His greatest tracks, as chosen by Robert Plant, Mark Kozelek, Antony Hegarty, Judy Collins and Cohen's bandmates and collaborators
Songs Of Leonard Cohen, 1967
A love poem, originally recorded in 1966 by Judy Collins; it became the 33-year-old Cohen’s debut single a year later…
JUDY COLLINS: [Cohen’s manager] Mary Martin was an old Canadian friend of mine who was always mentioning Leonard and his books. And one day in 1966 she said, “What if I sent Leonard over to see you? Because he’s written some songs.” I actually met Marianne [Jensen] last year, and she told me that they were living in Ibiza, wearing no shoes and drinking Retsina, and he turned to her one day and said, “I’m leaving for New York, to meet Judy Collins to see if she likes my songs.” Marianne said, “What songs?” The first night he came to my apartment, he was charming, shy. I don’t think he knew what he was doing, and he never sang a note. He said, “Oh, I’m embarrassed to…” He came back the next afternoon and sang me “Suzanne”, “Dress Rehearsal Rag” and “The Stranger Song”. And the next day he came back and sang “Suzanne” again, and I recorded it shortly thereafter. There was no question immediately that it was a classic. There’s a spiritual centre to it that’s authentic. The authenticity is what really grabbed me.
2 BIRD ON A WIRE
Songs From A Room, 1969
Stately country-gospel standard and an Everyman’s manifesto for freedom…
TONY PALMER [director]: My 1972 tour film about Leonard [Bird On A Wire] ends with this song because it sums up everything I believe he stands for as a human being: “Like a bird on a wire/Like a drunk in some old midnight choir/I have tried in my way/To be free.” It’s an amazing series of images. It has such a beautiful melody, so immediately attractive, that you can be seduced into thinking this is just a pop song and forget about the words. All his really great songs have that universal accessibility. I hope those lines are written on his epitaph – not for a while yet, though. It was his manager’s idea to make the film, because Leonard had said, “I’m not going to tour anymore, it’s not my idea of fun. I’m a poet, not a minstrel.” So they wanted a film record. I had incredible access. Part of the deal was that he could never close the door on me, and he was as good as his word on that. I could see it was terrifying for him to go onstage, and a mild drug intake gave him the courage to do it. I never took a moral view of that. He’s exactly the same today as he was then. Incredibly modest, but like all great artists there’s a steely backbone there, a line you know not to cross. He has a proper ego. He has gone on doing it, and he’s aware now that he has a body of very strong songs. Who else can match him? Bob Dylan, maybe, but that’s about it.