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The Rock’s Backpages Flashback: What Happened When Phil Spector Met Leonard Cohen?

It was over 30 years ago that two of rock's legends joined forces in the studio to produce an album called Death Of A Ladies' Man. Harvey Kubernik was there to witness the combustive meeting of minds.--Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages

Leonard Cohen--singer, songwriter, guitarist, poet, novelist, and sometime straight-faced spokesman of the hilarious ironies of the human condition--walks into the dimly-lit recording studio control booth. The place is called Gold Star, and it is a shining capital of musical energy in the midst of a dying neighborhood in a particularly faded part of Hollywood...

Cohen lets a hint of a smile cross his face, but nothing more. He is not one to demonstrate elaborate emotional feeling in a personal situation. He sports a finely tailored dark blue blazer and well-cut grey slacks, and he radiates a poise uncommon to the environment at hand. His charm is substantial, and it isn't hard to fathom why at least some people find themselves so wholly taken with his art. It's not so much what he is about that is important, but what he seems to be about--not so much what he says, but what he implies.

As Cohen sits down in the booth, a voice screams out of the dark silence: "This isn't punk rock! This is ROCK PUNK!" Then the first notes of a rhythm track drive through the monitors.

The voice belongs to Phil Spector. Imposing, like a king dethroned, he sits behind the mixing board, incessantly fondling an empty bottle which once contained 32 ounces of pure Manischewitz Concord Grape Wine. He wears a sharp, severe black suit, a green shirt, and a very expensive pair of shiny black leather boots--boots which are presumably made for rockin'.

In a year of unlikely artist/producer combinations--Reddy/Fowler, Flack/Ezrin, Grand Funk/Zappa, etc.--this is perhaps the most unlikely: Phil Spector, demon genius of the rock-and-roll production number, producing Leonard Cohen, ascetic prophet of acoustic disaffectedness, with the final product to be known as Death Of A Ladies' Man.

"We've made some great f***in' music on this album," Spector says, his voice assuming a high-pitched urgency, a blend of Arnold Stang and Jerry Mathers. With that, he leaps from his chair and hugs everyone in the room. He is very happy with his work, and he wants everyone to know it.

The '70s have been a strange decade for Spector. At the beginning of the period, he made two splendid albums with John Lennon. Then came interesting but generally disappointing projects with Harry Nilsson and Cher. When Spector produced a Dion LP for Warners at great cost last year, the company decided not even to release it in the U.S.

The worst blow came, in a sense, though, when Warners agreed to release a definitive Phil Spector anthology, an attractive, well-researched package (with notes by Ken Barnes), made with Spector's full co-operation. It was an incredible collection of music, and a beautifully presented one--but Phil Spector's Greatest Hits didn't even make Billboard's Top 200 album list.

Insiders could probably explain away the LP's low sales: Warners probably didn't ship more than 30,000 units at release, thereby marking the album as a sort of "labor-of-love" LP intended only for hard-core Spector fans or Spector supporters within the music industry. The record company didn't even allocate a complete disc-jockey service nationally. It certainly wasn't intended to be a major commercial release effort.

Nevertheless, there have been three albums since it was released--Then I Kissed Her, Da Doo Ron Ron, and Be My Baby. Michael Lloyd and Jimmy Ienner will no doubt continue to find it an insatiable source of future cover tunes for their boppers well into the '80s. Thus, while the album was hardly a moneymaker in terms of actual units sold, it has proven and will continue to prove to be a veritable gold mine of publishing royalties.

But that is hardly enough for Phil Spector--whose brilliance only starts with the songs he writes, but really gets to shining when he gets those songs into a studio. And so it is obvious that the Leonard Cohen sessions have been important to him--almost therapeutic. He certainly seems to be taking his work extremely seriously: He has been decidedly less theatrical in the studio of late; the usual Spector circus atmosphere seems to have been replaced at least in part by a rediscovered, or new interest in the music itself. And that seems to be very good medicine, both for Spector and for Cohen.

Spector and Cohen, despite their obvious surface differences both in personal style and in musical direction, share one, all-powerful element of musical taste--a love for rock-and-roll. It is deeply rooted in them, and it pervades the work they do together. It is their shared medium, their common ground. A mutual affection for rock's basic greatness has bound the two men together, and made their collaboration work.

"Working with Phil," says Cohen nonetheless, "I've found that some of his musical treatments are very...er...foreign to me. I mean, I've rarely worked in a live room that contains 25 musicians--including two drummers, three bassists, and six guitars."

The track Cohen and Spector are particularly interested in listening to right now is "Don't Go Home With Your Hard-On," the album's all-out stomper, with hosts of loud horns and pulsating beat that's hammered all the way home by dual drummers playing in perfect synch. Above it all, comes Cohen's menacing, gritty vocal work, which holds center stage in a most unexpected but effective way. "I can really belt 'em out, you know," says the singer, as he takes a swig of Jose Cuervo from the bottle.

Cohen and Spector first met late in 1974, when Cohen was in Los Angeles for a rare club appearance--a two-night gig at the Troubadour. After the last show on the second night, Spector hosted an informal reception for Cohen at his home--a Spanish-style mansion in the grand, excessive Southern California tradition.

Cohen was brought to Spector's attention, and vice versa, by Martin Machat--who had independently become lawyer and business manager for both men. Machat took Spector to see Cohen perform. Throughout Cohen's 90-minute show, Spector sat quietly, very still, immediately impressed (he later said) by Cohen's mystery and his technique (or maybe the mystery of his technique...or the technique of his mystery...)

The two men got on well at the post-Troubadour reception, and kept in some sort of loose touch thereafter. Late in 1976, when Cohen visited Los Angeles again, Spector invited him to be his houseguest. The first night, the two worked out a new version of Patti Page's "I Went To Your Wedding"; by breakfast, they'd co-written two new songs--Cohen the lyrics, Spector the music (picked out on the piano). The seed was sown for what ultimately became Death Of A Ladies' Man.

Cohen is said to have remarked of Spector that "Phil is not a great songwriter, but he's a bold one. He's bold enough to employ the most pedestrian melodies, and yet somehow make them absolutely successful. That is why his compositions are brilliant." Cohen is especially impressed by Spector's early work--"To Know Him Is To Love Him," "Lovin' Feeling," etc. "In those songs, the story line was as clear as clear could ever be. The images were very expressive--they spoke to us all. Spector's real greatness is his ability to induce those incredible little moments of poignant longing in us."

Cohen's own images are expressive, too, of course. On Death Of A Ladies' Man, they seem particularly direct. "This is the most autobiographical album of my career," he says. "The words are in a tender, rather than a harsh setting, but there's still a lot of bitterness, negativity, and disappointment in them. I wish at times there was a little more space for the personality of the storyteller to emerge, but, in general, the tone of the album is very overt, totally open."

He goes on to say, "I was a little off-balance this year." Songs like "Iodine," "True Love Leaves No Traces," and the album's title track mirror his situation. All the usual Cohen concerns--lost love, personal chaos, doubt, romantic dilemma, alienation, lust, etc.--are present in strong force. "And don't forget humor," Cohen adds. He also says, "I worship women," and suspects that, with the release of this album, "Everybody will now know that within this serene Buddhist interior there beats an adolescent heart."

By 6 A.M., Spector and Cohen are still listening to one rough mix after another. Bob Dylan appears somewhere in the midst of Spector's huge, complicated sounds. So do Hal Blaine, Jim Keltner, Nino Tempo, Jesse Ed Davis, Allen Ginsberg, Art Munson, Ray Pholman, and Dan and David Kessel--sons of jazz guitarist Barney Kessel. The music is hard and solid and soulful. There is, above all, nothing "El-lay" about it.

To this day, Spector meets people who can't believe that all his great hits were cut in Southern California. "They thought Gold Star was in New York," he says. "Of course, what I do is hardly typical California stuff. There are no four-part harmonies on my records... Maybe 32-part harmonies..." He looks around the room. "Anyone here who plays Asylum records, please leave. Anybody laid-back in this room, get the f**k out of here!"

Cohen likes Los Angeles. A native of Montreal, who has spent much of his time in recent years in the South of France and in other European hideaways, he has now moved to Southern California himself. "I like it," he says. "It's so desperate here that it's really not bad at all. And, besides, this is the only city in the world where I've ever written a song while sitting in a driveway in a parked car."

Later in the morning, back at Spector's mansion, as the jukebox plays the psalms of Elvis, Dylan, Waylon, Otis, and the Drifters, Spector muses about his own life. "It didn't take extraordinary strength for me to change the way I was," he claims. "What I was doing just had to stop. It isn't hard to see that, especially after you've gone through a couple of windshields at high speeds.

"I have to admit that I did enjoy it to a certain extent--being rich, a millionaire in his mansion, and dressing up like Batman...But now I can see beyond that, and see just how unhealthy and unproductive it became.

"I'm ready for anything now. Nothing frightens me. I feel I can do more now than I could ever do before. I feel extremely ready musically. I'm more comfortable, more relaxed, more together. I understand what I want to do, and I'm going to do it. It's time to get serious again."

Then he says, "Come into the other room. I want to play you some more of the Leonard Cohen tracks."

And as he punches up "Don't Go Home with Your Hard-On" once again, the tight strung, perfectly conceived production fills the air, he says "Ain't none of us ready for the glue factory yet. I'll go one-on-one with any producer in the world, anytime." He smiles. "We can still kick ass!"

Read more classic Phil Spector and Leonard Cohen pieces at www.rocksbackpages.com. Over 14,000 articles by the greatest writers from the finest rock publications of the last 40 years.

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