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.