Pat Harris

I Can’t Not Work Like This, Part 3

I Can’t Not Work Like This:
My Month on the Road with Leonard Cohen and the Best Gig I Never Played

Part 3 – Hindsight

It is only through looking back that I can clearly see what an amazing experience this was. If ever there was a “once in a lifetime” event, this was it. I did my best to retell my story, but I had to do quite a bit of editing in the process. I did not curb, soften, or taylor my words because I was part of some out of control rock and roll experience. Rather, as I read back through the journal I kept while on the road, I was not in a positive headspace. One might say that I was in quite a dark place, and I certainly wouldn’t want anybody other than myself to read those pages. During the initial jotting down of my thoughts, I was freely associating what I felt as it came to me, and there were some constant themes that kept reoccurring: loneliness, isolation, self doubt, and defeat.

I don’t believe there is a way to adequately prepare for a situation like this, and I’m glad I was rushed into it with so little time to think. My usual modus operandi is to overthink everything and go into Contingency Plan mode. In this instance, I had to “just go.” What did I learn about myself that I didn’t know before? For starters, I had no idea how much of my personal self-worth is tied to playing/performing music with and for others, and how much I relied on being in close proximity to “my people” until both were suddenly stripped away. It doesn’t seem so bad when you think of one month out of twelve, but it was very difficult in the moment to be without both. Being in a foreign country, my phone became a glorified pocket weight. Any texts or phone calls were going to be murder for my bank account. I sent an email to some of my closest friends when I was about three quarters through the tour and I expressed my gratitude for being able to make music with them and for having them in my life. I realized, despite my best efforts to not be the guy who hangs out in bars and clubs every night of the week, that I am a part of a small but precious “scene” in Austin. The musicians I work with at home (who also happen to be some of my best friends) are as talented and as world class as anyone I was traveling with at the time. I say that not as a sleight to anybody in Leonard Cohen’s band, but only to illustrate how fortunate I am to work with such gifted individuals on a regular basis in Austin. The gigs/tours like Leonard Cohen’s are few and far between. Please be aware that just because you may be listening to live music in a bar, that doesn’t mean that the performers aren’t worthy or deserving of your attention or that they won’t be getting a call for some larger gig in the future. The stars may not have aligned properly for some, but the time will come for each of them in their own way. I have no doubt of this. It also didn’t help my mood that the weather was typically cold, grey and damp. I am used to the weather in Austin, and I take the sunshine and warmth for granted.

After sifting through the sketches, ideas, and fragments of the daily details I kept, I was able to more objectively recall the events of each day, and I’m thankful that I have many fond memories which eclipse the negative ones. I really loved the first days in New York with the pressure and the stress of, “I have to get this done. I have to succeed. Be a pro.” I thrive in these situations. Three days to transcribe and learn 40 years of material? I’m your man (pun intended). This was not the kind of gig to prove your chops. Thankfully, I’ve never had a desire to prove my worth based on how many notes I can fit into a measure of music. This gig was all about taste and restraint. My strategy during my preparation (aside from mass amounts of coffee) was that if I was needed, I didn’t want anybody on stage to know that it wasn’t Roscoe on bass. Once I had the material transcribed, charted, and learned, including the various rhythmic, harmonic, and structural twists and turns in each song, I committed myself to learning “Roscoe-isms” (the musical ideas, licks, or riffs that he would consistently use in specific parts of songs). I had his monitor mix in my ears for every performance, and it was a masterclass in electric bass playing. I also learned Roscoe’s harmony vocal parts; all of the Oohs, Ahhs, Do-Do-Dos, and So Long Marianne’s. Whatever I brought to the table, I knew I was doing my job correctly if my playing went UNnoticed. Whatever Roscoe did, I was going to have it covered. The only thing I knew I couldn’t pull off was the “Pleeeeease!” from the song “I’m Your Man.” He will forever own that.

I cannot begin to describe my feelings on performance days. I was full of anticipation, fear, excitement, and a whole range of contrasting emotions. As soon as we got in the vans to go to the venues, the thoughts of, “Today could be the day. It’s go-time,” flooded in. I would sit through soundcheck, take my notes, and eat a light dinner because of my nerves. After dinner, I would put on my suit, and my adrenaline would be pumping. The show would begin, always fifteen minutes late, and I would be at my post behind Chris. I’d watch Roscoe through the entire show, “Is he getting ill?… Was that a stumble?… Is this it?…” All the while, my adrenaline continued to surge. Song after song. Show after show. If I had been required to play, I would have had to walk onto a stage I’d never been on, grab a bass guitar or upright bass (depending on the song) that I had never touched, performed the music with a band I’d never played in, and all in front of the biggest audiences I’d ever have been in front of. No rehearsal. No soundcheck. No pressure. Each song turned into each set and each set became each show. I’ve never had so much adrenaline and tension that never was able to be released. After each performance, I had to unwind from the gig I didn’t play; a very unusual thing to have to do. Generally, I get the adrenaline rush before a gig, I play, and an hour after the gig I’m ready to crash and call it a night. On this tour I would get the rush, but none of the payoff of actually having performed. It’s one of those things that to read it now feels silly and maybe even trivial, but at the time it was incredibly difficult because there was no getting out of the “tour bubble.” Perhaps the hardest part for me was literally being so close to getting on that stage and never having the opportunity. It was a huge exercise in staying humble, swallowing pride, and being grateful.

My closest friends while on the road were Mitch, Charley, Dan, and Hattie. I cannot overstate how wonderful they are. Mitch was always there to check in with me, to offer encouragement, and to see how I was holding up. We had some enlightening and candid talks which I am thankful for. He’s been in this business for the long haul, and I really appreciated him sharing his story with me on the ebb and flow of a career in the music industry. He told me about his first tour with Leonard Cohen in 1979 (he was my age at the time) and how he thought it was, “Just going to go on forever… Then it stopped.” When I asked how he can go from playing on a tour like this to playing a four hour gig that pays $50 in Austin he explained: “You have to realize that this,” meaning the tour, “this is not real life. This has been a great ride, and I’ve been very fortunate, but this does not last. There is a definite ending this and then it’s back to real life.” It was a great way of putting it into perspective. You get into trouble if you start believing that this is the way things go from here on out. You can fall off the mountain as fast as you can climb it.

Dan (keyboard and harp tech) was a great friend. We had a dinner in Halifax and he was open and willing to answer any questions I had ranging from life on the road, where he has been, who he’s worked with, how he was called to do the Leonard Cohen tour, and all things technology. He is a smart, smart man who works his ass off for his employer, and he easily breaks the stereotype of the brutish band technician.

Charley and Hattie, “The Sublime Webb Sisters,” are some of the most beautiful people I’ve had the pleasure to know. They truly “get it”– life, and I feel like we hit it off immediately. They were so kind to me, and they went well out of their way to include me in on any trips, outings, or social functions. There were many trips to vegan restaurants and holistic health food shops, and there were wonderful stories, great laughs, and conversations which ranged from total seriousness to outright absurdity. I loved every minute. They could summon the dry English wit which gave me a run for my money, and I am grateful to them for their kindness and willingness to let me tag along from day one. I hope our paths cross again sometime soon.

I’m not sure what you may know, think you know, or have read about Leonard Cohen, but if it’s anything positive about his character or generosity, I can and will confirm it. He is an artist’s artist, but he still has the ability to have an everyday conversation. Though his songs and poetry carry serious weight, he has a great sense of humor, he makes jokes, he smiles, and laughs. He chooses his words with great care and precision. He means what he says, and you believe him without question. He wants what is best for everyone in his organization, and he takes care of everyone in his organization not out of a sense of duty as a leader, but because he genuinely cares for them. I arrived fresh off the plane during a soundcheck. Mitch introduced the two of us at center stage. Mr. Cohen shook my hand, thanked me many times for joining the tour, and then wanted to make sure I had warm clothes. Thirty minutes after getting into my New York hotel room, I received an email from Mr. Cohen thanking me again for my “help,” and he offered to assist me in any way he could. After the tour, when he had a chance to read my thank you note, open the envelope full of charts, and listen to the CD of my own music I shamelessly included, he responded with an email thanking me for the “wonderful charts,” and for the “beautiful music.” The ultimate thrill was him suggesting that next time around, the fader on my voice should be “moved a bit to the north” to bring more focus to the vocals and the text. I never saw him wear anything other than a finely tailored black suit.

No matter where I go or what I do, I will always be thankful for this experience, and I am honored to have been a very small part of the tour. If I was there solely to bring Mr. Cohen the peace of mind that the show would continue, I’m happy to have been there and to have done the work. I’ve been back in Austin since May 2013; working on my bass playing, writing, and performing with as many talented musicians as time will allow. I am hopeful, but I do not assume that I’ll have another opportunity like this. I’m looking forward to the slow and gradual growth with a few of the projects I’m currently working with. I suspect most of my touring will be in a crowded van where I sleep on floors or couches for the foreseeable future, but as long as the people are good and the music is honest, it will be worth it.