Ron Cornelius knows first hand that traveling with Leonard Cohen is filled with surprises. From impromptu music sessions to practical jokes and beyond, there was hardly a dull moment. While much of the time was spent in the public eye, sometimes they snuck away and played for the most unexpected crowds.

Ron Cornelius and Charlie Daniels

Bob Johnston, Leonard Cohen, and Charlie Daniels

Traveling With Leonard Cohen

When Cohen first suggested that they take their music to an asylum, Ron Cornelius disagreed. The few days off between shows while on tour are precious. Who would want to use them going into asylums? At that time, society didn’t look favorably on the mentally ill or challenged. Families, unsure how to care for them, would have their loved ones committed. Many of the committed never had a visitor again.

Asylums were bleak places all over the world. Ron hadn’t spent much time comparing asylums to the grand concert venues they usually played in. Why would he? He never considered the possibility¬†Cohen would suggest playing in these places for people the world had forgotten.

But then he did. Ron balked and tried to argue Cohen and the rest of The Army out of it. He lost the argument. Their first secret asylum concert date was arranged.

Stage Fright

By this time, Ron was an accomplished and seasoned touring musician. Stage fright was a thing of the past, or so he thought. As he shared in his new book, The Guitar Behind Dylan and Cohen, the night of the first secret concert his anxiety ran high.

The acoustics were horrific. The concert attendees- the residents of the asylum- were led into the room in small groups. A few¬†hummed. Some rocked back and forth. Some sat expressionless, voiceless, staring. None of this did anything to calm Ron’s nerves.

The concert began and Ron remained unsteady. He wondered if the music was reaching them at all or if this concert was for nothing.

Suddenly, just 2 or 3 songs into the set, a man stood up and yelled, “Hold it! Hold it! Hold it! Stop the Music!”

What else could they do but stop playing?

When he had their full attention, the young man continued, “Ok. Ok. Ok. You people come here with your music. You have the nice clothes, you have the pretty background singers and shiny instruments. well, what about me?¬†What do you people really think about me?”

In that moment, Ron’s heart softened. He’d been approaching the situation all wrong and he knew it. These people, though different than he was, were people all the same. They’d been discarded and forgotten. All they wanted was to be accepted and remembered.

Traveling with Leonard Cohen

Change of Heart

At first, no one knew how to respond to the young man’s question. Then, without warning, Leonard stepped off the stage, approached the man, and wrapped him in a big hug. The Army followed, each taking a turn, hugging the man, just as Leonard had done.

From that moment on, Ron and all of the members of The Army began to see their secret concerts in a new light. They saw how music was the great equalizer, how it soothed us, how it had, for a while at least, the power to make us all feel loved.


For more about these secret concerts and tales from the road, check out Ron Cornelius’ new book, The Guitar Behind Dylan and Cohen. Autographed copies are available exclusively on the Gateway Entertainment website.