“We’re falling like flies”
At 8:20 PM on March 30, 2013 at the Palace Theater, Leonard Cohen opened his first-ever performance in Louisville with the announcement of the absence of Musical Director and bass player Roscoe Beck because of sickness. He then commented ruefully on Beck’s misfortunes, alluded to the recent ravaging of the entire touring company by flu in Regina, and segued into the promise he makes to every audience to “give you everything we got” with “We’re falling like flies” — a singularly effective if arguably less eloquent phrase than is typical within the Cohenesque patois.
The Machinery For Change
Indeed, less than two hours prior to the Louisville show, Roscoe Beck had suddenly and unexpectedly become severely ill. This resulted in a number of problems, not the least of which was the loss of the band’s bass player. While such a loss would be an issue for any professional band, it is especially troublesome for a musical group led by the rehearsal-intensive, perfectionist singer-songwriter, Leonard Cohen. In addition, the bass is of fundamental importance, as explained by Leif Bodnarchuk, writing in No Ideas:
With one musician down, of course there would be a certain emptiness, and the bass would obviously be missed; and although according to Front of House Engineer Mark, Roscoe’s playing ‘glues everything together,’ the listener might never appreciate its invisible, somewhat selfless role in the concert. It’s almost never flashy like guitar, violin, archilaud, or Hammond organ solos, but the bass guitar a vital component of the show, and like some sort of crazy Zen paradox, you only notice its importance in the absence of some other instrumentation.
Note: Leif Bodnarchuk’s chronicle of the adjustments made to compensate for Roscoe Beck’s absence is insightful, intriguing, and enlightening. It is a must-read for Cohen fans, those curious about the operations of a live musical performance, and, indeed, anyone with an interest in the management of unexpected problems. It can be found at Mar 30: Louisville, Palace Theatre
So, even while Beck’s medical problems were being addressed, a solution to the musical problems was being developed.
Mitch Watkins,1 whose shift to bass was a key element of that solution, generously agreed to answer questions about his role in the modified musical lineup for the Louisville show.
1. When and how was it decided you would play bass in Louisville? Who made the final call?
Around 6:30 (1.5 hours before showtime) it became clear that Roscoe was getting ill again. Roscoe knew that I had worked as a bass player before, and he said, before the paramedics came, “You may have to do the show”. There was also discussion about Neil playing bass parts on his Hammond B3 and me staying on guitar as an alternate scenario. Neil and I discussed it with Leonard, giving him the pros and cons of each scenario. Leonard made the final call.
2. Is any advance thought or contingency planning for handling problems such as this or are these adjustments always made on the fly? The idea of you handling bass is hardly outlandish but what might have happened if, say, Alex Bublitchi or Rafael Gayol rather than Roscoe had been unable to perform? (OK, I do have the fantasy of you banging away on Rafael’s drum set, but …)
In these sorts of “emergency” situations, there are usually no contingency plans in place for missing band members. When something unthinkable like this happens, the “survivors” will have a meeting and the songs will be quickly rearranged, often just verbally because there isn’t time to actually play through a new arrangement. It’s like “I’ll do this here and you do this there, I’ll take this break” kind of stuff. Rest assured, If Rafael had to miss a show, I would NOT be in the drum chair! (Charley Webb would be the likely replacement-honest.) Bottom line-you simply evaluate and improvise the best you can to make it work.
3. How did you feel about the prospect of taking over Roscoe’s bass parts (e.g., were you anxious, was it a professional challenge but no big deal, was it just another day at the office, …)? Has this sort of thing (i.e., you playing another instrument because another band member is absent) happened to you before?
Regarding taking over the bass duties on such short notice, of course there was anxiety, not having ever played Leonard’s songs on bass. (Not to mention the fact that there were a few thousand people out there.) Fortunately, there wasn’t too much time to think about it. Having played bass before on other gigs, and being so familiar with Leonard’s work, I felt that I could get through the show, but only by maintaining a stronger-than-usual sense of focus throughout. I spent about half an hour looking at the set list and playing through the songs mentally (no instrument in hand). Then the crew brought a keyboard, a small bass amp, and one of Roscoe’s basses to the green room, and Neil, Javier and I played through anything in the set that I had specific questions about. That was all we had time for. I can’t recall anything like this ever happening to me in all my years of playing music. One for the record books for sure.
4. Did you play bass on every song in Louisville or switch back and forth? (From my seat, I couldn’t tell with certainty.)
I played bass on every song except “Suzanne” and “Avalanche”, on which there is normally no bass. On these songs, I switched to acoustic guitar.
5. Could you give those of us with little or no musicological knowledge (such as me) a sense of the difference in playing your usual guitar parts in the Tour concerts and playing the bass and how difficult making that shift is? Is there an important difference in playing the (generic) bass parts in the Louisville setlist and playing Roscoe Beck’s bass parts in the Louisville setlist?
Without going into too much detail, the bassist’s main focus is usually “locking up” with the drums and creating the “engine” that drives the song, while the guitar is usually playing something that complements what the bass and drums are doing. Aside from the obvious similarities of having frets, the roles that the guitar and bass play in music are very distinct. For me, it is quite a mental shift to go from one to the other, which is why I allowed myself some time to simply look at the set list and think about what needed to be done before I even picked up the bass. I knew that to try and play the bass parts as Roscoe plays them would be an exercise in futility, especially with so little time to prepare, so I opted for a simpler approach that (hopefully) would still groove nicely and serve the song.
6. In which song(s) were the bass parts you played most significant – either because the bass was especially important to the number or the bass part was especially tricky?
I felt that it was important to get as close to the recorded bass parts in “Everybody Knows” and “Democracy” as I could, because the bass parts are such an important part of the forward motion of those songs. “Democracy” with its almost constant sixteenth note pattern, gave me some proud new calluses on my right (picking) hand.
7. From the comments I’ve received and the reviews and reports I’ve read, those at the Louisville concert were impressed with your performance. How would you assess it?
Given the circumstances, I was very happy with how well the show came off. I am thankful that my particular skill set was put to such good use. There were words of encouragement (and levity) from Leonard, my bandmates, and the crew before we took the stage, which helped immeasurably. All of us, including the crew, needed to make adjustments “on the fly” for this show, and I think everyone rose to the occasion. (What an incredible group of people I have the pleasure of working with!) It was a united effort, and we had the added benefit of knowing that, whatever dramas are unfolding within the band, Leonard always gives everything he’s got, and the Louisville show was no exception. I will say, however, that I hope this particular set of circumstances does not ever have to be repeated, and that my old friend and musical brother of over 30 years, Roscoe Beck, continues to stand right where he belongs-on that stage with his fellow “Workers in song.”
Credit Due Department: The photo atop this post is by AlanM. The second Mitch Watkins photo was taken by Maarten Massa, and the third Mitch Watkins photo is the work of Gwen Langford. The photo of the Louisville Palace is by Penny Showalter.
I am republishing selected posts from my former Leonard Cohen site, Cohencentric, here on AllanShowalter.com (these posts can be found at Leonard Cohen). This entry was originally posted Apr 2, 2013; some material from other 2013 Louisville concert posts has been added.
- Mitch Watkins toured with Leonard Cohen in 1979-1980, 1985, and 2012-2013. He also held down the guitar chair with Lyle Lovett and his Large Band for over a decade, taught at U of Texas, and has worked with Abra Moore, K.T. Oslin, Joe Ely & many others. [↩]