Leonard Cohen was never a prolific seller of records in the salad days of his musical career; he rarely kept his head above the artistic water, leaning on the life preserver of his role as a noted young novelist. In fact, the Canadian artist spent most of his fledgeling moments coasting firmly under the radar as a songwriter. After giving up the commercial pursuit of poetry and literature, Cohen turned his hand to songwriting at the tender age of 33, releasing his debut single ‘Suzanne’ in 1967 to little fanfare.
But before Cohen’s record had hit the shelves as part of his own canon, an array of artists had already taken on the song for themselves. From Nina Simone to Neil Diamond, ‘Suzanne’ had its admirers from the very beginning, but nobody’s hit was as big as Judy Collins’ version of the track. Below, we’re looking at the moment Cohen and Collins teamed up to perform the song together in 1976.
Cohen had long been an influential writer before the release of ‘Suzanne’ dramatically increased the size of that influence. The singer-songwriter had been toiling away as an observer of the counter-culture movement, writing down his observations in little-read books and poetry—but it wasn’t until Collins took his song ‘Suzanne’ and gave it a life that Cohen would really begin to see his prophetic position come to fruition within the pop music world.
In truth, the song was an amalgamation of his journey into the unknown world so far. In ‘Suzanne’, Cohen provides an infinitely detailed piece of work, capturing the encounters he had with Suzanne Verdal, the girlfriend of Canadian artist Armand Vaillancourt and his platonic admiration of her character. “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.”
With such a poignant first piece of work, a piece which typifies the artist on his first attempt at doing so, it should surely hold weight with the public. But no, as it did with Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, who both employed other established singers to take on their work before coming out on their own, Leonard Cohen needed the dulcet tones of folk singer Collins to bring his acclaim to the masses.
Collins told Acoustic Guitar in 2015 of her version of the track: “I was very impressed with Leonard’s songs—nobody had recorded them, he hadn’t even recorded them. When I heard them, I just felt that he was so brilliant and the poetry was so moving,” she explained. “He thought of them as poems and not songs. I said, ‘Oh, yes, they are songs.’”
Collins was fundamental in getting Cohen to finally perform his own music on the stage, even arranging for his public debut at a Vietnam War protest concert in 1967 that she was on the bill of, ensuring his voice was heard as early as possible. Despite protesting that he’d “die from embarrassment”, Cohen relented and played ‘Suzanne’ — naturally, the crowd loved it—and Collins affirmed his position as a songwriter again with her own performances of ‘Suzanne’ and, most notably, this performance alongside Cohen in 1976.
This performance brought Cohen to the attention of the masses, brokering the writer as one of the foremost songwriters in the world. Suddenly, Cohen’s name became like gold dust in college dorm rooms, his prestige growing with every bootleg, every poem and every piece of writing they found and quickly devoured. Despite this growing fervour for everything Cohen did, the artists never really “broke America”.
So while it may not have the commercial appeal of your latest chart smash, you can be safe in the knowledge that this is truly what music is all about.
Watch below as Judy Collins introduces the world to Leonard Cohen with this gorgeous performance of ‘Suzanne’ in 1976.