Road Warrior: St. Louis native Joseph Carenza graduates from punk-club denizen to road manager for Leonard Cohen

Nov 4, 2009 at 4:00 am

When Leonard Cohen skips onto the stage at the Fox Theatre this weekend, wearing his trademark fedora and smartly tailored suit, prepare for an awe-inspiring night. The 75-year-old's current world tour is the stuff of legend: Backed by a fleet of nuanced musicians, Cohen spends nearly three hours running through his catalog — everything from the epistolary perfection of "Famous Blue Raincoat" to the iconic reverie "Hallelujah."

Keeping this revue running smoothly is the job of road manager Joseph Carenza. While the specifics of his job are complex — among other things, he keeps Cohen and his nine-person band organized — the St. Louis native has a very simple explanation for what he does.

"I take care of things," Carenza laughs over the phone. "You just take care of what needs taken care of.

"Getting [the band] from place to place every day is a little bit of a fun adventure," he explains. "And then on show days, I take care of the security. I work on [what's going on] today, and [tour manager Mike] Scoble's often working on tomorrow or next week. I'll make sure the show runs on time and things are happening, and Mike can be sitting next to me talking to someone [about the show] a week from now, going over [things] to make sure that show runs well. We complement each other well."

In the nearly eighteen months since Cohen's first tour in fifteen years began, Carenza has traversed the globe with the Canadian legend. The journey has included stops at Coachella, Glastonbury and the Montreux Jazz Festival, as well as a controversial September 2009 concert in Tel Aviv, Israel. (The latter show — Cohen's first in Israel since 1975 — drew criticism from Palestinians, who have called for musicians to boycott the country.) One of Carenza's most memorable shows, however, was the first concert of the tour, which took place in May 2008 in Fredericton, the capital city of New Brunswick, Canada.

"[Cohen] was backstage, and I don't think he believed us that it was sold out — until he ran out onto the stage and people just went crazy," he recalls. "The reaction that people gave him....He ran out there, and all of a sudden it was like all these old friends had shown up spontaneously. It was a really moving thing to see."

The route Carenza took to his current position is circuitous. He grew up in St. Louis and spent a large chunk of his childhood at Washington University, where his dad was a soccer coach for thirteen years. The younger Carenza also played the sport and was talented enough to earn a soccer scholarship to the University of Louisville.

As a preteen an aunt had passed him tapes of new-wave acts such as Alphaville and Simple Minds. "Here I am, this kid in the Midwest listening to this stuff, and all my friends are listening to heavy metal and Guns 'n Roses," he recalls. "It didn't go over very well." Later, he worked the door at the now-defunct club Kennedy's.

Carenza's current career path, however, effectively began in 1997. During the summer he lived with the members of a local band called Stillwater, whose lineup featured Magnolia Summer founder Chris Grabau. Another Stillwater member, John "Obie" O'Brien, urged his friend Dan Potthast, vocalist/guitarist of local ska institution MU330, to give Carenza a shot selling merch.

"I call Dan — I've never even met this guy, and at the time, I had never seen MU330," Carenza says. "Knowing [what I do] now, the randomness of getting a call like that is just absurd. Dan was like, 'We're going on tour for a month, call me when you get back.' On that silliness, I drop out of college — I drop out of a scholarship, I drop out of school.

"And I'm just waiting around, working at Cicero's and other odd jobs. The day [Potthast] gets back, I'm like, 'OK, you're back! You want to go on tour again?' He's like, 'Yeah, call me in a week or two.' So I keep calling him back. And finally they're like, 'OK, we're going out for like a week and a half, I guess you can come along. We can pay you ten bucks a day.' I was like, 'Great! I'll take it!'"

Looking back now, Potthast says that touring with MU330 gave Carenza "a basis in reality of how people who are struggling to stay afloat have to tour." But he also downplays the role MU330 had in Carenza's career ascent.

"I kind of feel like MU330 never really allowed Joey to blossom and truly use his talents," Potthast writes via email from Australia, where he's on tour. "Aside from the fact that we never really made enough money to pay him what he was worth, we were pretty wrapped up in doing everything ourselves, and were just not willing to hand over the reins to someone else. He was smart though, and met other bands through us like Alkaline Trio, and started working on tours where he could actually get paid."

Indeed, Carenza parlayed his time with MU330 into gigs as a guitar tech and tour producer with a wide variety of bands; notable ones include Face to Face, the Get Up Kids, the Bravery, Ash and Sondre Lerche. The connections he built eventually landed him a gig producing some shows by Anjani Thomas, a jazz singer who frequently collaborates with Cohen. The success of these concerts led Carenza to a December 2007 meeting in LA with Cohen's manager, Robert Kory — ostensibly to discuss the potential of a tour.

"Robert at the time was like, 'Maybe I have three weeks of work for you, maybe three years,'" Carenza says. "'Can you do a little pre-production, put together some numbers and some ideas of what we might be able to do?' I did. [And] I just never stopped working."

Surprisingly, Carenza says that his tenure in punk clubs has parallels with the time he's spent with Cohen: "A show's a show, really. People don't like to maybe think of it in those terms, but it's the same thing as [how] old vaudeville or traveling musicians used to sing for their supper. It's a show." Still, he says that Cohen's dedication to his craft and indefatigable personality makes this a very different experience.

"The real difference is just Leonard's attention to detail and Leonard's commitment to whatever it takes to make a show just absolutely amazing every single night. When this band has a bad night, they still have an 'A' show," Carenza says, laughing.

"Leonard's one of the few people I know that sleeps less than I do," Carenza adds. "And the guy just does not stop working. He's incredibly well-read — and it doesn't matter what the subject. He's current on everything. You'll get an e-mail at like 4 o'clock in the morning, [and be like] 'What are you doing up?' he's like, 'I'm working.'

Carenza can relate to this work ethic. When he's not touring, he resides in LA where one of his projects is working with a creative partner named Amy De Souza on a Web series called Bad Date. But as Cohen's tour winds down, it's clear that working with him has given Carenza valuable perspective.

"Rock stars, entertainers, are just people," Carenza says. "And [if] you work around enough of them, you really realize that. But if you do work around enough of them, you realize that every once in awhile, one or two of 'em, they're not just people. There's really something about them that puts them head and shoulders above the rest of them.

"And that's Leonard. He's a regular dude, and he's a guy, he's a down-to-earth person, but there's also something about him that's very much not like everybody else. That's what makes him Leonard Cohen, I think. He has that something extra that's sort of semi-intangible. You read his writing and his work, and that's very tangible. He's a beacon. People are drawn to it. It's no joke; he's the real deal."