Remembering Leonard Cohen ~ Remembering Suzanne

teaorangesTea and oranges

Certain things in life seem to require “developing a taste.” I never developed a taste for Argyle sweaters, good Scotch, foie gras, or post-modernist art, and I nearly missed out on Leonard Cohen.

I first heard Cohen live at Rockefeller’s in Houston, and thought of him at the time as the Bob Dylan of the beret-and-brandy set. His talents as poet and lyricist are obvious. His melodies are haunting and recognizable, and much of his work has enduring appeal.

But that voice! There are times when you have to take your Dylan straight (“Subterranean Homesick Blues” comes to mind) and the same is true for Cohen. His performance of “Suzanne” is worth hearing, but the exquisite renditions produced by Judy Collins and Francoise Hardy brought me to the music and gave me a song for life.

In truth, Cohen was a poet and songwriter before he became famous for his recordings. Initially, “Suzanne” was a poem, published in a 1966 collection called Parasites of Heaven. After Collins recorded the song in 1966, and Noel Harrison in 1967, Cohen himself recorded the song: also in 1967. At that point, Cohen’s reputation was made and the rest would be musical history.

But before the fame and fortune, before the song and even before the poetry, there was a person: Suzanne Verdal. Many think Cohen’s wife Suzanne Elrod was the inspiration for his song, but it was Verdal, the former wife of Montreal sculptor Armand Vaillancourt, who served as muse.


Though not lovers in any conventional sense, the relationship between Cohen and Verdal was extraordinarily intense, colored by the Montreal lifestyle of the time. In an interview with Kate Saunders on BBC Radio in 1998, Suzanne herself described the milieu:

The Beat scene was beautiful. It was live jazz and we were just dancing our hearts out for hours on end, happy on very little. I mean we were living, most of us, on a shoestring. Yet, there was always so much to go around, if you know what I mean. You know, there was so much energy and sharing and inspiration and pure moments and quality times together on very little or no money.

Suzanne met Cohen while still married, but their relationship deepened after her separation from Vaillancourt:

With Leonard, it happened more in the beginning of the sixties. When I was living then separated from Armand, I went and was very much interested in the waterfront. The St. Lawrence River held a particular poetry and beauty to me and (I) decided to live there with our daughter, Julie.
Leonard heard about this place I was living, with crooked floors and a poetic view of the river, and he came to visit me many times. We had tea together many times and mandarin oranges.

Reading her accounts of their time together, it’s amazing to discover how much of the song’s seemingly esoteric imagery is grounded in the mundane realities of their lives. Not only the tea and oranges, but the river itself, Suzanne’s bohemian “rags and feathers”, the nearby church where she would light candles – all the details were caught up in Cohen’s poetic vision of their relationship.

But it wasn’t Cohen who came to her, breathless with excitement about his new creation. According to Suzanne,

One of our mutual friends mentioned to me, ‘Did you hear the wonderful poem that Leonard wrote for you or about you?’ And I said no, because I had been away traveling and I wasn’t aware of it. But apparently it got into the attention of Judy Collins, who urged Leonard to write a song based on the poem.

The song being written, Suzanne never heard from Cohen again, apart from a brief meeting or two. After a show in Minneapolis in the 1970s, he kissed her cheek during a chance encounter and said, “You gave me a beautiful song, girl.”

Later, there would be an even more poignant final meeting. Close by her old home near the river, Suzanne used to dance at Montreal’s Place Jacques-Cartier. As she told another interviewer:

[In the 1980s] Leonard Cohen came up to me. I saw him in the crowd and I went up to him and I curtsied to him, and after the dance was done, he walked away. I didn’t understand. There was no acknowledgement from Leonard, and I did think about that for quite a while, actually. It was rather upsetting.

In ways I’m sure Cohen never expected and Suzanne never intended, her life became a mixture of garbage and flowers. After becoming homeless, she drifted from Venice Beach, California back to Montreal, and back again to Santa Monica. Through the course of her struggles, she became one of the children “leaning out for love” rather than the ethereal and poetic figure who holds the mirror.

If someone else were to hold the mirror before her eyes, what might Suzanne see? Her own words offer some perspective on how a famous, yet nearly invisible, muse experiences homelessness:

Although I have had the front row view of the mighty Pacific and the solace of my feline family and sea-gull companions, it has been an arduous task of endurance keeping mind and body safe for now on five years. Crippling pain from a serious accident in 1999, due to multiple fractures was enough. Then to lose my career which took a lifetime to build. My life as a choreographer, dance instructor and massage therapist was over; indefinitely.
Enduring this, and the peripheral loss of dignity in having to face homelessness from the inabilty to earn my financial independence, I retreated to my tiny cabin on wheels. I was down on my luck. The telephone was strangely silent. there must have been something to be said of many former friends and associates who were no longer calling. It seemed, in some folks’ judgement, that I was choosing to remain in this homeless situation, adding shame to injury.”

Reading her words, I hear the words of Cohen’s poem in a new way:

And you want to travel with her,
And you want to travel blind,
And you know that you can trust her
For she’s touched your perfect body with her mind.

Life being what it is, changes come to us all, and yet I ponder from time to time the responsibility of a poet to his muse. While I wonder who is or isn’t traveling with Suzanne these days, there is little more to do, apart from holding the mirror of my own words to the realities of Suzanne’s life and hoping, in some small way, to reflect her broken life.

LOOKING GLASS

Who feared, as hope’s flowers unfolded
that blossoms might fade
with unseasonal change
and petals blow free down the wind?
Who dreamed, when love’s singing first started,
that melodies drifting
through dissonant chords
could keen like a nightbird’s last cry?
Who dared with life’s dance just beginning
to partner with fates
unaccustomed to grasp
at the swift, sudden stumbles of time?
Who wept, at the journey’s frail ending
for the path never taken,
the compass unused,
the years still untrodden, untried?

First written in 2008, this post has received more views than any other I’ve written ~ thanks entirely to Leonard and Suzanne, and the world’s continued interest in them both. With today’s sad news, I revised it a bit, and gave it a new title. Now, I share it with you.
Comments always are welcome.

105 thoughts on “Remembering Leonard Cohen ~ Remembering Suzanne

  1. When Dylan won the Nobel for Literature I thought, I hope Cohen gets it next year. I spent the next week playing Dylan songs on guitar. After playing Desolation Row, I thought the lyrics might be the best I’ve heard except for a few of Cohen’s songs, in particular “Coming Back to You,” which I was Playing just this afternoon. Rest in peace, Leonard.

    1. I also thought of Cohen when Dylan was awarded his prize. So many of his songs are being mentioned tonight, but the first one I wanted to listen to after hearing the news was “Alexandra Leaving.” It’s such a loss. Thanks for stopping by to leave a word.

  2. So glad you reposted this today. My heart is broken. Not so much because Leonard has died but because so much of what I hold dear seems to have vanished this week. Note, I say “seems”.

    1. I’m glad you’re willing to be provisional in your judgment. And I’m glad that Cohen left us his “Anthem.” It’s always been one of my favorites, because of it’s most famous line: “There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.”

      Certain cracks have widened in past days, that’s true. On the other hand, following Cohen’s logic, wider cracks mean more light, and he always was willing to examine what he saw in that light: no matter how uncomfortable or distressing. He’ll be missed.

    1. Over the years, I’ve found Cohen’s poetry and songs inspiring, impenetrable, disturbing, and intriguing. More than once, I’ve dismissed a song for years, and then found it suddenly transformed into a favorite. I learned not to dismiss what didn’t appeal, but just to set it aside.

      One of my favorite songs is his “Hallelujah.” I’m always struck by the power of k.d. Lang’s version, and this 2015 article provides some interesting context.

    1. You’re welcome, Phyllis. He brought a good bit of enjoyment to many of us, and he’ll be missed. I suspect more people than usual will be listening to his music for a while.

    1. Another wonderful song, that surely could touch everyone. You’ve called to mind lines from W.H. Auden’s poem, “Death’s Echo”:

      The desires of the heart are as crooked as corkscrews.
      Not to be born is the best for man;
      The second-best is a formal order,
      The dance’s pattern; dance while you can.

      Dance, dance, for the figure is easy,
      The tune is catching and will not stop;
      Dance till the stars come down from the rafters;
      Dance, dance, dance till you drop.

  3. It was a pleasure reading your thoughts on the poet and his muse. Probably both of these roles are for the most part unrewarding on a material level… and surely, poets have offered very little to their muses, aside from thanks and devotion. Still, both have a taste of eternity from time to time, and the consolation of the intensity of life…

    1. It’s interesting to observe how Cohen’s early struggles, financially and otherwise, presaged some of Suzanne’s later problems.

      And, it’s occurred to me that the poem and later song based on their relationship functioned much like a child born to parents who divorce.Through it, they remain bound together forever, regardless of their wishes. I hope those bonds brought them consolation as well as pain.

  4. I am so glad to have found your wonderful blog! Many thanks and blessings.

    I am glad to read about Suzanne, it was one of my favourite songs back in the 70s but it always disturbed me a little, as it seemed like the writer might be exploiting a sad but beautiful lady. Like the Lady of Shallot, male poets seem to have a penchant for beautiful demented females, it seems to strike a peculiar poignancy in them.

    I was never quite sure about what the lyrics meant, but I thought that somebody as beautiful as Suzanne ought to be protected and encouraged rather than enjoyed and perhaps wasted and thrown aside, abandonned. Because she seemed so fragile with such a tenuous grip on life, so I am glad to hear that she was not tragic at all, she was strong and heroic, though just sad for a little while. Sad is not tragic, sadness is part of life, what we all feel at times and we survive it and it makes us richer, that’s not tragedy, that’s the triumph of the spirit. But now hearing the background I understand that she was strong and independent and that they were soul friends for a while, and that never leaves you, it’s the great song that sings us that they shared together, her beauty, and his acute perception of it, for a while.

    I’m still sad about Jesus sinking below your wisdom like a stone though and being lonely lost forsaken. That is melancholic and the opposite if the great transformation that faith in him speaks of.

    1. Being unsure of the meaning of Cohen’s lyrics is something we all experience now and then. I’m sure there were times when he wasn’t entirely sure of his imagery, either. But that’s the nature of poetry, and something to be celebrated.

      I like your distinction between sadness and tragedy. Like happiness, sadness comes and goes. Sometimes, the tragedy is that a person can’t let go of their sadness, and life diminishes because of it. But when experience is allowed to be what it is, we can get a song like “Suzanne.”

      Those lines about Jesus sinking beneath our wisdom always have intrigued me. My own interpretation is that they’re less a comment about Jesus than they are about us. We love to explain — we think we’re so smart! But anything can be analyzed to death, and when we trust in our so-called wisdom to grasp the mysteries of the universe — they disappear, like a man sinking beneath the waves. Or so I think.

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your interesting comments. You’re always welcome here.

  5. Perhaps Maestro Leonard whispered our request for rain to the angels, as almost all night I was aware of the lovely sound of rain on the roof. When I awakened, I was thinking of ‘Gracias para lluvia’ and not about the news of his death. Until I saw the title to your post.

    It’s always a joy to read your tribute to Leonard Cohen and his tribute to Suzanne. You might remember that during one expat tour of Casa Loca, one of the participants asked if I knew that song, and then stated, “I just met Suzanne.” I was honored, sobered – and surprised that I had never made the connection that she did.

    I did not remember that she suffered in an accident and was homeless – how sobering, and how ‘human’ that others treated her as if she were invisible. Hers is a story that continues to teach.

    Do you think that he was in love with her, and rather than state it, say anything and release years of unspoken words, he walked away? Ah, that sparks the imagination of fiction ideas.

    The world will be reminiscing the songs of Leonard Cohen this week, and through his gift of music, perhaps the bruises of the emotional election will fade.

    1. That does seem a common theme in human nature that when you become ill or down on your luck that people pull back. Perhaps it is pure selfishness or perhaps we all are just uncomfortable or afraid to be around those things. Shame though when the ones you thought friends do that.

      I really love that phrase you wrote here ” bruises of the emotional election”. Great way to put it. Even though we do not know what is really true…but there was something.

      1. Hi Judy! Thanks, and you are so right. From my own personal experiences, I think people are unsure of what to say or do, so they remain silent, which makes the isolation seem greater. With age comes wisdom, and we often realize skills we lacked then, but have gained from those lessons.

        Today I will be driving to the earthquake-stricken coast and for the first time, I look forward to an unhurried weekend of visiting with locals, hearing more stories, and perhaps photographing what has been difficult. I don’t like to photograph others’ misery, but they are now bouncing back and are smiling again.

        1. It is good to see and lend emotional support. Perhaps for the photographer/writer you are it is opportunity to share the event through the stories you hear…mini oral histories of the quake. Facts and dates are hard and cold, but what happened to individuals, their fear, their hope , how they survived makes it real. Good luck on your visit.

          1. thanks.. on the last trip, a dear beautiful young friend told how she spent basicaly the first week sleeping in her car at night, as their home was unsafe. my friend marie cried silent tears in that dimly-lit night as she heard my friend’s story… there are positive reasons to share, and thank you for reminding me of that!

        2. It’s good to hear you’re heading to the coast. I suspect that your presence will be cheering to those you visit. Life does go on, and despite the challenges, re-joining it always is good.

    2. I’m glad you’re getting rain. I hope it’s sufficient, and not destructive in any way.

      Honestly, I wouldn’t know how to judge if he were “in love” with her. If I had to guess, I’d say it was love — but a different, more intense, and far more rare variety of the animal.

      Their relationship reminds me of that between the schoolteacher Darley and Justine in Durrell’s “Alexandria Quartet.” In the volume titled “Justine,” I believe it was Darley’s friend Pursewarden who said, “There are only three things to be done with a woman. You can love her, suffer for her, or turn her into literature.” Cohen certainly turned Suzanne into literature. Whether he suffered or loved? Who knows.

      In any event, we certainly have profited from the fruits of their relationship, and his music is some of the most powerful I know.

  6. A beautiful tribute to one of the finest poets and songwriters of our time.

    I was watching news on cable TV a few hours ago when I heard the news that Leonard Cohen passed away. Needless to say, I was saddened and shocked. I never expected it, since it seems he was in good health, In fact, he just released a new album – “You Want It Darker” – a few weeks ago, which, unfortunately, would turn out to be his last.

    His dark, haunting and brooding songs, for one reason or the other, deeply resonated me. Obviously, I wasn’t alone. Millions loved his songs. During the last 8 years or so of his life he sang in sold-out concerts before his adoring fans.

    Although I was shocked by Leonard’s Cohen’s death, he seems to have intimations of his death. In July this year, Cohen wrote a letter to Marianne Ihlen, his lover whom he met in Greece, after learning that she was terminally ill and close to death. He said:

    “Well Marianne, it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Goodbye old friend, see you down the road.”

    I often wonder why his songs had universal appeal. Perhaps Pico Iyer, a travel writer, expressed it best when he wrote:

    “The changeless is what he’s been about since the beginning, Some of the other great pilgrims of song pass through philosophies and selves as if through the stations of the cross. With Cohen, one feels he knew who he was and where he was going from the beginning, and only digs deeper, deeper, deeper.”

    Rest in peace, Leonard. we will miss you…

    -Matt

    1. You may already know this, Matt, but his new album is available for free streaming for a limited time. You can find it here.

      Pico Iyer’s comment intrigues me. Every time I listened to Cohen, I had the sense that he didn’t know where he was going: that he was hacking his way toward meaning through chords and lyrics so unfamiliar (even to him) that they threatened to bring him to a halt. That wasn’t true just with his more somber or convoluted songs, but even with the more upbeat; the paeans to love, the slyly humorous ones.

      In any event, there’s not a songwriter i’ve quoted more, and he’s certainly one whose songs I’ve listened to as much as anyone’s. I’ve not yet listened to the new album, but I will — with some sadness, but also with great appreciation.

      1. Linda, your comment on the Pico Iyer quote about Cohen set me to thinking. Perhaps it was both: Just like many of us he had his moments of certainty: he also had his moments of doubt – of being unsure of himself. At any rate, there’s something about his poems and songs that touches my heart. Obviously, I’m not the only one who feels this way, too.

        But there was one thing he was sure about before he died. Just a month ago, David Resnick of The New Yorker interviewed him. At one point he said: “I’m ready to die. I just hope it’s not uncomfortable.”

        I didn’t know that he was very sick, because he wanted to keep his illness private, until I heard the interview today. No wonder he had intimations of his mortality.

        The interview, poignant though it was, was always accompanied by Cohen’s usual self-deprecating humor. If you’re interested, you can listen to interview by going to this link:

        http://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/leonard-cohen-a-final-interview?intcid=mod-most-popular

        By the way, thank you for sharing the link to Cohen’s last album. I didn’t know it was available for free for a limited period of time. LIke you, I will listen to his album with much more appreciation. I consider it as his parting gift to all of us…

        –Matt

  7. After you quote her, “Crippling pain […] lose my career […] down on my luck. The telephone was strangely silent […] former friends and associates who were no longer calling. It seemed, in some folks’ judgement, that I was choosing to remain in this homeless situation”, you say you read Cohen’s words, “And you know that you can trust her, For she’s touched your perfect body with her mind,” in a new way. My question: How so? What “new way”?

    1. As i think back, I remember the comment having nothing do with Cohen, per se, but with my own new empathy for Suzanne. Reading her words about her physical problems and her struggles with the necessities of life, I became sharply aware of my own, quite relative “perfection” — my ability to move, to work, to live in the world. I think it was the stirring of empathy: poorly expressed, perhaps, but nonetheless real.

  8. I love this post so much!! And, was totally unaware of the news until reading it this morning first thing with my coffee and my iPad. I guess I was a bit clueless and unaware of Leonard Cohen really until I heard KD Lang sing Hallelujah. And, then made a point of listening to him sing his song. While I think KD Lang is perfection, I did find a different kind of appeal listening to the gravelly voice of the writer singing his words.

    And, I don’t know about responsibility towards ones muse. It seems there should be and for all time. But, it also seems that many artists are able to take in the moment, soak up the meaning or interpretation of it, and not stay connected with the object of the inspiration. Although, they may stay connected to the disembodied emotion of it….the idea not the person. I heard a pastor once say its the message not the man, perhaps with art the muse is disposable once the meaning is expressed. Whether intended or not.

    Thanks for posting today and making us remember this very interesting man and his muse.

    1. I’ve used k.d.’s version of “Hallelujah” a couple of times in the context of Christmas Eve posts. I suppose some would consider that idiosyncratic at best and blasphemous at worst, but I think it fits perfectly. There’s nothing saccharine about it, for sure, and I like that.

      I just read today that his son produced his last album, and that while Cohen couldn’t work too many hours per day because of his declining health, his voice actually had improved.Some years ago he’d said that cigarettes and whiskey had helped deepen his voice. Maybe he kept at it.

      The longer I’m at this, the more ambivalent I become about the whole concept of a muse. Clearly, it’s more metaphor than reality: perhaps a shorthand way of talking about the creative process generally. I’ve always enjoyed Stephen King’s take on it: “Amateurs sit around and wait for inspiration. The rest of us just go to work.”

      You have piqued my curiosity, though. Once upon a time, I had a thought: what would happen if someone became an accidental muse? That is, what if someone functioned as a muse for an artist, but didn’t know it? I can’t find a single note about it anywhere; it must have come to mind a very long time ago. Still, it’s an interesting proposition. I’ll have to give it more thought.

  9. Elegant. It’s one of those days with his passing and rioting that those times are standing close. This is what I wonder if so many of the young are missing: “scene was beautiful. It was live jazz and we were just dancing our hearts out for hours on end, happy on very little. I mean we were living, most of us, on a shoestring…” (and the rest of that paragraph)

    A basic building block that sets ideas and lives? The trick is to not lose sight of time running into the future – to take those lessons and experiences and somehow craft a safe place ahead for body and soul. Haunting lovely post (now back to the stitiching)

    1. One of the ironies of our age is that the same children who expect participation trophies are loathe (or unable, or being groomed not) to participate. There are some differences between the kind of scene Suzanne describes and the drug-addled raves common today. Ecstasy as a drug differs considerably from the ecstasies of love, dance, or poetry. Cross Hieronymous Bosch with the local dealer, and it pretty much tells the tale.

      It also occurs to me that the kind of lessons and experiences I think you mean come to individuals. it may be one reason creative sorts tend to be loners, or at least more solitary. Being part of a collective may feel safe, but it certainly doesn’t nurture creativity.

  10. I missed this one your first time around, so I’m delighted at the re-post. Yes, I read the sad news this morning (and yes, I whole-heartedly agree that Judy Collins’ voice caresses this poem MUCH better!) Still, it’s typical of a late ’60s ballad, and I’m grateful to you for fleshing out “the rest of the story.”

    I didn’t realize Suzanne was a real person — what a tragic life she’s led! And oh, how sad that Cohen signed away his rights to this work — it points out how vulnerable creative folks are and how careful we must be in affixing our signature to documents we don’t read … or understand!

    1. Signing unread or misunderstood documents always is an iffy proposition — even in the best of circumstances, there can be unintended consequences. Sometimes, I suspect people don’t understand the value of what they have, which makes it easier to be casual about giving it away. On the most mundane level, I’ve heard several stories about people who put something into a garage sale, only to discover later they turned loose a real treasure for almost nothing. Live and learn.

      I suspect that, more often than we know, there are real people who’ve given rise to, or been transformed into, some of our favorite writings. As they say, everything — and everyone — is grist for the creative mill.

  11. So surprised to see that he had passed, but he did have a long and successful life. I wasn’t a fan, but it’s always nice to see fellow Canuck making a worldwide splash with their creative work.

    1. So many of my other favorite singer/songwriters are Canadian or Canadian/American: Ian Tyson and Sylvia, Gordon Lightfoot, k.d. lang, Gordon Bok, Marie-Jo Thério. I’m not quite sure what it is. It might be the themes of their music, or the straightforwardness of their performances. In any event, your musicians certainly have enriched my life, and I’m grateful for it.

    1. They do, indeed. I assume that Suzanne still is living, although I can’t say that for sure. Some people who knew her have commented on my 2008 post, along with others who were interested in finding more information about how her life has evolved. I’ve never pursued it, beyond some casual internet searching. It’s one of those situations where, with Iris Dement, I’m content to let the mystery be.

  12. So sad, another great gone: I have loved Cohen, his poetry and his songs seemingly for ever and often listen to them when out walking or when I am by myself in my room. They are songs for the solitary moment, they repay close listening and soothe a troubled heart.

    I didn’t know the Suzanne story, thank you for doing the research and repeating it on this day.

    1. So true, Ursula. They are songs for solitary moments, and do repay close listening. There have been more than a few times that, listening to a Cohen song in different circumstances, I’ve heard the song itself differently: sometimes hearing lines that I swear I’ve never heard before.

      The fascination of Cohen, and both of his Suzannes, seems boundless. When I looked at the list of internet search terms that brought people to my blog yesterday, there were fifty-two phrases containing Cohen, Suzanne, Elrod, or Verdal, in various combinations. While “Hallelujah” seems to have received more mentions in the press, I’m not sure it’s been the most influential over time.

  13. I’m always so impressed at how diligently you dig in the weeds when you research the topics you write about. Your love of the subject matter shows through like a beam of sunshine.

    1. Thanks, Jean. I do choose subjects to write about that engage me — who wants to write about something that bores them to death?

      As for digging about in the weeds, I’ve found that’s generally where the treasure is. Well, at least what I consider treasure. My idea of a really good find isn’t everyone’s, but at least I can say, “Hey! Come over here, and see what I’ve discovered.

  14. What a fine tribute! I’ve sung Suzanne in the folk clubs in the US and Europe and have loved it from the first time I heard it. My other most favorite of his works is The Sisters of Mercy. I also attended a concert of his in Berlin in the early 70s. An unforgettable artist.

    1. Thanks, Gary. “The Sisters of Mercy” always reminds me of Mary Gauthier’s “Mercy Now,” another favorite song that was heavily played after Katrina and Rita.

      I’m glad you got to hear Cohen live. My impression is that most people find his voice less distracting in a live performance than when heard in isolation on a recording. Now that we have YouTube, and the possibility of seeing artists in concert live, I suspect Cohen became more accessible to many listeners.

  15. Wow. This is incredibly beautiful — beautifully written, poignant, eloquent as usual. How DO you find all this? And more to it, where in the world do you get the TIME to find it all — it takes a lot!

    I came late to Cohen too. He has that Tom Waits/Dylan kind of voice that at first you think isn’t all that great and then you realize what power, energy, emotion and depth it holds.

    I have such an image from the words you quoted: ” We had tea together many times and mandarin oranges.” I just visually see these two, a pot on the table between them and bright mandarins in slices. Talking. Being. I didn’t know the Suzanne story — I thought Judy C. wrote it. I always thought she sang it perfectly but now that I hear Cohen, I’m not so sure. I heard things in it I hadn’t before — and was that because of him, or because of you? Maybe a little of both.

    1. I find time the same way you do, Jeanie. I take it, for the things that are important to me: foregoing what’s less important in the process. I suspect if we compared the hours you spend on art and your seasonal decorating with the hours I spend researching and writing, they wouldn’t be so very different. Another comparison: I have friends who spend as much time each day on social media as I do with my writing. There you are.

      Funny — I mentioned up above how I often hear new things in Cohen songs, and now you’ve made the same point. To a degree, it resembles the delight of sitting down to look at photos on the computer, and discovering something I never saw when I was making the image: an insect, a leaf detail, a half-hidden flower.

      I didn’t know Tom Waits. After listening to him sing some of his songs, Leonard Cohen sounds better than ever.

      1. Ha! Tom Waits has a song called Blue Valentine when once long ago my friend Mike brought to our Valentine party of single friends who had all had recent bad relationships or no relationship at all. If you ever want to be more depressed than you are, listen to that on Valentine’s Day!

        I think part of hearing new things in Cohen or anyone is who we are now compared to then. Do you remember Charlotte Church, a vocal prodigy who sang lovely songs. But then when she was about 14, she started singing songs that Rick called “Big Girl Songs” — songs no 14 year old could really understand. She did them technically well but she didn’t have a clue about her content (at least I hope not). Makes me wonder how the Beatles wrote all those songs when they were so young and if now when McCartney hears them, he hears more layers, different things. I know I do. We bring our life experience to what we see and hear and if we’re living it right, that experience develops over time. Revisiting things is so much richer in time!

        1. Or, as Anaïs Nin wrote, “We don’t see things as they are. We see them as we are.” That’s the most succinct expression of the truth you’ve focused on that I know. Things change, but so do we. No wonder interpretation is so complex.

  16. I wish I could have seen Cohen perform live; sadly I never got the chance… I’ve admired his poetry and songs for some time, but my brother is an enormous fan. Thanks so much for this repost and beautiful tribute!

    1. His appeal really does cross every boundary, doesn’t it? Even my mother liked Cohen, although I suspected it was because his porkpie hat reminded her of my dad in his younger days.

      I wish you could have seen him perform live, too. At the time, I had no idea what a cherished memory it would become. At least we have his writings, and his music. I’m glad you enjoyed this reflection.

    1. Live on, he will — because of his wonderful words. His art and life will continue to delight and engage, and now will serve as well as a memento mori: a reminder to make use of the time we have. It isn’t endless.

  17. Never saw the man in person but I “Spent a long time” listening to his records.
    Somehow I knew you would have an entry on this topic.
    Thank you

    1. We really do enjoy much of the same music, don’t we? His work has enriched my life, as I know it has yours. You must have something up there — in the air? the water? — that produces such genius. He’ll be missed.

    1. That’s interesting. I’m not certain which song I first learned on the guitar, but I think it was Elizabeth Cotton’s version of “Freight Train.” Can you still pick up the guitar and play “Suzanne”? Having to pick up a song with only a tab sheet and a turntable tended to embed them forever, I think.

  18. Judy Collins’ angelic voice has graced more than one song and touched it with her magic. It was from her recording that I first heard “Suzanne” and the other Cohen songs she recorded, as well as Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” and Sandy Denny’s haunting “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?” which has been a not unwelcome earworm lately. There is an unreality about the words of “Suzanne”, and an evocation of faded glory, like Venice, which, oddly enough, the words remind me of.

    1. “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” is another favorite. There’s so much good music, and a lot of it does stick. (I’ve seen your post, and laughed again at the earworm cartoon.)

      The sense of unreality you mention always struck me about another song from the time: Richard Harris’s MacArthur Park. I still remember the first time I heard that song. I came to a dead stop and thought, “What?” Cohen’s songs can do that, too.

      Do you think the Venice connection arose because of the luyrics about drowning and sinking? It’s an interesting one: yet somehow appropriate.

  19. McCabe & Mrs. Miller is where we first listened to L. Cohen’s music. It was mind-blowing. Since then we bought all of his albums. We nearly saw one of his concerts some years back here in Bowral, Australia, when he was touring trying to recoup some money that he apparently was robbed off. The concerts were booked out and friends told us it was beautiful.
    He is now at a solid peace and no worries. That is what I find so reassuring about death. A final reward for having lived a good life.

    1. I’ve not seen “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” but I see it’s available for streaming. On the list it goes. The film containing Cohen’s music (including “Suzanne”) that I really enjoyed was Warner Herzog’s “Fata Morgana.” As you might imagine, it’s a bit of a strange one, and German with English subtitles, but it’s strangely compelling as well. There’s a fascinating interview with Herzog about the film here.

      I had to chuckle at your last line. Does that mean that bad lives don’t end in death? Hmmm… Perhaps I should reevaluate the way I spend my days! (Of course, I’m teasing you a bit. I take your point.)

  20. This year feels like it is turning into an Annus Horribilis. We have lost so many famous Artists (and others in the media businesses) who were the soundtrack and background to my life and Leonard is another singer/songwriter that I remember so well from my youth although I never attempted to sing his work myself – content with Dylan and Joan Baez and a few others.
    I had automatically assumed that the song Suzanne was about his wife and so reading your post has added new meaning to it.
    A beautiful piece of personal poetry too, Linda – you have a real talent as a writer and poet.

    1. Perhaps it’s not so much Annus Horribilis as Annus Necessus: that time in life when the inevitable departure of friends, family, and admired elders begins, and reminds us that we’re not the carefree youth we once were. Carefree, maybe. But not so young. Cohen wasn’t a member of the 27 Club, after all; 82 years is a a good run. Still, it’s a loss. I’m so glad that he was able to record one more album, despite his declining health.

      Thanks for the comment on the poem, too. It’s one of my personal favorites, and it was fun to post it again.

  21. I “developed a taste” for good Scotch (after many a bottle) and have listened to Leonard Cohen for a few decades. Wished I had seen him perform live. He was a great artist. Really enjoyed this post.

    1. I did enjoy The Kingston’s Trio’s “Scotch and Soda. Does that count? Listening to it again almost makes me want to make another run at the Scotch — but only almost.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Clearly, there are many of us who’ve enjoyed Cohen’s music over the years, and who will continue to do so. He was great, in many ways.

  22. Though we never heard enough of it, I will miss that sad mournful mutter he called singing. And the words—words that in retrospect make me feel he knew something we didn’t.
    Suzanne was a lovely story, I’m so glad you told it, and told it so well. And Halleluja will always bring goose bumps.
    I had a feeling he just tipped his hat to us and slipped off the coil.

    1. “That sad, mournful mutter he called singing” made me laugh out loud. It’s really true, isn’t it? And yet, it was so much a part of him that I wouldn’t change it at all. One thing’s for sure: you always knew when you were listening to Leonard Cohen.

      I agree with you about “Hallelujah.” It’s one of those songs that rewards reading for the text, and listening for the emotion. His ability to juxtapose images always was remarkable, and the way he was able to make the music and text work together — well, it was wonderful.

      Slipping away with a tip of the hat would be in character. Some people just know how to make an exit.

    1. Not only that, this has been my most-read post since I posted it eight years ago. That’s proof, if anyone needed it, of the enduring appeal of Cohen’s work, and the interest in his life. I did reformat it, repaired some broken youtube links, and do a bit of grammatical tweaking, but otherwise it’s just as I wrote it then.

      I’ve thought about re-posting it from time to time, but never did. Now, I’m glad to have had it in the archives, to use as a tribute.

  23. Even without winning the Nobel we’d still wish he’d have stayed around a bit longer, don’t we? As a matter of fact, I doubt they’d honor another Canadian so soon after Alice Munro. I remember reading your post on Suzanne and now it’s ever more timely. Thanks for a memorable tribute to the urbane troubadour.

    1. When I first wrote this, I didn’t realize that “Suzanne” was used in Warner Herzog’s film, “Fata Morgana.” There are some links five comments up, in my response to Gerard. I think you’d enjoy the interview with Herzog, if you haven’t heard or read it.

      Given his health problems, I seriously doubt if he’d have been able to keep producing as an artist, even if he’d lived more years. It was hard enough producing the last album. But the good news is that we still have him: in poetry, in songs, and in performances. I’m glad that he was able to enjoy the acclaim for his work while he was with us.

  24. How nice to hear your poetic voice at the end of this, since it seems to me that Cohen is the kind of artist that calls forth art. His poetry is truly exquisite.

    I remember, a few years ago, hearing a documentary about him on CBC. The interviewer asked him about the transition from poetry to music, for him, professionally. He mentioned that he was living as poets do – from hand to mouth – and after getting married and having a child decided he needed to get a real job and so became a musician! Well, it worked out well for him and for us as well, even though he knew betrayal intimately – by the managing business. Requiescat in pace, Leonard.

    1. What a nice thought: that art calls forth art. It has echoes of “deep calling to deep,” which I’ve always thought lovely and memorable.

      It’s amusing to think of moving from poet to musician as a step up. The profession of music, especially for one just starting out, isn’t generally considered an oasis of stability. Still, as you say, it worked out, despite it all. I especially like the thought of his son helping to produce his last album. There’s something warm about that, and comforting.

  25. Your post sent me off to find a rendition of Suzanne sung by Cohen and Collins together, a beautiful but sad song, almost prophetic in ways. Sometimes, it seems to me that no fame is better than lost fame. Thanks for reposting this, Linda. My world of the 60s and 70s was so intense, I missed much. Now, in ways, I get to go back and catch up. –Curt

    1. If no fame is better than lost fame, I’m all set!

      “Going back” has a lot to commend it. As we’ve agreed before, re-visiting places always reveals something new: likewise, re-reading a book, seeing a film a second time, digging around in the piles of historical detritus that surround us. But as you point out, there’s another reason for second looks: all of those people, places, events, and trends that passed us by — or that we passed by, because something else had caught our attention.

      Distracted, much? You bet. And it surely is fun!

  26. Fascinating post about which I knew little.

    I saw Leonard Cohen three years ago at the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland, California. The concert was very long. I was amazed at his stamina. After awhile, however, all of his songs sounded the same. By the time the concert ended, I was ready to go home, wondering if I had missed something. Rest in Peace, Leonard.

    1. I understand your reaction perfectly. For one thing, it was Leonard Cohen. I’ve always believed that he nurtures that sameness in presentation: not as affectation, necessarily, but certainly as part of his persona.

      And there’s the issue of concerts given by aging artists. I had a chance to hear Willy Nelson a while back, and choose not to go. In the same way, if I want to share a certain song video, I tend to choose earlier versions: Neil Young in 1980 rather than 2012. It’s not sentimentality for the era, or a refusal of the fact of aging. It’s just that there comes a time when the curve turns downward, and we might as well accept it.

      With some of his songs, I prefer Cohen’s performance, but with others, like “Suzanne,” I think Collins and k.d. lang do a far better job.

    1. I smiled at one line in the article you linked — the one about him not often making the pop charts. No, I’d say not. Some of his songs did become well-known, especially when covered by others, but he had his own little niche, and he had it to himself. Sometimes, that’s all to the good. It certainly was in his case.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the poem, too. I like it, myself.

  27. Never knew the story behind Suzanne. Thank you for telling it in your words – and some hers. And you are of course right, Cohen is an acquired taste. You should try do the same with good Scotch, it’s perfect together with some music of Cohen. The same edge and kick. :-)

    1. It’a an interesting story, isn’t it? The complexities of human relationships add interest to every tale, and they had complexities galore. What surprised me when I first discovered the song’s Suzanne was how interesting she was, all on her own. Somehow the word “plucky” always came to mind, although she clearly didn’t always enjoy the cheerfulness that word implies.

      I considered your advice about the Scotch, but it occurred to me that, if they both deliver the same edge and kick, I can stick with my glass of white wine, double up on the Cohen, and get the same effect!

  28. Love Leonard Cohen, love Bob Dylan. Perhaps I’m the only one who thinks so, but I appreciate the whole package, singer and songwriter. The people with the beautiful voices who sing their songs, don’t do them justice.

    1. Oh, Mary — there are plenty of people who feel just as you do. As a matter of fact, there was a time in my life when I would sit and listen to Bob Dylan for hours. Then, I didn’t. It doesn’t diminish his value one bit, or mean that I think those who still listen to him somehow are over-valuing him. Same for Cohen.

      I do think that k.d. lang’s version of “Hallelujah” is the best ever, but I can’t appreciate anyone but Cohen singing “Alexandra Leaving.” That’s part of the mystery of music — there’s always something for everyone.

      Thanks so much for stopping by, and commenting. I appreciate it.

  29. Around my part of the woods, Cohen’s “Anthem” is the song of choice, particularly the lyric, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” He was one of mystifying, scarifying kind, if you listen to his lyrics closely. “Suzanne” is also wonderful listening, particularly knowing the back story. Thanks for that. On an aside, my day began with “Gloria” by Patti Smith, another poetic, slightly more punk lodestar. “Suzanne” and “Gloria” belong next to each other on any playlist.

    1. Well, I have to confess it: I never had heard of Patti Smith. Now I’ve read the Wiki, and listened to a few of her songs, and I feel like my mother must have felt when she caught me listening to Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis. I’m not sure about “Gloria,” but I’ll forego any final judgment until I’ve listened some more.

      One thing that I didn’t know about Cohen was that he’d maintained his connection to Judaism. That certainly helps to explain the Old Testament feel to some of his songs that often are held up as representative of New Testament symbolism — “Suzanne” being one.

      As for that crack in everything, I suspect he’d be near the top of any list of songwriters whose various lines are quoted in everything from museum catalogs to recipe blogs. I’ve certainly done my share of quoting — there’s something about his words that are particularly memorable.

  30. I confess I was never a huge fan of my compatriot Leonard, but did love ‘Suzanne’ in his voice, as well as some of his other songs covered by others, like ‘First We’ll Take Manhattan’ sung by Jennifer Warnes. But to find out the story behind the song is fascinating! Thank you for the research you’ve done to bring it to light—a most enjoyable read for my first time back here in a long while.

    1. I’ve tried and tried to remember what piqued my interest in Suzanne in the first place, back in 2008. At this point, I don’t know if I read something online, or heard about her in another way. In any event, it was absorbing research, and the post has had remarkable staying power. That in itself is testimony to Cohen’s ability to intrigue and inspire new generations of listeners.

      I’m still chuckling over the strange ways of the web-world. I’m so happy to see you here again. I’m hoping I’ll be able to return the visit some day soon (to quote another of my favorite Canadians. And isn’t it fun that Judy Collins played a role there, too?

  31. I’m a huge Cohen fan so was utterly fascinated by this post. Gosh, I didn’t know Suzanne was based on a real person, the things you learn eh? Poor Suzanne in the end though being snubbed like that.xxx

    1. Isn’t it fun to learn the backstories to some of these songs? I suppose there are plenty of poems, novels, paintings and such that were somehow inspired by real people — many of whom we’ll never hear about.

      We all think it would be great to have a Muse: particularly if the Muse is attentive and helpful. But it seems that being the Muse isn’t necessarily all it’s cracked up to be — as Suzanne found. On the other hand, we all have relationships that change over time; that’s just part of life. I like to imagine that Suzanne came to terms with the changes, and appreciated the wonderful song that kept that earlier time alive.

  32. Thanks entirely to Leonard and Suzanne? Hardly! Please take credit, my friend, for an interesting and beautiful piece. (And as you say just above, one hopes Suzanne appreciates the way the song keeps that time alive).

    1. You’re too kind. Still, I’m glad people continue to read the post. An interesting note is that far more people land here after searching for Suzanne Elrod than for Suzanne Verdal. It’s another good reason to tell this part of the story.

    1. Thanks, Melissa. I’m quite fond of the poem. And you’ve just reminded me of something important. There’s true north, and magnetic north; every compass has to be adjusted accordingly, to compensate for that deviation.

      Sometimes, the problem is that we don’t consult our compass. Other times, it may be that we’ve not adjusted our compass to be sure it’s pointing to true north. More than a few navigators have ended up somewhere they didn’t intend because they didn’t adjust their compass! It’s fun to ponder what sort of compensations might have to be made with our personal compasses, to be sure we’re heading in the right direction.

  33. Amazing post, thanks for this. I’d had no idea that Suzanne was a real woman, I’d always thought she was just someone Cohen had made up. What a tragedy that she ended up the way she did, though – from reading a bit of the blog you linked to – it sounds like she’s a survivor who will always find some good in her life, however hard it becomes.

    I noticed that you mentioned Cohen’s song Hallelujah in some of your comments. It’s a song I love but recently I was dismayed to discover a video that went viral on the internet, of a ten year old autistic child singing it with a full Christmas choir. They said it was ‘Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah’ but in fact what they’d done was use the music and had changed the original lyrics to a sugar-sweet Christmas Carol-type alternative. So – no sooner is he dead than his songs are already being abused. Maybe I shouldn’t say that about Christian lyrics, but to do that to a song with the completely different content and context of the original is, in my opinion, shameful.

    It’s such a shame Leonard Cohen died when he did, but he’s left quite a musical legacy. Brilliant writer and singer.

    1. Like you, I thought Suzanne was fictional when the song first became popular. It was such a thrilling, mysterious song, it never occured to me that she might be real. She does seem to have survived through it all, and perhaps even thrived. It’s curious that so little current information about her is available. Perhaps she has her own reasons for remaining somewhat reclusive.

      I hadn’t heard about the girl’s version. I just looked it up, and my feelings are the same as yours. Quite apart from any legal questions, it’s a sappy, sentimental version of a great song. The great irony is that Cohen’s version is more strongly Biblical than the revised version. The good news (or so I hope) is that the original is so strong, and the revised version so weak, that the children’s version simply wlll disappear.

      On the other hand, I have to wonder what Leonard himself would have thought of it all. I just found the most remarkable quotation from him on his website. In response to a question about whether he thought himself religious, he said. “I’m religious in the sense that I know the difference between grace and guilt.” And there you have it.

  34. I loved the story behind the song. Which flowed down as effortlessly as the song that inspired it. I wonder if you would love to write something on his “Hallelujah” too.
    It did get covered countless times by the very big names… In fact, the history of the song is a legend in itself.

    1. “Hallelujah” is a wonderful song, and, as I think you’ve realized, one of my favorites. The k.d. lang version is the one I love. If i do ever write about a Cohen song, though, it won’t be that one. There’s another, far less well-known, that attracts me for another reason: “Alexandra Leaving.” Cohen left such a rich legacy: including that last album, which I still haven’t listened to except in small bits.

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