His greatest tracks, as chosen by Robert Plant, Mark Kozelek, Antony Hegarty, Judy Collins and Cohen's bandmates and collaborators
5 SISTERS OF MERCY
Songs Of Leonard Cohen, 1967
Written in only a few hours, while Cohen sat watching two sleeping female backpackers he’d given shelter to in Edmonton during a snowstorm…
SHANE MACGOWAN: It sounds like he ripped this off from a great Irish song. He was cynical and fucked-up. And he did the usual Village thing of nicking old Irish tunes and putting his own cynical dead-man lyrics to them. Of course, I heard it in McCabe & Mrs Miller. But that isn’t the only place you’d hear Leonard Cohen songs, in the ’60s and ’70s. What I like about him as a songwriter is the fact he’s so vile and cynical. With pretty tunes. He is a craftsman. I don’t respect him at all. But I like his songs. And I was really into “Sisters Of Mercy” when it came out. I was about 12. I thought he was obnoxious, and I thought he was better than Dylan then. It’s a really hard fucking target, “Sisters Of Mercy”. It’s about prostitution, but he manages to make it moving. It’s bracing, the way Fanny’s coffin ripping open in the Far From The Madding Crowd film is bracing.
4 FIRST WE TAKE MANHATTAN
I’m Your Man, 1988
Channelling his inner Bond villain, Cohen sets out on a path of world domination, singing about “the beauty of our weapons” while sinister riffs chug in the background…
ROSCOE BECK [bassist, producer, longtime Cohen associate] : I was working on Jennifer Warnes’ record of Leonard’s songs, Famous Blue Raincoat, so I called him in Montreal to ask if he had any new material for it, and he played me “First We Take Manhattan”. I was stunned. Leonard had written on keyboards since the early ’80s, but this was a much more heavily synthesised, Eurodisco approach. I was also taken aback by the lyrics. They scared me. The singer’s character seemed mentally unstable, and I wondered what the song was about. Leonard says it’s someone who’s an outsider, demented and menacing. I had an eerie feeling about it. The Jennifer Warnes version starts out with some spoken German radio about a Berlin disco in which some US servicemen were killed only a few months after we recorded the song. It seemed prophetic of that, and 9/11 too. Leonard arranged his version in Montreal, and he and I finished it in LA. He’d added stacked female backing vocals that were quite a surprise. The song was such a departure from the folkiness of his past. It was a fresh start.