Leonard Cohen: One for the Road
Larne-based guitar technician Leif Bodnarchuk will hold dear his memories of touring as part of the legendary singer-songwriter's live crew
No matter what band or artist you ever work for, you always bump into one of them walking the streets. It could be in Manhattan and there's Gary, the drummer for The Libertines, and you chit-chat for a few minutes. Then it could be a cold day in Vienna, and it's Leonard Cohen, with a Filet-O-Fish in his hand, looking for something to do. He'd ask 'Are there things around here?', and I'd point vaguely: 'Yeah there are things that way.'
I think he was a guy who got your personality no matter who you were. He and I shared an ongoing joke: find something to complain about. The point of this silliness was actually to highlight just how good we had it. We'd walk into a fancy hotel – there were a lot of them - and we'd look around, everything would be gold, or silver, or marble. We'd eye each other and I'd whisper 'I'm not f***in' stayin in this dump.' Making him laugh was like a tonic. It was a treat sharing a sense of humour with someone of such gloomy reknown. In 2010 the crew got a generous bonus, and I emailed Leonard to thank him for the change in my bank balance. He replied:
good working with you
but how dare they do what they've done to us
It's 2012 and we're in some city the day before the gig, and I'm walking along minding my own business. The weather is crisp, but clear and bright. Suddenly I hear someone calling my name. I spin round to see Leonard outside a café. He gestures upwards with his arms, in faux-exasperation, and says 'Can you believe this? How dare they!' I shout back 'Unbelievable! No shame!' and smile stupidly. Right then I thought to myself – LC just got off his stool, rushed outside, and shouted my name in the street like we were two Montreal kids. Sometimes it was the stupid stuff, that showed he had no inclinations of superiority when it came to the crew. He really appreciated us.
Luckily, most of the bands I've worked for have been pretty cool, but there are always exceptions. People have bad days – maybe the new album isn't selling well, or the cocaine and champers have left the talent feeling a little delicate. What I've learnt from watching rising – and falling - rock stars is, fame's path is littered with broken glass, and sometimes sitting down for a breather is as painful as carrying on. Sometimes your frustration needs a release, and the roadies just happen to be in the way. Never with Leonard. He respected our skills, and the hours we put in, through all the long soundchecks and even longer shows. At dinner one night I was telling him something funny from the crew's perspective – and he broke in, apologising: 'I'm so sorry you guys have to listen to me every night.'
Some big stars employ staff who cater to their whims. Leonard always carried his own bags. Ten years before I worked with Leonard I was in Belfast, at the Europa Hotel – 1998 – the Good Friday Agreement. I was working with Ash, and in the next few hours, the famous clip of Bono, Hume, and Trimble would be filmed, arms raised together for a new future. I'm standing in reception, green-haired and dishevelled. A sudden air of reverence befalls the lobby, and Bono glides through the front doors, hands free, a swan landing on water. Right behind him, a trolley of luggage piled so high you can't see the poor schlub pushing it. Leonard's style was different. He waited by the bus every day, took his suitcase in hand, guitar on his back, and rolled in like he was nobody. The theme with Leonard was, you could stick him in a broom closet and he'd make it work. The guy never seemed to forget what it's like to be the rest of us.
Unfortunately that raw connection with simplicity just didn't rub off on some people. All Leonard really wanted was his shows to go smoothly. For him it was 'life and death every night.' He knew that to keep the well-oiled show on the road, everyone in the organisation had to be comfortable. We were treated like rocket scientists with our annual salaries, paid holidays, profit sharing, and random bonuses. We weren't common-as-muck roadies, we were royalty. But still, to some, everything isn't enough. My heart broke many times, watching this remarkable guy exemplify resilience while others in the touring party made costly, attention-grabbing demands. It wouldn't do any good to go into detail, but I believe Leonard's generosity was exploited by some who forgot what it's like to be the rest of us.
Every band you work with leaves an impression, whether it's a drunken, somewhat violent Danny from the Wildhearts attacking you, or forging lifelong bonds with Ash, attending weddings and funerals. It all shapes you and your world view. It would be criminal for me to forget my years with Leonard. Some bands teach you how to get away with bad behaviour. Some show what it takes to keep going when the future isn't as bright as the past. What did Leonard show me? It feels painful and archaic and schmaltzy, and I want to not want to cry, but honestly it's the first thing to come to mind – he showed me how to be a man. A straight-up, no nonsense, honest to goodness man. The kind you can keep indoors. And so I think of him as 'bonus-dad'.
2016 has been a crazy year. We've lost some greats – my mother being one of them. Leonard was many things, among them a father and grandfather. My heart goes out flat on the floor to Lorca, with whom I've shared hotel breakfasts and laughs.
This year isn't all about losing artists. We've lost some ideological battles too, and the future looks rough. For me, Leonard's death could be just another kick in the teeth, but it has deeper meaning: remembering his positive influence. Right now finding the positives is 'life and death'. Leonard's lasting influence on me will be to remember to look to the light, rather than complaining about the cracks.