The fact that Leonard Cohen, the Canadian songwriter who died Thursday at his home in Los Angeles at 82, worked with many instrumentalists and singers based in Austin is a testament to the city’s creative musical culture.
FULL OBITUARY: Leonard Cohen dead at age 82
Cohen’s early-’80s song “Hallelujah” has become a modern-day standard through versions recorded by Jeff Buckley and dozens of others. But his catalog runs much deeper. Legions of fans and many of his peers revered him as one of the great poets and songwriters of his time.
Because he was an artistic visionary with a lifelong career arc rather than a temporary pop hitmaker, Cohen seemed naturally suited to connect with players in a city known for working beyond the bounds of genres and commercial concerns. In a 2009 preview of a Long Center concert, former American-Statesman writer Brad Buchholz assembled a detailed list of Cohen’s Austin connections:
- Roscoe Beck, musical director of Cohen’s touring band, has collaborated with Cohen since playing bass on the “Recent Songs” album in 1979.
- The Austin jazz fusion band Passenger, co-founded by Beck, was Cohen’s backing band on his 1979-80 world tour, documented on the live album “Field Commander Cohen.” Its members: Mitch Watkins (guitar), Bill Ginn (piano), Paul Ostermayer (saxophone) and Steve Meador (drums).
- Grammy-winning singer Jennifer Warnes, who lived in Austin in the late 1970s and 1980s, toured with Cohen in 1972 and 1979. She wrote vocal arrangements on several Cohen classics, including “Tower of Song.” She and Beck fell in love during the 1979-80 Cohen tour and collaborated professionally for years afterward. He co-produced her 1986 album “Famous Blue Raincoat: The Songs of Leonard Cohen,” which sold more than 1 million copies.
- Julie Christensen, a rising star in the Austin jazz scene from 1977 to 1981 who now lives in Nashville, was a backup singer (with Perla Batalla) in the Cohen touring band from 1988 to 1993. She came to the band on the recommendation of Warnes and Beck.
- Steve Zirkel, a longtime member of Austin’s Strings Attached acoustic ensemble, played bass and trumpet in the Cohen touring band in 1988, following the release of the “I’m Your Man” album.
- Rafael Gayol, a veteran drummer with many Austin acts since the 1990s including Charlie Sexton and the Flatlanders, joined Cohen’s touring band about a decade ago and subsequently appeared on several Cohen live and studio albums.
As Christensen told Buchholz in 2009, Cohen at times addressed politics in his songs, but he sought a perspective that reached well beyond immediacy.
“Leonard likes to say, ‘My songs have the half-life of a Volvo.’ They have longevity,” Christensen said. “‘The Future’ and ‘Democracy’ are just as timely as the day they were written. That line: ‘I’m neither left or right, I’m just staying home tonight/ Getting lost in that hopeless little screen/ But I’m stubborn as those garbage bags/ That time cannot decay.’ I just cry when I think of that. ‘I’m junk but I’m still holding up this little bouquet: Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.'”
Christensen was among the musicians who joined singer-songwriter Alejandro Escovedo at ACL Live in January of this year for a concert that Escovedo titled “A Thousand Kisses Deep: The Leonard Cohen Influence.”
And one of the most lasting, well-documented connections between Cohen and the city is his 1988 appearance on “Austin City Limits.” The TV program put a clip from that episode on its YouTube channel Friday morning in tribute to Cohen: