Revisiting the icons of rock ‘n’ roll in 2020 is always a dangerous thing to do. There’s no doubt that the change in societal expectations has cast many of one’s favourite bands or singers from the 20th century into an unholy air of disrepute. One such artist who has always managed to flirt with the boundaries of such behaviour was none other than Leonard Cohen.
The novelist, poet and, above all else, welcomed singer, Cohen spent much of his time in the limelight as a bit of a ladies man and, in turn, meant he often relied on the somewhat toxic trope of ‘the muse’ as a guide to his songwriting. 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 is a little problematic.
While Cohen had always put the women he met and loved at the forefront of his work, there is one figure in the reem of lovers which stands out among the rest — Nico. That’s largely because, despite Cohen’s best efforts, using his nonchalant charm and whimsical humour to his advantage at every occasion, the singer could not persuade one of the most beautiful women in the world – and a talented musician in her own right – to fall in love with him. Even after he had written a song for her.
When Leonard Cohen met Nico in New York he was utterly captivated. At the time, she wasn’t only regarded as one of the most beautiful women on the planet, but rightly seen as an integral part of New York’s new art movement, working closely with Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground. Safe to say, 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.
You can already feel the extra gravitas Cohen has given Nico over the years, it’s clear she appeared as different to the other girls around him at the time. “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, clearly enjoying the time they shared with one another.
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 than his adoration for her but one song would be created for specifically 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.”
The song isn’t like many of Cohen’s other odes to women, which has crossed his songbook. Many of those pieces are songs directly about his and their relationship while on this song, he is singing purely about Nico and how she handles herself in life. While there are certainly moments on the track that can be traced back to Cohen’s longing, this song is 100% for Nico.