Leonard Cohen: 21st Sept 21 1934 – 7th Nov 2016

Saturday, November 12th, 2016

Biographer recalls Cohen as a serious man and a great artist

by Sylvie Simmons

 

Photo: Paul Chiasson, Associated Press

I’m shaking as I write this. My brain is numb. In this year of losses, so many losses, in this black week for the world, for me this tops them all.

The radio and newspapers keep calling, wanting details of where and how he died. Well, he died at the top of his game. He went out in a blaze of glory. He died with his boots and his suit on. Not onstage — his declining health put paid to those three-hour shows, the rat pack rabbi falling to his knees — but in his home studio, where his son Adam Cohen helped him deliver a masterpiece,“You Want It Darker.” It came out only days before his death.

The album title didn’t have a question mark; darker is clearly what we want. And Cohen was always so good at dark, be it black humor, the darkness of the soul or the depths he mined for his poems and songs.

This was his third album in five years, which was miraculous, given that in 49 years he had released just 14 studio albums. Cohen was a lifelong perfectionist. He talked about songs having to be torn from him.

That old story about Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan trading lyrics in a Paris cafe is true. Dylan showed Cohen a new song and Cohen asked him how long it took to write it. “Fifteen minutes,” answered Dylan, and asked him how long it took to write “Hallelujah.” Cohen replied, “A couple of years” — too embarrassed to tell him it was five.

Maybe it was longer still, and Cohen was too embarrassed to tell me. But when those remarkable comeback tours came to an end, he returned to his original job, writing, with gusto. “Time speeds up the closer it gets to the end of the reel,” he told me. “You don’t feel like wasting time.”

“You Want It Darker” is one of the richest, deepest, most beautiful albums in a lifetime of rich, deep and beautiful work. He was a serious artist. A deep man, very deep.

“How do we produce work that touches the heart?” he said two decades ago, when he was living on Mount Baldy as an ordained Buddhist monk. “We don’t want to live a superficial life. We want to be serious with each other, with our friends, with our work. Serious has a kind of voluptuous aspect to it. It is something that we are deeply hungry for.”

Cohen was born in Montreal to a family of stature — his forefathers were rabbis and founders of synagogues and newspapers — and never denied that he was from the right side of the track. He grew up pre-rock; the tradition behind him was poetry. Raised on the English poets, at age 15 he discovered the work of Federico Garcia Lorca. That was the same year that he started to play guitar.

He said that there was music behind every word he wrote. He was a published poet, a golden boy of Canadian poetry before he tried his hand at writing songs. He never stopped writing poetry. He also published two novels. As a visual artist, he painted a series of droll self-portraits.

Cohen sang himself back home in his last album. The cantor and the choir of Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, the synagogue that his great-grandfather founded, accompanied him as he sang “Hineni,” I am ready. Yes, he’d been saying that for years, if not in Hebrew.

Although he could laugh about himself and often did, he was serious about life and death, about family, about being a Jew. His lifelong spiritual explorations were also serious; they were never an accessory for him.

So many stories of the lives of musicians and poets have an unhappy ending. But not Leonard Cohen. He had his career upside down, more popular at the end than in the beginning, when there were critics saying they should give away razor blades with his LPs. For decades Cohen suffered clinical depression. He knew darkness and looked right into its eyes and managed to raise a smile. And an extraordinary body of work.

“This world is full of conflicts and things that cannot be reconciled, but there are moments,” he said, “when we can embrace the whole mess.” I was just thinking of that quote after the election on Tuesday, Nov. 8 — not knowing that Cohen hadn’t lived to see the result.

I’m going to miss that man. Everything. The whole mess. I’m so very grateful to have known him, to have had his support and friendship. And so grateful to have his words and music. He is irreplaceable.

Sylvie Simmons is Leonard Cohen’s biographer. “ I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen (Ecco) was published in 2012. She is a San Francisco-based music journalist and singer-songwriter.

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.]