Jennifer Warnes & Donna Washburn weren’t the first to audition for the roles of backup singers for the 1972 Leonard Cohen Tour. This is the story of their initial rehearsal with Leonard:
It’s all coming down to the wire now. Home to roost. It’s Tuesday night and this is the first rehearsal with Jenny and Donna, the two new singers, who’ve just got in from LA. The excitement is so strong in here you can touch it. The tour begins in two days. The lights are low and the garbage can is stuffed with ice, wine and champagne. These girls have got to work.
Jenny is tall, with straight blond hair down to her shoulders. She stands holding her body straight but easy, a feeling of calm to her. She came from playing the lead in Hair in Los Angeles. Donna is a bit shorter, with a fuller more sexual body, long light blond hair falling in natural curls over her shoulders. She’s less calm than Jenny, more in need of reassurance.
The singing is going well. The first song. If it’s going to come together, it’s got to be now. Leonard is looking truly adolescent. Worn brown sneakers, favorite black slacks, old favorite grey sweater hanging loosely from his shoulders. He’s listening to the girls and smiling as he sings. Standing at the mike, shoulders in their slight hunch, feet together, tapping, swaying slowly from side to side. *Oh you are really such a pretty .little one / I see you’ve gone and changed your name again. Peter, on electric bass, is tapping away smiling, David looks happy, too. Just as I’ve climbed this whole mountainside / To wash my eyelids in the rain. The music takes off. Ron starts smiling, Bob too, *Oh so long Marianne / It’s time that we began / To laugh / and cry / and cry / and laugh /about it all again.
The new girls respond beautifully and they sing the last refrain again. The song finished, Leonard turns to the girls, he’s smiling, delighted. “Fabulous . . . fabulous . . . just fabulous,” he can’t get over how well the song went. He’s shaking the girls’ hands saying, “Congratulations.” He’s just like a kid, he’s so happy. People break to get some drink, but Leonard is too excited. Com’on, let’s keep going. Hey seriously that was fabulous. I’m so excited I’ve lost the capo from my guitar.” He is stumbling around through the mike booms and chairs looking on the floor and table and chairs for his capo. “Hey, anyone seen my capo . . .?” The girls are giggling they’re so happy it’s come together. Leonard is still stumbling around: “Those sounds were so beautiful I couldn’t sing, like music to my ears . . . I’m so happy there are voices out there, the voices came.” He’s standing still now, overcome.
They get back together, Leonard saying, “Let’s do Thin Green Candle . . . no, no, let’s do Joan Of Arc.” They begin and suddenly in mid-verse Leonard stops: “I’m sorry we might as well cool this right now, I can’t sing. It’s too beautiful.” They look at each other. “The reason I need girls to sing with me is that my voice depresses me.” Donna protests, “No . .. no,” but Leonard goes on, “No, seriously, that’s the truth. I need your voices to sweeten mine. No really, that’s the truth. So please try to sing something simple in harmony with my voice.” And they swing back into another song . . . and it works.
From Famous last words from Leonard Cohen by Paul Saltzman (Macleans: June 10, 1972). The photo of Jennifer Warnes & Donna Washburn taken by Sherry Suris at the April 19, 1972 Tel Aviv soundcheck was a generous gift from Jennifer Warnes.
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 Oct 12, 2017.