Songs For Rebecca – The Lost Leonard Cohen Album: Collaborator John Lissauer On The Project, How It Began, & How It Ended

Songs For Rebecca – The Lost Leonard Cohen Album

This is the second post in the Songs For Rebecca – The Lost Leonard Cohen Album series.1 A discussion of the name of the project, i.e., Songs For Rebecca, was previously published at Leonard Cohen’s Abandoned Album – Songs For Rebecca: Who’s Rebecca?

There is considerable confusion about the Songs For Rebecca project. While these posts won’t answer every question, they do clear up certain ambiguities and, if nothing else, they consolidate all the uncertainty in one place. This post focuses on Leonard Cohen’s collaborator on Songs For Rebecca, John Lissauer, the origin of the Songs For Rebecca project, and how the project came to end.

Note: John Lissauer graciously answered my many queries about Songs For Rebecca. Without his help, this and the next post would have been incomplete and inaccurate. I am very grateful.

John Lissauer

John Lissauer was a very different sort of producer for Leonard Cohen than his predecessor, Bob Johnston. He was jazz-oriented, more laid back, and more classical in his approach to music. Working with Leonard, he produced New Skin For The Old Ceremony (1974) and Various Positions (1984 ) as well as working on Blue Alert. He was musical director, playing keyboards, saxophone, woodwinds for the 1974 and 1975 tours. Lissauer was also responsible for assembling a new group of musicians to join Cohen, including bass player John Miller, vocalist Erin Dickins (who was Lissauer’s first wife), and vocalist Anjani Thomas as well as sound engineer Leanne Ungar. In addition, John points out that “when we did Various Positions, I used a band called Slow Train… that was Richard Crooks, John Crowder and Ron Getman… along with veteran session guitarist Sid McGuinnes (Letterman Show)… they all toured with LC, as well as recorded.”

Lissauer talks about their relationship in this 2016 interview.

Ira Nadel, writing in Various Positions – A Life Of Leonard Cohen, describes Lissauer’s impact.

Songs For Rebecca – The Leonard Cohen-John Lissauer Collaboration

During the 1974 tour, the idea for a new collaborative project, Songs For Rebecca, arose.2

And, indeed, shortly after New Skin For The Old Ceremony was released, Lissauer and Cohen recorded a number of tracks for the anticipated album. Songs For Rebecca, however, was abandoned in 1976 when Cohen decided to collaborate with Phil Spector on Death Of A Ladies’ Man. Lissauer gives this account:

We started getting more groove oriented…things were going swimmingly actually, so well in fact that we were saying, ‘Wow, this could really be successful, this could break through.’ This could be an American record as opposed to European or Canadian…and then…then the plug got pulled…Marty Machat and I did not have a great relationship. I had no respect for him because he was quite the well dressed thug. And Leonard was his boy and he was protecting him but also wanted to possess the diamond…We were taking a break and were on a high about the possibilities of this…when suddenly Marty announced that he wanted Leonard to work with Phil Spector! ‘What this kid needs is a star producer!'”3

When I asked, “How did you find out that the Songs For Rebecca project was over? From the interviews I read, it seems that Leonard suddenly stopped contacting you or responding to your calls. Is that accurate? Did anyone (e.g., Marty Machat) officially tell you the project was dead? When was it clear that the project was over?” John answered,

No one ever told me that the project was over.. it was just “on hold” till LC got back from Hydra… I didn’t hear from Leonard again for 7 years.

John Lissauer Video Interview

 

John Lissauer On Songs For Rebecca

I asked John Lissauer if he knew why the project was called “Songs For Rebecca.”

Actually, I wasn’t aware of that album title until many years later!

I also asked, “Was there a specific theme or tone you had in mind for Songs For Rebecca?”

It was really just a collection of lyrics, and he asked me to write the songs from them…..no particular thread or theme at the time.

Sources have it that after Songs For Rebecca, you and Leonard didn’t have any contact until he called you about working on what would become the Various Positions album. Is that accurate? What went through your mind when he called about working together again?

I always loved our projects together, so I was happy to hear that he wanted to make a new album…..I figured we’d talk about the unfinished collaboration at some point, but… it never happened.

Phil Spector, Marty Machat, and Death Of A Ladies’ Man

So, why did Leonard Cohen opt to work with Phil Spector on Death Of A Ladies’ Man rather than John Lissauer on Songs For Rebecca? The most convincing explanation comes from Steven Machat, writing about his father, Marty Machat, who represented both Cohen and Spector, in “Gods, Gangsters and Honour:”

In 1977, my father was confronted by a big problem that was threatening his relationship with Phil Spector. Dad had negotiated Phil a label deal with Warner Brothers that involved Spector getting a huge advance before he delivered his future product. Unfortunately, Spector had failed to deliver the product and Warners wanted their money back. Machat Senior came up with the answer: stick two of his top clients in the studio. My dad would then give the album to Warners to keep them happy, clear the debts, and keep both clients happy. But this involved two of his most problematic clients. Not just Spector but Leonard Cohen…

While this is sufficient for the purposes of this post, there is more to this explanation, and it makes for fascinating reading. See “We Were Drunk And Stupid” – Leonard Cohen On Death Of A Ladies’ Man.

Leonard Cohen & John Lissauer – After Songs For Rebecca

The abandonment of Songs For Rebecca did not end the Lissauer–Cohen connection. Although they did not work together — or even talk — for years,well, Sylvie Simmons describes what happened next, in her biography of Leonard Cohen, I’m Your Man,

John Lissauer was “a little surprised” when he picked up the phone and Leonard was on the line, saying he was in New York and ready to record again — understandable reaction given that Leonard had walked out on the last album and had gone on to rewrite or record the songs with two other producers. Upset as he had been, Lissauer… blamed Marty Machat. “It was just one of those things, a lesson to watch out for managers, or for managers who were obsessed. Leonard knew that Marty was Marty, but Marty had taken such good care of him, so Leonard was in a little bit of Machat denial. He and I have joked about it since and he has admitted what Marty was really like, but at the time it was an unbroachable subject.” Lissauer did not mention the aborted Songs for Rebecca.“What was the point of making Leonard uncomfortable? It would have put the kibosh on this, and I was happy that he was calling.”

Next Songs For Rebecca Post: The Songs

The final post of the Songs For Rebecca examines and provides live performances of the tracks recorded for this project.

Credit Due Department: The image on the mock-up Songs For Rebecca album cover shows Leonard Cohen in the studio recording tracks for that project. The photo was taken by and is the property of John Miller. The John Lissauer photo is by JLPhotos – Online, CC BY 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

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  1. A more precise title might be “Songs For Rebecca – The Abandoned Leonard Cohen Album” – but “Lost Album” is more dramatic and, as it turns out, accurate as well. But, more about that later. []
  2. Excerpt from Leonard Cohen: A Remarkable Life by by Anthony Reynolds. Omnibus Press: October 1, 2010 []
  3. Leonard Cohen: A Remarkable Life by by Anthony Reynolds. Omnibus Press: October 1, 2010 []

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