Thursday, November 10, 2016

Leonard Cohen (1934-2016), "Suzanne" solo and with Judy Collins

Leonard Cohen, songwriter, singer, novelist, and poet--probably best known for those talents, in that order--died today at 82. Was he Canada's Bob Dylan? Their careers ran roughly in parallel, and there were similarities in their talents, but also differences in their works. Dylan's lyrics and music have their roots in American traditions running from Walt Whitman to blues hollers and Appalachian ballads. Cohen's seemed to me to stem from French symbolist and English romantic poetry, with perhaps a touch of Jewish mysticism. He observed the Sabbath along with, late in life, becoming a Zen monk.

The first song of his I knew was "Suzanne", written for his friend Suzanne Verdal, a dancer who lived in a warehouse made into a studio on the bank of the St. Lawrence River. In the clip above, he sings it solo, after a spoken introduction in which he tells how he was cheated out of his rights to it.

The first version of "Suzanne" I knew was by Judy Collins, from her album In My Life. It was played on WBCN, Boston's first "underground" album oriented rock FM station in my delirious spring of 1968 when, as a Florida resident of many years, I had endured my first Massachusetts winter and, being helplessly but hopelessly in love, saw the earth come again to life. I was fortunate to find the clip above, in which Leonard and Judy joined in the song.

Erratum and addendum: when I wrote this, I assumed that the song "Suzanne" was about Suzanne Elrod, mother of Cohen's two children.  Thanks to my friend Stephen Crews Wylder, I now know that it was about Suzanne Verdal, a friend from before he met Elrod, and I've corrected the post above to reflect this. Stephen gave a link to this NPR piece, which tells of the origin of "Suzanne", explains that the reference to "tea and oranges" is to Bigelow's "Constant Comment" tea, and tells the story of the tea's origin. By coincidence, the agency where I've been working keeps a supply of Bigelow teas in the break room, and of late I've become fond of Constant Comment. There's more about Cohen and Verdal here.