This Sunday Elder Music column was launched in December of 2008. By May of the following year, one commenter, Peter Tibbles, had added so much knowledge and value to my poor attempts at musical presentations that I asked him to take over the column. He's been here each week ever since delighting us with his astonishing grasp of just about everything musical, his humor and sense of fun. You can read Peter's bio here and find links to all his columns here.
It’s interesting to me that I find that the best interpreters of Leonard Cohen’s songs are mostly female. Okay, Joe Cocker did some fine interpretations but I thought there were a couple of better ones than his and they are included today.
So Joe misses out.
LEONARD COHEN is a Canadian poet and author who turned to songwriting and singing, and both these endeavours made him a lot more famous than the previous ones.
Lennie was born in Montreal and attended McGill University where he won a serious prize for creative writing. This led to his publishing several books of poetry and eventually a couple of novels. He spent much of the sixties on the Greek island of Hydra writing poetry and the novels and eventually songs.
He later made it to the United States appearing at various folk festivals where he caught the eye and ear of John Hammond who signed him to Columbia records. His first album was a cult success and many other artists recorded songs from it.
This is one of the songs from that album, Sisters of Mercy.
I used to think that Judy Collins was the finest interpreter of Lennie’s songs. That was until JENNIFER WARNES released her “Famous Blue Raincoat” album. This is an album of covers of his songs.
Jennifer worked closely with Lennie on this album and they sang a duet on one of the tracks. A couple of his songs made their debut on the album, including this one, First We Take Manhattan, which may be the best versions of one of his songs (and that’s saying something).
The track has the late great Stevie Ray Vaughan playing guitar on it.
I think Judy Collins does the best version of Bird on a Wire, but I have her performing another song. Joe Cocker does an admirable job too, but I’m going with the version by JOHNNY CASH.
Johnny recorded this towards the end of his life in that series of extraordinary albums overseen by producer Rick Rubin, when no one else wanted to have anything to do with him. These produced some of the finest and most moving tracks of his career. Bird on a Wire is one of them.
The first time I heard Lennie’s songs was on various JUDY COLLINS albums.
She had a couple on “In My Life,” a very fine album indeed, including the first recording of Suzanne. Although her version is the gold standard, I have someone else performing that song today. Judy’s next album, “Wildflowers” gave us three more of his songs, including the one today, Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye.
There were a couple more on her next album as well, but we have the song we want.
Another song from the man himself, LEONARD COHEN.
This is the Stranger Song taken from that remarkable first album of his, “Songs of Leonard Cohen.” This is another album on the short list of best first albums, even if you only consider the songs.
There are any number of fine versions of possibly his most famous song, Suzanne. I’ve decided on a little change of pace and I’m going with NINA SIMONE.
Nina has always had an interesting and diverse taste in the songs she has covered. Of course, anything she recorded is worth listening to. Here’s her take on Suzanne.
The next tune had to be present. It has been recorded by so many people it’s a bit of a cliché these days. Most people think Jeff Buckley’s is the version. Not me though. The one I like is the first I heard and it’s by VINCE JONES.
Vince is an Australian jazz trumpeter and singer in the Chet Baker mold, although without the destructive lifestyle that Chet affected. Vince sings and plays with a reserve and subtly that adds enormously to the music. His version of the song is from a live album he recorded many years ago, but it’s still wonderful.
MADELEINE PEYROUX was born in Georgia but grew up in New York, California and Paris.
She has said that her parents were a couple of hippies and also that they were eccentric educators. Everyone should have such parents.
Her singing style is an interesting mix of Billie Holiday and Patsy Cline with some others thrown into the mix as well. Whatever the influences, she’s made it her own. Here she sings Dance Me to the End of Love.
Another from JENNIFER WARNES.
I know, there are hundreds, probably thousands, of artists who have sung Lennie’s songs, some of whom I could have included but why bother with anything but the best?
The prominent bass is played by Rob Wasserman from whose album this track is taken. The song is Ballad of the Runaway Horses.
I’ll finish with LEONARD COHEN himself with his paean to Janis Joplin with whom he had a brief liaison at New York’s most infamous hotel, the Chelsea. The song is Chelsea Hotel No 2.