“Whatever erotic fantasy I had had about the whole situation, evaporated very very quickly – everybody had different purposes, theirs was fatigue and rest, and mine was some kind of bewilderment as usual about the whole situation… That was the first time I ever wrote a lyric from beginning to end without any revision.” Leonard Cohen On Sisters Of Mercy

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I remember reading various accounts of the song ‘Sisters of Mercy.’ I also don’t remember anything, except the snowstorm in Edmonton, it was very very – and I’m used to the snow, I come from Montreal. I know a lot about snow, but this I remember as a particularly ferocious storm, and I don’t know whether it was the part of Edmonton that I was in or the way it was laid out or the way the wind would come out right down from the north, but it was so strong that I had to seek shelter from the street. And I saw a doorway of a small building and I went in there, and there were two girls there also waiting till the storm laid down a bit, and I had a little room in a hotel which was called the… I have forgotten the name of it, I have to check some other persons’ account of the story. It looked out on the Edmonton river, just a little wooden hotel, nothing fancy. I think I was playing at a coffee shop nearby. Anyway, I invited the two young women to my room, and they were happy, because they were on the road and couldn’t afford a room. And they were road weary and there was a large bed and they fell asleep immediately in this big bed. And there was an easy chair beside the radiator right next to the window, and there was moonlight or I don’t remember, but it seemed to be the ice on the river, and it was very beautiful, a very beautiful northern view. And these two young women asleep in the bed. Whatever erotic fantasy I had had about the whole situation, evaporated very very quickly – everybody had different purposes, theirs was fatigue and rest, and mine was some kind of bewilderment as usual about the whole situation. So I was sitting there in that easy chair, that stuffed old chair. That was the first time I ever wrote a lyric from beginning to end without any revision. And I had a kind of tune, and I had my guitar there and I was playing it very very softly, and when they woke up, I’d play them the song, and everyone was very happy. quotedown2

Leonard Cohen

 

Leonard Looks Back On The Past (unedited interview for Norwegian Radio) by Kari Hesthamar, Los Angeles, 2005. Accessed at LeonardCohenFiles. Photo taken in Edmonton in 1966 by Rocco Caratozzolo, contributed by Kim Solez.

“[Sisters Of Mercy] was the first and only time I’ve written a song from beginning to end without a correction. I think it’s the prettiest song I’ve written.” Leonard Cohen

I wanted to know what the truth of Sisters Of Mercy was

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I was very lonely. I only had my guitar. And suddenly I found two girls who invited me to spend the night with them. I soon realized that this had nothing to do with sex. We just went to sleep because I was very tired. I woke up during the night and they were asleep. I started writing this song and when they woke up I sang it and I think I made them very happy. I think it was the first and only time I’ve written a song from beginning to end without a correction. I think it’s the prettiest song I’ve written. quotedown2

Leonard Cohen

 

Leonard Cohen Words And Silences by Constantino Romero (1974). Republished in Rockdelux 356 (December 2016). Via Google Translate. Photo by Pete Purnell

Leonard Cohen Songs Key In Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller

Singers Of Mercy: How McCabe & Mrs Miller Changed The Western Soundtrack by Charlie Brigden (The Quietus: April 29th, 2018) is an insightful essay on Altman’s use of Leonard Cohen’s music in his landmark movie. An excerpt follows but the full article, available at the link, is recommended reading:

‘Sisters of Mercy’ introduces McCabe’s prostitutes and notably the male reactions, the gawping construction workers and McCabe’s own shyster approach to it all that comes to a head when Alma stabs one of the punters. Cohen’s music just lingers as it’s clear McCabe is in over his head, and it’s no coincidence that this immediately precedes the arrival of Mrs Miller. Mrs Miller’s theme is ‘Winter Lady’, and we first hear it echoed in her smoky yellow room, post-opium session, but it’s used beautifully when she stands outside in the falling snow, scared at the inevitable fate of her and McCabe, Cohen uttering “you chose your journey long before you came across this highway”.

More McCabe & Mrs. Miller

Other posts about Leonard Cohen’s music in McCabe & Mrs. Miller and video clips of Cohen’s music in that film at 

Essential 2012 Leonard Cohen Amsterdam Concert Videos: Sisters of Mercy, Closing Time & Save The Last Dance

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How Good Are These Leonard Cohen Videos?

These Aug 22, 2012 Leonard Cohen Amsterdam performance videos by Albert Noonan are so good that you should

  • Wake the children, prop them in front of the computer, and compel them to watch these videos to embed within their minds and hearts a gold standard for great musical presentations.
  • Beg/pressure/trick your friends and family who think they don’t like Leonard Cohen’s music into viewing these videos. They could well begin appreciating his work, which would enhance their lives and bring world peace just that much closer to reality. And, if they still don’t care for Leonard Cohen’s music, at least you can give up the notion of ever winning them over, realizing that they are incapable of grasping Leonard’s work, most likely because of a profound psychological flaw or a severe neurological deficit, and thus deserve our compassion.
  • Watch them yourself a dozen times or so today – both for the sheer indulgent pleasure and to remind yourself precisely why you love Leonard Cohen.

Leonard Cohen – Sisters of Mercy
Amsterdam: Aug 22, 2012
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Leonard Cohen – Closing Time & Save The Last Dance
Amsterdam: Aug 22, 2012
Video by


Note: Originally posted Aug 25, 2012 at 1HeckOfAGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric

Leonard Cohen Talks About Barbara And Lorraine, The Original Sisters Of Mercy

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I always remember to dedicate this song to the girls for whom I wrote it. And like a lot of my material it’s just completely documentary. It doesn’t concern high metaphysical questions but an accurate reportage as authentic and precise as I can make it, a description of exactly what happened on the interior landscape. And I was in Edmonton during a tour by myself of Canada, I guess this was around 67. I was walking along one of the main streets of Edmonton, it was bitter cold ; and I knew no-one and I passed these two girls [Barbara and Lorraine] on a doorway. They invited me to stand in the doorway with them. Of course I did. And some time later, we found ourselves in my little Hotel room in Edmonton and the three of us were gonna go to sleep together. Of course I had all kinds of erotic fantasies of what the evening might bring. Interviewer: How old were you ? Oh I was an adult. I guess I was around my early 30’s. And we went to bed together and I think we all jammed into this one small couch in this little Hotel and it became clear that it wasn’t the purpose of the evening at all. And at one point, in the night, I found myself unable to sleep, I got up, and by the moonlight – It was very very bright, the moon was being reflected off the snow, and my windows were very bright – I wrote that poem by the ice-reflected moonlight while these women were sleeping and it was one of the few songs that I ever wrote from top to bottom without a line of revision . The words flowed and the melody flowed and by the time they woke up the next morning, it was dawn. I had this completed song to sing to them.quotedown2

Leonard Cohen

 

From Transcript of Pacifica Interview with Kathleen Kendall. WBAI Radio, New York City: December 4, 1974.

 

Animated Video: Leonard Cohen Reads “Two Went to Sleep” & Talks About Origins Of “Sisters of Mercy”

animLeonard Cohen reads “Two Went to Sleep” and recounts the origins of his 1967  “Sisters of Mercy” in a 1974 interview newly animated for PBS’ “Blank on Blank” series. The chat, which originally aired on WBAI 99.5 FM in New York City, is available via the Pacifica Radio archives.

Highly Recommended Reading: Stranger Songs: The Music of Leonard Cohen in McCabe & Mrs. Miller By Robert Christgau

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Over the years, at least a half-dozen posts on the topic of the music of Leonard Cohen in McCabe & Mrs. Miller have appeared at Cohencentric and its predecessors.1 Even if you’ve read all the reviews referenced in those entries, there is still more to learn from Stranger Songs: The Music of Leonard Cohen in McCabe & Mrs. Miller by Robert Christgau (Criterion: Oct 5, 2016). The excerpts below indicate Christgau’s grasp of detail and his nuanced, articulate observations.

Before Altman even tried to negotiate permissions, he laid Cohen’s songs over his footage, and the mesh amazed him. “I think the reason they worked was because those lyrics were etched in my subconscious, so when I shot the scenes I fitted them to the songs, as if they were written for them. I put in about ten of them at first—of course, we way overdid it—and then we ended up with the three songs that were finally used, and I thought they were just wonderful.”

The film version of “The Stranger Song” differs from the one Altman had played to death on successive copies of the Canadian singer-songwriter’s late-1967 debut album Songs of Leonard Cohen—produced, as it happens, by another John Simon (rather too schlockily, Cohen always thought). After starting off with the first three verses of the album version, the soundtrack interpolates a long, elegiac, Spanish-tinged guitar solo—amplified acoustic, I think—by David Lindley, for forty years now a go-to multi-instrumentalist but at the time merely a member of the California band Kaleidoscope, who were handpicked by Cohen to play behind him on the record only to be cut off at the pass by Simon the producer. Then the album version returns for two verses, after which it doubles back to the capper of the second verse, with the final three verses saved for a later scene. Thus the mood-setter ends: “That is curling up like smoke above his shoulder/It is curling just like smoke above his shoulder/He was just some Joseph looking for a manger/He was just some Joseph looking for a manger.”

The entire piece can be read at

Stranger Songs: The Music of Leonard Cohen in McCabe & Mrs. Miller

Also see

View Videos: Leonard Cohen’s Music in McCabe & Mrs. Miller

All posts about Leonard Cohen’s music in McCabe & Mrs. Miller can be found at 

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  1. DrHGuy.com & 1HeckOfAGuy.com []