The songs Leonard Cohen wrote about the women he loved
Leonard Cohen was a famous lothario. Despite what he perceived as a lack of romantic options during his life, the truth is that Cohen was an unstoppable womaniser. Across the decades, Cohen paid tribute to his varying relationships through the medium of song and, as anyone who has read one of his charmingly evasive interviews will attest to, it is there that we can hear the true feelings he had for them.
When once asked by an interviewer for Q magazine back in 1991 whether he felt he had exploited the relationships he enjoyed with women by turning them into songs, he replied: “That’s the very least way in which I have exploited relationships. If that was the only way I’d exploited a relationship then I’m going straight to heaven. Are you kidding me?” It was an honest snapshot of an artist whose history with romance is fractured and whose portrayal of women a little problematic.
We should get one thing out the way before we go any further, Leonard Cohen’s treatment of women both in real life and in the lyrics of his songs, painting them as unquestionable muses, may well live up to the rock ‘n’ tropes of the day but still shouldn’t be ignored. Revisiting his work, it’s important to remember the women behind the music, the lives led in order to serve Cohen’s creativity but, alongside him and, more importantly, well away from him too. While we will try to offer a little clarity on those lives, some extra-curricular reading is needed to get the full picture.
One thing that Cohen did accomplish with his songs about his lovers, friends and muses, was to create scintillating masterpieces. While putting one’s life on the lyric sheet is nothing new, Bob Dylan had been doing it for years before Cohen decided to give songwriting a go at the age of 33, there was a narrative structure to Cohen’s writing that meant the protagonists in his songs were never faceless. Unlike the aforementioned Dylan, as well as Judy Collins, Joni Mitchell and so many more, Cohen didn’t create his own portraits to paint but meticulously studied his subject and delivered songs with serious weight.
Something that Chen did not afford his reputation as “an object of lust” in the 1960s. Speaking with Newsday, Cohen said of the idea: “It’s so curious, because I couldn’t get a date, 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.” It was this exact blend of aloofness, confidence, intelligence and rebelliousness, that made him so attractive. It’s also what helped him to compose many of his greatest songs.
Below, we’re taking a look at the women Leonard Cohen loved, though we’re sure there are many, many more and the songs he wrote for them.
Leonard Cohen’s famous love songs:
When Leonard Cohen met Nico in New York he was captivated. At the time regarded as one of the most beautiful women in the world, he became infatuated with the German model and singer. “When I first came to New York — I guess it was around 1966 — Nico was singing at The Dom, which was an Andy Warhol club at the time on 8th Street. I just stumbled in there one night and I didn’t know any of these people,” Cohen once recalled. “I saw this girl singing behind the bar,” he added.
“She was a sight to behold. I suppose the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen up to that moment,” he glowingly said, before remembering, “I just walked up and stood in front of her until people pushed me aside. I started writing songs for her then.” Still, to this day, there are countless rumours that the bond they had was romantic but Cohen would later deny the speculation, further explaining that the reason why their relationship was platonic wasn’t due to a lack of trying on his behalf. “Somehow I managed to meet her. And within five minutes of our conversation, she told me to forget it, because she was only interested in young men. But she said, I’d love to be a friend of yours — and we became friends,” Cohen said.
There are plenty of songs that can hear the Nico-influence on them. The drone of Cohen’s vocal, in particular, is more than a clue of his admiration for her but one song would be created for the German: “It was only after many weeks, after being perplexed by her conversation and paralysed by her beauty that she told me she was deaf. She responded to everyone with whatever came into her mind because she could hardly hear a thing. Which explains her particularly strange style. But I definitely wrote ‘Take This Longing‘ thinking of her.”
Possibly one of Cohen’s most famous songs from his rich canon was inspired not by a romantic relationship but his infatuation with platonic friend Suzanne Verdal. Given to Judy Collins as one of the first songs he ever wrote, the song became a hit under her guidance but it was rooted in Cohen’s love life.
In truth, the song was, in fact, an amalgamation of his journey so far. In ‘Suzanne’ Cohen provided an infinitely detailed piece of work, capturing the encounters he had with Suzanne Verdal, the girlfriend of Canadian artist Armand Vaillancourt. “He got such a kick out of seeing me emerge as a young schoolgirl, I suppose, and a young artist, into becoming Armand’s lover and then-wife,” recalled Verdal, in a 1998 interview. “So he was more or less chronicling the times and seemingly got a kick out of it.”
“He was ‘drinking me in’ more than I even recognised if you know what I mean,” Verdal said when noting the song’s intensity. “I took all that moment for granted. I just would speak and I would move and I would encourage and he would just kind of like sit back and grin while soaking it all up, and I wouldn’t always get feedback, but I felt his presence really being with me.”
“The song ‘Suzanne’ is journalism,” Cohen says in the book Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters. “It’s completely accurate.”
Asked to confirm the line about tea and oranges, Cohen smirked: “Well, the tea actually had little pieces of orange peel in it. But ‘tea and oranges’ sounds better, doesn’t it? She lived near the water in Montreal. And she did used to ‘take you down to her place near the river’. You could ‘hear the boats go by’ and you could ‘spend the night beside her.’ All those things…and I touched her perfect body with my mind. Mostly because she was married to a friend of mine and I couldn’t touch her with anything else!” Regardless of the contentious issues of adultery within the track, it’s hard to ignore this as one of Cohen’s finest works.
Sometimes cruelly referred to as ‘Suzanne 2’, Suzanne Elrod was a pivotal figure in Cohen’s life. His lover then his wife and mother of his children Adam and Lorca, Elrod’s role in Cohen’s career cannot be understated. Though the pair endured a rather tortuous relationship, presenting themselves as the perfect on again/off again couple, Elrod also inspire done of Cohen’s most potent tracks.
The lyric “I tried to leave you, I don’t deny. / I closed the book on us at least a hundred times,” from ‘I Tried To Leave You’, Cohen has admitted was inspired by Elrod. Taken from New Skin for the Old Ceremony in 1974, the track is not actually a song about leaving one’s partner but staying even though you don’t think you should.
It’s a classic piece of Cohen poetry and one that while marred by the couples eventual, and somewhat acrimonious, split is joyous to revisit whenever possible. It’s fair to say, Cohen seems like he was never meant for something as ‘normal’ as marriage.
One such literary trope Cohen used, probably far too often, was the complex ideal of an artistic muse. However debatably problematic in 2020, it does allow for much of his work to be traced back to a particular source, likely pleasing the many members of his ferocious fandom. As with many poets in his day, when retracing these steps you invariably land at the feet of an impressive woman and Marianne Ihlen is undoubtedly the woman at the base of the ‘So Long, Marianne’ mountain.
Ihlen had been previously married to writer Axel Jensen when she lived on Hydra, with the turquoise waters and white stone houses on the Greek isle providing ample poetic imagery.
Jensen left Ihlen shortly after their son Axel Jr. was born and fled the island. It was there, in 1960, that Ihlen met a polite young poet from Canada who was escaping the dull greys of London to finish his first novel. The pair soon became infatuated with one another and she allowed him to stretch out on the terrace in the morning, writing his three-page quota, singing lullabies to her son at night. She made him forget the doldrums of modernity and the oppression of civilisation.
The pair would eventually split after the tension of being a burgeoning singing sensation would prove too much. Aside from Cohen’s growing and noted infidelity, he and Ihlen barely saw each other as she and Axel Jr. returned to Norway and Cohen was dragged around the globe. Though it may well have been a worthwhile moment for those involved Cohen and Ihlen barely spoke in the decades following their break-up.
Before Ihlen’s death in July 2016, Cohen would, however, 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.”
Many of the songs in question are in reference to a deep love that Cohen shared with his subject. But on this occasion, things are a little less entrenched in romance and instead built out of lust — the moment Leonard Cohen and Janis Joplin hooked up.
At the time, the singer and songwriter was in a dismal place. His career was floundering both in the literary and musical world and the Chelsea Hotel, full of bohemians and artists, now only held so much promise. One night, as Cohen walked into the lift a wild-haired, fiercely confident woman entered the lift. The current resident of Room 41—the singer for Big Brother and the Holding Company, and one of the voices of her generation—Janis Joplin.
Cohen gathered his courage and decided to use the slow pace of the lift to engage in some conversation with this shining light of womanhood. He remembered in 1988, “I said to her, ‘Are you looking for someone?’ She said ‘Yes, I’m looking for Kris Kristofferson.’ I said, ‘Little lady, you’re in luck, I am Kris Kristofferson.’ Those were generous times. Even though she knew that I was someone shorter than Kris Kristofferson, she never let on. Great generosity prevailed in those doom decades.”
The pair would make their way to Cohen’s room 424 and share a short romance together, the details of which are shared in Cohen’s song. Though he didn’t admit the object of the song’s affections to be Janis until years after her death. Joplin once said the pair’s romance hit her very hard, “Really heavy, like slam-in-the-face it happened. Twice. Jim Morrison and Leonard Cohen. And it’s strange ’cause they were the only two that I can think of, like prominent people, that I tried to…without really liking them up front, just because I knew who they were and wanted to know them. And then they both gave me nothing.”
They only saw each other a handful of times after this first meeting before Joplin died and Cohen took time to apologise for acknowledging Joplin as the subject of the song after her death. To him, it was a needless and salacious disclosure that regretted for the rest of his days.
Joni Mitchell, a pioneering figure of alternative and folk music, was repeatedly compared to Leonard Cohen during the early stages of her career until she solidified her own unique style. Even though some similarities in their work overlapped, given the fact that they were both expert storytellers, the two artists were firmly in their own lane sonically.
Following the festival appearance when the pair first met, it was reported that Mitchell would spend a month living with Cohen at her Laurel Canyon home. Mitchell, reflecting on her career years later, told Malka Maron this 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.”
Mitchell penned the wonderful song ‘Rainy Night House’ as a farewell to their short but sweet relationship. Joni confirmed that the track was about her relationship with coming to an end, stating: “Yeah. 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.” Their relationship eventually fizzled out as they became more estranged and the world of music swallowed them up. But did Cohen write one of his most famous songs for Mitchell? She certainly thinks so.
Mitchell says she showed Cohen a painting she had done of The Mitchells, which she believes inspired ‘Bird on the Wire’. “I had this painting I did for the Mitchells,” she recalls, “I was such a misfit in that family, and I did painting, which I showed to Leonard. In this painting, there are these sparrows sitting on a wire. It’s got a hot-pink background, and there are sparrows with peacock tails. There are all these fictitious birds. And there was one for each Mitchell, and one of them was hanging upside down. Guess who? I think that had some input on ‘Bird on the Wire.’ I showed it to Leonard.” While it’s not exactly clear if this did influence his song but he took notes form everywhere else in his life, so it’s not a stretch to think of this one happening too.