Leonard Cohen’s Notes On Suzanne: “Everything happened just as it was put down”

I wrote this [“Suzanne”] in 1966. Suzanne [Verdal] had a room on a waterfront street in the port of Montreal. Everything happened just as it was put down. She was the wife of a man I knew. Her hospitality was immaculate. With guitar in hand, I decided to turn this poem into a song. I even sang it to Judy Collins over the telephone. She immediately liked something about the song but couldn’t tell me what it was. The publishing rights were lost in New York City and it is probably appropriate that I don’t own this song. Just the other day I heard some people singing it on a ship in the Caspian Sea.quotedown2

Leonard Cohen

From “Some Notes On The Songs” on back cover of The Best of Leonard Cohen album (1975)

Discreet Video Captures Leonard Cohen’s Intimate Performance Of Suzanne – Bercy 2013

suzAnd you want to travel with her, and you want to travel blind
And you know that she will trust you
For you’ve touched her perfect body with your mind

The Sublimely Subdued Bercy Video

While I typically gravitate to videos with high contrast, bright, clear images close-up shots, and lots of action (e.g. Leonard Cohen and Roscoe Beck doing their white man dancing jig), I was overwhelmed by this video of Leonard Cohen singing Suzanne at Bercy on June 18, 2013, a recording which features a nearly stationary camera view and austerely understated visuals.

Leonard Cohen Performs Suzanne – The Bercy Cafe Version

The video by Lili072012 is shot from a perspective across from stage left. The camera does not zoom or pan. It does shift midway through the song to capture Alex Bublitchi during the brief period when his violin is dominant. The stage lighting obscures everyone except Cohen himself, the backup singers, and, briefly, Alex Bublitchi. There is little movement by the musicians themselves.

The video excludes awareness of the audience and the concert hall, invoking the sense of watching the performance from a well placed table at a coffeehouse. (OK, the last time I listened to music at a coffee house was when I heard Brewer & Shipley singing One Toke Over the Line at a place in Kansas City, but the video is more along the lines of what I imagine live music would sound like in a sophisticated Paris cafe.)

It is the perfect match of song and video technique.

Leonard Cohen – Suzanne
Bercy: June 18, 2013
Video by Lili072012

Note: Originally posted June 18, 2014 at DrHGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric

“It raised the standard of what I wanted to write.” Joni Mitchell Talks About Hearing Leonard Cohen Sing “Suzanne” At The 1967 Newport Festival

At the [1967] Newport Folk Festival … Leonard did Suzanne. I’d met him and I went, ‘I love that song. What a great song.’ Really. Suzanne was one of the greatest songs I ever heard. So I was proud to meet an artist. He made me feel humble, because I looked at that song and I went, ‘Woah. All my songs seem so naive by comparison.’ It raised the standard of what I wanted to write.quotedown2

Joni Mitchell

From Joni Mitchell In Her Own Words by Malka Marom. ECW Press: September 9, 2014. Originally posted Sep 2, 2014 at DrHGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric

Best Videos Of 2013 Leonard Cohen Tour: Suzanne – Vienna

sukkzSuzanne 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

Best 2013 Leonard Cohen Videos: Cohencentric.com is featuring selections from the current Best Of 2013 Leonard Cohen Tour Video Setlist, which comprises the best available video of each of the songs performed during the 2013 Leonard Cohen Old Ideas World Tour

Leonard Cohen – Suzanne
Vienna: July 27, 2013
Video by glauxath

Best Videos Of 2012 Leonard Cohen Tour: Suzanne – Helsinki


Now Suzanne takes your hand
And she leads you to the river
She is wearing rags and feathers
From Salvation Army counters
And the sun pours down like honey
On our lady of the harbour
And she shows you where to look
Among the garbage and the flowers
There are heroes in the seaweed
There are children in the morning
They are leaning out for love
And they will lean that way forever
While Suzanne holds the mirror

Best 2012 Leonard Cohen Videos: Cohencentric.com features selections from the Best Of 2012 Leonard Cohen Tour Video Setlist, which comprises the best available video of each of the songs performed during the 2012 Leonard Cohen World Tour.

Leonard Cohen – Suzanne
Helsinki: Sept 2, 2012
Video by (Marie Nolan)

Leonard Cohen As Model Mandarin Orange Marketer

orangesA few months after publishing Cohensubstantiation – Commonplace Tea Becomes Sacramental Repast In Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne, I came across this post from a marketing blog which also focused on Leonard Cohen’s transformation of the Constant Comment tea Suzanne served him into “tea and oranges all the way from China.” In this case, the author was moved to present the Canadian singer-songwriter’s classic song as a model for storytelling in advertising.

The following is excerpted from Storytelling 2.0: Think Leonard Cohen by Alice Germanetti (Content Market Insider: Oct 25, 2013)

47 years ago, Leonard Cohen wrote “Suzanne,” a song about an engaging young woman who “feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China.” In those few words he painted a picture of an exotic, mysterious, romantic and desirable creature, just by having her serve him a light snack.

Every woman I knew went out and bought a can of those sweet little Geisha oranges. And you had to really look for them, too. I bought several. Along with a flowery blue kimono. I was, after all, an Italian girl from New Jersey…

Every few months I bought a fresh can. After my 11th can in two years, I assumed Leonard was in on the deal. He had singlehandedly created awareness and desire for those little oranges in our culture. He was responsible for putting Mandarin oranges on the map and in the Mayfair Market. He had to be getting a cut…

Decades later, I heard LC interviewed about “Suzanne.” He said she was a rare beauty who served him Constant Comment Tea. My heart sank. My mother drank Constant Comment. It wasn’t from China. It wasn’t exotic. It wasn’t the tea AND oranges I pictured, it was a tea bag WITH slivers of dried up orange rinds…

But I thank you, Leonard, for giving me 40 years of believing I could be somewhat magical and mysterious and exotic. And I sincerely hope the world appreciates what you did for the marketing of Mandarin oranges.

For more about Leonard Cohen changing Constant Comment from grocery to sacrament, see Cohensubstantiation – Commonplace Tea Becomes Sacramental Repast In Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne

Note: Originally posted October 25, 2013 at DrHGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric

And She Feeds You Constant Comment: Leonard Cohen Transforms Commonplace Drink Into Suzanne’s Sacramental “Tea And Oranges”


Cohensubstantiation: Leonard Cohen’s Transfiguration Of The Everyday Into Extraordinary Imagery

And she feeds you tea and oranges
That come all the way from China

Today’s post examines these two well-known lines from Leonard Cohen’s classic, Suzanne, to offer insight into Cohen’s songwriting methodology.

Origin: In The Beginning …

Leonard Cohen’s songwriting process is an inversion of premise set forth in the opening verses of the Gospel of John 1:1 begins

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

There follows an elaboration of the creation of all things by God through the Word. Then, verse 14 identifies this Word:

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.

The Cohen creation mythology, however, has the flesh becoming the Word. The content of Suzanne, like much of Cohen’s oeuvre, is grounded in the Canadian singer-songwriter’s personal experience, as Cohen himself points out in these two excerpts:

From a 1994 Leonard Cohen interview on BBC Radio:1

She [Suzanne Verdal] had a space in a warehouse down there, and she invited me down, and I went with her, and she served me Constant Comment tea, which has little bits of oranges in it.

Continue Reading →

  1. Transcript of BBC Radio 1 programme about Leonard Cohen, broadcast Sunday August 7, 1994. []

Leonard Cohen “Couldn’t Care Less” That Joan Baez “Brutally Violated” His Song Suzanne

len-joanAnd you want to travel with Him,
And you want to travel blind.
And you think you’ll maybe trust Him
‘Cause He’s touched you
And He’s moved you,
And He’s kind.

Joan Baez version of Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne (1983)

Cohen Confident His Songs “Can Take Care Of Themselves”

In a 1992 video interview Leonard Cohen declares

I don’t give my songs any instructions when they are presented to the public. They are completely on their own. I really feel they can take care of themselves – even when they are brutally violated as Joan Baez did to the song “Suzanne.”1 [emphasis mine]

Cohen explains that, for ideological reasons, Joan Baez rejected the line, “For you’ve touched her perfect body with your mind,” as mystical and drug-induced. His recall of her replacement lyrics is faulty (his best guess is that she sang  “I touched your perfect body with my thumb”). There are a few other changes in her version of the song as well (see comparison of lyrics below).

Cohen’s point, however, is that, even with the radical change in the words he wrote for his song,

I still loved the song. … I couldn’t care less that she couldn’t accept that line.

One notes, however, that Cohen goes on to report that when he met her backstage during the Rolling Thunder Revue,2  she sang it with his original lyrics and told him, “I finally got it right, Leonard.” “She had, Cohen summarizes, “come around.”
Not that Leonard Cohen cares.

Mary Martin, Cohen’s manager at the time was certainly less sanguine, as noted in this excerpt from Louise Scruggs Memorial Forum: Mary Martin by Michael McCall (Country Music Hall of Fame: November 17, 2009):

As an example of how fiercely protective Martin could be of Cohen’s songs, she recalled a story about hearing that Joan Baez had been performing “Suzanne,” a song first recorded by Collins. Only Baez changed some of the lyrics when she performed the song. Martin sent her a terse letter demanding she stop changing the song, explaining, “I don’t think you would take another brush to Andrew Wyeth and his paintings. Therefore, do not alter Leonard Cohen’s poetry.”

Suzanne – The Leonard Cohen And Joan Baez Lyrics

Click on image below to enlarge lyrics.

Videos – Joan Baez Sings Two Versions Of “Suzanne” By Leonard Cohen

Joan Baez – Suzanne: Joan Baez Rewrite Of Lyrics
Paris: 1983


Joan Baez – Suzanne: Original Leonard Cohen Lyrics
France: 2010


Credit Due Department: A reasonable facsimile of Leonard Cohen’s fedora is herewith symbolically doffed in thanks to Maarten Massa, who found and shared this tasty tidbit. Photo of Joan Baez by Heinrich Klaffs [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons. Photo of Leonard Cohen by Roland Godefroy (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Note: Originally posted March 8, 2011 at 1HeckOfAGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric

  1. Yes, that’s what Leonard Cohen said; no, this is not another DrHGuy joke. Check the video []
  2. See Leonard Cohen Declines Bob Dylan’s Invitation To Play In Rolling Thunder Revue and Leonard Cohen Hosts Joni Mitchell & Ratso At Home For Barbequed Ribs []