Leonard Cohen and Phil Spector were an unlikely pairing, to say the least. And yet, there they were, in an L.A. studio in 1976, both drinking heavily, both dealing with marital woes, but thrown together by an album project, Death of a Ladies’ Man that each hoped would restore their reputations. What could go wrong? Cohen’s biographer, Sylvie Simmons, picks up the narrative at that point for PKM.

In 1976 Phil Spector and Leonard Cohen got together to write and record an album. Death of a Ladies’ Man was released the following year. This is the story of one of the strangest collaborations in pop history.

It was four in the morning and Leonard Cohen was exhausted. Day after day he’d hung around in the studio, watching hordes of musicians come and go. He hadn’t been in the best state of mind in the first place; he was drinking heavily and his nerves were shot. But now, finally, it was time for him to sing. Except the producer, Phil Spector, with whom he had written this new album he was recording, had left the control booth and was heading in his direction, a bottle of Manischewitz in one hand, in the other a gun.

Wrapping a comradely arm around Cohen’s shoulder, Spector pressed the gun into Cohen’s neck. “I love you, Leonard” he said. “I hope you do, Phil,” Leonard replied.

There have been odd couplings in music before and since – David Bowie and Bing Crosby; Metallica and Lou Reed; Elton John and Queens of the Stone Age to name a few – but it’s hard to think of one as mindbogglingly weird as the pairing of Phil Spector – flamboyant, visionary American record producer and writer of Sixties’ teenage pop hits like “Da Doo Ron Ron” and “Be My Baby” – and Leonard Cohen, sophisticated Canadian poet and singer songwriter whose deep, literary, transcendent songs of longing treated language as a sacrament.


Wrapping a comradely arm around Cohen’s shoulder, Spector pressed the gun into Cohen’s neck. “I love you, Leonard” he said. “I hope you do, Phil,” Leonard replied.


Spector, as the writer Tom Wolfe dubbed him, was “the first Tycoon of Teen.” Cohen, as his record label Columbia’s promotional department described him, was “the master of erotic despair.” Okay, “Be My Baby” was nothing if not a song of longing and erotic despair, but it also came with a melodramatic, epic, Wagnerian production: Spector’s famous “Wall of Sound.” Multiples of the same instruments playing at the same time and magnified by an echo chamber into a clamorous mini-symphony.





Cohen liked his production subtle and understated; his songs needed room to resonate; every word was important and had to be heard. Back in 1967, in the studio for the first time recording his debut album with John Simon, Cohen had been so upset by what he felt was an overegged production that he went back into the studio while the producer was away to beg an engineer to peel some of it off.

Spector, a millionaire in his twenties, had turned out more than two dozen hits in the Sixties and had started the Seventies on a high note, working with former Beatles George Harrison and John Lennon on their solo albums, All Things Must Pass and Plastic Ono Band, respectively. But from there, things started to fall apart, musically and personally. In 1972, Phil’s wife Ronnie Spector – whom he’d kept locked up, shoeless, in his mansion so that she couldn’t leave – managed to escape through a window and run barefoot to a getaway car with her mother at the wheel.

Leonard Cohen

A year or so later, working with John Lennon again, on his Rock n Roll album, an inebriated Spector, dressed in a white hospital coat, pulled a gun on Lennon before shooting it into the studio ceiling. “Phil, if you’re going to kill me, kill me but don’t fuck with my ears”, was Lennon’s response. Lennon’s sangfroid might have had something to do with his own alcohol intake at that time – these recording sessions coincided with Lennon’s famous lost weekend in L.A.

And the same likely goes for Cohen, who was in a very dark place. Boozed up, his life on the skids, his wife about to leave him and his mother was about to die.

It had been three years since Cohen’s last album – the beautiful, almost modern chamber music New Skin For The Old Ceremony – and it was not a hit. It had also been a year since Spector was last in the studio, and this was considered a much bigger problem by Spector’s manager, Marty Machat. Machat had negotiated a huge advance for Spector with Warner Brothers, but with no hits coming they were demanding their money back. Machat also managed Cohen. So why not get Spector to make an album with Leonard? Cohen was playing at the Troubadour club in L.A., so Machat took Spector to see him. Spector was “entranced”, he said, and invited Leonard and his partner Suzanne to a small dinner party at his mansion.


“Phil, if you’re going to kill me, kill me but don’t fuck with my ears”, was Lennon’s response.


The 20-room house was ice-cold and dark, with more light coming from the giant aquarium and jukebox than the chandeliers. But Cohen found Spector a charming, host, smart and funny. As the night turned to morning and the empty bottles piled up, Spector became increasingly animated. When Leonard and Suzanne stood up to leave, Spector ordered his staff to lock the doors. So Cohen sat at the piano with Spector. They worked up a new arrangement of a Patti Page song – Cohen was quite the country music fan – until Spector fell asleep and the couple could finally go home.

After this first foray into co-writing, Cohen was a regular visitor at the mansion over the next few weeks. Spector was a night owl, so in the afternoon Cohen would drive the short distance from the house he and Suzanne had rented in Brentwood. One day, Spector’s friend Doc Pomus, the blues and rock n roll singer-songwriter, came by the mansion and saw them at work. They were “like two drunks staggering around,” he said. Pomus tried to warn Cohen off. So did Joni Mitchell, Leonard’s former girlfriend. But, at that time, Cohen was, in his own way, as mad as Spector.

“It was one of those periods when my chops were impaired,” he told me. “And I wasn’t in the right kind of condition to resist”. Black moods were something Cohen and Spector had in common besides a manager.

Cohen was notoriously slow at songwriting – songs, he said, had to be “torn” from him, and then his perfectionism would kick in and find something wrong with them – but, in just three weeks of co-writing with Spector, there were 12 songs ready to go. They recorded nine of them during the sessions in January, February and June 1977, picking eight for the album.

When Cohen walked into Gold Star Studios – Spector’s favorite place to record – for the first session, he was taken aback. He counted more than 40 musicians in the small room -including two drummers, assorted percussionists, half a dozen guitarists, several keyboard players and a horn section. Ronee Blakely, a friend of Spector’s whom Cohen had met when Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue Tour rolled into his hometown, Montreal, was hired to sing two duets “Iodine” and “True Love Leaves No Traces”.

“True Love Leaves No Traces”-Leonard Cohen:




There was also, Cohen remembered, a whole lot of guns. “I like guns, too,” he said, “but I generally don’t carry one.”

Spector kept a .45 on the console, next to the Manischewitz. Spector pulled it on fiddle player Bobby Bruce once, during his solo on “Fingerprints”, a song about a man in love losing his identity. Bruce quietly put his fiddle back in the case and left.

“It was a somewhat dangerous atmosphere,” said Cohen. “The more people in the room, the wilder Phil would get. I couldn’t help but admire the extravagance of his performance. But my personal life was chaotic, I wasn’t in good shape at the time mentally, and I couldn’t really hold my own in there.”


An animated Spector stood at the window in the control booth, conducting them like it was the Philharmonic Orchestra, and yelling. “This is punk rock, motherfucker!” Cohen poured himself another glass of Cuervo Gold.


People would come by the studio to visit and Spector would put them to work, One night Bob Dylan came in through the back door with two women, an arm around each one and a bottle of whisky in his hand. Beat poet Allen Ginsberg and his lover Peter Orlovsky followed close behind. Cohen was in the middle of recording “Don’t Go Home With Your Hard-On”, a boisterous commentary on love and the battle of the sexes and probably the most unexpected title ever for a Leonard Cohen song. Spector instructed the visitors to join in. Dylan – who was in the process of being divorced by his wife, Sara – seemed to have no problem entering into the spirit of the song.

“Don’t Go Home With Your Hard On”-Leonard Cohen, from Death of a Ladies’ Man:




The recording went on for hours, getting more like a boozy party by the minute. An animated Spector stood at the window in the control booth, conducting them like it was the Philharmonic Orchestra, and yelling. “This is punk rock, motherfucker!” Cohen poured himself another glass of Cuervo Gold.

Every day, at the end of each session, the tapes would be loaded onto a dolly and wheeled out of the studio, under armed guard, into Spector’s car. Once he decided it was finished, he mixed the tapes alone at a secret location. Cohen was not invited. No-one even told Cohen it was done. All those exhausted vocals that he’d sung in the early hours of the morning were, he thought, just rough vocals that he’d have the chance to redo. Spector thought otherwise. When Spector played him the finished product, Cohen flinched. What he heard coming out of the large speakers was a punch-drunk singer and a broken man. However much he disliked the result, there was no denying that Spector had captured Cohen’s own sense of annihilation.

But Death of a Ladies’ Man would turn out to be a durable album.  Many who hated it for its incongruous bombast would warm to it in later years. Cohen also became less negative towards it in time – although, with the exception of “Memories”, he’d rarely play a song from Death Of A Ladies’ Man in concert. The album did absolutely nothing at all to help Leonard’s standing in the U.S. charts – he’d have to wait until 1988 and I’m Your Man for that. But if he wanted proof of how much he was loved in the UK, it did make the British top 40.

“Memories”-Leonard Cohen:




After working with Cohen, Spector went on to work with the Ramones on their album End of the Century, released in 1979. Spector allegedly pulled a gun on Dee Dee Ramone. But at least the album, which featured songs like “Rock n Roll High School”, gave the band some of their biggest hit singles.


When Spector played him the finished product, Cohen flinched. What he heard coming out of the large speakers was a punch-drunk singer and a broken man


Cohen followed up the Spector album with a book of 96 poems and prose titled  “Death Of A Lady’s Man” – singular lady this time. “I thought,” he explained, “I’d confuse the public as much as I was confused myself”.

Suzanne having left him, he flew home to Montreal to be close to his mother, who was near her end. Just before she passed, somebody broke into the Cohen family home. Just one thing was stolen: Cohen’s late father’s gun.

Sylvie Simmons and Leonard Cohen

http://www.pleasekillme.com

LEONARD COHEN INTERVIEWED BY DANNY FIELDS AT THE CHELSEA HOTEL, 1974

LEONARD COHEN’S FINAL MASTERPIECE “YOU WANT IT DARKER” WAS HIS PARTING GIFT

 
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