It’s been eighty years by now that Leonard Cohen continues his mission. Mystic and sinner, prophet of sacred love and troubadour of profane passion. Always in search of the secret chord that can reveal the light in everything.
Looking forward to his new album, “Popular Problems”, we thought of preparing him a very special birthday card. So we asked fifteen artists who did Cohen's covers in their career to write in exclusive for OndaRock their personal letter for the wandering Canadian.
A tribute that is also a gallery of voices, all driven by the same desire: proving how Cohen’s songs go deep down inside of everyone.
THE MOUNTAIN GOATS
The Mountain Goats – The Smokey Life
(“Old Ideas With New Friends”, Columbia 2012)
Back in the days of Love and Hate, Leonard was known as “Laughing Lenny”; no stranger to depression, he exalted the inner dark as confessional entertainment. Finding a way to sing what we struggle to articulate (or prefer to avoid) and reflecting our bleakest thoughts with ironic humor, Leonard charmed us with his inscrutable wisdom.
Although we felt he understood us better than we understand ourselves, he was always talking straight – “I never had a secret chart to get me to the heart of this or any other matter”. Because Leonard never claimed to know the answers to the mysteries of the human soul he simply offered observations, having spent lengths of time down on his luck immersed in religious texts in various terrestrial wildernesses.
Sometimes I think he's still out there and always will be; and yet, he is so familiar to us in a reassuring, paternal kind of way that it's easy to forget what he said back in 1967 – “I told you when I came I was a stranger”…
Hugo Race – A Thousand Kisses Deep
(“No But It’s True”, Rough Velvet 2012)
I first discovered Leonard Cohen through two unlikely sources. First, the line in Nirvana's “Pennyroyal Tea”. Then, Nina Simone's upbeat version of “Suzanne”. I was intrigued and went to the mall in suburbia to pick up all of the cassette tapes of Leonard Cohen that I could find. I was 15 or 16 years old at the time. Needless to say, this outing to the music store was the start of an incredibly long love affair with Leonard Cohen. I fell in love, most of all, with his lyrics, if you could even call them that. He's been an incredibly influential figure in my life and pretty much single handedly guided me towards a specific genre of music. I heard the delicate nylon strings of his first few albums, coupled with the intimacy of the way his voice was mixed, and I slowly stylistically moved away from whatever I was into at the time and into the land of expertly written poetry set to music.
Marissa Nadler - Winter Lady
(“Covers Volume II”, 2011)
Happy birthday Mr. Cohen. I gave your first record as a present to a French woman.....She has now since become my wife. We and future generations thank you for your humanist art and being a part of our everyday lives.
Other Lives - The Partisan
(Live at KCRW, 2009)
When I read Leonard Cohen’s poetry, I am presented with such a vivid picture in my mind. His ability to write beautiful music to such lyrical wordplay is something I aspire to greatly as a songwriter.
Scott Matthews – Seems So Long Ago, Nancy
(“The Songs Of Leonard Cohen Covered”, Mojo 2012)
There are many things that make me proud of my birth country of Canada, and all of them are immovable and strong: the mountains, the sweeping vistas, the two oceans. Amongst these exist several artists I am proud to call a fellow countryman (or woman), and quite tall at the top of the pyramid stands Leonard Cohen. There are few artists I find quite so inspiring when it comes to his lyrics – and for this he is rightfully renowned – but Cohen’s way with a tune and melody is also full of tricky surprises that will ensure all of his musical gems remain a collective earworm for generations. I wish him all the best in his 80th year and look forward to writing more words of praise in his direction on his 90th, 100th, 110th...
Mark Andrew Hamilton
(“The Bard Of Montreal”, Herohill 2012)
When I was a freshman in college in the late 80's, a friend let me borrow “Songs From A Room”. It became the soundtrack to those formative years, and it prompted me to buy all his other material. I then went through a really rough period when my grandmother died (we were very close), and my dad decided to marry an evil demon. I felt I had no family left. One Halloween night, I was dressed as Jesus and I went down a dark psychedelic drug-induced path. This left me with a panic disorder for the following year. Leonard Cohen’s songs were the only thing that could soothe me. Thank you Leonard Cohen.
(“Stay”, Restless 1997)
THE BURNING HELL
Dear Mr. Cohen,I've been listening to you all my life, but because of a frustrating combination of geography and poverty it wasn't until two years ago that I finally saw you perform. It was the greatest show I'd ever seen or heard, and if that night had been the only time you put any music into the world, we'd all still have an excellent reason to say thank you for giving us such a nice present. You know, that show was so good that I almost swore off going to any other concerts from then on - I didn't, of course, but that show in Ghent remains the greatest and probably always will. You were only 78 back then. Spring chicken! Anyway, I've heard that “Death Of A Ladies’ Man” wasn't so much fun to make for you, but thanks for all the “Memories” nonetheless.
(“The Bard Of Montreal”, Herohill 2012)
As a teenager snooping through my parents record collection, I found a copy of the “Greatest Hits” of Leonard Cohen sat between Elvis Presley and Skeeter Davis. I took it with me when I left home for University. From there we moved on to London and many new places. With each move another LP would be added to the collection... “Songs Of Love And Hate” and “Songs From A Room” amongst my favorites.
The hushed power of songs like “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye” and “Famous Blue Raincoat” have only intensified over these years and his ability to say so much with just a handful of words still surprises and inspires me today.
“Avalanche” is another shade of Leonard Cohen, a more brutal side of the Cohen coin, and recording a version of it gave me at least the smallest insight into that wonderful world.
Dan Michaelson - Avalanche
(“The Songs Of Leonard Cohen Covered”, Mojo 2012)
A SINGER OF SONGS
Dear Mr. Cohen,
there are many reasons why I am grateful for your 80 years of life. But the most important one would be that I fell in love for the very first time thanks to you and your songs.
I was travelling on a slow bus from Vienna to Brussels in the mid nineties. I couldn’t read because I’d get car sick. I couldn’t watch the movie on the tiny TV screen because it was dubbed in Hungarian. So I pulled out my old walkman (tapes were still common though not hip in the nineties) and listened to my favorite tape of that time.
I had been travelling in silence that way for hundreds of kilometers when the girl sitting next to me tapped me on the arm. I hadn’t really noticed her, even though she was beautiful and blond and alone and Hungarian. She asked what I had been listening to non-stop for the last three hours, flipping the tape over every 45 minutes. “The Blue Moods Of Spain”, I told her. A brilliant album by a band called Spain. She didn’t know the album so I told her my walkman had two headphone outputs (what a simple and beautiful invention) and offered her to listen with me.
So we listened to Spain singing their magical songs in our separate headphones and I saw her close her eyes and disappear in the peace of the music. I usually bought 90 minute tapes. The Spain album lasts about 60 minutes, so I had 30 minutes left when I made the tape. And I put another of my favorite albums on there: a collection of songs by Leonard Cohen.
I had been growing very fond of your songs. Then the fondness turned into adoration, and then the adoration turned into obsession. Apparently I wasn’t the only one obsessed with you on that bus. So when all of a sudden “So Long, Marianne” played in our headphones, she opened her eyes and looked at me all startled and then… she smiled in recognition. You sang for another thirty minutes, and when “Lady Midnight” faded out into silence she kept repeating the words “You’ve won me, my Lord” over and over and over again.
Our affaire wouldn’t last long, but it was drenched in beauty and tenderness. On our next date she gave me a book with your poems. We’d listen to your songs through our separate headphones while walking through London, where she lived. We’d write long letters often quoting your lyrics. And when things went wrong I ended my letter with the entire lyric of “There Is A War”.
Happy birthday Mr. Cohen. And thank you for the songs and stories and wisdom and the words that guide but never lead.
(“The Corner I Seek Is A Place Where No One Meets”, 2011)
GREGORY ALAN ISAKOV
No amount of words could express my admiration and gratitude for your songs and your poems. I will just say for now, happy birthday. I hope it's the best one yet. All the will.
Gregory Alan Isakov – One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong
(“This Empty Northern Hemisphere”, 2009)
I once gave Leonard a copy of “Song And Void”, my second record. I used to do weird shit like that all the time. Me and a couple of other weirdos waited outside Joe’s Pub, stalking him. He was getting into a car. I handed him my cd and said something. He said thank you.
“I once was lost, then found, and now I’m lost again” (“Amazing Grace”).I'm 38 years old, still restless, still lost, still hungry. I don't have time for some bullshit U2 album and I'm tired of seeing Nick Cave’s face. Fuck that dude. I also gave him a copy of “Song And Void”. Bumped into him randomly at the Time Warner Center. I think he was browsing at the Benetton. Nick Cave at the mall, browsing at Benetton. He was awkward, and unable to handle my awkwardness.
Richard McGraw - Ain't No Cure For Love
(“Popular Music”, 2012)
Dear Mr. Cohen,
Happy Birthday! Love the new album! We would like to take this opportunity to thank you for your courage and vision as an artist... And as singers in a tribute themed traveling music show - Thanks for all the gigs!We look forward to sending you our new release, “In City And In Forest”, we hope you like it!
Tower Of Song (Oliver Swain & Glenna Garramone)
Tower Of Song – The Stranger Song
(“In City And In Forest”, 2014)
I discovered “New Skin For The Old Ceremony” when I was in college, and I’m pretty sure I played it on (digital) repeat until my hard drive crashed. That album taught me that songwriting didn’t have to be clean and neat, that you could take it wherever you wanted. College was a decade ago, and I still cover “Chelsea Hotel #2” at live shows.
John Statz – Chelsea Hotel #2
(“An Evening With John Statz”, 2008)
Thanks for the songs, Mr. Cohen. Sincerely, LC.
Lloyd Cole – Famous Blue Raincoat
(“Rare On Air, Vol. 2”, Mammoth 1995)
- Bonus track -
JOHNNY CASH (in memoriam)
If Johnny Cash was still here, maybe he’d sing one more time “Bird On The Wire” for his friend Leonard Cohen.
“Johnny Cash has been speaking to me for a long, long time”, remembers Cohen. “It’s one of the sweetest voices in my mind. Even after the song is done you hear him, you see him standing up for what we need and love. He’s always there, the tallest figure in the circle of integrity, the deepest voice when night comes down, and the bravest take on sanity in the midst of wild confusion”.
Through the voice of the Man in Black, “Bird On The Wire” resonate as powerful as an hymn. Don’t ever stop trying in your way to be free, Leonard. Happy birthday!
(“American Recordings”, American 1994)