Elvis’s Rolls Royce – Another Leonard Cohen Song That You Have (Probably) Never Heard

Leonard Cohen, Was (Not Was), and Elvis’s Rolls Royce

No, the preceding heading is not an argument I’m having with myself. Leonard Cohen & Was (Not Was), as any member of the Hard Core Cohen Contingent knows, is the collaboration that led to another of those Leonard Cohen songs that you’ve probably never heard; in this case, however, it’s a song that is (relatively) easy to find.1

But before we get to the song, let’s ponder that positive-thinking group with the self-negating name, …

Was (Not Was)

Who remembers Was (Not Was)?

Need a hint? OK, perhaps you recall their one Top 40 hit, a 1988 dance ditty called Walk The Dinosaur. It had a contagious chorus that, once it infected ones brain, would nest in a sulcus, triggering its host to begin singing these lines2 at especially inappropriate times over the next several years:

Open the door, get on the floor
Everybody walk the dinosaur

I won’t ask who else, besides me, liked the song, because I know you too cool for school sorts won’t fess up to perpetually humming it from 1988 to 1996. Admit it, though. You would like to hear it just one more time, wouldn’t you? Maybe even see that silly music video? Well, I’m no spoilsport. Check it out.

It’s OK. Go ahead. I won’t tell anyone.

Was (Not Was) deserved more hits but, while they managed to release four albums from 1981 through 1990 as well as the occasional single and to develop a cult following, especially around their hometown of Detroit, they were never superstars. (Ongoing recording-contract problems may have had something to do with that.)

They specialized in R&B and funk, often played at an upbeat dance tempo, routinely integrating other musical genres, including but not limited to jazz, pop, hip-hop, hard rock, Motown soul, and spoken word poetry into the mix.

Their outstanding feature, however, in my estimation, was the humor and clever lyrics of their songs. How could anyone not like I Feel Better Than James Brown with its tune and lyrics (including the line, “And Fidel and I open a chain of Kentucky Fried Chicken shops”) that play off James Brown’s I Feel Good? And I couldn’t resist smiling every time I heard the the lines in Somewhere In America that described a neighborhood with “no saber-tooth neighbors” and “no day care Felinis.”

Was (Not Was) was also known for their guest vocalists, including Ozzie Osborne, Elvis Costello, Mel Torme, Marshall Crenshaw, Doug Feiger (The Knack), and Frank Sinatra, Jr.

They also cut a track on one of their albums with a fellow named Leonard Cohen, which brings us to …

Elvis’s Rolls Royce

Was (Not Was) - Are You Okay?

In 1990, Was (Not Was) published the album, Are You Okay?, which included the song, Elvis’s Rolls Royce,3 with Leonard Cohen as lead vocalist  (and Iggy Pop contributing backing vocals).

Otherwise competent music critics have described Cohen’s performance as rapping; I defer to those with more expertise than I, but to my ear, this track has more in common with T.S. Eliot or Yeats reading their own poetry than Dr. Dre or Jay-Z rapping. No one, I’ll wager, will confuse LC with Snoop Dogg, which will be, I suspect, a relief to both of them.4

In any case, one suspects that it was fun to produce, and it’s clearly fun to hear. This excerpt5 is characteristic of this song about Cohen chauffeuring the King from London to New York City:

I got a little nervous
I think I lost my poise
As we crossed the great Atlantic
In Elvis’s Rolls Royce

Elvis Presley, His Cars, & Leonard Cohen

Considerable poetic license was involved in the composition of Elvis’s Rolls Royce. Elvis owned many, many cars, a significant number of which he gave away to friends and family.  He did own a Rolls Royce:

January 1961 Elvis signed a 5 year contract with Hal Wallis. To celebrate he went out and bought a Rolls Royce Phantom V from a Beverly Hills dealer only to bring it home and have his mothers’ chickens peck away at their reflections in the elegant finish. Most people would have just shot the birds but Elvis just chose to have the car repainted four or five times.6

That Rolls Royce is featured in the extraordinarily rare7 photo of Elvis, Leonard, & the Rolls atop this post.

Images in the accompanying video are likewise “inspired by” rather than “based on” Elvis’s cars.  Viewers are advised to rev up their “willing suspension of disbelief for the moment which constitutes poetic faith;”8 a literal-minded perspective may result in significant cognitive whiplash.

Video Added Nov 18, 2011: Was (Not Was) & Leonard Cohen – Elvis’s Rolls Royce

  1. So, yes, you should be ashamed of yourself []
  2. The complete lyrics of Walk The Dinosaur follow:
    Boom boom acka-lacka lacka boom
    Boom boom acka-lacka boom boom

    It was a night like this forty million years ago
    I lit a cigarette, picked up a monkey skull to go
    The sun was spitting fire, the sky was blue as ice
    I felt a little tired, so I watched Miami Vice

    And Walked the dinosaur, I walked the dinosaur

    CHORUS:

    Open the door, get on the floor
    Everybody walk the dinosaur

    I met you in a cave, you were painting buffalo
    I said I’d be your slave, follow you wherever you go
    That night we split a rattlesnake and danced beneath the stars
    You fell asleep, I stayed awake and watched the passing cars

    And walked the dinosaur, I walked the dinosaur

    CHORUS

    *One night I dreamed of New York
    You and I roasting blue pork
    In the Statue of Liberty’s torch
    Elvis landed in a rocket ship
    Healed a couple of lepers and disappeared
    But where was his beard?????*

    A shadow from the sky much too big to be a bird
    A screaming crashing noise louder than I’ve ever heard
    It looked like two big silver trees that somehow learned to soar
    Suddenly a summer breeze and a mighty lion’s roar

    I killed the dinosaur, I killed the dinosaur

    CHORUS []

  3. Often spelled “Elvis’ Rolls Royce” []
  4. For one thing, coming up with a rapper’s name for Leonard Cohen might be a problem: Ice Zen? LC Gaunt? Ur Mann? I don’t think so. []
  5. The lyrics to Elvis’s Rolls Royce follow:

    Well I saw a crowd a-gathered
    Must’ve been somebody shot
    Reporters scribbled shorthand
    And photographed the spot
    I moved in a little closer
    But I couldn’t see no blood
    Just a gold-plated chariot
    Arisin’ from the mud
    Then I heard a soulful murmur
    And it sounded like his voice
    It began to sing, it was the King
    It was Elvis’s Rolls Royce

    Now the wood-grained bar was open
    Like he was about to have a drink
    A white-gloved chauffeur at the wheel
    I never saw him blink
    The bobbies looked indifferent
    Clearly they were not amused
    It was just another auction piece
    And it didn’t matter whose
    D-Day was upon me
    And I had to make a choice
    Next thing I know
    I’m at the wheel of Elvis’s Rolls Royce

    Well I made a left at Parliament
    And hit the pedal hard
    And I tipped my hat and I smiled
    As I passed by Scotland Yard
    Now the voice is talkin’ to me
    It says “There’s nothing to fear”
    It was coming from the back seat
    But there was no one in the mirror
    I got a little nervous
    I think I lost my poise
    As we crossed the great Atlantic
    In Elvis’s Rolls Royce

    When we got to New York City
    The crowds went wild to say the least
    As I steered my precious cargo
    Through the belly of the beast
    Then I took off down the Interstate
    And drove throughout the night
    Till I reached the state of Tennessee
    In the early morning light
    There they were, the gates of Graceland

    My eyes got kind of moist
    Home sweet home to rock’n'roll
    And Elvis’s Rolls Royce
    []

  6. ElvisPresleyNews.com []
  7. It is so extraordinarily rare  that it was, in fact, nonexistent in the pre-Photoshop world []
  8. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, 1817 []

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