Behind the Album: Leonard Cohen, ‘Songs of Leonard Cohen’

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“When Dylan emerged, he blew everyone’s mind,” said Allen Ginsberg. “Everybody except Leonard Cohen, that is.”

Ginsberg was right, of course. Even before Bob Dylan transformed modern songwriting with his expansive folk poetry, Leonard Cohen was already there. A published poet and novelist in Canada, he was fusing poetry and song long before he officially became a songwriter. The idea of becoming a professional songwriter, he said years later, came out of a hope to make a decent living. But never did that idea contain the fullness of what happened, which is that Leonard Cohen became not only a full-fledged songwriter, but a singer of those songs.

Leonard Cohen

What led to that profound career shift? We spoke to many who shed a lot of light and love on this subject.

On December 27, 1967, just six months beyond the release of The Beatles’ landmark Sgt. Pepper, his album, Songs Of Leonard Cohen was released. Even the title was telling: This was not an album about singing or rock & roll. It was about songs. Songs written by the artist himself.

Leonard’s debut album was produced by John Simon, who produced several other landmark albums, including Simon & Garfunkel’s Bookends , The Band’s Music From Big Pink and Janis Joplin’s Cheap Thrills

This first album was remarkable, not unlike that of John Prine some thirteen years later, in that it already contained classics, most of which have since become modern standards, such as “Suzanne,” “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye” and “Sisters Of Mercy.” Usually, it takes songwriters a few albums at least before writing their greatest work.

But when writing those great songs, never did Leonard intend to sing them himself. His plan was to get great singers, such as his friend Judy Collins, to do the singing. Which she did. But she had some other ideas for Leonard.

After recording “Suzanne,” which remains to this day one of his most beautiful songs, she knew her audience would love to hear it from the songwriter himself. She literally insisted he join her onstage to sing it. As related in the following, his resistance was formidable. But she triumphed.

Leonard Cohen & Judy Collins

So to explore the origins of this album and the phenomenon of Leonard as a songwriter and recording artist, we delved into his poetic past with those who worked with him, such as producer John Simon and his then-girlfriend Nancy Priddy, who sang all the harmonies on the album, as well as Judy Collins.

We also spoke to some who have worked with him subsequently, including collaborators Sharon Robinson and Athena Andreadis, as well as artists whose lives and work have been forever impacted by this album, two brilliantly thoughtful songwriters, Ben Folds and Peter Case.

But it all starts with Judy:

Judy Collins, “Wildflowers,” 1967

Judy Collins (vocalist/collaborator): A friend told me about Leonard in 1966, and said, “He’s never going to amount to much, because his poetry is just totally obscure.” Months later, she said he wanted to come and sing me his songs. I asked if they were obscure, and she said yes.

Leonard came to see me. His words were, “I can’t sing, I can’t play the guitar and I don’t know if this is a song.” Then he sang me “Suzanne.” He also sang “Dress Rehearsal Rag.”

I loved them both. I had almost finished my album, In My Life, and [label executive] Jac Holzman said, “You know, it’s terrific. But it really needs something.” And the something was Leonard. I recorded both songs.

John Simon (album producer)John Hammond signed Leonard to Columbia, but kept postponing recording. Leonard felt like he was festering in the Chelsea Hotel. He begged Columbia to assign another producer to him. That was me.

Judy Collins: He came with me to a benefit I was in. I told him everybody knows “Suzanne” and wanted him to sing it. 

He said, “Well, I can’t sing.”

I said, “Yes, you can,” and pushed him onstage.

Halfway through “Suzanne” he started weeping and walked off the stage.

Backstage he said, “I can’t do this.”

I said, “Leonard, you have to. You must do this. You’re a wonderful singer.”

I went back onstage with him, and we sang together. That was the start.

John Simon: Leonard was different from the other acts. They were kids. He was a grown-up. And an intellectual. He was already a published poet and novelist.

Ben Folds (singer-songwriter): 
The necessity to be cool has hurt rock. Leonard didn’t conform to that idea of cool at all, which is the coolest thing of all.

Judy Collins: Once Leonard got past the fear of performing, he became a spectacular, powerful performer. I was in awe of what happened with his work, and singing his own songs. It was really so deep.   

Ben Folds: The way he’s singing, whether you like his singing or not, it makes you listen to the words. That’s the main thing. As soon he opened his mouth, you think, “Well, he wasn’t here to be Pavarotti. He really must have something to say.”

John Simon: Instead of using horns or strings, I used wordless female voices, sung by Nancy Priddy, my girlfriend at the time, who was uncredited. Until now.

Nancy Priddy (album harmony singer): One night John said, “We’ve got to go in and finish Leonard’s album.”

Most everything was done. He engineered too, so it was just the two of us in the middle of the night. We did little things to wind it up.

I added all the harmonies, and we also hit on some tambourines and drums. John came up with all the harmony parts, and directed me. He’s quite brilliant. It was an easy session, very casual — took maybe three hours, at the most.

Leonard Cohen on Pico. Photo by Paul Zollo/American Songwriter

Judy CollinsAs a guitarist, Leonard was so good. It’s not your common denominator. [His music] is very beautiful, and strikingly different.

John SimonThough Leonard joked that he had only one “chop,” he was a good guitarist. He recorded “The Stranger Song” before we began, with that difficult, insistent triplet pattern that he had mastered with the fingers of his right hand. We used that triplet technique throughout.

Sharon Robinson (collaborator/co-writer): “The Stranger Song” is the testimony of someone questioning his heart. When we were on tour, he played it alone. Listening offstage, I was moved deeply by his performance. I have never forgotten it.

John Simon“The Stranger Song” made me think about his lyrics. Although Dylan paved the way with lyrics that were more thoughtful than the average pop lyric, Leonard’s have more finesse. His scansion is stricter, his rhymes truer as a rule. Whereas Dylan’s language had a connection to “the people,” in the tradition of Woody Guthrie, blues and folk, Leonard’s lyrics reveal a more educated, exposed, literate poetry.

Nancy Priddy: Songs like “Suzanne” were amazing. We would be in awe. We’d listen together all the time throughout the project, and we loved it.

Ben Folds: 
I listened to “Suzanne” like I listened to  Joni Mitchell. I listened to the story.

John Simon: “Suzanne” is gorgeous. I love the track. The strings and the girls together with the vocal and guitar make a lush blanket of sound.  

Ben Folds: “Suzanne” has a simple melody, perfect to carry the poetry without making the lyrics secondary. It has only a few notes, so you recognize it, but it’s so simple that the simplicity allows the poetry to exist. It’s not something everybody can do. His melodies are very simple, but they’re succinct.   

Athena Andreadis (singer/collaborator): His melodies are like mantras, like little meditations.

Sharon Robinson: “Suzanne” is a story of lovers found and lost, as is “Hey, That’s No Way” and “So Long Marianne.” These first songs became among his most important and defined him as an artist.

Sharon Robinson & Leonard Cohen

Athena Andreadis: “So Long Marianne” has a Greek folk sound that I was drawn to — singing of goodbyes, life, death, and the afterlife, echoing in the silences.

Sharon Robinson: I love the sound of the background vocals on “So Long Marianne.” It’s so ’60s!

Nancy PriddyWhen he sings, “When you’re not feeling holy, your loneliness says that you’ve sinned,” in “Sisters Of Mercy,” it’s so beautiful.

Athena AndreadisA song about the muses, “Sisters Of Mercy” has been healing for me; that place at the crossroads of western therapy and eastern spirituality, woven into the song like a breath of fresh mountain air.

Athena Andreadis

Ben Folds: He was outside of the rock lexicon. He didn’t say, “Girl, I wanna take you higher.” He didn’t pay any attention to that. So what he did write about really stood out. When you hear those words, you really hear them.

Sharon Robinson: These songs created a palpable aura of love’s intimacy and complexity. You feel them in the deepest levels of the heart.

Ben Folds: I remember Rickie Lee Jones once saying a recording needs to have a ghost in it. I think that is definitely true of this album. There are ghosts in this record.

Peter Case (singer-songwriter): The way [Leonard] put words together, the attention to sound, was the thing that hit me. I see that now but it was an unconscious influence, like Mother Goose or Chuck Berry. The words carry rhythm and sound themselves, as does the shifting of vowels in each line. That had an impact on my own writing forever.

Peter Case

Judy Collins: [Leonard] discovered illuminating ways into songs that is all his. Where that comes from, in part, was music he heard in temple. His music has an element of chant, an element of the Kadish, the prayer for the dead.

John Simon: Leonard and I did have some differences over some arrangements. But in spite of those, there was not a speck of animosity between us. This was before his immersion in Buddhism, and his subsequent reputation as the man in black, sharing that handle with Johnny Cash. In our time together he was cheerful, funny, very rarely dark. With his wit and intelligence, he was a joy to be around.  

Ben Folds: In this business, people who make super-tight, shiny records have taken over. But when Leonard made this album, you know the only reason it exists is to be a framework for the poetry that is included. And that’s a special kind of record.

Sharon Robinson: Listening to this album now, I’m struck by the lightness of his voice, and the fluidity of those great melodies.  

John SimonWe ended the album with “One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong.” I liked the humor and the undercurrent of ardent young lust. As for the questionable taste of the ending with the recorder, the whistle and Leonard screeching way up high, what can I say? We were young.

Ben Folds: Leonard was a real artist. There are a lot of fantastic songwriters and singers, but they’re not 100 percent artists. They’re compromised somewhere. But someone like him, I don’t think there’s any compromise at all.

Ben Folds

Athena Andreadis: He is a true master of lyrics, unsurpassed by any other. His words point to something much bigger, deeper and more profound, a truth we all seek and recognize.

Sharon RobinsonHe knew songwriting was his calling. He once said to me, “Speak to them about them.” He was concerned with the heart of mankind and the things we have in common as human beings. He stayed inside the process, which was the part he loved, the discipline of the writing itself. For him, it was a process of trusting and keeping the channels open.

Ben Folds: People like Leonard, Dylan, Kristofferson, they have hijacked a form of folk music to penetrate your brain with poetry. And making a high art of folk music is a rare gift.

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