In 1979, Leonard Cohen found himself on The Smokey Life Tour with a new audience, a big band and the same fantastic songs. It saw the Canadian poet take his music across Europe and provide a special performance for German TV.
Below, we’re taking a look back at that show and his inescapably joyful performance of ‘Memories’ which is taken from his album Death of a Ladies Man, produced by the infamous Phil Spector.
Spector’s influence in music is undoubted and his trademark Wall of Sound was wooing artists in rock and roll from the very beginning. Before the producer was convicted of murder, he was the hottest property in music during the sixties and seventies and he provided Leonard Cohen with one of his most musically expansive records—but that came at a price
Far from the artist being the difficult part of the relationship, Spector came with his own baggage. Speaking to Mojo in 2001, Cohen spoke of the incredibly intense working situation: “It was one of those periods when my chops were impaired, and I wasn’t in the right kind of condition to resist Phil’s very strong influence on and eventual takeover of the record.”
It wasn’t just influence and impression that Spector came armed with: “There were lots of guns around in the studio and lots of liquor, a somewhat dangerous atmosphere. He had bodyguards who were heavily armed also. He liked guns—I liked guns too but I generally don’t carry one, and it’s hard to ignore a .45 lying on the console.”
Famously the number of guns in the studio was no new thing for Spector but while many would lose their cool, it would appear Cohen handled it in his usual dry manner. Spector biographer Dave Thompson recounts one moment in which the producer fired a gun in the studio, to which Cohen replied: “Listen Phil, if you’re goin’ to kill me, kill me but don’t fuck with me ears. I need ’em.”
Cohen confirmed that there was always a problem when Spector had an audience: “When I was working with him alone, it was very agreeable,” Cohen recalls in 2001. “But the more people in the room, the wilder Phil would get. I couldn’t help but admire the extravagance of his performance, but at the time couldn’t really hold my own.”
By 1979, Cohen had started to find his mettle once more. The singer’s fame had begun to rise to prominence once again and he had gathered new fans following the success of his latest record Recent Songs. It was an album he took on ‘The Smokey Life Tour’, undoubtedly one of his finest periods as a performer.
Filling theatres is one thing, but the singer was keen to share his message to as many people as possible and the opportunity to perform on TV was too big to pass up. So the poet-singer set up perhaps one of his finest moments on screen with a cracking performance for German TV.
Shot in November in the German city of Bremen, Cohen came equipped with a big band and a large sound, capable of bringing some of the finer moments of a hectic album like Death of a Ladies Man to the fore. One such song was ‘Memories’, a belter about teenage lust.
“I wrote this a couple of years ago with the great genius of darkest Hollywood, Phil Spector,” says Cohen in the clip below. “A song based on my extremely boring and pathetic life, at Westmount High Scool in Montreal. It’s called ‘Memories’.”
What follows is a performance that places the usually reserved performer offer up a show befitting a true crooner. While Cohen may have looked at home with a lame jacket on, he still delivers every line with a simple, dry irony that makes every note a joy.
Watch Leonard Cohen’s joyful performance of ‘Memories’ on German TV from 1979.