By: Bob Mersereau
It seems unthinkable today, but there was a time back in the ’80s when Leonard Cohen’s status as a music icon was in jeopardy. Before the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, the triumphant world tours, and a million covers of “Hallelujah,” some, including Cohen himself, questioned whether he had a career left in popular music. Then along came an impeccably timed tribute album which became a smash hit, and re-introduced Cohen as a master songwriter, putting his songs back on the charts for the first time in a decade.
The album was called Famous Blue Raincoat, released in 1986, and the thanks went to longtime friend and musical partner Jennifer Warnes, along with producer and Cohen bassist and bandleader Roscoe Beck. The pair had envisioned an album of Cohen songs while serving together in his Field Commander Cohen touring band, although Warnes’ love of Leonard songs went all the way back to 1970.
“I was playing the Troubadour (in L.A.) as an opening act for Randy Newman,” Warnes explains from her SoCal home today. “I had fallen in love with Leonard’s records. I played and I sang about four or five of his songs, “One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong,” “Dress Rehearsal Rag,” a couple of others. My goal was to get out of the sugar sweetness that had happened, with Woodstock and “Hair” and all that, and to enter a little bitterness into the scene. Everybody was getting goofy and doing too much marijuana and losing their centre. So I presented Leonard’s stuff in the way that I felt I could, and my managers hated it. They said, ‘Please don’t sing any more suicide songs.’ That was the first time I acted upon my love of his work.”
They weren’t friends as of yet, but that would soon change. After running into Cohen on tour in Hartford in 1971, they both ended up in Nashville at the same time later that year. “I was doing a TV show in Nashville with Jessi Colter, and just before the dinner break, one of the runners came in and said, ‘Anybody know anyone who wants to sing back-up for Leonard Cohen?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, me’. And she said, ‘Bob Johnston (Cohen’s producer) is sending a car for you, get in quickly because you have to be back in an hour.’ And they sent me to Columbia Studios in Nashville, and there Leonard was with Bob Johnston. I said I only have 45 minutes, and they said, ‘There’s the microphone.’ I got in the booth and sang a capella, songs of his that I already was doing, and they said pack your bags, we’ll see you in three days in Scotland.”
That tour led to a deep friendship and musical kinship. While her own career was blooming with hits such as “The Right Time Of The Night” and “I Know A Heartache,” Warnes continued appearing as a vocalist on Cohen’s records. Then after working on his 1979 album Recent Songs, she found herself at loose ends as he prepared to tour, embroiled in a legal battle with her label, Arista.
“I was enjoined by (Arista president) Clive Davis, I couldn’t sing for anyone as a solo singer, but I could sing as a background singer, because I wasn’t under contract to Clive as a backup singer,” explains Warnes. “So rather than stay at home and go crazy, I called Leonard and said, ‘Maybe I could come and sing backups for you so I could survive artistically, maybe write on the bus. He said, ‘It would be bad for your career, you’ve had number one hits.’ I said, ‘You don’t know what’s going on, they’re gagging me, legally. It’s hurting my spirit, I can’t handle it.’ He said, ‘OK, come on.’”
In that tour band were members of the Austin, Texas progressive jazz group Passenger, including Roscoe Beck, as well as a couple of Gypsy jazz players, and Warnes hired Sharon Robinson to sing harmonies with her. This gave Cohen a much larger sound than he’d used on previous tours and most of his albums, which had largely featured folk arrangements. Warnes was all ears.
“I got to hear the possibilities of his music when it was really fleshed out,” she says. “I got to have transcendent musical experiences in the songs. Roscoe, who is a person who hears polyrhythms and extremely complex chords, and who has perfect pitch, he was hearing all kinds of possibilities. It was like a door kicked open, it was like in The Wizard of Oz, when everything is suddenly in colour. There were moments in “Joan of Arc” where I thought I was burning up. It was a visceral experience that came through your ears.”
She describes it as an intense artistic experience for the whole band, which they had trouble leaving behind. “Everybody was falling apart after because we experienced an extremely high degree of beauty every night. It was like taking a trip every night, very stirring, like a religious experience, night after night. So when we all got home, we were just calling each other day after day, saying what are we going to do now, where are we going to go? Where are we going to meet? It was a real family that had forged a closeness that now was gone after the tour.”
Warnes made it through her legal problems and found herself a free agent. So she and Beck started to act on the ideas they’d formed for Cohen’s songs––the larger musical possibilities they had envisioned. “The demos were really lovely, and we knew we had our hands on something that was great,” she says. “That’s when I started shopping the idea, and I went to four or five record labels, and absolutely no-one was interested. It was pretty sad. Leonard was crestfallen. He didn’t believe us anyway, he didn’t think we’d come through, he was very, very dejected. He had given his all, it was a really good tour.”
Cohen wasn’t faring too well in his own career either. His next album, 1984’s Various Positions, wasn’t even released in the U.S. by his longtime label Columbia. Company boss Walter Yetnikoff famously rejected it, saying, “Look, Leonard; we know you’re great, but we don’t know if you’re any good.” This for an album that included “Hallelujah.” He still had a rabid cult following in Europe, and of course great admiration in Canada, but for the ’80s generation, Cohen was invisible.
Despite that lack of interest, Warnes and Beck plowed ahead, counting on their artistic instincts to pay off. “I was told it was an unsaleable record, a waste of time and money. We just felt so spiritually called to do it, nobody could talk us out of it,” she says.
As the pair began recording the final tracks, it became clear to them they really were on to something great. “We were just like the cat who swallowed the canary, we said let’s just do this, and let people catch up when they can,” says Warnes. “About halfway through, we looked at each other in the control booth, and said, ‘Oh-oh, we got something here. This is a marlin! This is a big fish. At that point, we started to hire the better players, and we started to work from midnight to 5:00 a.m. because we could get better rates in the studio. We just went for broke. Every high dream that I had about music – I’d say, ‘Why not a choir?’ ‘Why not Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Billy Payne, and Van Dyke Parks?’ So that high wishful thinking permeated the rest of the album.”
Then the man himself decided to check on their progress. “Once we had eight in the can, and it started to feel like a body of work, Leonard came over,” says Warnes. “He had some Courvoisier in his pocket, and poured a glass, and sat down in his beautiful suit. He listened, and he was very impressed. I think we put up “Joan of Arc” and I said, ‘Do you want to sing that verse?’ And he said, ‘Sure.’ He was slightly drunk, he said I forced him into doing it, but he sang beautifully.”
Beck also asked him if he had any unheard songs he might share, and Cohen said he had a new one he was working on that might do. That turned out to be “First We Take Manhattan.” Later Beck ran into his Austin pal Stevie Ray Vaughan on his way to the Grammy Awards, and convinced him to drop by the studio to add some lead guitar. His brilliant solos took all of two takes, playing a guitar borrowed from Beck himself.
The first to take the gamble was Canada’s Attic Records, with label boss Al Mair licensing the set for distribution. That was one smart move for Mair; it ended up being the biggest-selling album in the company’s history, topping 500,000 in sales. It was a decent-sized hit in other countries too, making it to #33 on the British albums chart, and #72 in the U.S.
“Jennifer’s commitment to making it a piece of art, regardless of sales, was her guiding light,” says Mair. “Of course her wonderful voice and choice of musicians gave this an integrity few albums have. Radio accepted her interpretations when they wouldn’t support Leonard’s original versions. Canada was the only country to use the original master tapes, giving us the best possible sound. By the way, Leonard used to call and thank me for sending him his writer’s royalties, as it was a period when his income was low because his manager had stolen his savings.”
The video for “First We Take Manhattan” got lots of airplay as well. Featuring a sharply dressed Cohen, it ushered in a new, hipper, MTV-ready image for a man who was ready for a radical reinvention.
For Warnes, it had been part of the plan all along. “I knew that I had the ability to see him in a way that he didn’t see himself, and if I could just hold up the mirror in the right way, he’d be off and running. That was a really important force of intention for me.”
Cohen walked through the door Warnes had opened for him. Columbia was back on board, and Cohen gave the company an album that was a great leap forward. “I’m Your Man” was recorded in the immediate aftermath of Warnes’ success with Famous Blue Raincoat, and came out in 1988. It featured lots of synths, plenty of irony, and more of those Armani-suited visuals. Reviews and sales worldwide were among the best of his career. The ’90s only got better, especially when along the way artists including Bob Dylan, Jeff Buckley and Rufus Wainwright started covering “Hallelujah.”
Famous Blue Raincoat remains Warnes’ most admired album to date, especially among audiophiles, who regularly rank it one of the best-recorded discs of all time. Warnes and Cohen continued to collaborate through the years, and Warnes most recently recorded backing vocals for the just-announced Thanks For The Dance album, assembled by Leonard’s son Adam, who sought to capture that same old magic for the title track and other songs.
When Warnes and Cohen had their last meeting, just days before his passing in 2016, it was the tribute album and acknowledging what it had meant to his career, that he had on his mind. Although ill, he got dressed up in one of his famed suits for the visit. “Very specifically, looking me in the eyes, saying almost a prepared speech,” she remembers, “he wanted to say thank you, but the truth is we didn’t want to get into the goodbye conversation. It was clear as a bell that everything he was doing in the last days was goodbye stuff. He did say thank you so much, it was why he dressed up.”
For Warnes, it was the best kind of artistic partnership. “It was all an act of love. And it’s not over.”