Thursday, May 10, 2018

Leonard Cohen - Suzanne - AM10

The Songs of Leonard Cohen, Cohen's first release, is as close to a ten as one can get without being there. There's a disconnect that nicks away its perfection, the way that the over-embellished orchestration of Let It Be upstages the songs themselves. Let It Be - Naked proved that familiarity trumps what could have been, but I'd nonetheless like to hear Songs trimmed down to a more primitive level. Still, it's the freshman delivery that fails here. Songs is somewhat William-Shatneresque, it. That said, Cohen's debut is as tenny as a nine can get. The lyrics are nothing less than evolutionary, and "Suzanne," the AM10 single from the collection is the penultimate Cohen tune (only surpassed by the nearly 11 "Famous Blue Raincoat").

For a few months in 1967 and 1968, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen had a fling, the consequences of which continued to echo in their work. Introduced backstage at Judy Collins' songwriter's workshop at the 1967 Newport Folk Festival by Collins herself, Cohen and Mitchell were officially an item by the time the two of them co-hosted a workshop at the Mariposa Folk Festival. Their romance ignited, flared, and exhausted itself within months.

Joni said of Suzanne, "I'd met him and I went, 'I love that song. What a great song.' Really. "Suzanne" was one of the greatest songs I ever heard. So I was proud to meet an artist. He made me feel humble, because I looked at that song and I went, 'Woah. All my songs seem so naive by comparison.' It raised the standard of what I wanted to write." 

Cohen, who was better known as a poet and novelist than as a musician, was 33 when they met; Mitchell was nine years his junior. Conveniently, Cohen was often in New York where he would spend time with Mitchell, who was living at the Earl Hotel in the Village, and Mitchell was routinely playing dates in Montreal, where Cohen lived. Cohen also spent a month at Mitchell’s Laurel Canyon home when he was recruited by Hollywood in 1968 to score a movie based on "Suzanne." (The movie project failed to materialize.) Joni’s "Rainy Night House" is her farewell account of that liaison. "I went one time to his home and I fell asleep in his old room and he sat up and watched me sleep. He sat up all the night and he watched me to see who in the world I could be." 

The second verse is poignantly bittersweet:

I am from the Sunday school
I sing soprano in the upstairs choir
You are a holy man
On the FM radio
I sat up all the night and watched thee
To see, who in the world you might be

Mitchell points out, "There’s some poetic liberty with those two lines; actually it's "You sat up all night and watched me to see who in the world …" I turned it around. Leonard was in a lot of pain. Hungry ghosts is what it's called in Buddhism. I am even lower. Five steps down." Funny how we tend to associate lyrics in our own lives, hardly thinking about how songs relate to the lives of the songwriter. T.S. Eliot would love our ability to dismiss the poet, but I find so much intrigue in the understory. Suzanne, btw, is Suzanne Verdal (not his wife, Suzanne Elrod - many make this error), with whom Cohen had a friendship, though not an intimate one, long before Joni. Just a snippet of her story reveals the literal nature of Cohen's lyrics: "The St. Lawrence River held a particular poetry and beauty to me and I decided to live there with [my] 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." And as we know, they came all the way from China.

As a general rule, Leonard Cohen is about as cool as cool can be. Bob Dylan dedicates songs to him and wrote "I'm not there" in awestruck emulation of the man. Joni still talks like he's a "holy man." Can you imagine, the Norton Anthology says, "Suzanne" is one of the few songs which works as well as a song as it does as poetry. We've discussed rock lyrics as poetry in the past and that's a cool accolade. Still, it late; best to let those lyrics speak for themselves:

Suzanne takes you down to her place by the river
You can hear the boats go by 
You can spend the night beside her 
And you know that she's half crazy 
But that's why you want to be there 
And she feeds you tea and oranges 
That come all the way from China 
And just when you mean to tell her 
That you have no love to give her 
Then she gets you on her wavelength 
And she lets the river answer 
That you've always been her lover 
And you want to travel with her 
And you want to travel blind 
And you know that she will trust you 
For you've touched her perfect body with your mind. 

And Jesus was a sailor 
When he walked upon the water 
And he spent a long time watching 
From his lonely wooden tower 
And when he knew for certain 
Only drowning men could see him 
He said "All men will be sailors then 
Until the sea shall free them" 
But he himself was broken 
Long before the sky would open 
Forsaken, almost human 
He sank beneath your wisdom like a stone 
And you want to travel with him 
And you want to travel blind 
And you think maybe you'll trust him 
For he's touched your perfect body with his mind. 

Now Suzanne takes your hand 
And she leads you to the river 
She is wearing rags and feathers 
From Salvation Army counters 
And the sun pours down like honey 
On our lady of the harbor 
And she shows you where to look 
Among the garbage and the flowers 
There are heroes in the seaweed 
There are children in the morning 
They are leaning out for love 
And they will lean that way forever 
While Suzanne holds the mirror 
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.