Leonard Cohen is an artist about as close to the antithesis of disco as you’re ever likely to find. The poetic singer garnered a reputation for himself as the silent observer and the smoking gun. The Bee Gees, however, flourished during the fluorescent upsurge of nightclub dancefloors in the seventies. The two couldn’t appear to be more opposite if they each wore black and white respectively. In fact, largely, they did.
Perhaps as a recognition of their seemingly vastly different ends of the spectrum or perhaps as a nod to the Bee Gees highly undervalued songwriting, Leonard Cohen took on one of the band’s most famous tracks as part of his Smokey Life Tour in 1980. It’s an unusual experience to witness one of the most fearsome songwriters of all time sing someone else’s song, let alone form such a wildly different place. Listen to Cohen sing Bee Gees classic ‘To Love Somebody’ below.
Leonard Cohen took to the road in 1979 on The Smokey Life Tour intending on debuting some of the new material from his latest record, Recent Songs — the way most tours go. The singer would travel across Europe, a cultural space which had welcomed his idiosyncratic writing with open arms and through Australia before returning to Germany in 1980. It is widely regarded as one of his finest stints on stage.
The country had always been kind to Cohen and the poet had found his own grace within the country’s history, and the singer stopped a great many times in the nation during his touring years, performing 29 German venues in total across The Smokey Life’s 89 date-run.
During one of these shows, on November 5th 1980 at Eppelheim, which would see the capture of one of Leonard Cohen’s notable performances. Taking to the stage at Rhein-Neckar-Halle, Cohen delivered a near-perfect set that included hits like ‘Suzanne’, ‘Bird on the Wire’ and ‘So Long, Marianne’, the stuff of Cohen fans’ dreams. But aside from Cohen’s own big hitters, one song stuck out among the rest — his take on the Bee Gees classic ‘To Love Somebody’.
It’s easy to typecast the Bee Gees, the brothers Gibb were so successful with the seventies and so neatly immortalised within Saturday Night Fever that it is not so hard to forget they were excellent songwriters. The 1967 track, originally written for Otis Redding who passed away before he could record it, is a shining example of that. It’s been covered by some of the biggest legends in the game and you should mark both Nina Simone and Janis Joplin’s versions of the track as “must-listens”.
The deeply soulful number found a place in the US charts when it was released and clearly stuck around in the mind of Leonard Cohen. The singer wasn’t one to take covers of songs lightly and he didn’t often choose to perform many live. When you listen to the below, you may well agree that it’s a real shame he didn’t.
The audio below captures the moment Leonard Cohen covered ‘To Love Somebody’ for the German crowd. While the song is beautifully tempted what must be highlighted is the silence before Cohen begins. You could hear a pin drop as Cohen commands the stage and the spotlight and, despite using another’s song, shines brighter than ever before.
Listen to Leonard Cohen’s cover of the Bee Gees’ ‘To Love Somebody’ below: