For the latest installment of our Classics Revisited series, Louis Griffin paints a picture of a love story across the ages and the beautiful album it birthed, Songs of Leonard Cohen.
There’s a small island, just off the south coast of Greece, called Hydra. A young man named Leonard Cohen travelled there in September 1960. It was 6 days after he had turned 26 - his grandmother had died, and, impulsively, he used the money she had bequeathed him to buy a house there. He had come to write; Cohen was a poet, a critically acclaimed one at that, and he sought some peace in which to blacken pages. Cohen did find some peace to write there, penning two novels, although neither was particularly well-received. His time on Hydra instead gifted him two other things, each as priceless as the other: his songwriting, and his relationship with Marianne Ihlen.
Cohen was born into an Orthodox Jewish family; his father died when Cohen was 9, and his faith never really left him. Indeed, if you know where to look, his songs are littered with references to the Bible and religious imagery. Leonard spent his twenties as a poet, first at university, and then back home in Montreal. He lived on St. Laurent Boulevard, a neighbourhood of artists at that time, and read his poetry in the clubs there. By the summer of 1961, he had two books of poetry published, to some acclaim. But Cohen had decided to turn his mind to fiction, and so retreated to Hydra to collect his thoughts.
On Hydra, he found a community of artists and writers into which he settled. He met fellow poets and lived what he called an “eleventh-century life”, rising at dawn, writing furiously through the morning, and then retiring to the terraces when it was too hot to continue. He subsisted, by his own admission, on a diet of psychedelics and ouzo. Into this idyll came the woman that was to be his muse for nearly the entirety of his career: Marianne Ihlen. She was a Norwegian divorcee – after her husband Axel left her, she moved to Hydra with her son. Cohen fell deeply in love, with Marianne and with this life, feeling finally content.
He found a rhythm of writing, and life seemed bright and full of possibility; he later said that “it was as if everyone was young and beautiful and full of talent – covered with a kind of gold dust”. But it was not to last. When the novel was finally published, reviews were critical at best, and Cohen fell into a deep depression, realising that he may never earn a living through his writing. Ihlen had concerns of her own, returning to Norway to care for her son, and soon Cohen moved back to Montreal, castigated by his lack of literary success.
Upon returning to Montreal, Cohen then took off to New York, hoping to find some kind of purpose there. Into the picture came Judy Collins; when they first met, Cohen was convinced that he had no musical talent, saying that “I can’t sing, or play the guitar, and I don’t know if this is a song”. He then played her Suzanne. Collins asked if she could cover it, and Cohen, uninterested in music, obliged. It went on to become a hit, and she convinced him to play it with her at a fundraiser. “He'd never sung [in front of a large audience] before then. He got out on stage and started singing. Everybody was going crazy – they loved it. And he stopped about halfway through and walked off the stage. Everybody went nuts. […] They demanded that he come back. And I demanded; I said, "I'll go out with you." So, we went out, and we sang it. And of course, that was the beginning”.
'He subsisted, by his own admission, on a diet of psychedelics and ouzo. Into this idyll came the woman that was to be his muse for nearly the entirety of his career: Marianne Ihlen'.
Things began to move quickly. John Hammond, a producer at Columbia Records, signed Cohen and began work on his debut album. The best New York session musicians were brought in, although this unnerved Cohen – and indeed, this was the first of many creative differences to plague the recording. Hammond fell ill and was replaced by producer John Simon, a slick industry type who, by all accounts, clashed with Cohen. Leonard wanted a sparse sound, Simon wanted strings and horns; by the end of the recording, Suzanne was unrecognisable, overblown and bloated. Cohen altered the mix as much as he could, but some of Simon’s additions were physically unremovable from the four-track tape. And yet, miraculously, what came out at the other end was a masterwork.
Songs Of Leonard Cohen was released on December 27th 1967. Ten tracks, forty-one minutes. The songs contained within seem almost inevitable in their simplicity; the lyrics tumble out, one after the other, with casual charm from Cohen’s lips. It begins with the aforementioned Suzanne - one of the greatest love songs ever penned, written about Suzanne Verdal, a friend’s wife. It weaves an intimate path through their apparently platonic relationship, with Verdal feeding Cohen the famous "tea and oranges" in her apartment overlooking the bay. It took Cohen months to write, having to discard many a verse – a “painful process”. After release, he was conned into signing away the publishing rights, although he remained unruffled by this afterwards; in typically understated Cohen fashion, he is quoted as saying that it is “probably appropriate that I don’t own [Suzanne]. Just the other day I heard some people singing it on a ship in the Caspian Sea”.
'Cohen was convinced that he had no musical talent, saying that “I can’t sing, or play the guitar, and I don’t know if this is a song”. He then played her Suzanne'.
Many of the other songs had equally cinema-esque origins. The tale goes that Sisters Of Mercy was written in Edmonton, in the throes of a snow storm. Cohen met two young backpackers caught in the storm and offered them his hotel room. He sat in an armchair while they slept, and by daybreak he had finished the song and played it to them.
In the same way, the most emotive song on the LP, So Long, Marianne, has a similarly romantic story. It remains an enduring ballad, interspersed with some of Cohen’s most beautiful stanzas:
"I forget to pray for the angels, and then the angels forget to pray for us".
"I’m standing on a ledge, and your fine spider web is fastening my ankle to a stone".
“I’m cold as a new razor blade … you left when I said I was curious, I never said I was brave”.
He finished the song in the Chelsea Hotel, a location that looms time and again through Cohen’s mythology, but the best insight into the track remains the prologues Cohen has given the song when performing live. In Berlin in 1974, he described it as “a song for a beautiful, gracious, eternal woman”, and later that year, in Frankfurt, he said simply: “this is a song of forgiveness”.
Songs can be seen as a chronicle of Cohen’s time with Marianne on Hydra. Cohen and Marianne remained in touch for the rest of their lives; Ihlen is quoted as saying: “This relationship was a gift to me. And a gift for Leonard, I might also add, not to underestimate myself completely”. Cohen would often write to Ihlen, who returned to Norway and settled down, and when he received news that she was dying of leukaemia in July 2016, he wrote her one final letter:
I’m just a little behind you, close enough to take your hand. This old body has given up, just as yours has too, and the eviction notice is on its way any day now.
I’ve never forgotten your love and your beauty. But you know that. I don’t have to say any more. Safe travels old friend. See you down the road.
Love and gratitude.
This letter was read to Ihlen on her deathbed, and Marianne passed away on the 28th July 2016. Leonard Cohen followed her just three months later, on November 7th. Their story lives on though, through Songs. Cohen is quoted as saying that “when you’ve lived on Hydra, you can’t live anywhere else, including Hydra”. Well, I’d say the same about Songs Of Leonard Cohen – once you’ve heard it, these songs will stay with you forever.