We are dipping into the Far Out Magazine vault to look back at one of Leonard Cohen’s finest performances and that is saying something. Partly because of his command of the stage and partly because of his strong connection to the song at hand, ‘So Long, Marianne’.
Leonard Cohen, it’s very fair to say, has an uncanny way with words. A natural poet and born writer, Cohen only transitioned into the role of singer in his later life and kept his literary credentials close at heart while writing his music, ensuring that some of the traditional tropes of a writer’s inspiration transitioned into pop.
One such literary trope Cohen used, probably far too often, was the idea of an artistic and creative muse. It has meant much of his work can be traced back to a singular, usually female, figure. Janis Joplin and Suzanne Verdal maybe two of his most famous muses but his most treasured will surely be remembered as Marianne Ihlen.
Janis Joplin was famously the inspiration for his risque and rowdy song ‘Chelsea Hotel No.2’ with Suzanne Verdal, the annoyingly platonic friend of Cohen’s is the well from which Cohen’s most idyllic song, ‘Suzanne’, takes inspiration from. But it was the woman he met while exiling himself on the Greek island of Hydra that always touched Cohen’s heart most deeply.
Ihlen had been previously married to writer Axel Jensen when she met Cohen during the sixties on the Greek isle, surrounded by as many floundering artists as there were turquoise waters. The pair became infatuated with one another and Cohen considered her his ‘muse’ in the highest of praise and adoration. She was the vessel through which Cohen could channel his poetry into song, and with Ihlen by his side he wrote two of his greatest love songs in her appreciation, ‘Bird on a Wire’ and, of course, the reason we’re here, ‘So Long, Marianne’.
The below video is of a breathtaking rendition of the latter song and a stark reminder of the power of Cohen’s own performance. It takes place on German TV on October 31st, 1979, and sees Cohen at his sparkling peak, full of charm, wit and devilish intent. About to fully immerse himself in the Smokey Life world tour in support of Recent Songs Cohen still had time to perform one of his hits from 1967’s Songs of Leonard Cohen.
Cohen and Ihlen split years before this performance and rarely contacted each other before they both passed on. That said, when watching the video you can see, hear and feel the deep regard with which Cohen still held Ihlen. It’s an impassioned performance delicately flourished with humanising moments of regret and sorrow for the moments that have been lost between them.
Before Ihlen’s death in July 2016, Cohen would write his muse one final letter: “Well Marianne, it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon,” he wrote.
“Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine. And you know that I’ve always loved you for your beauty and for your wisdom, but I don’t need to say anything more about that because you know all about that. But now, I just want to wish you a very good journey. Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road.”
It would be a prophetic statement as Cohen would follow his friend, love and muse down the road in November of the same year.
Watch one of the many inspirational moments the pair shared as Leonard Cohen performs ‘So Long, Marianne’ in 1979.