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