Was A Joni Mitchell Painting The Inspiration For Leonard Cohen’s Bird On The Wire?

And Joni was convinced that “Bird on the Wire” was inspired by a painting she showed Cohen, an eccentric statement about not fitting in with her husband’s family. She thought Cohen would appreciate it.

I had this painting I did for the Mitchells. I was such a misfit in that family, and I did painting, which I showed to Leonard. In this painting, there are these sparrows sitting on a wire. It’s got a hot-pink background, and there are sparrows with peacock tails. There are all these fictitious birds. And there was one for each Mitchell, and one of them was hanging upside down. Guess who? I think that had some input on ‘Bird on the Wire.’ I showed it to Leonard. It was something I did on a Sunday about how I how I didn’t fit in. They were the first Yuppies that I met. They were pedigreed consumers. They all had the same education. They were brand-name people. A suit had to be Brooks Brothers. No, you don’t drink Canada Dry, you drink Vernors. Ice cream has to be Häagen-Dazs. Cars have to be a Chevy Corvair. Frank Lloyd Wright architecture and Danish modern furniture.They were so materialistic in such an unfamiliar way to me, and I didn’t know what the fuck they were talking about.quotedown2

Joni Mitchell

From Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell by David Yaffe. Sarah Crichton Books (October 17, 2017).

Also see “If the bird can get used to the wire, I told him, you can get used to the wire.” Marianne Ihlen On Why, Of All Leonard Cohen’s Songs, She Felt Closest To Bird On The Wire

“I started the guitar and I heard myself sing that first phrase, ‘Like a bird on a wire,’ and I knew the song was going to be true.” Leonard Cohen

I’m not sure of exactly what I want to say next. It has to do with maybe an image you may have formed of yourself. That has something to do with this business of coming of age. But maybe it changes, all the way through, maybe the next record will be the epitome of simplicity and will be absolutely out of the hole.

Well, I understand what you mean. I’ll try to relate it to something particular: this song ‘Like a Bird on a Wire’ which I was telling you about. I tried many versions and in a way the history of that song on the record is my whole history. I tried it in many different ways. At about four in the morning I sent all the musicians home except for my friends Zev who plays Jew’s harp, Charlie McCoy who was playing the bass, the electric bass, and Bob Johnston who’s the A & R man; I asked him to just sit at the organ from time to time. And I just knew that at that moment something was going to take place. I’d never sung the song true, never, and I’d always had a kind of phony Nashville introduction that I was playing the song to and by the time I came around to start my own song I was already following a thousand models. And I just did the voice before I started the guitar and I heard myself sing that first phrase, ‘Like a bird on a wire,’ and I knew the song was going to be true. I knew it was going to be true and new and I sang it through and I listened to myself singing, and it was a surprise. Then I heard the replay and I knew it was right. I’d never sung it true and I didn’t think I could ever sing it true again because I’m not a performer. But there is one moment and it happens to coincide with the huge mechanical facilities of Columbia Records, that’s what I call magic. And it did, it happened that way. I suppose a master, a master of chance and someone who deeply understands phenomena, could see the method and technique. I learned a lot from it, I’d like to apply it right now, we may get to that moment.quotedown2

Leonard Cohen


An Interview with Leonard Cohen by Michael Harris. Duel, Winter 1969.

Johnny Cash’s Cover Of “Bird On A Wire” Is On Leonard Cohen’s Jukebox

Leonard Cohen’s Jukebox

Biggest Influence on My Music – The jukebox. I lived beside jukeboxes all through the fifties. … I never knew who was singing. I never followed things that way. I still don’t. I wasn’t a student of music; I was a student of the restaurant I was in — and the waitresses. The music was a part of it. I knew what number the song was.

– Leonard Cohen (Yakety Yak by Scott Cohen, 1994)

Leonard Cohen’s Jukebox: Over the years, Leonard Cohen has mentioned a number of specific songs he favors. Leonard Cohen’s Jukebox is a Cohencentric feature that began collecting these tunes for the edification and entertainment of viewers on April 4, 2009. All posts in the Leonard Cohen’s Jukebox series can be found at the Leonard Cohen’s Jukebox Page.

I was blown away!

Leonard Cohen on Johnny Cash’s
Performance of Bird On A Wire

Yesterday someone brought up Johnny Cash’s version of Bird On A Wire. Today I bought the record it’s on, ‘American Recordings,’ in a small import shop here in Amsterdam. I didn’t believe my ears. Only the man’s voice and guitar. I was blown away! Those are moments that I think: what am I actually doing here in this business! But if a concert hall full of people – let alone a sports stadium full of people – thinks I can sing then I can sing, isn’t that so?

Leonard Cohen

From Nieuwe live cd gedeeltelijk in Stopera opgenomen [New live cd partly recorded in Stopera] by Jip Golsteijn (De Telegraaf: July 30, 1994). Contributed and translated by Anja Deelen

Credit Due Department: Photo of Johnny Cash by Heinrich Klaffs


Leonard Cohen Explains Why Bird On The Wire “Is So Important To Me”

The song [Bird On The Wire] is so important to me. It’s that one verse where I say that I swear by this song, and by all that I have done wrong, I’ll make it all up to thee. In that verse it’s a vow that I’ll try and redeem everything that’s gone wrong. I think I’ve made it too many times now, but I like to keep renewing it.quotedown2

Leonard Cohen

Cohen Regrets (1973) by Alastair Pirrie. Beat Patrol: December 30, 2008. [Originally written for the New Musical Express: March 10, 1973.] Originally posted Nov 19, 2013 at DrHGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric