, September 28th, 2012

Right, here’s what to do. Clench your right fist into a ball. Stick your right arm straight up, by the side of your ear. Then, when the clock strikes ten  Pacific Time, channel your inner Rocky and punch the air with me. My book’s made the NY Times best seller list!

Yes, that was the sound of corks popping. It’s been that kind of day. Still feeling the afterglow a great evening at Gatsby’s bookshop in Long Beach last night (really nice place, really nice crowd). And tomorrow morning I’ll be driving over to Bob Johnston’s for a visit. Bob is a legend in rock music, d the producer of a large pile of the greatest albums of all time ( Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Simon & Garfunkel and Leonard Cohen). At age 80 he’s still making record s – and still hates the suits he reckons ruined the music business. The last time I saw him, around Spring of last year,  I read him some chapters from my book manuscript  – the ones starring him – and then we sat on the porch and sang ‘Avalanche’ together – from ‘Songs of Love and Hate’, one of the three Cohen albums Bob produced  – my uke drowned out by the sound of planes coming into land on the nearby LAX flight path. This time, he says, he wants to discuss a “scheme”. Uh-oh, this will be  interesting…..

It’s official!

Wednesday, September 19th, 2012

A gal, a book, a release date. Yes I know some of you already have a copy (the Lord works in mysterious ways) but this it’s official. Time to take that champagne bottle out of the fridge and declare it ‘I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen’ day!