Roscoe Beck On Leonard Cohen, The World’s Quietest Band, “Jenny Sings Lenny,” & More

Roscoe Beck

Just listing Roscoe Beck’s musical accomplishments requires several paragraphs. I know that because this introduction was originally several paragraphs long.  I took the extraordinarily painful step of deleting 90% of my own prose lest those multiple screens of gray print delay anyone en route to reading what has turned out to be one of the most entertaining and enlightening Q&A sessions published at Heck Of A Guy.

Here are the basics about Roscoe Beck: If you know anything about the blues or jazz musicians, you know about Roscoe Beck. While most Heck Of A Guy readers are likely to be most interested in Roscoe’s work over the past 30 years  in support of Leonard Cohen, he has also recorded or toured with Robben Ford, Jennifer Warnes, Eric Johnson, the Dixie Chicks, Beth Neilsen Chapman, and Stevie Ray Vaughn as well  as recruiting  the band members for Bruce Willis’ second album for Motown, If It Don’t Kill You, It Just Makes You Stronger.  He has cut solo albums, made instructional videos for bass guitar, and designed his own bass guitar for Fender. And, check out this photo from Roscoe’s web site.

There is much, much more, but you get the idea.  The man is a consummate musician.

The Roscoe Beck Q&A

1. In addition to playing the bass, you’re the Musical Director for the Leonard Cohen World Tour. Although I know almost nothing about playing the bass, I know less about the duties of a musical director. What does Leonard Cohen’s Musical Director do?

I’m sure that the duties and responsibilities of a Musical Director change with each artist, but in the case of Leonard Cohen, the first order of business as MD was to find musicians, prepare written music and lyrics, arrange auditions, and in collaboration with Leonard, make the final choices as to the makeup of the band. Onstage, the Musical Director receives from Leonard, any instructions or changes in the program, and gives cues to the band as necessary.

2. If I have the history right, Joni Mitchell’s producer, Henry Lewy, was interested in hiring your band, Passenger, for a planned Mitchell tour. That tour didn’t happen, but Lewy later hired you to play on Cohen’s Recent Songs album in 1979. When you took that job, what did you know about Leonard Cohen? In what ways was working with Leonard Cohen different from your previous musical experiences?

Henry Lewy (Joni Mitchell’s producer) was given a recording of my band Passenger in early 1979. He was impressed with what he heard and contacted me about his desire to produce a record for the band, and the possibility of Passenger backing Joni Mitchell on an upcoming tour. Henry was at that time, simultaneously producing both Joni’s Mingus album and the record that would become Recent Songs, and so called one morning requesting my services on bass for a session with Leonard Cohen. I was somewhat familiar with Leonard, having heard some early recordings (and having seen promotional images in a college bookstore) but had no idea what to expect when I got to the studio. Walking into the control room, I was greeted warmly by Henry and introduced to Leonard, who was wearing his customary dark grey suit and black cowboy boots. Momentarily, Leonard picked up his guitar, showed me a song, and we began recording: with merely guitar, vocal and bass. The recording session was casual, informal, and relaxed; unusual for an era of highly produced recordings. Later, Henry Lewy suggested to Leonard, “He (pointing to me) has a whole band, you know…” Leonard responded, “Well, next time bring them all!” Passenger completed the record and went on to do the 1979/1980 tours.

3. You have a unique longitudinal perspective, having worked with Leonard Cohen off and on since that 1979 Recent Songs album and the Field Commander Cohen tour the same year. Since you signed on with Leonard Cohen,

A. What have been the most important changes in the touring and the concerts?

The touring has become much better organized and more comfortable over the years. In 1979/1980 we toured Europe mostly by coach, often sleeping on the bus during long overnight drives. Back then, we traveled harder and played more shows per week. The schedule now is quite comfortable and we usually fly from city to city. The concerts have changed noticeably over the years as well: the audiences have grown and the fans seem more appreciative than ever. The most dramatic change from our end has been the length of the shows (often exceeding three hours) and the volume at which we play. Most of the 1979 band consisted of musicians who were in their twenties (myself included) and played with both the energy of volume one would expect from twenty year olds. When I served as Musical Director assembling the band for the 1988 tour, I noticed a change immediately: Leonard had refined what he demanded of his musicians, and wanted much less volume on stage. In assembling the current band in 2008, even more attention to stage volume (or lack of it) was given. We now refer to ourselves as “The World’s Quietest Band,” and I believe we truly are. The onstage volume is the lowest of any band I’ve ever heard or worked with, and the result is that the audience now hears every single word that Leonard sings or speaks. I recently commented to Leonard, “Well, it only took thirty years to get it right!”

B. Which concerts were most difficult?

The first show in Fredericton (Canada) was one of the most difficult – but only because it was the first. Sound-wise, the show in Granada, Spain was very difficult: the venue was an arena which also serves as a bull fighting ring, and acoustically, it was a nightmare. A festival in Coachella, California in 2009 became extremely difficult toward the end of our show: there were two opposing stages used for alternating acts, and before we had finished our set, another act, which shall go unmentioned, kicked off its set on the opposite stage. The song they began with was harmonically a half step removed from the song we were playing (not to mention, considerably louder) and the result was nothing short of a musical train wreck. What can one say? Good times…

C. Which concerts were most emotionally charged?

Montreal: the homecoming concert for Leonard. Also Dublin, Ireland and Sligo… in my experience, the audience(s) in Ireland are like no other. The concert in Tel Aviv (all proceeds of which went to fund a newly formed organization devoted to the reconciliation of Palestinians and Israelis) stands out: 50,000 “thin green candles” lighting the Ramat Gan stadium…

D. What is the funniest thing that you’ve seen or heard during a performance or rehearsal?

I have to go back to ’79 for this one. Sometimes during our shows on the song “Memories,” Leonard would simply “cut loose” physically/vocally, and just WAIL… there’s no other word for it…. whatever he felt emotionally would just come bursting out; and the sight of Leonard dancing, singing at the top of his lungs, twisting his body into contortions… is one of the funniest things I’ve ever witnessed… on any stage.

E. What is the most surprising thing that you’ve seen or heard during a performance or rehearsal?

Another moment in 1979, I believe it was in Oslo, though I’m not quite sure… in the middle of our concert program one evening Leonard paused for a moment and seemed to be engaged in a thought. He stepped to the microphone and spoke, “My musicians here tonight are members of a band, Passenger… they have music of their own, and I’d like for you to hear some of it now…” With that, he walked off the stage catching us completely by surprise and wondering what the heck to play…

4. Leonard Cohen is a powerful force on stage, radiating authority and energy throughout a three hour show. But he is, after all 75 years old, and as his recent back injury proves, he is susceptible to human frailties. Do you have any insight into how he gets energized for these concerts?

I think he simply retains his energy, mental and physical, throughout the day in preparation for the evening’s concert. If we travel that day, he often naps on the plane or in the bus. Leonard doesn’t socialize on show days, and there are no guests allowed backstage before a show. The day’s objective is kept in sharp focus by Leonard, and the band, in order to give our audiences the best that we have to offer.

5. I’ve read about the Roscoe Beck Signature Five-String Bass you designed for Fender but have never been able to get past phrases like “a two octave fretboard.” Can you explain what makes the design of this guitar special in a way that civilians like me can understand?

At the time I began designing my own bass model for Fender, no five string bass existed in their catalog. I wanted to design a bass instrument in the tradition of older “vintage” Fender instruments, but one that would extend the lower range by adding a low “B” string and the upper range by adding two frets. I also wanted a new electronic pickup design that would be “passive” (meaning no “active” electronics – no battery needed) but that could provide both tonal options beyond the usual passive pickup, and the ability to cancel signal “hum” when voltage variations cause unwanted low frequency noise. Sorry… it’s obviously impossible to explain an instrument design without getting somewhat  technical: let’s just say my signature five-string bass has one extra string!

6. I’m intrigued by the impact venues and other circumstances have on performances. During this Tour, you and the other musicians have played in many countries. You’ve played outdoors in excellent weather, sweltering heat, and in storms of the sort one usually associates with small craft warnings. You’ve performed in intimate concert halls, converted hockey rinks, and Roman coliseums. Sometimes you’ve played on consecutive days after weeks of shows and sometimes you’ve played after two or three weeks off. Sometimes the crowds knew every word of every song and were clearly in tune with performance and sometimes the audience members were chatting with one another, walking around, or drinking beer; sometimes, they appeared to be oblivious. Other crowds were polite but just not into it. On the other hand, sometimes the audience waved green glow sticks or threw blouses at the stage. You’ve played through food poisoning episodes and summer colds. Given the number of folks involved and the length of the tour, it’s a statistical certainty that some concerts took place with some or all of the cast unhappy with someone else on the same stage or some performer undergoing a personal psychological problem.

While I realize you are a professional and handling such circumstances is a part of your job, some of these factors must affect you and your work. Which situational aspects are the most challenging for you and how do you manage them in order to go on with the show? Which factors most enhance your performance?

The sonic characteristics of a given venue are the most concerning I would say, and the audience response a close second. If the acoustics of a given hall or arena are good, it enhances our ability to hear and therefore, our ability to communicate musically and enjoy the process. If the acoustics are bad (or abysmal, as sometimes happens) it can make hearing very difficult, even extremely unpleasant. Nothing ruins a performance like a venue’s bad acoustics. The audience response is obviously very important: an uninspired audience can be in turn, uninspiring to the band… though we always try to keep in mind the part of the audience that does care… even if it were one person really listening; we would endeavor to give our best for him or her. Believe it or not, other considerations pale behind these two. It’s an odd thing about performing: one may approach the stage feeling exhausted, even ill, but when the curtain goes up, other matters and concerns just seem to drop away. One might approach the stage with a bad cold for instance, sneezing, runny nose… and then see the symptoms disappear for the entire length of the concert. Afterwards of course, the symptoms will come right back… I’ve seen it happen many times. I think the cure for the common cold, though temporary, lies in live performance.

7. Even subtracting out your work with Leonard Cohen, your professional resume as a performer, producer, and guitar-designer is extensive and impressive. Which of those accomplishments are you proudest of?

The one recording I’ve been involved in that I feel the most connected with is Jennifer Warnes’ “Famous Blue Raincoat” record. It is, of course, also a Leonard Cohen related project. Jennifer and I toured together with Leonard in 1979 and began talking then, about an album of exclusively Leonard Cohen songs, something which hadn’t been done up to that point. Record companies showed little to no interest at that time, but Jennifer persevered and in 1986 we co-produced FBR, or “Jenny Sings Lenny,” on a low budget and often under difficult circumstances. Our hearts and our energies were given over to it completely.

8. After a hiatus since last November, the 2010 leg of the Leonard Cohen World Tour will begin soon. Will there be any changes in the concerts (e.g., the set lists, the structure of the concerts, the jokes, … ) compared to the 2008 and 2009 Tours?

As I write, we are on the 2010 tour with five shows behind us. There are a few new songs in the set: “The Darkness” and “Feels So Good” (debuted at the last two shows of 2009) and “Born in Chains,” which had its debut only a few nights ago. The two concerts we just finished in Sligo, Ireland were the longest we’ve played in the 2+ years we’ve been touring; logging in at 3 hours, 45 minutes. Leonard has also added rarely performed songs such as “A Singer Must Die,” and “Lover, Lover, Lover.”

9. There is a lot of excitement about the new Leonard Cohen album. From your point of view, how is rehearsing and performing a song for an album different from rehearsing and performing a song for a concert?

I don’t feel that the rehearsal processes are much different, but performance and recording are two entirely different animals. Performance naturally has a lot to do with the audience you’re playing for: it’s a process of giving and receiving… recording usually involves no immediate audience, and the focus is more acute. Often one is wearing headphones and hearing details that might escape one in a much larger concert hall. The energy is very different: in the recording studio there may be re-takes, a song may be played several times, -and may be edited, overdubbed or “layered” afterwards. Very different processes…

10. Finally, the important issue. How did you decide to make the transition in coiffures before the Las Vegas show from ponytail to a more rockabilly vibe, a la Carl Perkins, Bill Haley, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Young Elvis Presley, … ?

Haha. Finally, the truly important question. Can we just say that change is inevitable, and that I simply ceased resisting? Though no rockabilly vibe was intended, I’m honored indeed, to be mentioned in the same breath as these musical icons. You should come ’round in the morning Allen: though there’s clearly no intellectual resemblance, in the early a.m. my “do” most resembles that of the great physicist Albert Einstein.

And Just Two More Questions

By the time the above questions and answers were ready, the Leonard Cohen World Tour had begun its 2010 leg, and Roscoe Beck graciously agreed to answer a couple of additional queries about the tour.

11.  Some audiences sing along with “So Long, Marianne,” some crowds throw violins, boxing gloves, blouses, etc on to the stage, some customers shout comments (eg, “I still love you”), and still other audiences seem just as involved in the performance but limit their participation to applause at appropriate points.  You and the other performers in the Leonard Cohen World Tour seem to take all this in stride but, as a musician, what feelings do these different audience reactions and behaviors evoke in you?

In answering this question, I have to speak for myself personally as I’m sure everyone in the band would have a different perspective. What I appreciate most in terms of audience response is genuine enthusiasm: applause, smiles, cheers, even tears… and it’s especially appreciated when the response is at an appropriate moment. The “gifts” related to song lyrics are always entertaining too, such as “the monkey and the plywood violin,” which might show up on stage during First We Take Manhattan, or as you mentioned, blouses being tossed on stage (“the women tear their blouses off”) during Closing Time. These lighthearted moments break up the predictability of the show, usually in a good way, and are probably even more entertaining for the audience than the band, as we still have the music to focus on. Enthusiasm is an absolutely necessary ingredient in the mix of performer and audience: a spirited audience response always heartens the performer, and makes he or she want to give even more. The concert dynamic is definitely a give-and-take situation. Maybe less desirable would be the outburst that disrupts a moment, say if Leonard is introducing a song… that happens sometimes, but thankfully, its rare. Generally speaking, I’d have to say that the audiences that attend Leonard’s concerts are the most engaged and respectful I’ve ever witnessed. I’ve seen grown men break down and weep during the songs Anthem and Hallelujah… an amazing sight. Seeing something like that, one knows one is touching something very deep. Its great to be a part of something that’s so meaningful to so many.

12. Do you especially look forward to or worry about certain concerts on the schedule or do you feel that a concert is a concert is a concert? For example, is there anything special about the Cambodia date, the Moscow concert, or the final show of this tour?

I look forward to each concert, and play each one as if it were the most important, because in the moment that it’s being performed, it is. Many Leonard Cohen fans attend multiple shows, but for many in the audience on a particular night, it may be the only concert of ours they will ever see. To give any less than your absolute best on any night is to me, unthinkable, and I believe it’s the same with all of us. That being said, certain cities carry an extra “weight” if you will, and the three upcoming concerts you mentioned would have to be among them. For one thing, putting on a concert in Moscow or Phnom Penh is immediately more logistically challenging than say, a city in the European Union. There are more difficulties moving equipment, obtaining visas… that fact alone heightens awareness and anticipation of the upcoming date. And one can’t ignore the exotic character or historical significance of a city like Phnom Penh. I’ve never been there, and not so long ago couldn’t have even imagined I’d be playing a concert there. As to the final show of the tour, oh my… that’s going to be a tough one. I expect emotions will be high. I know that no one in the band or crew really wants to see this tour come to an end. All things do of course, but the end of the tour is not something any of us really want to think about at the moment. We all hope this one won’t be the last.

9 responses to “Roscoe Beck On Leonard Cohen, The World’s Quietest Band, “Jenny Sings Lenny,” & More

  1. Wonderful interview. I didn’t want it to end!! Thanks Dr. Heck and Mr. Beck. :)

  2. Yes – a most wonderful interview. Thank you Dr. Heck and Mr. Beck (yes – haha – it rhymes ) !! :)

    Roscoe – you sure put together one heck of a band for this amazing tour with the extraordinary Leonard Cohen! As of today, you are now only about half way through this, the final leg, and I don’t want to think about the end either. I’m remaining hopeful that this won’t be the last of the Unified Hearts Touring Company. Simply the best. :) :) Bravo – and thanks! Safe and happy travels to you all!

    And thanks again Allan for your thoughtful questions to the remarkable Roscoe Beck. I enjoyed every word.

    ~ Linda

  3. Thank you Roscoe for sharing so much of yourself and your thoughts in this great interview!
    Leslie

  4. Thank you Doctor and Mr Beck for the great insights. We hope this won’t be the last one too…
    And “wailing” was the right word for what LC used to do during Memories. There was something similar happening during Everybody Knows in Wiesbaden (unfortunately not directly into the microphone, so only the first rows could hear it ;) ). So, maybe there is hope for another live performance of Memories – including all the wailing and contortions – during one fine tour in the not so far future :)

  5. A very insightful and enjoyable interview. I really love knowing more about the behind-the-scenes decisions and thought processes that go into creating and sharing music. So glad we got a glimpse. Thank you.

  6. Great interview. Thanks. Good questions.
    3.45hours!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  7. As always, the most thoughtful questions. Great interview Allan!

  8. An excellent thoughtful interview.
    Thank you.

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