Leonard Cohen: the key songs and what they mean
From his 1967 debut album to the final recordings, here are 10 of Leonard Cohen’s best songs and lyrics
“It is a mysterious process, it involves perseverance and perspiration and sometimes, by some grace, something stands out and invites you to elaborate or animate it. These are sacred mechanics and you have to be careful analysing them as you would never write a line again. If you looked too deeply into the process you’d end up in a state of paralysis.”
Though Cohen would produce dark, funereal imagery at will, all his work is undercut with a wry and playful sense of humour. Here are ten of his best offerings
The sisters of mercy, they are not departed or gone
They were waiting for me when I thought that I just can’t go on
And they brought me their comfort and later they brought me this song
Oh, I hope you run into them, you who’ve been travelling so long
From The Sisters of Mercy: This is the only song Cohen wrote in one sitting. In a snowstorm in Canada, he met two young female hitchhikers with nowhere to stay. He gallantly gave up his bed for them and wrote these words as he watched them fall into an exhausted sleep.
There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in
From Anthem: One of his most quoted lines. Cohen illustrates how nothing is ever perfect, but it’s the flaws that illuminate.
Like a bird on the wire
Like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free
From Bird On a Wire: for anyone who’s been drunk at Midnight Mass. Cohen wrote this while living on the Greek island of Hydra and seeing a bird sitting by itself on a telephone wire. He then used it to provide an apologia of his private and professional lives.
Suzanne takes your hand and she leads you to the river
She’s wearing rags and feathers from Salvation Army counters
And the sun pours down like honey on our lady of the harbor
From Suzanne: Written about meeting Suzanne Vaillancourt and being invited back to her Montreal port home, the song details Cohen’s infatuation with his friend’s wife. Suzanne was his first hit and for many the first time they heard his beautiful sonorous voice.
I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel,
You were talking so brave and so sweet,
Giving me head on the unmade bed,
While the limousines wait in the street.
From Chelsea Hotel: One of the biggest regrets Cohen had was letting slip in a BBC 1994 interview that this song was written about Janis Joplin. He later apologised saying: “That was the sole indiscretion in my professional life. I deeply regret associating a woman’s name with a song. I used the line ‘giving me head’ and I’ve always disliked the locker-room approach to these matters.”
Maybe there’s a God above
But all I’ve ever learned from love
Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew ya
And it’s not a cry that you hear at night
It’s not somebody who’s seen the light
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah
From Hallelujah: Here Cohen’s twin passions of sex and spirituality roam free. It took him four long years to perfect this song that many consider his masterpiece, and it was originally 80 verses long. He said of this song: “It explains that many kinds of hallelujahs do exist, and all the perfect and broken hallelujahs have equal value.”
I loved you in the morning, our kisses deep and warm
Your hair upon the pillow like a sleepy golden storm
Yes, many loved before us, I know that we are not new
In city and in forest, they smiled like me and you
From Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye: Cohen’s description of the writing of the song is perhaps better than the lyric itself: “This song arises from an overused bed in the Penn Terminal Hotel in 1966. The room is too hot. I can’t open the windows. I am in the midst of a bitter quarrel with a blonde woman. The song is half-written in pencil but it protects us as we manoeuvre, each of us, for unconditional victory. I am in the wrong room. I am with the wrong woman”
Well, my friends are gone and my hair is grey
I ache in the places where I used to play
I said to Hank Williams, how lonely does it get?
Hank Williams hasn’t answered yet
But I hear him coughing all night long
Oh, a hundred floors above me in the Tower of Song
From Tower of Song: Hank Williams was one of the few real influences on Cohen’s songwriting. This mediation on the ageing process was thrown in the bin numerous times before one night in Montreal he recorded it in one take with a toy synthesizer.
Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That’s how it goes
From Everybody Knows: Although written in 1988 it is so comprehensive in its worldview that it could have been written this morning
I don’t need a reason
For what I became
I’ve got these excuses
They’re tired and they’re lame
I don’t need a pardon,
There’s no one left to blame
I’m leaving the table
I’m out of the game
From Leaving The Table: Among the last lyrics he wrote for this song on his October 2016 album, You Want It Darker. Hey, that’s some way to say goodbye.