Dinner With Leonard, Suzanne, Ratso, And Roger
Yesterday’s post, Leonard Cohen Declines Bob Dylan’s Invitation To Play In Rolling Thunder Revue, spotlighted the account from Larry (Ratso) Sloman’s “On the Road With Bob Dylan,” an entertaining and enlightening read about Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, of Leonard Cohen being fetched from his home in order to attend the Montreal concert of that tour. Asked to perform, Cohen demurred, choosing to watch from the audience.
The end of the concert, however, was not the end of the Montreal adventures associated with the Rolling Thunder Revue.
The excerpt below from “On the Road With Bob Dylan” describes a small dinner party given by Leonard Cohen and Suzanne1 on December 5, 1975, the night after the Rolling Thunder Revue Montreal concert, for Larry (Ratso) Sloman (the author), Joni Mitchell, and Roger McGuinn.2
This episode is interesting for a number of specific reasons as well as the insight it lends into an important area of pop music in the 1970s:
- The always shifting relationship between the ex-lovers, Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell (see Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell: Just One Of Those Things), reflected in the banter between them is fascinating. I’m especially fond of Cohen’s response to Mitchell’s contention that he has “a more consistent character than [he] plays out:”
I’m as constant as the North Star3It is also be instructive to recall that, as documented in yesterday’s post, Cohen’s initial greeting to Mitchell backstage at the concert was, “Joni, my little Joni.”
- While less apparent, Joni Mitchell’s feelings toward Bob Dylan and the ethos of the Rolling Thunder Revue he constructed are worth the effort required to detect them, given her unambiguous denouncement of him that would take place in April 2010:
Yesterday, the folk world was rocked by Joni Mitchell. Apparently she has a giant grudge against Bob Dylan and, as Matt Diehl found out when interviewing Mitchell for the LA Times, she does not like being compared to him. Indeed, when Diehl intimated that the two were similar because they both “changed” their names (from Roberta Joan Anderson to Joni Mitchell and Robert Zimmerman to Bob Dylan) to create a persona, Joni uttered these venom-laced words: “Bob is not authentic at all. He’s a plagiarist, and his name and voice are fake. Everything about Bob is a deception. We are like night and day, he and I.”4
More about the Joni Mitchell-Bob Dylan connection at another time.
- Joni Michell’s self-assessment – also an always shifting matter – is revealing.
- Leonard Cohen was then, as he is now, recognized as an extraordinarily gracious host.
- This glimpse into the domestic life of Leonard Cohen as spouse (pragmatically if not legalistically) and father is intriguing.
- The early lyrics of the songs that would become “Iodine” and “The Smokey Life” are reminders of Cohen’s habitual reworking and revising of his music.
I’ve added explanatory footnotes to Ratso’s story.
“I’m a stone Cohenite” – Joni Mitchell
The cab finds the address and they pile out and enter the Cohen domicile. And what a contrast. If the Mount Royal residence5 was subtly elegant, Cohen’s house in old Montreal is blatantly commonplace. First of all, it’s not a house, it’s a ramshackle bungalow-type structure, entered via a door that would be hard put to withstand the ravaging assault of a five-year-old. It boasts exposed beams, slanted floors and ceilings, and a collection of furniture that would do any Goodwill proud. But there’s a curious feeling of warm spirituality pervading the home, and the shelves upon shelves of books and the myriad knickknacks and the old, dusty-framed prints and paintings impart a tremendous character to the place. Ratso [author Larry (Ratso) Sloman] enters Leonard’s house for the second time and feels right at home.
“Leonard,” he yells in greeting, smelling the savory aroma of barbecued ribs wafting into the front room, “you’re immaculate.” The reporter scurries into the back of the long room and plops down at the table. The others follow, exchanging greetings with Leonard and his lovely lady Suzanne.
Cohen has long been a demigod to that brand of musical practitioner that label themselves sensitive singer-songwriters. A fine novelist and a best-selling poet in his native Canada, Cohen turned to the concert hall at the urging of his friends, among them Judy Collins, who put Leonard’s song “Suzanne” on the map and the charts. And of course, part of Cohen’s attractiveness and his appeal is the graphic description in his songs of the vicissitudes that befall a gentleman in a world of scoundrels. And his documentation of the doings of the scoundrel in the parlors of society. In other words, Cohen just don’t fit, he carries around his angst like other people carry chewing gum. And the songs get delivered in that lumbering, world-weary monotone that emanates from that broodingly handsome iconographic wandering Jew face. Ratso loves Leonard’s work; it never fails to make him laugh.
“I didn’t hear you last night, Joni,” Leonard laments, “I’m really sorry. How was your friend tonight?”
“She was my matron of honor when I was married but between that time period there was a long gap since we saw each other and that was only briefly. There must have been five years between that,” Joni holds a rib poised over her plate, “so my impressions of her have been romanticized over the years plus her circumstances have limited her experience in certain ways so that we weren’t as linked as we were as girls. Like you and Mort6 have carried your relationship along …”
“Yes, Mort is one of these rare creatures,” Leonard smiles. “He’s really like a completely unrecognized genius.”
“You know all those stories you read where the Zen master slapped someone on the back and at that moment he attained. Well, Mort did that one day in New York,” Joni says. “He took my problem and in one sentence eliminated it. That’s a rare gift, isn’t it?”
“He says he wants to give you another lesson,” Leonard smiles slyly. “What was the sentence?” Ratso gets the question out between two mouthfuls of ribs.
“Draw me and don’t look at the paper,’ that’s all he said to me and it changed everything, you know? So what you do is actually you trace the lines of highest emotion. It doesn’t matter if the person moves, it doesn’t matter if the eye overlaps the nose or anything, I’ve tried to pass that on to a lot of different people and Blakley7
is like one of the few—”
“She’s nice, eh?” Leonard asks.
“Well, nice I wouldn’t say,” Joni says diplomatically, “we have a relationship that isn’t defined by the word nice.”
“I enjoyed her last night,” Leonard smiles.
“She is like Nico, you know,” Joni offers. “She has a strange kind of madness that you would find interesting. My attraction to her is like that too….”
“I like it in you,” Leonard grins. “You guys have been pretty close now for how many months?”
“Just weeks,” Roger corrects, “but I’ve been out for two months now.
“It’s really interesting,” Joni gushes, “cause people are always testing each other all the time, you know, misreading you. You know you have to deal with their misreading and you have to like decide whether to allow them to misread you or to clarify it, like I’ve learned to float like coming from a position where I -need always to be sincere and to be understood, I like allowed myself to float through situations, that’s what I was trying to tell you, it’s so exciting to me, it’s not giving a shit. It’s not consistent. It really is an interesting thing because it’s a traveling commune.”
Suzanne interrupts the monologue with a soda break. Joni sips at her Coke and continues, “I’ve come to deal with my multiphrenia, they’re all realities. There are so many ways to look at the thing, you know that as a writer, cutting through the layers of personality to get to the one who is the most honest, you know.”
“I don’t know how honest I am,” Leonard smiles sheepishly. “I’m unstable.”
“Maybe I’m more unstable than you,” Joni boasts. “You have a more consistent character than you play out.”
“Oh yeah,” Cohen smiles sardonically, “I’m as constant as the North Star.”
“But I find that different people will manifest different aspects,” Joni goes on. “You know, some people will bring out the sage, some people will bring out the child, some people will bring out the rebel, some people will bring out the conservative.”
“I find everyone too revolutionary these days,” Leonard comments as he grabs another rib.
“You are wearing a suit in your own funky old house,” Roger notes. “But that’s the only clothes he has,” Ratso explains.
“This seeming cattiness was one aspect of tour that I had to adjust to after I came in late,” Joni picks up her thought and starts to address Leonard. “I got on the bus and I thought, God that’s cruel, they’re cruel people being cruel to each other. Next thing that I noticed was that everybody was quite strong and the manifestation of multiple personalities was almost a necessity.”
“There’s a definite pecking order,” Ratso says, from the bottom.
“There is a strange pecking order,” Joni agrees, near the top.
“Baez has this amazing George Harrisonesque dressing room with rugs on the walls and incense and food spreads and you guys got this funky closet for a dressing room,” the reporter reports.
Leonard interrupts with cups of hot sake.
“You’re quite a host, Leonard,” Roger marvels. “I’d like to reciprocate sometime.”
“Roger and I did a scene,” Joni remembers, “and we were great in the scene except I quoted from pure Nietzsche and Bob wouldn’t let me give him credit. I said, ‘C’mon, Bobby, I got to say like Thus Spake Zarathustra, I can’t be like an intellectual quoting from Nietzsche, with no originality, give me a break. He’s got a mean streak, he gets mean.”
“You’re talking about Bobby Neuwirth?”8 Leonard misunderstands.
“Oh Neuwirth is different,” Joni smiles. “It’s much more open, he just tells you you’re cold and you’re a cunt and you’re an asshole.” She giggles. “With Dylan, he just like strikes you out of a scene or puts you in the scene where he wants you to manifest parts of yourself, it’s different. He’s got the power, he’s got the hammer, and Neuwirth just attacks and he can really hurt. Neuwirth really hurt me and then he said, `There’s no fear allowed on Rolling Thunder.’ He just keeps whittling away at you and whittling away at you until he finds the place of you which you’re most afraid of and then, whew, he just like presses on it till he gets you, then he says, `No fear.’ It’s an excellent exercise.” She giggles again.
“He’s been unable to pin me,” Roger smiles, “and he always rolls away in frustration.”
“That’s ’cause you always say `I’m sorry,’ all the time,” Joni cracks. “How can you pin someone that’s always apologizing?”
“Gee, I’m sorry,” Roger gushes. “I didn’t mean to offend you last night, I’m really sorry.”
Ratso gulps down his sake and accepts Suzanne’s invitation to a guided tour of the place. They tramp up the rickety stairs and view the small cubiculed bedrooms and, in one room, come upon Leonard’s two children. “Jesus, they’re so cute,” Ratso marvels at the two small figures.
“Yes, they’re angels, aren’t they?” Suzanne says in her delicate voice, a voice that oozes grace and charm and patience, an avalanche of patience. When they return downstairs, Joni is enmeshed in a long story about her marijuana bust a few years ago in L.A.
“I really started to feel like a fool, I felt so frustrated because I was really on the verge of a song,” Joni remembers, “and they didn’t give me a pencil or paper and I asked them for my guitar, and this one guy was like a guitar player and understood, and I felt like Huddie Ledbetter, `Give me my guitar,’ and they wouldn’t do anything. So finally the narcs called me out, which was good because I could smoke and at that point I was like three hours without a cigarette. So they called me in and the Man said this was off the record, it didn’t have to do with what I was up for and in the meantime they were analyzing my vitamin pills and had changed it from marijuana to like narcotics because I had this whole mixture of different kinds of vitamin pills that they were putting through the lab or something. So the guy asked me what my drug experience was because his kid was being hit on the playground for reds and he was only eight, and I asked them if they had experienced any drugs themselves because in this room I was in there were pictures of marijuana leafs of different shapes, pills and their titles underneath, all the way around the room.
“I said, `Do you know what these things do to your chemistry? Have you tried anything?’ And he told me he wanted to be a professional baseball player but he couldn’t make it so he became a cop, and he was like half tough and half soft and we just talked for a long time. I said, `Ask me anything you want as long as I can keep smoking, this is the worst, you got all the leaves and pills up here but this,’ and I pointed to my cigarette, `is the really serious villain, this is the socially accepted drug.”
“They used tobacco as a tool against you,” Roger smiles. “They used it to get you to talk.”
But there was supposed to be a release to the press, they always do that, like they did with Steven Stills, and I said, Well, you’re talking ’bout your kid, eight years old, and people hitting on him on the playground for reds, if you put that I was arrested for dangerous drugs, by nature of the people who listen to the things that I have to say, do you know how many people you’d turn on. Why don’t you try a little preventive crime?’ So the captain said, `No, we have to release everything to the press,’ and they didn’t release it! They didn’t put anything out. Sometimes the laws are very insensible and he was a man that went beyond the law to his own sensibility.”
“Horse sense,” Roger cracks.
“Then I went back to my cell,” Joni relates, “and they threw this girl in in the middle of the night, about three o’clock in the morning and I had already meditated three times, I’d done every dance step I know, and I was really starting to die of boredom. I’m fading,” Joni yawns, “we should go home pretty soon. I wish I had a guitar, I’d like you to hear the new song.”
“I’d like to play myself,” Roger adds, a little tipsy from the sake, “but mine’s all packed away. We gotta fly tomorrow.”
“We all want to serenade you guys,” Joni giggles, while Roger breaks into a spontaneous “One More Cup of Sake for the Road.”
“Did I ever tell you I loved your live album, Leonard?” Ratso asks.
“You and twelve thousand other people liked it,” Leonard sighs.
The songwriter and the reporter walk into the front room as the others exchange good-byes.
“Sing me some of your new shit, Leonard,” Ratso says eagerly, the stuff you told me you were working on when I was following you around doing that story for Rolling Stone. “
“OK,” Leonard assents and begins to recite the song in his haunting voice.
A lady found me boasting in the Guerrero
When I was running smoke across the line
She let me love her till I was a failure
Her beauty on my bruise like iodine
When I was weak enough to learn her method
I said `Will I be punished for my crime?’
She said `There is a table set in heaven
But I don’t like to eat there all the time.’
She pulled away the mask of her Madonna
She pulled away the valley of her thighs
She bid me find herself in other women
Until I should exhaust her last disguise.
And I was with her when there was no ocean,
When there was no moon to spill the tide:
Oh long before the wild imagination
Could lay us in Guerrero side by side.
“Jesus, Leonard,” Ratso kvells, “that’s great. But you told me you were gonna write some top-forty stuff. That ain’t no Tommy James and the Shondells.”
“Here’s another,” Leonard glances back and deduces there’s time for one more.
I’ve never seen your eyes so wide
Your appetite so occupied with someone else
As if I didn’t know
It ain’t my style to hold this tight
So let’s be married one more night.
It’s light enough to let it go.
A while ago the scenery started fading.
I held you ’til you learned to walk on air.
But don’t look down, it’s gone, it’s faded baby:
The smoky life is practiced everywhere.
Joni walks up just as Leonard comes to an end. “We should go,” she hugs the poet good-bye. “I need a week’s sleep.”
They say good-byes and the troupe hops into the waiting cab and starts back to the motel.
“Who was that guy?” McGuinn mysteriously whispers. “The Lone Ranger?” Ratso guesses.
“No, it wasn’t Tonto either,” Roger grins.
“I’m a stone Cohenite,” Joni brags. “Dylan, ehhh,” she jokingly dismisses the singer with a flap of the wrist.
“Let’s call Dylan,” Roger starts to unpack his attaché-case phone.
“I love Cohen,” Joni continues. “I’m promiscuous with my love.”
I love a lot of people. Who I can live with, that’s another question,” she laughs. “I can make it through, but I’m feeling like the mother of a large family.”
“I’ve come around to a new way of thinking about everyone in the world.” Roger puts the phone away. “I’m serious.”
“What new way?” Joni’s curious.
“It’s called acceptance,” Ratso says cynically.
“Small-town acceptance,” Joni smiles.
“I love the people I love and I ignore the people I can’t tolerate if I can,” Roger says with impeccable logic, “and try not to loathe anyone.”
“I don’t loathe anyone,” Joni agrees. “I try not to feel superior, like ajiveass superior chick, but I keep myself in check ’cause there are other perspectives I’m able to appreciate; the beauty of people on different levels until I get pushed in a corner.”
“I’m against possessiveness and monogamy,” Roger interrupts. “I did it for two years, Roger,” Joni confesses.
“I did it for five,” Roger three-ups.
“Really?” Joni seems incredulous. “You didn’t cheat on the road?” “Not once,” Roger moans.
“I sure broke down in a hurry,” Joni shakes her blond head.
“I’m not talking about this trip,” Roger is quick to qualify.
“Yeah,” Joni laughs, “we all know about this trip. It’s very difficult and it’s very limiting and very indulgent at the same time, none of us are mature enough to be able to accept the fact that other people can love other people. We all want to be the conqueror, the one and only in every relationship that we begin.” Joni pauses for the right words. “There’s a duality that I can’t make out, I don’t mean to be a victimizer but sometimes I find I am by my own spontaneous nature, you know, like gravitating to people who interest me in a room and neglecting the one who is like hurting by my interest in other people.”
- “Suzanne” is Suzanne Elrod, mother of Cohen’s two children, Lorca and Adam. [↩]
- Prior to his work in the Rolling Thunder Revue, McGuinn had been on the folk music circuit, worked as a sideman for folk groups like the Limeliters, the Chad Mitchell Trio, and Judy Collins, and played guitar and sang backup harmonies for Bobby Darin. He is best known, however, as a co-founder of The Byrds. [↩]
- Update: “I am as constant as the Northern Star” From Leonard Cohen (& Shakespeare) To Joni Mitchell’s A Case Of You [↩]
- From Folk Face-Off: Joni Mitchell vs. Bob Dylan [↩]
- “The Mount Royal residence” refers to the house that belonged to Leonard Cohen’s parents and the home in which he and his sister, Esther, were raised. (See Tour Childhood Home Of Leonard Cohen and The Childhood Of Leonard Cohen). The dinner in this account is being held at Cohen’s own home in Montreal. [↩]
- “Mort” is Morton (Mort) Rosengarten, Leonard Cohen’s boyhood best friend and a well known Montreal artist and sculptor. [↩]
- “Blakley” is Ronee Blakley, a singer-songwriter and actress (perhaps best known for her performance as country superstar Barbara Jean in Robert Altman’s 1975 film Nashville). Blakley had sung a duet with Dylan on “Hurricane” from his Desire album and subsequently became part of the Rolling Thunder Revue. Blakley would go on to record with Cohen on the 1977 “Death Of A Ladies’ Man” album, being featured on “Memories,” “Iodine,” and ” True Love Leaves No Traces.” [↩]
- Bob Neuwirth, a singer-songwriter in the folk tradition who soon became a confidant and musical associate of Bob Dylan, put together the backing band for the Rolling Thunder Revue. He also introduced Kris Kristofferson to Janis Joplin. [↩]