As tribute records go, 1991’s indie-rock salute to Leonard Cohen, I’m Your Fan, was pretty okay. The high point of the album remains Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ surprising take on “Tower of Song,” which switches from one musical style to another every verse or so.
The six-minute version of “Tower of Song” the Bad Seeds submitted to the tribute record was apparently edited down from a very long, drunken jam on the song. According to the account in Ian Johnston’s Cave biography Bad Seed, the original DAT of the session was nearly an hour-and-a-half long:
When Cave had first been approached to contribute to the record his initial reaction was that the idea was appalling and flatly refused to be involved. However, during a rehearsal in west London earlier in the year, after a prolonged drinking session in a nearby pub, the group had spontaneously started hammering out a half-remembered drunken rendition of Cohen’s ‘Tower of Song’. Their eighty-minute irreverent assault on the composition, which portrays the pitiful lot of the songwriter, was played by the group in every conceivable musical style and was recorded to DAT by engineer Victor Van Vugt. Later the track was reduced to a more conventional length in an abruptly cut-up form, to highlight the fact that The Bad Seeds in their rendition had covered every genre in rock music. [...] When asked about the tribute album in an interview with Q magazine, Cohen himself would praise The Bad Seeds’ ‘really intelligent approach’ to ‘Tower of Song’, considering that Cave had ‘thought about it, and caught the spirit of the song’. Cohen was unaware of the circumstances under which it was recorded.
I’ve never come across a copy of the 80-minute tape, but here’s over half an hour of the Bad Seeds playing “Tower of Song.” As the band switches from style to style, Cave is faithful to the spirit if not the letter of the lyrics–at least, I don’t remember Cohen bragging about his “great big dick” in the original.