The quality of Leonard Cohen’s written word has never been in doubt. But if there was ever an accusation that Cohen’s strength was limited to the field of lyrics and, in turn, left wanting in terms of songwriting and performance, then ‘So Long, Marianne’ is the gilded pop-perfect middle finger to that.
To throw lines like “held on to me like a crucifix” and “I’m standing on a ledge and your fine spider web / is fastening my ankle to a stone” into something that could be considered an ‘earworm’ is a gargantuan feat that expresses his well-rounded craft with mercurial brilliance.
With the song, he delves into the complexities of love, pitting contentedness against curiosity and the happiness of lasting love alongside the thrill of fleeting lust. And, beneath it all, is the sort of autobiographical honesty for which he is still the musical heavyweight champion.
Documenting a very personal heartfelt tale might make it a difficult song to cover on paper, but in truth, he always managed a way of grounding his own state of affairs with a universal condition. This has made the song not only a classic in his own back catalogue but a welcome addition to the many the output of many artists who have covered it.
Below, we’re looking at the five best to date.
The best covers of ‘So Long, Marianne’
Britpop legends James might not seem like the most obvious act to cover the folk introspection of the sartorial troubadour, but it is a measure of the songs melody that lends itself to a pop band so well.
While the melody of the original remains, the instrumentation couldn’t be more different. With horns, slide guitar and pounding drum fills the Greenwich Village vibes that linger on the original are blown away, but rather than blow the song apart in the process a solid vocal performance by Tim Booth holds the whole thing together in a rousing nineties infusion.
Sure, it doesn’t stand up to the original, but it’s certainly something new.
John Cale & Suzanne Vega
For the compilation album Bleecker Street, musicians were asked to focus on the sound of Greenwich Village in the 1960s. The record saw ex-Velvet Underground member John Cale team up with American folk phenom Suzanne Vega.
In classic Cale style, the scope of the song’s backing track is a cacophony of instrumentation with a kitchen sink of flourishes thrown into the mix, but rather than being a busy blur the soaring vocals and Vega’s light tempering touch pulls the whole thing together with aplomb.
First Aid Kit
Certain acts just have a knack when it comes to covers and just about anything that Swedish folk duo Johanna and Klara Söderberg turn their hand to is a glowing indictment of the original. As part of Who by Fire, they assembled an assortment of musicians for a live tribute to Leonard Cohen.
With a vast handful of musicians accompanying for the number, the track has a medley-like feel to it and while there might just be one or two too many new voices to make for a succinct listening experience, it certainly works as a tribute to original with each new voice unearthing something new within the song.
There is an undoubted kinship between both Bill Callahan and Leonard Cohen and that is not solely informed by the fact that the former signs off his epic track ‘Pigeons’ with the postscript of “Yours truly, L. Cohen”. They share the song literary lyricism, laidback vocals and unflinching view of life.
This likeness carries through befittingly on Callahan’s cover. The former Smog man is not trying to reinvent the wheel, with a song as perfect as ‘So Long, Marianne’ there is no need.
Instead, he pays homage to his hero without ever losing sight of his own artistic identity.
The beauty of many brilliant covers is how they can serve as a timely reminder of just how magnificent the original was with an infusion of new energy. When Bob Dylan discussed covers of his own work in his memoir, he stated, “Of all the versions of my recorded songs, The Johnny Rivers one was my favourite. It was obvious that we were from the same side of town, had been read the same citations, came from the same musical family and were cut from the same cloth.”
He adds, “Most of the cover versions of my songs seemed to take them out into left field somewhere, but Rivers’s version had the mandate down – the attitude, the melodic sense to complete and surpass even the feeling that I had put into it.”
Although Aussie singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett might usually propagate a grungier style than the silken melodies of Cohen, she clearly mas the mandate down, in such a way that it soars with its own individual brilliance while also acting as the perfect send-up to the original.