Music

The Best Covers of Leonard Cohen's 12 Best-Known Songs (stream)

Jon Bream / Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (MCT)
(Loona/Abaca Press/MCT)

Leonard Cohen

Live in London

Label: Columbia
UK Release Date: 2009-03-30
US Release Date: 2009-03-31
Amazon
Amazon
iTunes

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.

 
"Suzanne"

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).

 
"Hallelujah"

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).

 
"Everybody Knows"

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").

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less
9
TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less
9

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
9
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image