Leonard Cohen – a few memories

My local newspaper Larne Times know I worked for Leonard, and following his death they  asked me for a few words. I sent them… many. Not much of it got used so I thought I’d share the whole thing here. Hope you like it. To get me going they asked me a few questions, and here they’re set out in bold…

how you met Leonard

I had barely ever heard of Leonard Cohen when I was asked to join the tour. But as our first meeting approached, and the communications with tour management gave the picture some depth, I was aware Leonard was… kind of a big deal. I met him at S.I.R. in Los Angeles, a rehearsal facility on Sunset & Wilcox. I didn’t know whether to shake his hand or not – sometimes you think big stars don’t want your hands on them. I probably bowed my head a wee bit, and maybe shook his hand, I can’t remember. I have a habit of making an arse of myself as a first impression, so I guess I was wrapped up in that, and to my shame I can’t remember our first words. They might have been a mix of English and French. Who knows.

But it didn’t take long to feel like I could be on his wavelength. Whoever designed the tour set made this sort of stepped crescent thing. I remember it being grey and awful, like something from a 1950s game show or variety hour. I was around six feet up on the top tier, trying to tune a pedal steel guitar when Leonard came in with a few people to show him the set. Within minutes he gestured to the monstrous plywood construction and said “This is horseshit.” Bingo. My kinda guy.

your experience of working with him

In 2008 the tour was savage. Even by the final rehearsal in S.I.R., nerves were frayed. But the very first gig in Fredericton was special, and set the tone for the challenges ahead. Leonard took to the stage for the first time in years, and the roar of the crowd was… I don’t know… ferocious adoration. Deafening like a jet engine, warm like a campfire. Up until that moment it was just another job to me, but that reception made me realise how much pressure we’d be under to help Leonard live up to the expectations put on him.

From May to August, that first leg was exhausting. It was planned and executed in a way usually reserved for young and upcoming bands who don’t know any better. Toronto to Dublin to Manchester to Montreal to Glastonbury to Oslo – crossing the Atlantic three times in 16 days. Long flights, unnecessarily epic bus journeys, and mountains of money wasted, we cursed the planners and middle management while trying our best to keep sane and help Leonard deliver his shows.

It was a really tough start and I remember going to my new home in Larne after three months on the road, asking myself what kind of circus I had joined. Thankfully during the following four-week break, changes were made. Things got a little easier. We couldn’t have carried on the same, and thankfully we never did. Leonard wanted everyone to be comfortable, and not just himself.

When the dust settled after the final shows in 2013, we were informed that the creature comforts – a little more room here, a little more stuff there – eventually ate into the tour’s profits to the point that Leonard himself had to make up the difference. The stories circulating backstage during that period – of ego and demands – angered some of us on the crew. From the beginning, Leonard showed us unprecedented loyalty and respect, and we knew how good we had it. Some people didn’t, and kept asking for more. All we could do was watch as the end neared, how some people behaved, and we shook our heads time and again.

what he was like

Humble. Appreciative. Strong. Smart. Funny. Attentive. Warm. Supportive. I think he had a special relationship with everyone in the crew. There were many of us, and he’d join in any stirring conversation or quick chat. He gave me confidence. He often asked me “How’s the real work coming?” He encouraged me to write. In late 2013 I left one of my books in his dressing room, and (cheekily) signed it to him: “To my number one fan”. In the New Year I sent him another work, and he praised it, signing his email off with: “L (your NO. 1 fan)”. I couldn’t believe a giant like him would bother supporting someone like me. But then it makes sense, because I think his devotion was to encourage people to be happy in what they do – it’s how you heal the world.

your feelings on his music

Maybe this reads like sacrilege, but I was never a big fan of Leonard’s music. At first supporting his efforts came from duty, not passion. I think most roadies have a sort of church-and-state mentality. Nor am I a huge Ash or Bloc Party fan in the traditional sense. When you know the people who make the music, your perception of both change. You learn there’s a difference between a person and their art. I look at where an artist is going, and as a roadie I ask myself: Can I follow? Can I live with them? Do I agree with their core principles? Can I take their money and feel good about myself? So it’s less about the music itself, and more about the bigger movement. With Leonard, my answer to those questions was and probably always will be a confident yes. To me his music isn’t as important as the man he was. I just really really (really) liked the guy. Lorca and Adam might think I’m an idiot, but I consider their dad my Bonus-dad.

While we were on tour in 2012-13, there was a rumour floating around: Leonard might play in Palestine. Crewmembers quietly debated among themselves, whether or not they’d take the chance of following him there. In such a tumultuous landscape, a prominent Jewish figure might think twice about their safety. I was adamant: for sure I would go. And he’d probably never ask – which is precisely why I would’ve followed.

his passing

I got my final email from Leonard in November 2014. I was the middleman for a Slovenian poet who wanted to send Leonard a book. Leonard thanked me for playing buffer and said “the Tired Old Guy just can’t keep up with it all.” He included a picture of himself smiling contentedly in an apron – surrounded by kids, carved pumpkins, and floating soap bubbles.

After then, I don’t know what life was like for Leonard. I never pestered him or his family for news and info. I figured if I was meant to know, I’d know. Call it some kind of crazy understanding. I just knew we were on the same level because he was on everyone’s level. Only in recent months, the tone of news articles drew me a bleak picture. I thought Leonard would live into his 90s easily, using some Buddhist mind-contraption to keep working. I was hoping this was just another none-more-dark brand of “Leonard”, the fedora-topped character musing on Death as some mysterious salesman who visits everyone for a cuppa joe. But… This was the real Leonard, sitting down with his final days. The cups are in the sink.

What can you do? I just hope we can all take a leaf from his book and treat each other with undying kindness. And now, typical me, late to the game, I’ll probably become his number one fan. I’ll miss Leonard. We all will.

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10 Comments

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  1. Thank you for sharing this. My husband and I have so few true regrets in life, but one of mine is that on the last tour I did not hock some old jewelry and follow him to a couple more cities. He was my answer to “If you could have a meal with one person…” I don’t think anyone could ever fill those shoes.

    As a person who only got to see him from the rows I thought all of these generous lovely things about him. It’s comforting to get verification from you that he was as great as he seemed to me. Whoever it was who wasn’t grateful enough – shame on them. I was grateful and honored and humbled to be able to have a ticket and drive a few hours to see him.

    Grateful to catch the last two tours – which live on as the favorite concerts of my lifetime.

  2. L, Lovely to read your blog. A beautiful passage. Love to you and fam, H xx

    >

  3. Beautiful words, Leif. Thanks for sharing your heart.

  4. I am so grateful that you shared this with us.

  5. Beautifully written. You described him perfectly. I only know him through Chris’s eyes, but he felt the same way about Leonard. I bought his final album, but find I can’t listen to it without crying. He was an amazing man and all of you were so fortunate to spend so much time with him. Take care. Joan Bynum

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