A new 33 1/3 book explores an overlooked and out-of-print homage to Leonard Cohen
Remember tribute albums? They are still out there, but with the album on its death bed and most consuming music one single stream or playlist at a time these days only those really attuned to the phenomena of cover songs pay much attention to them.
That said, it might seem a little odd the main focus of the latest entry into the 33 1/3 series is the 1990 release I’m Your Fan: The Songs of Leonard Cohen–a tribute album featuring acts like R.E.M., the Pixies, Lloyd Cole, Fatima Mansions, House of Love, and, most importantly, Nick Cave as well as John Cale, interpreting Cohen songs. Actually author Ray Padgett is the perfect guy to write this book. Since 2007, he’s run Cover Me Songs, the Internet’s longest-running blog about cover tunes. One of his first blog posts concerned the songs of Leonard Cohen contained on that tribute.
What makes the book notable? Padgett takes it as a jumping-off point to examine trends in the tribute album, examining it in a way that’s breezy and enlightening. It’s as much a history of the tribute album, which seemingly began as early as 1950 with the advent of the LP, as it is about Leonard Cohen and how I’m Your Fan affected his career. And boy did it ever.
Padgett engages with several of the people responsible for making tribute albums–and I’m Your Fan in particular–worthy of attention. Of course, there’s producer Hal Willner, considered to be the inventor of the tribute album, who passed away earlier this year. To Willner, his work with music from the likes of Nino Rota, Thelonious Monk and Disney films served as a replacement for the TV variety shows he loved in his youth. The lesser-known Ralph Sall, perhaps the most successful of all tribute producers, gets equal time. Sall’s tribute album-making career began with 1991’s Deadicated: A Tribute to the Grateful Dead, and continued with discs on the Eagles and the Doors. His most successful effort being Saturday Morning: Cartoons’ Greatest Hits featuring Liz Phair, Juliana Hatfield, the Butthole Surfers, and the Ramones among others.
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Hatfield pops up regularly as someone who has an affinity for tribute albums. She appeared on many even though she claims not to be a fan and most recently released tributes on her own to Olivia Newton-John and the Police. That leads Padgett to Joe Spadaro of American Laundromat Records, who released those two Hatfield releases as well as series of tributes over the past 20 years. There’s also an interlude with Jim Sampas of Reimagine Music. The nephew of Jack Kerouac, Sampas started by using his contacts to produce 1997’s Jack Kerouac: Joy Kicks The Darkness, one of the most successful tribute albums of that decade. It led him to release fifteen such discs, honoring such diverse artists as Bessie Smith and Nirvana.
Padgett rightfully sees the 90s as the prime decade for tribute albums. Although he misses the point on a couple, being less enthusiastic about the extremely well-done Richard Thompson set Beat The Retreat and seemingly not understanding the point of Bob Dylan’s The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration. He explores the reasons someone might produce such a record and finds them as varied as those records themselves. Hatfield sees them as a way to experience something she might not ordinarily get a chance to. Sall’s work with movie soundtracks led him to the similar listening concept, a collection of various artists. Then there’s Christian Fevret and Jean-Daniel Beauvallet of the French music magazine Les Inrockuptibles who produced I’m Your Fan and who just wanted to make Cohen popular for a younger generation.
With the blessings of Cohen, then living in a monastery outside of Los Angeles, and without really knowing what they were doing, the duo set out to make a record. As with most of these types of projects I’m Your Fan’s results were hit and miss. Looking back 30 years one might wonder whatever happened to artists like Geoffrey Oryema, Peter Astor and Bill Pritchard, who were on the disc. Padgett rightfully pays attention to the last two tracks on the disc, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds “Tower of Song” and John Cale’s “Hallelujah.” The former a prime example of that band’s much-loved cacophony. The latter a relatively unknown song at the time and one that’s become one of Cohen’s most recorded to the point of cliché in the time between.
The story of “Hallelujah” is actually pretty wild. It first appeared on 1984’s Various Positions. An album not released in the U.S. at the time. Bob Dylan covered it first, twice in 1988 in concert. Cale saw Cohen perform the song in New York City also in 1988. When Cale asked Cohen for the lyrics with the intent of recording it, he reportedly received 15 pages of verses by fax. When Jeff Buckley recorded it for his debut, 1994’s Grace, basically stealing Cale’s arrangement but adding his otherworldly voice, it became a worldwide phenomenon. Now everyone from Bono to Willie Nelson to Jake Shimabukuro has recorded it. Most agree kd lang’s version remains the gold standard.
I’m Your Fan changed Cohen’s career from a mid-tier, well-regarded songwriter to someone rightfully considered among our finest musical poets. Not many, if any, tribute discs can make a similar claim on their impact.
Padgett’s deep dive into the how’s and why’s of that claim make for a quick yet engrossing read. One quibble, he needs to expand his vocabulary and find a better word than curate in all its forms.
AUDIO: I’m Your Fan: The Songs Of Leonard Cohen playlist