[1 May 2009]
Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Leonard Cohen’s songs are better known than he is.
Starting with Judy Collins in 1966 (“Suzanne”), they’ve been covered more than 1,500 times by other singers, whose versions often became more famous than his own.
Like Kris Kristofferson, Cohen is both a songwriting giant and a less-than-pretty singer. He has never had a song land in the top 40. Only two of his 18 albums have gone gold and one is a “hits” collection.
With the 74-year-old Canadian poet on his first U.S. tour in 15 years, we picked the best covers of 12 of his best-known songs.
The lyrics first appeared in Cohen’s 1966 poetry book “Parasites of Heaven” and was recorded the same year by Judy Collins, a year before his debut album.
Lyric: “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.”
Best: Nina Simone (1969).
Also recommended: Collins.
“Bird on a Wire”
Collins released her version in 1968, a year before Cohen’s. Kristofferson said the opening lines will be on his gravestone.
Lyric: “Like a bird on the wire/ Like a drunk in a midnight choir/ I have tried in my way to be free.”
Best version: Johnny Cash (1994).
Also recommended: Joe Cocker (1970), k.d. lang (2004), Dave Van Ronk (1971).
Recorded by Cohen in 1988, this tune got rediscovered twice by younger generations - with Jeff Buckley’s 1994 reading and Jason Castro’s on “American Idol” in ‘08.
Lyric: “She tied you to a kitchen chair/ She broke your throne, and she cut your hair/ And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah.”
Best: Buckley (1994).
Also recommended: John Cale (1991), k.d. lang (2004).
“First We Take Manhattan”
His former backup singer Jennifer Warnes recorded it before him, with Stevie Ray Vaughan on guitar.
Lyric: “You loved me as a loser/ But now you’re worried that I just might win. / You know the way to stop me/ But you don’t have the discipline.”
Best: R.E.M. (1991).
Also recommended: Warnes (1987), Joe Cocker (1999).
“Famous Blue Raincoat”
This 1971 song is about a love triangle, a plot similar to Cohen’s 1966 novel “Beautiful Losers.”
Lyric: “You treated my woman to a flake of your life/ And when she came back she was nobody’s wife.”
Best: Tori Amos (1995).
Also recommended: Joan Baez (1989), Jennifer Warnes (1987).
“Dance Me to the End of Love”
The string quartets that often played in Nazi death camps inspired this 1984 song.
Lyric: “Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin/ Dance me through the panic till I’m gathered safely in.”
Best: Madeleine Peyroux (2005).
Recordings of this pessimistic 1988 tune have turned up on movie and TV soundtracks.
Lyric: “Everybody knows you’ve been discreet/ But there were so many people you just had to meet/ Without your clothes/ And everybody knows.”
Best: Concrete Blonde (1990).
“Tower of Song”
In this 1988 song, Cohen talks about his need to write songs and his admiration for Hank Williams.
Lyric: “I was born like this, I had no choice/ I was born with the gift of a golden voice.”
Best: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (1991).
Also recommended: Marianne Faithfull (1999), Jesus and Mary Chain (1990).
“Chelsea Hotel No. 2”
Cohen wrote this 1974 ode about his affair with Janis Joplin.
Lyric: “You were famous, your heart was a legend./ You told me again you preferred handsome men/ But for me you would make an exception.”
Best: Rufus Wainwright (2005).
“I Can’t Forget”
Cohen offered this on ‘88’s plush-sounding “I’m Your Man,” the first album he produced by himself.
Lyric: “I’ll be there today/ With a big bouquet of cactus./ I got this rig that runs on memories./ And I promise, cross my heart/ They’ll never catch us.”
Best: Pixies (1991).
“Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye”
It appeared on the first albums by Cohen, Judy Collins and Roberta Flack.
Lyric: “I’m not looking for another/ As I wander in my time./Walk me to the corner/ Our steps will always rhyme.”
Best: Flack (1969.)
Also recommended: Lemonheads with Liv Tyler (2009).
“If It Be Your Will”
This religious song was the final track on 1985’s “Various Positions,” which Columbia Records refused to release.
Lyric: “If it be your will/ To let me sing/ From this broken hill/ All your praises they shall ring.”
Best: Antony Hegarty (from 2006 concert documentary “Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man”).