NOTES FROM NEW YORK
The words of the prophets are written…
There’s a plaque on the wall of the Chelsea Hotel confirming that Leonard Cohen had been there, but nothing at the Radisson Martinique to indicate Leonard had been there too. In the late 60s, when Leonard was studying Scientology, that was where the classes were held. Suzanne Elrod took classes there too. She had been living in the upscale Plaza hotel with another lover in 1969, when she and Leonard met, but soon moved out and into the downscale Chelsea with Leonard. Of course there was no Leonard Cohen plaque back then, and this one, erected only a few years ago, shares the wall with plaques to some other famous Chelsea residents, Dylan Thomas, Arthur Miller, Brendan Behan, Thomas Wolfe. Impressive company. But only Leonard’s can boast a quotation from a song that alludes to a celebrated blow-job.
…on the subway
I spent just two nights at the Martinique then moved to Brooklyn to stay with friends. On my first F train ride to Prospect Park, I spotted two separate women reading ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’. On my last – same F train – I saw two different women were reading cook books. You can hear the Zeitgeist yelling, ‘What do women want?!’ (Oh, and check out my Brooklyn friend Cathy’s fab cooking website, whatwouldcathyeat.com),
Martha Stewart, Heavy Rock.
I’ve been invited on the Martha Stewart Living show to talk about Leonard Cohen. Hmm, what should a girl wear to a Martha Stewart show…? Ah, okay, it’s radio, not TV. So all I’ve got to worry about is this Rock Book Show I’m doing straight afterwards, because the instructions say to come “camera-ready”. Right. Maybe a nice plaid skirt and blouse for Martha (I seem to recall a magazine with lots of plaid décor) and I can pop into the restroom on the way out and change into a rock T-shirt and black pants.
Well, as it turns out the Martha Stewart Studio is a No Plaid Zone. The chairs don’t have fancy seat covers that tie at the back, either – and as for matching china, her assistant brought me coffee in a paper cup. There was no Martha Stewart either – the interview was done by another woman, and a very fine job she did too.
The studio was way up high in a glass-walled skyscraper with a view of the city that went on forever. It was the building equivalent of an eternity pool. But on one of the inside walls there was a poster of a Certain Heavy Rock Star who, the assistant told me as she led me out, had been on Martha’s show. ‘Ah yes, Certain Heavy Rock Star,’ I said, recalling a story that involved a helicopter, a photograph and a powdery substance… without my permission, my brain had decided it was a good time to warm up for the Rock Book Show. Which, as it turned out, was conducted outside in the cold on a busy New York street, sitting at a little folding metal table on metal folding chairs, trying to ignore the group of foreign tourists taking pictures from behind the movie camera or the old guy in the yarmulke, coming up to the table, peering at the copy of my book and, clearly unimpressed, shuffling off again. Another very nice interviewer. And here we are, in a state of utterly accidental colour-co-ordination; Martha Stewart would have been proud. http://tinyurl.com/dy52q7d
Funny how in one fell swoop I’ve gone from my usual job of asking interviews to answering them. Or in the case of WFMU New Jersey DJ Irwin Chusid’s first question, not being able to answer. To paraphrase, it was: Leonard; ladies; man; did he get a lot of STDs? Irwin is one of those great old-school DJs – smart, funny, informal and with a real passion for music. We spent a great hour together talking and listening to Leonard Cohen songs – most of them sung by Leonard, and one, ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ sung by me with my uke. (Irwin, sweetheart, made a copy of my solo Cohen cover – you can find it on my website’s News page I think -and played it again the next week.)
He was still playing Leonard Cohen songs when I ran back to the PATH station and to Manhattan, where were more questions waiting for me to answer. Alan Light, whose book on Hallelujah was about to come out, had put together a panel at Housing Works bookstore with me and two of Leonard’s friends, the producer John Lissauer and singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega. One story Suzanne told still makes me smile. She and Leonard were sitting outside by a hotel pool, talking, when he offered to read her something. As he began reciting his words, she saw over his shoulder that the women who’d previously been lounging about the pool started to stir and move closer and closer to him, as if mesmerized by his voice. When she mentioned this to him later, Leonard grinned and said, “It works every time.” Certainly seems to have worked – right back to his adolescence when he taught himself hypnosis and tested his skills on the family maid, successfully putting her in a trance.
The maid, incidentally, had been a ukulele player. So was Leonard. As for Leonard’s uke-playing biographer, the highlights of my visit were getting to play with Fred Nicolaus, guitarist with Dept. of Eagles, at Book Court in Brooklyn, and with Fred and Jimi Zhivago – at the soiree my friend Brian Cullman put together in NYC.
Serge Gainsbourg, Leonard Cohen
In 2001, the first time I sat in a room with Leonard Cohen, interviewing him for MOJO, he told me had met Serge Gainsbourg. I was fascinated to hear this – I only I wished I’d heard it before. My book on Serge Gainsbourg, A Fistful of Gitanes, had just that moment come out. A decade later, while writing my book on Leonard, there was a number of times when I’d nod to myself and think, yes, Gainsbourg and Cohen had several things in common. Maybe one of these days I’ll do a blog on the two of them. But I’d best not get distracted from my New York notes or I’ll never get this posted.
Coincidentally, on my first day I was interviewed by John Schaefer of WNYC, who pointed out that the last time I’d been on his show was to talk about Gainsbourg. And on my last day – after going for a run through Prospect Park that ended up at the Brooklyn Museum and me finding myself all alone in the Egyptian Mummy room – I stopped for coffee in a place that I noticed on leaving was called Couleur Café – the title of a Gainsbourg song. And which made the best latte I’d had since leaving San Francisco. Which is where I am now, poring through the notes written on the three napkins and the back of a plane ticket.