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Music

Remebering Leonard Cohen's touching Joni Mitchell cover

Leonard Cohen had a way with words and women. According to a Newsday article from 1992, Cohen found it particularly amusing that he was “an object of lust” during the 1960s. 

Cohen spent his early 20s pursuing a career in literature, having been an esteemed poet and writer at school and university. Over the next 15 years, he managed to publish several books (mainly of collated poetry) that were met with varying levels of critical enthusiasm. Despite his moderate success, Cohen wasn’t satisfied, and the work wasn’t particularly lucrative.

In 1966, after feeling unfulfilled as a writer, Cohen decided to leave his home in Montreal, Canada, in search of a career as a folk singer in New York, just like his younger contemporary Bob Dylan had done some six years prior. Finding himself among the underground creative bustle of New York, Cohen met a wealth of famous names in the arts, including Andy Warhol and his creative troupe named the ‘Factory’, which included the art-rock band The Velvet Underground. Inspired by the bounty of artist expression he was exposed to in New York, he set about recording the poetic songs that eventually made up his 1967 debut album Songs of Leonard Cohen

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The struggling creative spent his first destitute nights at the infamous Chelsea Hotel. The imposing redbrick building sits on West 23rd Street and holds a rich history. Since its 1885 birth, the building has been home to literary giants such as Mark Twain, Charles Bukowski, Jack Kerouac and Jackson Pollock. It was within these walls too that Arthur C. Clarke wrote his masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was the perfect home for a tortured poet, and it was here that he began to rub shoulders with the ladies of the New York music scene. 

His early flirtations at the Chelsea Hotel were highlighted with a short romance with Janis Joplin, which, despite being short-lived, inspired the all too revealing lyrics of Cohen’s ‘Chelsea Hotel #2’. Later, Cohen moved to the Henry Hudson Hotel. 

Speaking to Newsday in 1992, Cohen addressed comments that he was labelled “an object of lust” in the 1960s. “It’s so curious, because I couldn’t get a date,” he said. “I couldn’t find anybody to have dinner with. By the time that first record came out, which rescued me, I was already in such a shattered situation that I found myself living at the Henry Hudson Hotel on West 57th Street, going to the Morningstar Cafe on Eighth Avenue, trying to find some way to approach the waitress and ask her out. I would get letters of longing from around the world, and I would find myself walking the streets of New York at three in the morning, trying to strike up conversations with the women selling cigarettes in hotels. I think it’s always like that. It’s never delivered to you.”

In the summer of 1967, Cohen met the young folk star Joni Mitchell backstage at Judy Collins’ workshop at the Newport Folk Festival. The two got on like a house on fire and ended up being long-time friends after an initial romantic spell. 

Shortly after they met, Cohen spent a month living with Mitchell at her house in Laurel Canyon when Hollywood had wanted him to score a movie based on his song ‘Suzanne’. Unfortunately, the movie never materialised, and after a short while, the romantic aspect of their relationship dwindled into a friendship. 

At this point, Mitchell wrote her classic song ‘Rainy Night House’ as a farewell to their short relationship. The lyrics read: “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 the night, and he watched me to see who in the world I could be.”

Over the years that followed, Cohen and Mitchell remained close, and it appears that they both had an influence on each other’s work. Though, Mitchell did once downplay Cohen’s ostensibly strong influence in a 2001 interview with Border Crossings: “I met him when I was around 24, around the time of my first record,” she said. “But thematically, I wanted to be broader than he was. In many ways, Leonard was a boudoir poet.”

Cohen remained loyal to their friendship for the rest of his life and in 2007, he collaborated with Herbie Hancock on his Joni Mitchell covers album, River: The Joni Letters, on a rendition of ‘The Jungle Line’.

Listen to the touching cover below.