Leonard Cohen

TrackAlbum
SuzanneThe Songs Of Leonard Cohen
Bird On The WireSongs From A Room
Chelsea Hotel #2New Skin For The Old Ceremony
Dance Me To The End Of LoveVarious Positions
HallelujahVarious Positions
I'’m Your ManI'’m Your Man
First We Take ManhattanI'’m Your Man
Tower Of SongI'’m Your Man
The FutureThe Future
DemocracyThe Future
In My Secret LifeTen New Songs
Alexandra LeavingTen New Songs
Going HomeOld Ideas
AmenOld Ideas
Different SidesOld Ideas

spotify-logo-primary-horizontal-dark-background-rgb-sm

 

Contributors: Jerry Tenenbaum, Lucretia van den Berg, Peter Viney

This Toppermost is a fifteen, commensurate with the quality of the songs. We have divided Leonard Cohen’s career into three. Jerry and Lucretia are taking the first phase, we’re collaborating on the second phase, and Peter’s taking the third phase and the all-important covers. An issue is that with Leonard every live recording seems better than the previous versions, so we’re generally quoting the song’s first appearance, not necessarily its best version. Lets face it. We could have take nearly all of it from Live in London, others from Cohen Live (1993 tour) and more from Field Commander Cohen.

Leonard Cohen has been recognized by The Academy of American Poets as a poet, novelist and songwriter. They stated that he “has succeeded in blending poetry, fiction and music” and “while it may seem to some that Leonard Cohen departed from the literary in pursuit of the musical, his fans continue to embrace him as a Renaissance man who straddles the elusive artistic borderlines”. We cannot think of too many other popular musicians about whom this can be said.

Leonard Cohen was born in 1934 in Montreal to a middle-class Jewish family. He is of Lithuanian and Polish ancestry with a rich academic background. Studying music and poetry as a teen, he learned to play guitar and formed a country-folk group (The Buckskin Boys). He moved out of middle class Westmount to a working-class neighbourhood where he read his poetry at local clubs. His enrolment at McGill University in 1951 led to exposure to major Canadian poets, Irving Layton and Louis Dudek. In 1956, he published his first book of poetry, “Let Us Compare Mythologies” which was positively received by the critics. “The Spice-Box Of Earth” in 1961 confirmed him as a major poet. Moving to Hydra, a Greek Island, he wrote more books of poetry and novels. By the mid-60s, his focus had shifted to music.

In 1967, Leonard Cohen moved to New York City to pursue a career as a singer-songwriter. Judy Collins made one of his earliest efforts, Suzanne, a hit and he was soon performing at folk festivals. He was signed by John H. Hammond to a record deal for Columbia Records. John Simon produced his first album, Songs Of Leonard Cohen, a critical and popular success. The album also included Sisters Of Mercy, and Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye. These songs appeared on CBS/Columbia’s innovative Rock Machine sampler albums, which sold so well, that both songs can be considered “virtual singles”. Another from the first album, So Long Marianne, gets massive applause whenever it starts in recent live performances.

1969 saw Songs From A Room released with Bird On The Wire as a centre piece. He toured the USA, Canada and Europe and a recording of his performance at the Isle of Wight Festival was finally released as Live from The Isle of Wight 1970, on a CD/DVD set in 2009. The soundtrack of the film McCabe and Mrs. Miller featured songs from Cohen’s first album and gave that film its texture. Here’s a link to Sisters Of Mercy from the film.

(Lucretia) In South Africa, we had no TV and movies were hard to get to. However, we had friends who went to Canada to work on the pipeline. We picked up on Leonard Cohen when they brought back his early albums. Every young woman among our friends wanted to have “her perfect body” touched by his “mind”. We played those first albums incessantly.

Cohen changed from his spare performance approach considerably with his collaboration with John Lissauer. His 1974 tour was highly praised and an album followed, New Skin For The Old Ceremony. Through 1976, Cohen continued to tour in North America and Europe. The Phil Spector approach to Death Of A Ladies’ Man was not highly regarded by either Cohen or Cohen’s fans. It had abandoned the minimalist leanings of previous albums to what Cohen called ‘grotesque’ but ‘semi-virtuous’. A late 70s tour was filmed by Harry Rasky as The Song of Leonard Cohen and subsequently a recording representing that live tour was released: Field Commander Cohen: Tour of 1979.

 

Jazz increasingly influenced Cohen’s 1980s recordings. A new band toured with him in support of Recent Songs. Backing vocals were supplied by Sharon Robinson and Jennifer Warnes in 1979-80 tours worldwide. Various Positions, released in 1985, highlighted a major contribution from Jennifer Warnes. She then released an excellent album of Leonard Cohen songs, Famous Blue Raincoat. Cohen’s Various Positions featured the superb song Dance Me To The End Of Love and the equally excellent Hallelujah, a song that has been repeatedly covered and presented subsequently over the years. Anjani Thomas, Cohen’s partner, joined the tour to support the album and Cohen performed with his band at major festivals in Europe.

In 1989, Cohen self-produced the album I’m Your Man marking a major change in his music with synthesizers dominating. I’m Your Man and The Future were the albums featured most on his highly-acclaimed tours between 1988 and 1993, and the more ‘rocking’ material from those two albums still features heavily in his recent shows. Apart from the Toppermost selections, I’m Your Man features concert staples Ain’t No Cure For Love, Everybody Knows, Take This Waltz, while The Future gives us Closing Time and Waiting For The Miracle, both current choices in performance. The 1988 and 1993 tours featured Perla Battala and Julie Christenson on support vocals, and are documented on the 1993 album Cohen Live. Until Live In London this seemed the ultimate version for several songs, including Bird On The Wire and Sisters Of Mercy (both Toronto, 1993). Record Store Day vinyl releases have recently brought forth more from this period with Back In The Motherland in 2012.

Cohen’s songs began to appear again in popular film soundtracks and he was supporting his songs with well-produced music videos, attracting new legions of fans. In 1993, Cohen published “Stranger Music: Selected Poems and Songs” and consolidated his place as a major poet/songwriter. Accompanying an earlier “best of” album was 1997’s More Best of Leonard Cohen. This broke the Cohen silence that occurred when, in 1994, Cohen retreated to the Mount Baldy Zen Centre near Los Angeles, leading to 5 years of seclusion. In 1996, he was ordained as a Buddhist monk.

And so Leonard came down from the mountain in 1999. He left the Buddhist community he had been in so many years. The third phase starts with Ten New Songs in 2001. The album was produced by Sharon Robinson, who co-wrote all of the tracks. They used a basic rhythm box, and Sharon Robinson arranged, programmed and performed them. That’s basically it. Bob Metzger played guitar on In My Secret Life. The songs from Ten New Songs played on the 2007-2008 tour were In My Secret Life and Boogie Street and he incorporated a recited version of Thousand Kisses Deep. This is another Toppermost album where every track is worthy of inclusion. We’re assigning just five tracks from this late period, so I can only take two. I don’t know how I can leave either Here It Is or Boogie Street out, but I’ll have to.

Alexandra Leaving is the other choice. (Peter) This is my favourite track of the period and possibly my favourite track of all. He didn’t perform it on the tour, but see my review of London 2008, linked below. Coming out of that concert, we were totally delighted, but the only song we felt we really had wanted to hear and didn’t was Alexandra Leaving. We had the conversation coming out, and I’ve had it since. It’s the one everyone wanted. It appeared on the 2013 tour, but was sung by Sharon Robinson solo in a version that drew a standing ovation as she finished.

Dear Heather in 2004 was also co-produced and co-written with Sharon Robinson. After the magic of Ten New Songs it somehow didn’t make it. Blue Alert by Anjani in 2006 was co-written by Leonard and Anjani Thomas, and while he doesn’t sing on it himself, it is part of his story. Never Got To Love You from Blue Alert was incorporated in Closing Time on tour.

 

At this point he discovered that he was broke; his financial advisor had used up all his money. So it was Cohen went back to work and back on tour for the most satisfying part of his career. That brings us to Live In London a double CD and DVD recorded at the O2 in London, and my breath and applause is one twenty-thousandth of the audience ambience on the album. In many ways, the versions with the road band on this album could be the ultimate versions of every song. He gathered the perfect bunch of musicians for his material, led by his MD Roscoe Beck on bass, and including Sharon Robinson and The Webb Sisters on support vocals. At least that was until the 2013 tour, but there are no recordings from that yet. When it does appear, the 2013 version of The Partisan is stunning, as are Sharon Robinson’s Alexandra Leaving and The Webb Sisters’ If It Be Your Will. The only reason no tracks are included from Live In London is it brings in the question of his multiple versions across the entire career, and we decided to simplify this Toppermost by only citing the original albums … and yes, in strict contrast to Mr Dylan, each subsequent version by Leonard Cohen is an improvement. Live in Fredricton is a five-track Record Store Day vinyl release from 2012.

After such intensive touring, the big surprise was that Old Ideas in late 2012 did not simply use the touring band. I played this album in its entirety so many times last thing at night with headphones … it suits the intimacy … that my first attempt to cull the ten songs to a manageable number left me with Going Home, Amen, Show Me The Place, Darkness, Come Healing, Banjo and Different Sides. I’m taking out Show Me The Place because the ultimate version is by The Webb Sisters (they did it both acoustic, and orchestral). The ones I saw him use in 2013s concerts were Going Home, Amen, Anyhow and Come Healing. Anyhow was improved on during the 2013 tour. It came down to Come Healing v Different Sides, and the latter gets the place because it has the feel of his great 80s songs, both in that it rocks along and in the lyrics.

 

Ten stunning covers from hundreds … (Peter)

Leonard Cohen attracts cover versions, and complete covers albums, all from women … Judy Collins, Jennifer Warnes, Anjani, Sharon Robinson (though as his co-writers are Anjani and Sharon Robinson, theirs are more co-productions). Judy Collins’ version of Suzanne appeared a year before Leonard’s own recording. Crazy To Love You appeared on Anjani’s album six years before Leonard’s version, so maybe his is the cover.

Judy Collins Democracy compiled her versions of Leonard Cohen from her discovery of him in 1966 to 2004.

There are magazine cover disc compilations, and two major label ones. Columbia did I’m Your Fan in 1991 (with John Cale’s Hallelujah) and A&M produced Tower Of Song in 1995. Don Henley’s Everybody Knows and Aaron Neville’s Ain’t No Cure For Love are favourites. Mojo magazine’s Cohen Covered in December 2008 is particularly good with Linda Thompson on Story Of Isaac, The Handsome Family on Famous Blue Raincoat and Dion on Sisters Of Mercy.

Hal Wilner’s tribute concerts featured Perla Battala and Julie Christenson who were Leonard’s long-time backing vocalists and resulted in a film I’m Your Man. Perla Battala’s solo version of Bird On The Wire received a standing ovation on the night we were there.

Hallelujah has a long history. John Cale’s version was used in the Shrek movie, but he refused permission for the OST album, where it was replicated by Rufus Wainwright. Cohen’s live versions now owe much to the John Cale arrangement from 1991. In 2008 the song was chosen for the X Factor in the UK, and Alexandra Burke won, sold a million and topped the chart. Jeff Buckley fans believed his version from 1994’s Grace to be the ultimate take, and tried to beat Burke to the 2008 Christmas #1 spot, just failing, but getting to #2. The same week, Cohen’s original was #36. But k.d. lang had covered it on Hymns of the 49th Parallel. She sang it when Cohen was inducted into the Canadian Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in 2006. Anjani and Leonard were watching, and Anjani said:

After hearing k.d. lang perform that song at the Canadian Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in 2006 we looked at each other and said, ‘well, I think we can lay that song to rest now! It’s really been done to its ultimate blissful state of perfection’.

In chronological order of covers:

Suzanne (Songs of Leonard Cohen 1967)
… Judy Collins (In My Life 1966)

Famous Blue Raincoat (Songs of Love & Hate 1971)
… Jennifer Warnes (Famous Blue Raincoat 1987)

Hallelujah (Various Positions 1984)
… John Cale (I’m Your Fan 1991, Shrek OST).

Hallelujah (Various Positions 1984)
… k.d. lang (Hymns of the 49th Parallel 2004).

Chelsea Hotel #2 (New Skin For Old Ceremony 1974)
… Rufus Wainwright (I’m Your Man DVD 2005; Want )

Bird On The Wire (Songs From A Room 1969)
… Perla Battala (I’m Your Man DVD 2005, Bird On The Wire, 2007)

Crazy to Love You (Old Ideas 2012)
… Anjani (Blue Alert 2006)

Alexandra Leaving (Ten New Songs 2001)
… Sharon Robinson (Everybody Knows 2008)

Dance Me To The End Of Love (Various Positions)
… The Civil Wars (Barton Hollow 2011)

Show Me The Place, orchestral version (Old Ideas)
… The Webb Sisters (When Will You Come Home? EP 2013)

 

 

Leonard Cohen (1934-2016)
11th November 2016. It is with the utmost sadness that we learn today of the death of Leonard Cohen at the age of 82. He leaves us with an unrivalled legacy of fiction, poetry and song. His last two studio albums (not covered in this post from 2014) are Popular Problems (2014) and, recently released, You Want It Darker (2016).

 

“Lucretia and I carry Leonard Cohen in our hearts. He was there before we met. He was there when we met. We have had the fortune to see him perform on many occasions. We invited him to visit with us and stay with us when he came to our city to perform in the past few years. Alas, it did not happen. When I saw the news, I cried out ‘Oh no!’ and tears welled as if I had lost a brother. His words endure and live in my brain. They are a large part of the soundtrack of our lives. The voice was the voice of understanding the world he lived in and its loves and hates and all that accompanied those emotions. He embraced spirituality while grasping the worldly and simultaneously fused them together as one entity. He made our world a better place. I won’t let him leave me.” Jerry Tenenbaum

Peter Viney recalls Leonard’s last letter to Marianne on his blog today which you can read here.

Both Peter and Jerry have asked to add a #16 to their Toppermost of 15, You Want It Darker, and we are happy to oblige.

 

The Official Leonard Cohen Site

The Leonard Cohen Files + Forum

Heck Of A Guy – The Other Leonard Cohen Site

The Leonard Cohen Concordance

Leonard Cohen Concert Setlists

Diamonds in the Lines – Leonard Cohen In His Own Words

I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen by Sylvie Simmons

Leonard Cohen Quotes

Speaking Cohen – his interviews

Peter Viney review of Leonard Cohen concert August 2013

Peter Viney review of Leonard Cohen concert July 2009

Peter Viney review of Leonard Cohen concert November 2008

Peter Viney review of Leonard Cohen concert July 2008

Leonard Cohen biography (iTunes)

TopperPost #258

11 Comments

  1. Andrew Shields
    Apr 23, 2014

    Great lists, but I would have to have ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ for its brilliant structure…

  2. David Lewis
    Apr 24, 2014

    Have to agree with Andrew. Also “Everybody Knows”. But he is an exceptionally difficult artist to distill. I have a visceral loathing of “Hallelujah” but not because of the song, which is truly brilliant. The appalling covers (in my view only john Cale matched the original. Jeff Buckley inspired nothing but awful covers).

    Nonetheless a sterling effort on a prolific and important artist.

  3. David Lewis
    Apr 24, 2014

    Also Danny Gatton does a marvellous instrumental cover of Famous Blue Raincoat which he segues into the Nutcracker Suite.

  4. Jerry Tenenbaum
    Apr 24, 2014

    We discussed many songs and among them was ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’. We agreed that we would have to be selective and also that since Jennifer Warnes’ version is so good, it could serve within the ‘covers section’ at the bottom as a superb representation of that song. We did that with others as well but we specifically discussed this particular song.

  5. Andrew Shields
    Apr 24, 2014

    While I like Jennifer Warnes’ version of the song, it has always seemed to me to be such a deeply personal one and Cohen’s performance of it is such a superb one that, to me at least, his version far outstrips hers. It’s also a rarity in rock music in that it assumes the form of a letter – can think of many songs that talk about letters, but none, except it, that actually reads like one…

    But then again the great Dutch historian, Pieter Geyl argued that good history provoked “argument without end” and so do great Toppermosts like this one…

  6. Peter Viney
    Apr 24, 2014

    Sisters of Mercy was another one to agonize over … and it didn’t seem the covers were “ten best covers either” but we managed to squeeze it in anyway via the link to McCabe & Mrs Miller in the text.

    • Ilkka Jauramo
      Apr 26, 2014

      Even if my favourite Sisters Of Mercy did not qualify in this list it was included in a compilation called ‘Rock Machine Turns You On’. It was in good company with ‘Scarborough Fair’ (Simon and Garfunkel), ‘Statesboro Blues’ (Taj Majal) and ‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight’ (Bob Dylan). Btw I have discussed this compilation with Peter Viney in another forum… so old has the internet become.

  7. John Waites
    Apr 29, 2014

    A huge hero of mine. One of my best gigs ever was seeing him at the Hammersmith Odon, as it then was, in around 1979 or 80. It was the first night of his UK tour, and his gear had been held up in transit, so he didn’t come on stage until around 10 pm. When he came on, he said that he was going to scrap his set list, and if people shouted out what they wanted he would play “until you all get bored”. He departed at around 2 am, when the audience had thinned out, but were far from bored. The only song he refused to play was Lady Midnight, don’t know why. When he was in the Buddhist monastery for so many years, occasionally saying he would never play live again, I always said that if he ever did I would go, wherever it was. Finally got my wish in Amsterdam about 4 years ago, and later at The O2 Arena. Fabulous, 3+hour sets at the age of 78. Still no Lady Midnight, though! For anyone who thinks Leonard Cohen is music to commit suicide by, try First We Take Manhattan.

  8. Peter Viney
    Sep 22, 2014

    “Popular Problems” just released. Most songs are co-written with the producer, Patrick Leonard. A Street was written with Anjani. The essential female co-singer throughout this time is Dana Glover. It’s hard to judge on two listenings, but I think it will rate with “Old Ideas” rather than “Dear Heather.” The track leading promotion is Almost Like The Blues. It has that essential Leonard touch of humor, listing tragedies like torture, killing and “all my bad reviews.”

  9. Jerry Tenenbaum
    Oct 2, 2014

    ‘Popular Problems’ is yet another positive creation by one of the masters of the word and song. To be reborn in the twenty first century after success in the previous one is really something special. There is something to be said for life experiences as the good and the bad reflect off each other and produce a future. Leonard Cohen relates that story as well as anyone.

  10. Dave Stephens
    Nov 7, 2017

    He left us a year ago. I still miss him and I’m sure you guys do. Just reread the Toppermost. It’s fine. Excellent words and I wouldn’t change the selections. Those are the songs that have the greatest resonance for you which is as it should be. Thanks. You did Leonard proud.

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

↓