“The great Leonard Cohen… sat in with us in the name of friendship and generosity” The Story Behind Leonard Cohen’s Performance On “Elvis’ Rolls Royce” By Was (Not Was)

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Leonard Cohen once quoted Krishna’s words to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita: “You’ll never untangle the circumstances that brought you to this moment.” Leonard’s performance on Elvis’ Rolls Royce by Was (Not Was) may well be one such moment, but what we do know of the back story is entertaining and even inspirational.

I’ve been posting about Leonard’s work on Elvis’ Rolls Royce since 2007 (see Video: Elvis’ Rolls Royce Featuring Leonard Cohen By Was (Not Was) – “I Really Love It!” Don Was) but didn’t know how the song originated or why Leonard was recruited as a guest vocalist until I read this account by David Was:

A few years before meeting Leonard in New York City, I’d been in London for a stretch, playing some live shows and hanging around at my label, Phonogram Records, on New Bond Street, just down the road from Sotheby’s auction house. I noticed a commotion there one afternoon, and soon discovered that one of Elvis Presley’s Rolls Royces was going up for sale, and that they’d parked it on the street to promote the event.

I hung about for the better part of an hour, taking notes and snapshots and wondering if I might sell a wee story to Rolling Stone, but instead wound up turning my observations into a song entitled, yes, Elvis’s Rolls Royce. I’d always been a big fan of country singer Red Sovine’s gothic trucker anthem, Phantom 309, wherein “Big Joe”—the ghost of a dead long-haul wheel-man—picked up stray hitchhikers in the middle of the night and delivered them safely to their destinations. Corny and spooky—that’s a neat trick to pull off in a song.

I tried to do the same, but with an elegant Rolls Royce standing in for a lumbering 18-wheeler. In the course of four verses, I set the scene, imagined myself hijacking The King’s chariot, and then speeding away with great bravado (I made a left at Parliament and hit the pedal hard/ Tipped my hat and smiled as I passed by Scotland Yard ), not stopping until I’d crossed the Atlantic and delivered the sacred vehicle back to Graceland, where it rightly belonged.

I finished the lyric later that night, then gave it to my partner, Don Was, to set to music, and was a little shocked when he delivered a sexy, Barry White-style R&B groove instead of a pedal-steel guitar-driven, rockabilly ballad in the style of Mr. Sovine. When it came time to cut a vocal, Barry White was unavailable so we called our dark-throated friend Leonard Cohen to see if he’d take a crack at it. A day later we booked a studio in the heart of Hollywood and waited for the great man to appear.

As soon as Leonard arrived, donned as usual in a black suit, white shirt and tie (in the middle of a summer day, no less), he took me aside and asked how long it had taken for me to write the song in question. I estimated that I’d spent the better part of an hour or two on the lyric, at which point he flattered me by saying that “not a word nor syllable” was out of place, and that it took him around “six years, on average” to complete a song.

Leonard coasted through a couple of takes that day, lending the lyric a palpable gravitas it perhaps didn’t quite deserve, but which transformed the song from a wry fantasy into a dirge-like paean to rock-stars past, and the fate of their worldly belongings. The music was better suited to a lyric like Mr. White’s It’s Ecstasy When You Lay Down Next to Me, but beggars can’t be choosers—the great Leonard Cohen had sat in with us in the name of friendship and generosity, and we were well-pleased at the unusual result.

From Leonard Cohen Smiles Down on Us From the ‘Tower of Song’ by David Weiss (Newsweek: Nov 11, 2016).

Video: Leonard Cohen & Was (Not Was) – Elvis’ Rolls Royce

Video by Allan Showalter

Cars Of Leonard Cohen: Elvis’s Rolls Royce

Cars Of Leonard Cohen

is a series of posts about actual automobiles owned by or associated with Leonard Cohen, metaphorical cars he employed in his songs, and his thoughts about cars. All posts in this series are collected at as they go online.

Elvis’s Rolls Royce Featuring Leonard Cohen By Was (Not Was)

areyouokIn 1990 Was (Not Was) published the album, Are You Okay?, which included the song, “Elvis’s Rolls Royce” with Leonard Cohen as lead vocalist (and Iggy Pop contributing backing vocals). One suspects that it was fun to produce, and it’s clearly fun to hear. It seemed only fitting that it should have a fun video as well. That’s where DrHGuy, master of the cut and paste flick, came into the picture.

Considerable poetic license was involved in the composition of “Elvis’s Rolls Royce,” but Elvis did own a Rolls Royce:

January 1961 Elvis signed a 5 year contract with Hal Wallis. To celebrate he went out and bought a Rolls Royce Phantom V from a Beverly Hills dealer only to bring it home and have his mothers’ chickens peck away at their reflections in the elegant finish. Most people would have just shot the birds but Elvis just chose to have the car repainted four or five times.1

That Rolls Royce is the one featured in the extraordinarily rare2 photo of Elvis, Leonard, & the Rolls atop this section of the post. Elvis also owned a 1966 Rolls Royce Silver Cloud.

In any case, images in the accompanying video are likewise “inspired by” rather than “based on” Elvis’s cars. Viewers are advised to rev up their “willing suspension of disbelief for the moment which constitutes poetic faith;”3 a literal-minded perspective may result in significant cognitive whiplash.

Video: Leonard Cohen & Was (Not Was) – Elvis’s Rolls Royce

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“It was not only an act of supreme generosity on
[Leonard Cohen’s ] part but a flawless reading of the song

Those hearing reports of unprecedented beaming emanating from the vicinity of Durham, North Carolina needn’t be concerned that, say, a local nuclear power plant has gone Chernobyl. The phenomenon is instead the consequence of DrHGuy finding this message from Don Was, world class musician and Grammy-winning record producer,4 in his inbox:

hi allan –

just stumbled upon your video for our song “Elvis’ Rolls Royce”….i really love it! It’s exactly what I visualized when we wrote the song and seeing your video 20 plus years after we recorded the track gave me a renewed sense of how surreally awesome it was that leonard agreed to do the vocal for us…it was not only an act of supreme generosity on his part but a flawless reading of the song…thanks for putting so much work into the video….i hope everyone on earth gets to see it!

cheers,
dw

OK, let’s make that “Don Was, world class musician, Grammy-winning record producer, and one heck of a guy.”

Video by Allan Showalter

___________________________________________

  1. ElvisPresleyNews.com []
  2. It is so extraordinarily rare that it was, in fact, nonexistent in the pre-Photoshop world []
  3. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, 1817 []
  4. Don Was has produced every Rolling Stones album since 1993, co-led the 1980s group Was (Not Was), was appointed president of the jazz record label, Blue Note Records, in 2012, served as music director for a batch of movies (e.g., Thelma and Louise, The Rainmaker, Hope Floats), and has recorded with – well, just about everyone, including Bonnie Raitt, Bob Dylan, John Mayer, Ziggy Marley, Bob Seger, Al Green, Lucinda Williams, Garth Brooks, Ringo Starr, Iggy Pop, Lyle Lovett, Kris Kristofferson, Joe Cocker, Hootie and The Blowfish, Amos Lee, Willie Nelson Elton John, Stevie Nicks, George Clinton, Randy Newman, The Black Crowes, Carly Simon, Travis Tritt, Brian Wilson, Jackson Browne, The Barenaked Ladies, Old Crow Medicine Show, Roy Orbison, Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter, Richie Sambora, The Presidents of the United States of America, B.B. King, Paul Westerberg, Kurt Elling, Poison, Cheb Khaled, The B-52’s, Zucchero, Todd Snider, Elizabeth Cook, Jill Sobule and Solomon Burke. []

Video: Elvis’ Rolls Royce Featuring Leonard Cohen By Was (Not Was) – “I Really Love It!” Don Was

rrfly

“It was not only an act of supreme generosity on
[Leonard Cohen’s ] part but a flawless reading of the song

Those hearing reports of unprecedented beaming emanating from the vicinity of Durham, North Carolina needn’t be concerned that, say, a local nuclear power plant has gone Chernobyl. The phenomenon is instead the consequence of DrHGuy finding this message from Don Was, world class musician and Grammy-winning record producer,1 in his inbox:

hi allan –

just stumbled upon your video for our song “Elvis’ Rolls Royce”….i really love it! It’s exactly what I visualized when we wrote the song and seeing your video 20 plus years after we recorded the track gave me a renewed sense of how surreally awesome it was that leonard agreed to do the vocal for us…it was not only an act of supreme generosity on his part but a flawless reading of the song…thanks for putting so much work into the video….i hope everyone on earth gets to see it!

cheers,
dw

OK, let’s make that “Don Was, world class musician, Grammy-winning record producer, and one heck of a guy.”

Update: Read David Was on Leonard Cohen at Leonard Cohen Smiles Down on Us From the ‘Tower of Song’ by David Weiss (Newsweek: Nov 11, 2016)

elvis-lc-rr
Leonard Cohen, Was (Not Was), Elvis’ Rolls Royce, & The Video

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  1. Don Was has produced every Rolling Stones album since 1993, co-led the 1980s group Was (Not Was), was appointed president of the jazz record label, Blue Note Records, in 2012, served as music director for a batch of movies (e.g., Thelma and Louise, The Rainmaker, Hope Floats), and has recorded with – well, just about everyone, including Bonnie Raitt, Bob Dylan, John Mayer, Ziggy Marley, Bob Seger, Al Green, Lucinda Williams, Garth Brooks, Ringo Starr, Iggy Pop, Lyle Lovett, Kris Kristofferson, Joe Cocker, Hootie and The Blowfish, Amos Lee, Willie Nelson Elton John, Stevie Nicks, George Clinton, Randy Newman, The Black Crowes, Carly Simon, Travis Tritt, Brian Wilson, Jackson Browne, The Barenaked Ladies, Old Crow Medicine Show, Roy Orbison, Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter, Richie Sambora, The Presidents of the United States of America, B.B. King, Paul Westerberg, Kurt Elling, Poison, Cheb Khaled, The B-52’s, Zucchero, Todd Snider, Elizabeth Cook, Jill Sobule and Solomon Burke. []