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The Story Behind The Song: 'So Long, Marianne' Leonard Cohen's undying ode


We’re taking a look back at Leonard Cohen’s iconic song ‘So Long, Marianne’ from 1967’s Songs of Leonard Cohen through our weekly feature ‘The Story Behind The Song’.

One bright thing to come out of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has been people’s reconnection to music, either through online performances from current artists or through whole neighbourhoods singing songs to unite together while in self-isolation; music has provided a safe refuge from the turbulent times.

One particular moment which warmed our hearts was the recent sing-a-long of Leonard Cohen’s ‘So Long, Marianne’ in his native city of Montreal. The members of a local community joined forces to raise the spirits of its residents with a rendition of the iconic song. It saw residents take to their balconies and belt out the tune and acted as a welcomed reprieve and a reminder of the humanity at the heart of our society.

It’s a similar mission to the one Cohen enacted in his work. The mercurial poet and singer may have always assumed the role of observer but he did so in order to highlight the soul of everyday moments, no matter how sordid or sullen. It was one of many literary tropes Cohen brought to the fore when he decided to concentrate on music.

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.

Janis Joplin and Suzanne Verdal maybe two of his most famous muses but his most treasured will surely be remembered as Marianne Ihlen. Joplin was famously the inspiration for his risque song ‘Chelsea Hotel No.2’ (something he later regretted revealing.) Suzanne Verdal, the platonic friend of Cohen’s is the inspiration for Cohen’s most idyllic song, ‘Suzanne’. But it was the woman he met while exiling himself on the Greek island of Hydra that always touched Cohen’s heart.

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. As Cohen later recalled of the island community: “It was as if everyone was young and beautiful and full of talent—covered with a kind of gold dust. Everybody had special and unique qualities. This is, of course, the feeling of youth, but in the glorious setting of Hydra, all these qualities were magnified.”

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, and sing lullabies to her son at night. She made him forget the doldrums of modernity and the oppression of civilisation.

This is why Cohen considered her his ‘muse’, a term he uttered with the highest of praise. Ihlen would be a rock for Cohen as he stuck to his regimented writing, still at this point with no thought for going ahead with a singing career.

In many ways, however, Ihlen was the vessel through which Cohen could channel his poetry into song. Ihlen allowed him the freedom to move and create what he wanted. Though it would naturally lay heavily on any dreams of a sustained romantic relationship, with her by his side, he wrote two of his greatest love songs of all time, ‘Bird on a Wire’ and, of course, ‘So Long, Marianne’.

The pair would eventually split after the tension of being a burgeoning singing sensation would prove too much. Aside from Cohen’s 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.”

It would be a prophetic statement as Cohen would follow his friend, love and muse down the road in November of the same year. It’s this connection, this unwritten humanity and soulful intention that makes Cohen’s work truly sing. It only gets better when it’s sung by all of us together.