Robomagic founder Rob Hallett brought Leonard Cohen back to the stage in 2008 for what would prove to be one of the most rewarding phases of the legendary songwriter's career.
Hallett, who was then AEG's president of international touring, proposed months of no-obligation rehearsals before being summoned to SIR Studious in Los Angeles and treated to a private two-and-a-half hour set.
Cohen went on to play 372 shows in 30 countries on what came to be known as the Grand Tour, which included memorable gigs at Coachella, Glastonbury, The O2, Tel Aviv Ramat Gan Stadium and Hanging Rock in Australia.
Here, Hallett sits down with Music Week to share a few stories about his hero and friend...
How did you meet Leonard Cohen?
I never knew him but I felt like I knew him as a teenager. I lived my life by one of the couplets from one of his poems: “I refuse to be held like a drunkard under the cold tap of facts." That’s driven me on whenever anybody’s told me I can’t do something. I felt like I knew him all my life but I got to know him personally when he hadn’t toured for a long time and he had his money issues. I thought there’s no point in getting as far as I have in the music industry if I can’t work with someone who I consider the closest artist to me even though I hadn’t met him at the time. So I tracked him down and we met in his lawyer’s office and he sat there humble as he was. For the first time ever I asked for a photo before the meeting and I said, Leonard, can we just do a quick photo together so if this meeting doesn’t go well, at least I’ve got a photo with you.
How did you persuade him to return to touring?
We discussed the tour and he said, Well, who wants to see me? What if I’m not good anymore? I haven’t picked up a guitar for 10 years, it could be a disaster. And that was the beginning of our relationship. I said to him, Look, go in the rehearsal studio, take your time and, if at the end of it, you’re not happy with the band or your performance or anything else then all bets are off, it’s my bill and I’ll see you down the road.
Six months later I got a call saying, come down to SIR on sunset, there was a sofa in front of the stage and Leonard and the band performed for two-and-a-half hours just for me. It was magic. I was like a little kid in a candy store. It was more than something.
When I first started suggesting to promoters and partners around the world that we should play arenas with Leonard Cohen, people were sceptical to say the least. But we had a wonderful tour, it was one of the biggest tours ever, it took four years. He carried his own guitar and didn’t want suites, because it was too difficult to pack in the morning. He just wanted a small room where he could put his case, take out what he needed, put it back again and leave in the morning. He was a genuinely humble spirit and a lovely, caring man who just saw himself as a member of the touring party.
Those tours were phenomenally successful...
Globally. Everywhere we went, we won prizes, awards and sold hundreds of thousands of tickets. I think we did 376 cities on six continents or something like that. It was certainly my magnum opus when it came to touring. There’s certainly not many artists who’ve achieved that, certainly at his age. I’m just grateful that I got to know him, spend time with him. I think he considered me a friend, I certainly considered him one.
What made him so special as an artist?
He was a poet before he even picked up a guitar. He was a novelist – he wrote two of my favourite novels, Saviour Game and Beautiful Losers. He told me he was in the middle of writing another novel about six months before he passed. I’m hopeful it was finished, but I doubt he finished it. He was a very special person, the like of which you don’t come across every day. He was humble, he was kind, I can’t use enough complimentary adjectives about the man. He was a genius, as a wordsmith he was second to none. There are other people out there who are known as poets but to my mind Leonard was the greatest. A lot of musicians deal with politics, but Leonard dealt with politics of the heart – something very different and moving that touched you as a individual. You felt he was talking to you, his songs weren’t generic.
His was an unusual career arc. By the end, he was more popular than ever...
He never did a tour as big as the one I did. He called it the Grand Tour. He thought he’d just be doing theatres that he hadn’t sold out the last time he toured. One of the reasons he stopped touring was, he said, There’s no money in touring. Really Leonard? Let me show you and we did very well, sold out The O2 four times, 50,000 people in a stadium in Tel Aviv, he was the first artist to play Hanging Rock in Australia. To see him at Coachella was amazing, Glastonbury… it was living the dream. If only he was 40. I think he’ll be forever missed and his name will continue forever. There have been a lot of sad losses this year but Leonard is to me personally very, very special. He was a wonderful, wonderful human being and I’m glad he left us with so much music. My favourite album is You Want It Darker, released three weeks ago.
The last time I saw him, we were sitting down having a cup of tea last year and he kept saying, Do you know FKA Twigs? Look at this! He was showing me videos, saying how beautifully she danced. He was still keeping up with the latest music right until the end.