Category Archives: Music

How Eric Clapton’s set list changed between 1989 and 1992

In my recent unearthing of memorabilia I found several old concert tickets. One was from the first rock concert I ever went to – Eric Clapton and His Band at the Albert Hall on 28th January 1989. The band in question had Mark Knopfler on guitar, and (as I recall) Greg Phillinganes on keyboards, Nathan East on bass, Steve Ferrone on drums, Katie Kissoon and Tessa Niles on backing vocals, and possibly Ray Cooper on percussion. Carole King was the special guest and came out to do a couple of duets. The support was Buckwheat Zydeco who had just released an album with a version of Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad? on it, on which EC had guested, but their guitarist that night was a fairly unexciting bloke (sorry).

Eric Clapton gig ticket from 1989

Anyway, stapled to the concert ticket was a scribbled set-list with a few notes. With the power of the internet I could no doubt easily find the exact set list from that particular gig, but I quite like the idea of having my own personal scrawled one, so as an item of interest, here it is:

Crossroads (started off as EC solo, then the band came on to add instrumentation)

White Room (Knopfler adding interesting fills)

I Shot the Sheriff (started with a slow non-reggae arrangement of the chorus)

Bell Bottom Blues (arrangement straight out of “Layla”)

Lay Down Sally (Knopfler doing some jazzy licks)

After Midnight – with Carole King

Can’t Find My Way Home – with Carole King (Knopfler playing copious fill-ins on nylon-string guitar)

Wonderful Tonight (slow intro, false ending)

Forever Man (EC forgets to stop smoking in time so has to play the whole solo with fag in mouth)

Tearing Us Apart (Katie Kissoon duet) – EC plays “laid-back” solo [whatever that means]

Wanna Make Love To You

Cocaine (“slow”)

Same Old Blues (soft & jazzy with fantastic Nathan East bass solo, doubling the notes on vocals, George Benson-style)

Layla (long, moody intro)


Behind The Mask

Sunshine of Your Love – arrangement noted as “chorus, (instr.), rest [rest of band?!], solos, finish”

As a first gig it was feasibly not the most “alternative” in the world but I loved it, especially as a young guitarist. EC is still my main guitar influence and, if you like, all-time “guitar hero”. Some things never leave you no matter what else you do or listen to.

A few years later, on 18th February 1992 to be precise, I went to see him again, also at the Albert Hall. I don’t remember all of the band members this time although it was just before Unplugged, and I’m pretty sure it would’ve been the same band from that album. When EC introduced a short sit-down acoustic set, he clearly wasn’t able to use the word “Unplugged” possibly for contractual reasons (or just to maintain the element of surprise) and instead said “We recently did a concert of unamplified songs… well, not unamplified, but unelectrified.”

Eric Clapton gig ticket from 1992

For this gig I was up in the choir seats behind the band, which was a bit strange, but it was an interesting perspective as it made you feel like you were almost on the stage. Here’s my set list from that night:

White Room


Anything For Your Love

I Shot the Sheriff

Running on Faith

She’s Waiting

Sit-down acoustic mini-set:

The Circus Has Left Town

Tears in Heaven

A then unnamed piece I wrote down as “TV sitcom instrumental” which later turned up on “Unplugged” as Signe

(Electrified again)

“Blues” (possibly Same Old Blues, or just some generic blues thing)

Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out

Tearing Us Apart

Before You Accuse Me (which broke out into about two dozen solos paying homage to loads of old riffs such as Duane Eddy’s Peter Gunn)

Old Love


Wonderful Tonight




Sunshine of Your Love, featuring Ray Cooper Percussion Extravaganza™.

Of the two gigs, the first one was slightly more special because it was the first, but the second was probably more interesting musically. Then again, Mark Knopfler’s contribution to the first really made that show; if he’d not been there it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as interesting. (Yes, I know that might be the first time that the words “Mark Knopfler” and “interesting” have been seen on the same web page together, but believe me that guy is good when, er, he doesn’t sing or play his own songs…)

Finally, the other interesting thing (at least to me) about these tickets is how cheap they were. Even allowing for inflation and the fact that I didn’t have great seats, these were still the days when you could go to a gig by a major artist and have change from £20. Unheard-of now, the money-grabbing bastards.

RIP Tom Hibbert

I had the rare opportunity last Sunday to read the whole of the newspaper (it wasn’t even the Sunday newspaper, but the Guardian from the previous day). As happens 99% of the time, hardly anything in the paper was much of a surprise. And then I got to the back and there was a large photo of Margaret Thatcher in all her regalness sitting on a posh Number 10 sofa next to someone who looked like he really didn’t belong on a posh sofa next to the prime minister. It took me several moments to realise who he was: thin, bespectacled, dark suit with white socks. Surely not… blimey, yes, it’s him, I realised at the same time as reading his name printed alone at the top of the article, and then to my genuine surprise and sadness the word “Obituary”.

Tom Hibbert (for it was he) was one of my favourite journalists back in the eighties. He first came to my attention at Smash Hits, a now-defunct weekly pop magazine (almost a comic, really) which had interviews with pop acts of the day, posters, quizzes, news/gossip and song lyrics. Hibbert’s contributions were mainly ridiculous questions posed to pop stars, such as “Have you ever swallowed a golf tee?” or “Have you ever been sick in your shoe?” I also remember laughing hysterically (well, I was only 13) at a photo of Max Headroom‘s Matt Frewer wearing a fez (long before they were cool) with a Hibbert caption referring to him as a “buffoon”. I laughed at that particular item so much in fact one night while lying in bed that my mum later said she initially thought I was in pain. I probably was, actually, albeit only with sore ribs from reading all these brilliant Hibbertisms.

Elsewhere in “ver Hits” you’d find interjections ranging from the onomatopoeic (“Spleeeee!!!”) to the sarcastic, such as this in the lyrics of a new Paul McCartney single called Press:

Baby, we could hit upon a word,
Something that the others haven’t heard,
When you want me to love you,
Just tell me to press.
Right there, that’s it, yes, [are you absolutely sure about this? – Ed]
Ah, when you feel the stress don’t just stand there,
Tell me to press...

The best thing about Hibbert was that he wasn’t afraid of poking fun at the great and good, and certainly not at the truly crap. He moved on from Smash Hits to Q Magazine, which I started reading from its second or third issue. Q became a monthly ritual for me back in the 80s and 90s, i.e. when it was actually any good. Hibbert was given a monthly interview slot called “Who the hell does X think he is?” in which he’d talk to X, who was invariably some pompous, arrogant celebrity or media character – or rather, he’d turn on the tape recorder, say hardly anything at all and let them hang themselves. People cite the usual subjects like Bernard Manning, Albert Goldman and Jonathan Ross, but the one I remember most was Dennis Potter, who was a tad on the arrogant side even if he wasn’t in the same (low) league as most of the other targets. I was a great Potter fan at the time, as The Singing Detective had just been on TV, so I was delighted to see two of my favourite writers in the same room. Potter though was terribly rude to Hibbert, saying “Oh, why don’t you just die” when the journalist couldn’t light his cigarette properly or something. Hibbert responded by saying “Sorry, I don’t think that’s a very nice thing to say.” I doubt very many people who encountered Potter had the confidence to respond like that, even though it’s perfectly reasonable, but the funniest thing is that at the end of the interview, during which Potter had continued to be rude and also advised “Never apologise”, the playwright got up from his seat, apologised heartily to Hibbert and broke into peals of laughter.

Q Magazine in later years also had a section called Where are they now? in which they’d analyse what happened to a particular group or artist. One time they had some kind of special article on The Love Trousers, which turned out to be a band comprising veteran rock journalist Mark Ellen and Hibbert. The latter, I recall, was pictured splayed on the floor with a guitar, and the photo caption had the credit “Tom Hibbert (Flying on the ground is wrong)”, referencing a Neil Young song. Even more years later I was queuing up in a chaotic Albert Hall foyer for the Concert for George when I found myself standing next to Mark Ellen, who seemed to be having as much hassle getting into the gig as everyone else. There was ample time to chat and I really wanted to say “When are The Love Trousers going to reform?” but all I said was something about the Albert Hall disorganisation. I bumped into Ellen again about five years after that at a showcase gig for Leonard Cohen’s girlfriend Anjani that I’d managed to blag my way into, but again failed to speak to him. I really wish I had, as by then I’d not heard anything of Hibbert for years and was keen to know what he was up to.

Sadly, according to the obituary, it seems that what Hibbert was up to was being seriously ill at home and unable to work – for years. I long ago got shot of all my back issues of Q – I gave them to a local hospital, I think, as they were becoming a major feature in my tiny flat at that time (this was before eBay was invented, so I could probably have made a few quid from them if I’d waited, but I’m kind of glad I didn’t). Just a few weeks ago I’d Googled for a Hibbert Q magazine article and found no examples of his journalism online at all beyond what was behind an expensive paywall site. I didn’t stump up, because all I was actually after was a silly short interview with Ginger Baker, mainly so I could read a typical exchange between Hibbert and the drummer about heroin use, in which Hibbert had said he could understand how one could “toot” a trumpet while stoned, but not play a highly physical instrument like the drums. It sounds very silly indeed but it was just Hibbert’s choice of verb “toot” that I remembered and wanted to see again in print. I don’t think there was anyone else like him in journalism and I’d like to take this opportunity of thanking him for all the hours of fun he gave me.

  • There are also nice articles about Hibbert here and here

The Concert for George: A review

On the occasion today of what would have been George Harrison’s 68th birthday, I’m posting the original text of my review of The Concert for George, the 2002 all-star tribute show that I was lucky enough to attend, which was first posted on the old Thoughtcat blog on 3 December 2003. (No, I can’t believe it’s been almost ten years since he died either, and even less somehow that I’ve been blogging nearly as long…)


I’m delighted to see that The Concert for George, the magnificent memorial gig for George Harrison at London’s Royal Albert Hall almost exactly a year ago, has now been released on CD and DVD. Thoughtcat was lucky enough to be in attendance at this star-studded one-off tribute to the late Quiet One, although it was kind of a miracle that we even got there at all. First of all it involved a trial of telethonic proportions to get through and buy the tickets, although this was only to be expected: Albert Hall was selling seats exclusively over the phone and only from 9am on a certain day a few weeks before the concert, and even though I was all set at ten to nine with the number and my credit card to hand, despite about 600 attempts I couldn’t get through for over an hour. All I can say is thank heavens for the redial button, or else I might have given up with cramp after about ten minutes. By the time I did get through, the only tickets they had left were standing room only in the top gallery, at a whopping £50 each. Having bought six for myself and some friends and family, Albert advised that the tickets wouldn’t be sent through the post but would instead be issued at the venue from 5pm on the night of the concert. This was a bit early (the gig was due to start at 7.30) but we were advised we could get a meal at the Albert Hall restaurants from 5.30, which was good news because most of us had been working all day and none of us were particularly looking forward to standing up all night not having had anything to eat. In the event though the box office was open but there was a queue anyway, and after queuing for ten minutes I was told to wait in a separate queue for the standing tickets. This second queue went round the side of the building and not only wasn’t moving but didn’t go anywhere for an hour, a situation worsened by some building work being done adjacent and the proximity of the artists’ door, where paparazzi and autograph-hunters were crowding. The whole queue was moaning in true British style about being given confusing information, about being given no information, about having to queue at all, and of course about how it was all Tony Blair’s fault. Inside there was a great scrum of people collecting their tickets, although when we eventually got to the counter they weren’t tickets but wristbands which we each had to be personally “fitted” with. As we waited, Mark Ellen, the famous Old Grey Whistle Test and Q Magazine journalist and sometime Blair bandmate turned up, and was trying to get in as haplessly as the rest of us. I said to him, “If they’re making you wait, we’re all in trouble!” He nodded gravely. “It doesn’t look good,” he concurred. When we were finally all wristbanded, the beleaguered ticket guy said that if we wanted our actual tickets as a memento, we had to queue again for them after the show! It was extraordinary.

By the time they let us in it was 7pm. The air inside Albert was literally hazy with incense, and staff were standing around in white long-sleeve teeshirts with purple chakra designs handing out free programs, which were very nicely bound in rich purple with tasteful black & white photos of George and some comments from him about life, music and his Material World charity which the gig was in aid of (‘in aid of which the gig was’?). We felt a bit better but by now it was too late to get a meal, so we grabbed some glasses of red wine and headed up to the gallery. None of us had ever been up there before and the view was fantastic. It was unreserved but there was a space at the balcony directly opposite the centre of the stage, so we grabbed it. The whole hall was lit in warm orange and yellow hues. A banner in red and orange with the “Arpan” symbol from Harrison’s records was hanging above the hall. The semi-circular stage was perimetered with Indian instruments, and in the centre there was a raised platform with an Indian rug and an electric guitar. Hanging behind the stage was a vast black and white photo of George looking fabulously handsome and moody in an early-70s pose with long hair and moustache. (He really was one of the few men who could wear a moustache and not look like a member of the Village People.) From where we were though we couldn’t see the whole picture because the rack of lights was in the way – in fact from where we stood, two large, round, black lights were hanging in front of his eyes, making him look like a giant fly. We stood around for a while, and just when we’d got settled in and forgotten all the previous inconveniences, a steward in a red Butlins-type jacket told us off for bringing glasses up to the gallery, even though we’d been told we were allowed to by the bartender. We could however use plastic glasses, she said, so we swigged our drinks and one of us went down to the bar and brought up another round in plastic glasses. We’d got about half way through those when a second steward appeared and said we were in fact only allowed plastic bottles with lids on, “in case anything was spilled”. It took a third steward in a black jacket to arbitrate between the first two stewards and us before we could enjoy our drinks against the sort of peaceful background appropriate to the occasion the Albert Hall was pretending to provide. George himself was probably rocking and rolling in his grave.

To our enormous relief, the first part of the concert started, albeit half an hour later than billed. Eric Clapton came on in a grey short-sleeved shirt and introduced the concert in a very low, peaceful voice. Rarely the most confident of speakers, he nervously referred to “George’s wife Dhani” before correcting himself (Dhani is George’s son – his wife’s name is Olivia). There was a faint ripple of laughter at this but it seemed soon forgotten. EC introduced Ravi Shankar, who came on looking very frail. He didn’t play but introduced his daughter Anoushka and a 16-strong Indian orchestra. Olivia came on then and lit some candles. The house lights stayed on, and although this was probably only because they needed the light to film the concert, it lent a great deal of warmth, optimism and calm to the concert. The Indian music, which lasted about half an hour, was beautiful, peaceful and colourful, and Anoushka was also beautiful and clearly highly skilled, although you could sense that a lot of people were aching for the main part of the concert to start. Jeff Lynne, of ELO and Traveling Wilburys fame, joined them at the end for The Inner Light, and then EC came back on, picked up a Spanish guitar and “jammed” with the orchestra on a delightful acoustic instrumental piece. There was an intermission then, interrupted only by a steward who told us we weren’t allowed to hang our coats over the balcony.

Thankfully the main set started without further ado. The atmosphere was electric, or at least acoustic. To everyone’s delight the show began with a little comedy section. Four guys dressed as posh French restaurant waiters with ankle-length aprons and crisp dishcloths over their wrists trouped on and did a silly song which I couldn’t hear hardly any of the words of, but it was obviously something Pythonesque, as the programme mentioned that various Pythons would be participating. Later I found the song was Sit On My Face And Tell Me That You Love Me. When they’d finished singing, they turned round and trouped off again, revealing that they were wearing no trousers or pants under their aprons. Then, a guy whose face I couldn’t see very well (we couldn’t really see any facial details from that distance) but who turned out to be Michael Palin bounded down the stairs onto the stage wearing a bright white jacket with gold lame lapels and did a silly introduction: “This evening is so big, so ginormously huge, so simply magnificently, er, large, that it makes one feel just wretchedly inadequate, really…” Palin then ripped off his jacket to reveal a lumberjack shirt, and a troupe of “mounties” came on for the Pythons’ brilliant Lumberjack song, complete with the pretty, dippy girl with blonde pigtails and big blue dress. It was fantastic, and although you couldn’t hear all the words, it hardly mattered. We had no idea at the time, but apparently Tom Hanks turned in a cameo as one of the mounties.

This bunch all went off, and then the main band came on – EC, Gary Brooker and Chris Stainton on keyboards, Jim Keltner on drums, Ray Cooper on percussion, Andy Fairweather Low and Albert Lee among the backup guitarists, EC’s backing singers Tessa Niles and Katie Kissoon, a sax and trumpet player, and even, on bass, Klaus Voormann, who designed the Beatles’ Revolver album cover and had played with Lennon on the Imagine album and here, there and everywhere else. George’s son Dhani was also on stage, wearing a long white smock-type shirt and playing a big brown acoustic guitar. I didn’t know it was him for quite a while (he wasn’t mentioned on the program and not introduced until the end) but there was something very Georgian about his… well, his hair, really. The band began with a resounding I Want to Tell You from Revolver, and continued the Beatles stuff with If I Needed Someone, both of which EC sang. Gary Brooker sang the vocal on Old Brown Shoe, while Jeff Lynne sang on Give Me Love. EC came back up to the front to sing on Beware of Darkness, a sublime track from All Things Must Pass, and he played the solo note-for-note from the record. God, the number of evenings I’ve sat up and played that song, disappearing with the aid of a few glasses of wine into its echoey depths… it couldn’t have been a better choice.

The main band then went off for a while as old “cockerney” rock hero Joe Brown and his band took the stage to do a perfectly-judged acoustic Here Comes the Sun. He then took out a mandolin and played a song I hadn’t heard before called That’s the Way it Goes from Gone Troppo, which was also lovely. The main band came back on with Jools Holland and Sam Brown for Horse to the Water, the last song Harrison recorded (for Jools’ Small World, Big Band ensemble album from the previous year, crediting it to the “RIP 2001” publishing company, only to die a few months later). This number was storming, Sam Brown’s voice taking the Albert’s famously domed roof off. The band then did Isn’t It a Pity, another All Things classic, on which EC played some magnificent extended solos. The whole thing was getting better and better.

EC and the others then went off yet again, this time to be replaced by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, who did Taxman (Petty sneering the wicked vocal in Artful Dodger pose), I Need You, complete with the distinctive volume-pedal guitar part, and Handle With Care from the first Wilburys record, which was fantastic, another storming version. There was much hope in the air that Bob Dylan would come on to do more Wilburys songs, but he didn’t. I can’t imagine he wasn’t asked to join in but I think it might have been difficult politically for him to have been involved, with the emphasis on the British aspect and the fact that it was ultimately a Beatles thing more than anything else, plus there were so many legends there already that his turning up might have caused a mass mutual orgasm from which none of us might ever have recovered.

The main band returned then and EC introduced Ringo. The crowd gave him a fantastic reception – pretty much a standing ovation in fact. He had a beautiful red velvet jacket and a pair of round sunglasses. “I loved George, and George loved me,” he said laconically, conveying fifty years of unique companionship and the whole Beatles story in one quintessential Ringunderstatement. He sang Photograph, a great song which he co-wrote with George, and Honey Don’t, an old Carl Perkins song that Harrison loved, which featured a howling solo from a guitarist with wild grey hair who was either Albert Einstein or Albert Lee.

Ringo then retired to the drums, so now there were three drummers and about 14 guitarists and 3 keyboard players on stage. When EC then introduced “Sir” Paul McCartney, the place just became unspeakable. Macca started with For You Blue, the nice but inessential Harrison blues from Let It Be, and then, referring to Eric’s mistake earlier about “George’s wife Dhani”, which got a laugh, picked up a ukulele and explained that whenever you went round George’s house, after dinner “the ukuleles would come out” and you’d inevitably find yourself singing “all these old numbers”. He then strummed (plucked? uked?) a solo version of Something – it was so simple and beautiful, and all the more heartbreaking because you were thinking maybe George’s best-known (and surely best Beatles-era) song wasn’t going to be given the full-band treatment. However, when it came to the solo, McCartney stopped plucking, wandered over to the piano, and the whole band seamlessly picked up the thread of the song, with one of the other guitarists playing the famous solo (George’s best, for my money) note-for-note. EC then took over the lead vocal from Macca, which must have been bizarre given that George wrote the song for his first wife Patti, whom Clapton of course later went on to steal from George (as well-documented in EC’s own classic Layla and just about everywhere else).

The next Paul-vocalised song was a pleasant surprise – All Things Must Pass itself. By now McCartney was back on acoustic guitar, and he and EC were up the front of the stage standing side by side with their guitar necks facing each other, looking uncannily Beatle-esque. The next song took a few moments to get started, but the band played a few notes to tune up and I had a strong feeling it was going to be While My Guitar Gently Weeps… and it was. Macca played the echoey keyboard intro exactly the same as on the record, while EC sang the lead vocal and played a note-for-note solo, complete with the famous extra “wobbly” vibrato. All this guitar heroicism was almost too much for poor old Thoughtcat. It was magnificent, the whole moment setting in stone before my ears.

The concert ended with My Sweet Lord, which Billy Preston sang in a sub-gospel style, and Wah-Wah, a very heavy song off All Things Must Pass, which was so loud it was actually painful. As the Guardian review of the gig explained later, Wah-Wah was an interesting choice because Harrison reputedly wrote the song as a stab at McCartney after a particularly sour late-era Beatles rehearsal, yet here was Macca himself playing piano on the track. For this last song the people in the front stalls got out of their seats and crowded up near the front of the stage like a bunch of middle-aged teenagers. As the show ended McCartney took the mike and said, “Olivia just said that with Dhani up on stage tonight it looks like George stayed young and we all got old.” Then for an encore Joe Brown came on with his ukulele (saying “This ain’t too loud for ya, is it?”) and did the gentle old jazz number I’ll See You in My Dreams as red rose petals tumbled down from the roof onto the audience and Olivia came on to hug Dhani. It was enough, as they say, to make a grown man cry. Afterwards Dhani came up to the front and said, “Hi, I just want to thank everyone for performing… I’m Dhani by the way, George’s wife.”

Altogether, I need hardly say it was the best rock concert I’ve ever been to. It was really more than I could have hoped for. And the good news is that you too can now share in the magnificence of this unique gig in the comfort of your own front room, and all without having to spend an hour on the phone for tickets, queue around the block or be told off by people in red jackets (unless that’s your thing, of course). Amazon as ever is doing some excellent offers on the DVD and CD, so if this whole thing turns you on please do click on the appropriate link below, turn up the volume and listen to the music of a master played by a handful of legends. Even better, all profits from the DVD are to go to Harrison’s Material World Charitable Foundation. The Foundation doesn’t appear to have a website but according to this page on Norwegian site it was established in 1973 to “sponsor diverse forms of artistic expression and to encourage the exploration of alternative life views and philosophies”, as well as support “established charitable organizations with consideration to those with special needs”.

Kitchen gig update update

I’m well chuffed to see that one of the guitar solo videos I recorded last summer – Me playing along to Portishead’s It Could Be Sweet – has now had over 500 views. Sure, I mean this isn’t exactly up there with other YouTube hits we have known, but better/slap/face/fish etc. Above is a reprise for those who missed it first time around.

Update 2/2/11: finally edited to link to the correct video on YT. (The Portishead one has now had over 600 views btw :))

Why I opposed Leonard Cohen’s Israel show today

I guess it seems churlish to post this now the show has happened and some 55,000 people have gone home happy, and some good may have been done. But a principle’s a principle and I still think today’s Tel Aviv concert by Leonard Cohen was wrong.

This is how it started. Some months ago I had an email from an old friend expressing her dismay that Cohen, of whom we are both longtime fans, was to play a show in Israel as part of his enormously successful world tour. I hadn’t really given much thought to cultural boycotts before but I agreed that it did seem questionable judgment on Cohen’s behalf to play a show in a country that only months before had launched a devastating attack on the West Bank, causing the deaths of hundreds of Palestinian civilians.

My friend wrote a letter to Cohen, emailing it to his manager Robert Kory, and set up an online petition calling for Cohen to reconsider his decision or at least offer to play a show on the West Bank in addition to the Israel concert, or to donate the proceeds to a charitable organisation working for peace on both sides. A second friend became involved and the three of us became the first signatories to the petition. We called ourselves the Leonard Cohen Boycott Israel Coalition (and then the Campaign), I set up a blog to host our letter and various links, and also a Twitter feed and a Facebook group. We put something of a disclaimer on the blog saying “We take no pleasure is asking Leonard and his management to deprive Israeli fans of their long awaited moment to see him live, but feel that with circumstances as they are in the Palestinian territories and Gaza in particular, the priority must be to appeal to them to refrain from giving credibility to the Israeli state by playing there.”

This didn’t seem unreasonable to me, even though it felt fundamentally weird to be opposing anything Leonard Cohen was doing. My love for the man and his work is profound; I first discovered him in the late 1980s during a pretty bad period in my life; someone lent me his Greatest Hits and his first novel The Favourite Game, and they turned me around. I wouldn’t necessarily be so grandiose as to say they saved my life but they did make me a different person. Nonetheless, we all make mistakes, and I felt Leonard – especially being Jewish – could have made more of an impact on the situation in Israel by refusing to play there given its politicians’ horrendous foreign policy.

To be honest though I was pretty surprised at what happened next. My first friend had thought the petition might receive one or two thousand signatures; although we got a reassuring 30 in the first few days, to date the total still stands at less than 100. I circulated the details to selected friends on Facebook and by email, and although I would describe all my friends as liberal, only two of them actually signed the petition. One friend, who also happened to be Jewish, rang me up within hours of receiving the email to express his own dismay at the idea of such a boycott, saying that whatever you think of Israeli foreign policy, it was impossible to separate Israel from Jewishness, and thus our campaign seemed anti-semitic. He went on to quote an article in that day’s Times by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks repeating this weary and depressing argument.

I have to say I was disappointed by the silence and staggered by the response of my Jewish friend; such thoughts couldn’t have been further from my mind or those of my campaign colleagues. When the campaign was later attacked by commenters on the blog for targetting Cohen, rather than the more “obvious” (and also, coincidentally, gentile) artists who have also played Israel recently such as Madonna or Depeche Mode, I began to realise how much hypocrisy and bullshit there is in all of this – and also how much fear. The possibility of being called an anti-semite is too much of a risk for most people to bear, and this is precisely why Israel gets away with flouting international law and bombing the crap out of Arab schoolchildren.

While further friends maintained an awkward silence, someone else also declined to sign the petition, saying, “I think, morally, at least, [Cohen] is more than entitled to [play the show]; his own humanity, I think, speaks more than eloquently about any predispositions it encounters along the way… and if people still don’t get it, then LC not playing won’t make a scrap of difference; positively, therefore, he may just channel a thought or two in the right direction.” I admit I agreed with that. But I also hoped Leonard would come to his senses. I didn’t think he would, but I hoped so.

I stuck with it, and as the months progressed other groups from around the world joined in the opposition (even though probably hardly any had heard of our campaign). The Facebook group rose steadily despite a few stupid comments from both extremes (one person who joined had a swastika as his profile picture) but topped out at around 130 members. (A Swedish version which predated mine scored several hundred though.) The Israel show appeared on Cohen’s official tour schedule, then inexplicably dropped off it; nobody was really sure whether the pressure groups had won or not. We didn’t get a reply from Cohen’s manager, but didn’t really expect one, especially as he’s on record in various places criticising the boycotters. Then it was announced that the show would go on and Cohen would also be playing a small gig in Ramallah after the Tel Aviv show; this seemed positive, but the Palestinians arguably shot themselves in the foot by withdrawing their support for the gig as long as Cohen insisted on also playing Tel Aviv. Various charities were mooted to receive donations from proceeds of the show, and this was denied. Amnesty International was reported as supporting the show, and it then pulled out, saying it never took a side in boycotts. The tickets for Ramat Gan stadium went on sale and sold out within minutes; protesters demonstrated in New York and Montreal. Academics wrote letters and Alexei Sayle recorded an embarrassing video of himself singing a comedy song poking fun at his own Jewish heritage with parody lyrics.

So anyway, here we are today and the show has passed without incident. Leonard greeted the audience in Hebrew, sang his great songs (including Famous Blue Raincot, apparently – grr, wish I’d been there), people Twittered about it, and The Parents Circle is set to receive a large donation. So maybe some good has come of it. But as my friend whose idea the whole LCBI campaign was said today in her post, “there can be no real and lasting peace for everyone and justice for the Palestinians until all the walls, real and metaphorical, are torn down and the Palestinians can be assured of their place alongside the Israelis with all their lands restored to them. Therefore a continuing international boycott of Israel is unfortunately necessary.”

The only thing left for me to say is that I regret not blogging earlier about this. I hope nobody has gone away thinking I’m a hypocrite or disingenuous for not owning up to my involvement from the start. It’s true that I and my two friends didn’t exactly splash our names across the LCBI blog, although we did use our real names when we signed the petition and all my Facebook friends knew I supported the cause.

I’m not bitter, though; a principle’s a principle and I think this was a damn good one.

The Leonard Cohen Name Generator has moved

I’ve finally got round to giving the Cohenator its own site, as part of the Big Thoughtcat “Frontpage-to-Wordpress” Migration Project. I’ve chosen Blogger not because the Cohenator is a blog but because it’s quick to set up a free site and easy to do JavaScript there, whereas WordPress, beautiful as it is, requires money before you can muck about with things like code and CSS. No doubt I’ll stump up one day, but for now (and probably forever) the Leonard Cohen Name Generator, which makes up silly names based on LC lyrics, can be found at

For more Cohen-flavoured items on this site see

Doing something mildly amusing for money

As lots of people have been doing something faintly embarrassing in the past 24 hours in aid of Red Nose Day, here is my contribution, a version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah I did on my new Makala ukulele, inspired by George Formby.

This was incidentally something I thought of doing ages ago but it took me this long to (a) buy the uke, (b) teach myself to play it, (c) have the guts to do it, (d) get all the way through a version without cocking it up and (e) get YouTube to play it properly. The first version I uploaded, which was the native .asf file format which my Samsung netbook’s webcam produced, had the audio/video 10 seconds out of sync, making me look like I was miming for a bit and then lipsynching badly for the rest of the ‘performance’. After casting for suggestions on YakYak I was advised to convert the file to a more YouTube-friendly format before uploading. I messed around with MediaCoder for a while but was bamboozled by its myriad settings, and then someone suggested I tried iPodme, which worked a treat.

Another funny thing is that I thought this would be a fairly original thing to do, but when I finally uploaded it to YT and looked at the related videos I found there was a whole Leonard-Cohen-ukulele-covers subculture on there. The other versions of Hallelujah I watched though do mostly take the song quite seriously, so maybe mine is unusual in that respect…

On nearly meeting Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen, Cuckoo Club, 26/3/07. Photo (c) Ron Blur 2007.I realised the best part of a 20-year dream the other day: I saw Leonard Cohen up close and personal. And I arrived at one distinct conclusion: he’s very small. Almost as small as me, in fact.

This is how it happened. A few weeks ago I got an email from Marie Mazur, who runs several Cohen-related websites, including one of the original and best, Speaking Cohen. Thanks to the internet, Marie is one of those people who I can say is a true friend despite never having met her: she keeps me (and thousands of other die-hard fans) up to date with LC’s movements and projects and in turn I’ve contributed a piece or two to her site. She also did a fantastic thing for me last year in obtaining a signed copy of LC’s recent Book of Longing fresh from the man himself at a Toronto promotional event. One day I hope to return the favour.

The email Marie sent was a heads-up to a small gig LC’s partner-in-music-and-life Anjani was performing in London on 26th March to promote her excellent Blue Alert album, which was co-written and produced by LC. The showcase, at a place called the Cuckoo Club in the West End, wasn’t open to the general public, but a couple of pairs of tickets were kindly being put up for grabs by Anjani’s people. Needless to say, I put my name in the hat, wondering only secondarily how I would manage to juggle attending the gig with both a new job I was due to start that very day and the care of two small children. Thankfully, at least, the job was located only a few minutes’ walk from the venue, and my wife said that if I won she was happy to stay home with the kids while I went along by myself – as long as I didn’t make a habit of it! In any case, a fortnight or so later it was clear I needn’t have worried, as the draw took place, and I didn’t win. Disappointment gave way to relief when I weighed up everything else that was happening on the job and home fronts, and I forgot all about it.

Songs of Love and Hat

Then, on the evening of Sunday 25th, I came home from an afternoon out to find another email from Marie saying that one of the original winners of the tickets had pulled out due to unforseen circumstances, so they were up for grabs again. Completely forgetting my “relief” at not being able to go, I put my name in this second hat… and lost again. I have to say at this point that it was to Marie’s eternal credit that she didn’t pull any strings on my behalf, and kept the draw fair and square. However, determined not to be too disappointed, I decided I would go along to the venue anyway after work on the offchance of spotting the Cohens on their way in. It was a long shot, but as the venue was just a short walk away, I had nothing to lose.

My first day in my new job went very well and it was a pleasure afterwards to stroll through the West End in the unseasonably warm afternoon. I’d never heard of the Cuckoo Club, nor recalled ever walking down Swallow Street (some bird confusion here surely?), but now here it was, a quiet little alleyway off the bustle of Regent Street just past the wonderfully-named Man in the Moon Passage. Apart from two dapper doormen hovering outside an anonymous building beneath some impressive stone architecture, there was nobody around and no indication that anything Cohenesque was going on. Their nifty royal purple-colour rope barriers looked optimistic: maybe I’m naive but I had expected at least a small crowd of faithful fans – or maybe the true faithful had already been and gone?

Undeterred, I hung about and after a few minutes people started to show up. Some identified themselves to the doormen and following a check on the guest list were directed straight in, while others formed a loose queue. Among the non-queuers were a couple of rock journo characters in black leather jackets and a tall blonde ex-groupie-type in a near-psychedelic pink outfit who embarked on a flurry of air-kissing, disappeared inside and re-emerged a few moments later armed with a glass of white wine, a cigarette and her mobile phone. There was no sign, however, of either Anjani or LC, and as it was now getting on for 6pm and the show was due to start at 6.30 it seemed unlikely they weren’t already inside.

Bird on the wine

By now the queue was snaking along Swallow Street’s narrow pavement and the doormen started to let us in. I was about halfway down the queue and feeling distinctly uneasy, as not only have I never blagged my way in to a club of any sort, still less an event like this, I had no intention of doing so. Nonetheless, I was here, and so were Leonard and Anjani, and although it wasn’t part of my plan it seemed fairly pathetic just to go home without at least giving it a go. In addition to the doormen there were now a couple of PR-type women checking names, so I did my best to convince myself it was worth trying on a bit of the old Thoughtcat charm. I wasn’t particularly confident however, so it was with some relief that I turned round and spotted someone in the queue I recognised from… a Russell Hoban event. As you do. I mean, how likely is that? There have only ever been about three Russell Hoban ‘events’ in the past 20 years, and I organised the one we were both at myself, so it was a lovely coincidence, but a coincidence all the same.

It was great to chat again with Deena, who is possibly the only other person I know in the world who’s quite as nuts about both Len and Russ as I am. Even more oddly, she told me she was the person who’d originally won the tickets in Marie’s draw, but then had to bow out, causing the second draw – and although she was now re-available to attend, the tickets had of course been won by someone else, so she was practically no more confident than I was of getting in. That the situation seemed only to be getting more and more unlikely was confirmed when we got to the door and, albeit after a few moments of uncertainty, she was actually allowed in, yet despite her efforts to persuade the staff to let me in with her, I was asked to ‘try coming back at 6.30’. Fairly sure this was a brush-off (albeit a polite one), I bade Deena and her partner a great evening and they went inside.

Waiting for the miracle

One by one the guests went in, then, and I was left lurking ever more uneasily in Swallow Street. I decided not to risk going for a stroll in case (a) it was a ruse (they closed the doors as soon as I’d gone, (b) it was a test (how long would I actually wait?) or (c) I got sidetracked or held up, and rushed back to find everything had started and I’d blown my already slim chance of entry. While I stood there I thought about my wife at home feeding, bathing and putting to bed both our 2-year-old and 2-month-old by herself, which was difficult enough for the two of us. Shouldn’t I perhaps be realistic and do the honorable thing, and go home where I belonged? Then again, given that home was still the best part of an hour away a
nd I would thus already be nearly too late to be of much help with the kids, would it not actually be more honest, now I’d got this far, to stick it out to the bitter end? I mean, surely if a guy’s going to bunk off his domestic duties to any extent, it should be for a good cause…

Such thoughts circling in my head I almost missed the re-emergence of the lady with the frizzy hair who had earlier let Deena in. ‘Can you come in now, please?’ she said. I looked around: was she talking to me? It seemed she was. There was almost a sense of urgency about it, as if I were, actually, quite an important guest. Of course, any urgency was really due to the fact that it was now 6.30 and they had to get the show on the road. ‘Sorry you had to wait around,’ she said as we went inside, ‘but it’s such a small venue that we had to make sure there was enough room to spare.’ I couldn’t believe it: firstly I was being ushered in, secondly they were apologising for keeping me waiting, and thirdly I was in anyway…

Finally I broke into the prison

The club was small, darkish, a bit smoky and packed. There was a small stage set up for three or four musicians, but no drum kit. In the ceiling hung a mesh of lilac-coloured lightbulbs. A bar which my memory is telling me was hung with silver and gold drapes took up one wall. The lady with the frizzy hair disappeared and I wasn’t sure if this was a good or bad thing; now I was on my own and everyone around me seemed achingly trendy, or at very least Of Some Import in the World of Rock. Among those I recognised was Mark Ellen, ex- of The Old Grey Whistle Test and founding editor of Q, Mojo and now The Word rock magazines. (Oddly enough, I’d also ‘bumped into’ him at the 2002 Concert for George, which I now realised with some embarrassment was the last gig I’d been to before this one.) Even Deena, who I couldn’t spot anyway, looked infinitely more the part than I did. By contrast, who was I? I was nobody, in most guests’ terms; wouldn’t they all give me funny looks? Who’s this guy, I imagined them thinking. He doesn’t look famous, or trendy, or Of Import in the World of Rock, or even particularly tall.

Almost disappointingly, my paranoia turned out to be unfounded as I squeezed past some of the approximately 100 guests. I tried calling my wife to confirm I’d got in and would be late after all, but couldn’t get a signal; I just hoped she’d get the message by my non-appearance. I made for the bar. Glasses of still water, lager and wine were lined up three deep; such was my innocence of these matters that I had to ask one of several barmen whether the drinks were free; of course they were, as were the assorted delicious bites circulating around the room on trays held aloft by small but perfectly-formed and permanently smiling young women. This was the life, I thought as I reached for some cheesy chicken-on-a-stick and surveyed the stage just a few feet away, where it still seemed impossible that Anjani and, possibly, Leonard too were about to perform.

Crumpled in love

But perform they did. The lights went down, three smartly-dressed musicians came on and took up their keyboard, double bass and guitar respectively, a door opened beside the stage and from it emerged the small but distinguished frame of the Grocer of Despair. The reception was warm, as only it should be: apart from being a living legend, this was the first time LC had taken any sort of UK stage since 1993. ‘Welcome, friends,’ he said. Now 72, comfortable in a grey suit and blue shirt, top button fastened, cropped grey hair on its way to white, he looked thinner than I remembered and smaller than I ever thought he was, and his voice, while still deep and resonant, was unexpectedly soft. He looked slightly crumpled, in fact. But, he had presence in spades in his own low-key way and anyway, it was Leonard Cohen, for fuck’s sake! My hands were trembling; I was sure someone was about to come over and ask me to leave, having sussed out that I shouldn’t be there after all; I barely wanted to blink in case I missed anything; I remembered my phone had a camera feature, I reached for it, I didn’t know whether to grab a photo of the moment or enjoy the moment, I took it out and got a blurry lo-res shot which in no way resembled what I was actually seeing…

‘I’m new to this “showcase” business,’ LC began. ‘I asked backstage, “What’s the audience like?” And they told me: “Industry people”.’ [cue audience laughter.] ‘This brought to mind a crowd of extras from Night of the Living Dead…’ [cue more laughter.] It went on in this vein for a few moments; I was so busy trying to concentrate on not missing a word he was saying that half of it went in one ear and out the other. In any case, ever the gentleman, he cut himself short and introduced ‘Anjani.’ (Well, that cleared one thing up, at least – up til then I’d been calling her ‘Anjani’.)

She’s in her early forties and wearing something tight

Now this was a pleasure. It’s not as if I hadn’t been really looking forward to seeing this lady perform – what I’d heard of Blue Alert, criminally still unreleased properly in the UK, testified to a fantastic singer and fine musician – but it has to be said that LC’s presence was hardly an insignificant attraction. Nonetheless, both her voice and the woman herself were even more beautiful in real life than on the CD in question, and a quick look and listen by anybody with an ounce of taste would know that’s saying something. When someone sings (and, moreover, plays – her jazz-influenced keyboard licks were a sheer delight) songs as good as these as well as this, and yet is still having to drum up interest and curry favour by doing free shows, you have to wonder what on earth people have to do to get on in music these days. Still, after the first number alone – Blue Alert‘s delicious, smoky title track – I doubt there could have been anyone in the room who didn’t think she should at very least be selling out Ronnie Scott’s for a few nights in the coming months.

In between sips of tea, and with LC sitting coolly at a stageside table sipping bottled beer, Anjani and her excellent trio went on to perform faultless versions of half the Blue Alert record, namely Half the Perfect World, Never Got to Love You, No-One After You, and Thanks for the Dance, two of which were duets with LC, and a further duet, an unreleased song which may have been called Whither Thou Goest. It was the definition of smooth and tasteful. Throughout the performance my eye was caught by a strange lighting effect in the adjacent stairwell, like smoke or dry ice swirling around a gently swinging lightshade; I still don’t know exactly what it was, but it complemented the music perfectly. Although Leonard’s voice didn’t sound as robust as in previous years, this surely wasn’t surprising, and it was anyway more than made up for by (a) his register coming nearer the level it was when he started out than the deep baritone he’s latterly become famous for, and (b) the simple fact that he was singing anything at all when he could easily be forgiven for taking it easy – assisting Anjani’s career notwithstanding. That’s not the point, I know, and in the unlikely event that he reads this I hope he doesn’t think even for a second that that’s a reason for him not to embark on the world tour he has been much rumoured to be planning for later this year and early next. But the truth is that at 72 years old, half that time spent playing concerts and making classic albums, I don’t feel he owes anybody anything, least of all returning to the road. I’d like to think he was doing t
his purely for pleasure, and, if the look in his face was anything to go by as he duetted with Anjani, lurve.

Came so far for Leonard

Before I knew it, it was all over. To much applause, Leonard and Anjani disappeared, the house lights went up and everyone went back to doing what they were doing before L&A; turned their heads. Mark Ellen said to someone ‘Wasn’t that fantastic?’ and I re-found Deena and caught up with her for a few moments. We were both quite staggered by the event and were so busy talking about it that we didn’t notice that a queue was slowly forming at the stage for Leonard’s autograph. Deena seemed quite happy to return to her table for another beer and bask in the aftermath of a lovely evening, but for me it was too good a chance to miss. It wasn’t terribly clear where the queue began and ended and after some confusion I staked a claim to a place somewhere in it. The speed at which it moved was the definition of agony, LC just feet and finally only inches away, yet unless you were right in front of him you almost may as well have been a thousand miles away. At last the three people who had monopolised him for a quarter of an hour let him go, and now there was only one person between me and the man himself… but at that precise moment, another of Cohen’s annoyingly pleasant entourage appeared and spirited him away.

If I was momentarily crushed I realised with a laugh that it really would have been too good to be true if I had actually managed to speak to him – and anyway what would I have said? I’d had at least 20 minutes – if not 20 years, if you count the time I’ve loved his work – to think of something to say, but I’m sure I would have only ended up babbling. Equally, as I hadn’t expected to get in, I didn’t have anything on me for him to sign – I had wondered for a moment about proferring him the novel I was currently reading, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, whose title might have summed up my evening if the music hadn’t in fact been at a perfectly reasonable volume. And although my phone had the aforementioned camera feature, it would’ve felt a bit daft asking a stranger to take a photo of the two of us, plus the result would’ve probably been another blur, and what would I have done with it anyway? Apart from, that is, splash it all over the website and print off several dozen copies of it and hang them up all round the house and have a CafePress t-shirt, mug and possibly a thong printed with it and bore the pants off myriad innocent friends, family, children and grandchildren for the rest of my life with it… my point entirely.

Don’t go home with your hard-on

Thus, with Anjani now circulating amongst sundry muso bigwigs, Len putting his feet up backstage and time getting on, I said my goodbyes to Deena and the lovely lady with the frizzy hair who let me in, and headed home, wondering whether my wife had managed OK. Once in Piccadilly the phone signal returned so I called her up. ‘I got in!’ I said, fairly redundantly, and explained that, er, ‘I nearly met Leonard Cohen.’ I had to admit it didn’t sound particularly impressive. ‘Oh, really?’ she said, sounding tired, ‘what happened?’ ‘I’ll tell you about it when I get home,’ I said.

Such is my lack of spare time these days that it’s taken me this long to put this post together and attempt to do the experience some justice (thank heaven for Easter, eh). So what do I think of it all, having now had some time to reflect? It might sound like sour grapes but in a way there is a benefit to not having met Leonard Cohen. I would surely have embarrassed myself, had nothing much to say or had too much to say in the few seconds I had to say it. I would likely have been disappointed, not by the man himself but because the brevity and impersonality of the situation would have made it so. I would have gone away thinking either I’d achieved one of my great dreams or that I’d blown my only chance to say something useful to him or ask him a Big Question, and I’m not sure which of those would be worse. It’s best to go away from an experience like that wanting more, and although I’d had a great evening of fine music and wonderful company, that was certainly true, both on the relatively mundane level (I wanted to see more of Anjani live) and the deeper one I’m talking about. Perhaps it’s as well I didn’t speak to him because then the dream or the search would’ve been over, the dream would’ve become reality, and what do you do when that happens?

If I’m honest it was fantastic to stand a few inches away from Leonard Cohen but I hardly feel as if my life has changed as a result, and I doubt I’d feel much different if I’d actually spoken to him. That’s impossible to say for sure, of course, as he might have said something utterly profound, but at the end of the day I would still have had to go home, have a late dinner, get up the next morning, change a nappy and go to work… but still. I could go on and on reflecting and wondering but I won’t. It was a fantastic evening, one I’ll always remember, and I’m truly grateful to Marie and the lady with the frizzy hair for letting me in.

I still can’t get over how small he was, though.