So Long, R.E.M. – Leonard Cohen & R.E.M.

It’s The End Of R.E.M.

Last week [at time of original posting: Sept 28, 2011], the members of R.E.M. posted this notice on their official site,

To our Fans and Friends: As R.E.M., and as lifelong friends and co-conspirators, we have decided to call it a day as a band. We walk away with a great sense of gratitude, of finality, and of astonishment at all we have accomplished. To anyone who ever felt touched by our music, our deepest thanks for listening.


R.E.M. has long admired and sometimes emulated Leonard Cohen. On the occasion of  the band’s breakup, a retrospective look at the Leonard Cohen-R.E.M. connection seems an appropriate tribute to this groundbreaking group credited by many as the inventors of alternative rock.

R.E.M.’s Hope = Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne

The link between “Hope” by R.E.M. and “Suzanne” by Leonard Cohen is intriguing because the melody of both songs is nearly identical and the lyrics, while dealing with dissimilar topics, are largely parallel.  In addition, the lyrics of “Hope” have also been lauded  by fans and reviewers as some of Michael Stipe’s strongest work.

According to Wikipedia,

The band R.E.M. gave Cohen a joint songwriting credit for their song “Hope” (on their 1998 album Up), in light of the similarity between the two songs. R.E.M. describe themselves as realising that similarity only after completing the song.

From Ask Michael Stipe: Finale!, posted September 28, 2008:

[Fan:] One of my favorite REM-songs is HOPE, because I really love the background sound, as well as the energy it transports and the rate. The lyrics are great, I especially love the line ” and you want to cross your DNA with something reptile”, so what is the song about and what was the idea about this special line? …

[Michael Stipe:] felt very futuristic/21st c. to me that someday we will use prehistoric ‘living fossil’ animal dna to bolster our own immunity; the guy in the song is facing some very difficult questions about longevity and survival, and basically grabbing at any possibility to stay alive. I obviously lifted most of the song from Leonard Cohen, along with the imagery ideas from World Leader Pretend

For a convenient comparison of the two songs, a video of R.E.M. performing “Hope” and Albert Noonan’s video of Cohen singing “Suzanne” at the November 12, 2009 Las Vegas concert are provided below.

R.E.M. – Hope: Video

R.E.M. – Hope: Sample Lyrics

You want to go out Friday
And you want to go forever
You know that it sounds childish
That you dreamt of alligators
You hope that we are with you
And you hope you’re recognized
You want to go forever
You see it in my eyes
I’m lost in the confusion
And it doesn’t seem to matter
You really can’t believe it
And you hope it’s getting better

R.E.M. – Hope: Full Lyrics

Leonard Cohen – Suzanne: Video
Las Vegas: November 12, 2009

Leonard Cohen – Suzanne: Sample Lyrics

Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river
You can hear the boats go by
You can spend the night beside her
And you know that she’s half crazy
But that’s why you want to be there
And she feeds you tea and oranges
That come all the way from China
And just when you mean to tell her
That you have no love to give her

Leonard Cohen – Suzanne: Full Lyrics

R.E.M. Covers Leonard Cohen’s “First We Take Manhattan”

The most straightforward link between Cohen and R.E.M. is the latter’s gritty cover of “First We Take Manhattan” on the 1991 tribute album, I’m Your Fan, produced by the Les Inrockuptibles.

World Leader Pretend – Michael Stipe’s “First Real Lift” From Leonard Cohen

From Ask Michael Stipe: Finale!, posted September 28, 2008:

[Fan:] I’ve always (well, 20 years now) been fascinated with the lyrics of “World leader pretend”. It seems pretty much a song about an all psychological “war” the character wages with himself (I sit at my table, And wage war on myself… I divine my deeper motives… This is my world… This is my life, and this is my time..). What was the inspiration for these very introspective lines? Were you coming across a self-reflective time, or was an external event that led you to write such introspective lyrics? And, it seems to me these lyrics come from a sort of dissatisfaction the character has with himself.. is this a passing and circumstantial unhappiness, as may happen at any time in our everyday life, or is it a deeper feeling of a thorough “inadequacy” he feels toward life and his commitment to it?
Grazie mille Michael, and thank you also for your extremely inspirational lyrics!

[Michael Stipe:]  This was my first real lift from Leonard Cohen.  I took a very personal vantage point and used the language of war to describe it. 

Michael Stipe’s “King of Comedy” Inspired By Leonard Cohen

“King Of Comedy” is a synth driven track with a  dark vocal range and cynical lyrics Stipe claims were  inspired by Leonard Cohen.
Less charitably, guitarist Peter Buck called it a “Leonard Cohen rip-off.”1

Note: Originally posted Sept 28, 2011 at, a predecessor of Cohencentric


  1. Black, Johnny (2004). Reveal: The Story of R.E.M.. Backbeat Books []

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