I hate to sound judgemental, meddling, or trivial about delicate matters, but the idea of being invited around Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen’s place for dinner sounds like a rare circle of hell. They are both mercurial talents and amazing people in their own regard, but the idea of the two six-stringed forces of biblical poignancy colliding is an atomic act of fusion too profound to comprehend.
Of course, as individuals in their own right, they contain multitudes that can’t be deduced from their celestial back catalogues or even interviews, at least in any three-dimensional sense. However, from the surface, their profiles are simply too similar and sagacious for match-making algorithms to successfully pair.
Cohen and Mitchell have penned some of the most poignant and beautiful songs that have ever successfully been plucked from the floating ether of astral mystic. Thus, when they first met 1967 Newport Folk Festival, it represented a union that no doubt the heavens on high took note of. After a few weeks, they were in a relationship. And a few months after that, they were the subjects of each other’s endless stream of break-up songs. And they two lived happily ever after… as friends.
Leonard Cohen was a self-professed lady’s man, albeit his back catalogue did most of the professing for him on that front, and often he candidly discusses the sacred secrets of love, lust and longing in song. The star even ironically quipped, “My reputation as a ladies’ man was a joke that caused me to laugh bitterly through the ten thousand nights I spent alone.”
Joni Mitchell is perhaps one of the few songwriters who can give him a run for his money when it comes to the propagation of the nitty-gritty particulars of forthright love. Her song ‘Both Sides Now’ is one of the very greatest love-lost songs of all time, but she had eyes on one of Cohen’s, as she told Malka Maron in the book Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words about their first meeting: “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.”
The fall of the relationship spawned the hauntingly beautiful Joni Mitchell song ‘Rainy Night House’. She explained the origin as follows: “I went one time to his home, and I fell asleep in his old room, and he sat up and watched me sleep. He sat up all night, and he watched me see who in the world I could be.” It is a tale that has a strong similarity to the Leonard Cohen poem ‘Two Went to Sleep’, indicative of the mutual musing that both the relationship and its subsequent end would stoke for the pair.
And yet those two works are just about all that was juiced from the ‘touching of songwriting souls’ as Mitchell might put it. That is not to denigrate either the brilliance of the song or Cohen’s decidedly Marmite poem, both efforts are certainly a world away from the drunken 2am text that most break-ups bring about, and they’re surely a slew of other songs that the pair have written with each other in mind, but there was no Taj Mahal or a Shakesperean tome constructed from the rubble of love lost that fans may have expected.
In short, the most surprising thing is that the pair swooned into love and drifted out of it on a sanguine breeze of passing time marked by a handshake, the Godspeed of better days to come, and a simple promise to remain friends that didn’t shatter under the weight of the first pregnant seconds after it was agreed upon. As the old folk song goes, ‘it’s a lesson too late in the learning’ that some things just aren’t meant to be, yet on this occasion, Mitchell and Cohen caught onto it quick enough to remain friends up until the very end.
You can check out the plaintive Mitchell track ‘Rainy Night House’ and an interview recital by of ‘Two Went to Sleep’ by Cohen below.