Joni Mitchell once claimed that the only people she would ever willingly describe herself as a ‘groupie’ for were “Picasso and Leonard”. To the young Mitchell, who was 24 when her debut album, Song To A Seagull, was released, Leonard Cohen seemed more like a philosopher than a songwriter. His music seemed to tap into something essential yet previously unspoken, casting her own musical ventures in a less favourable light than she would have liked. Cohen went on to act as something of a mentor for Mitchell, but, as is so often the case, it wouldn’t be long before Cohen’s student would outgrow his influence.
When Mitchell first listened to Cohen’s debut record, Songs of Leonard Cohen, she was struck by the depth of his lyrical content. In comparison, she felt her songs lacked the poetic wisdom that seemed to leak from every fibre of Cohen’s songcraft. “I remember thinking when I heard his songs for the first time that I was not worldly,” she once said. “My work seemed very young and naive in comparison. At the time I met him I was around 24, around the time of my first record. But thematically I wanted to be broader than he was”.
Mitchell went on to draw on Cohen’s lyrics in her own songs, imbuing them with the same novelistic sensibility that characterised tracks like ‘Suzzanne’ and ‘So Long, Marianne’. She adopted the same fascination with religious imagery too, attempting to recreate something Cohen had cultivated through the years of labour as a novelist. It was this literary background that made him, as Mitchell noted, “a word man first”, and which allowed him to conjure up characters and scenes so economically. Mitchell hoped that, with Cohen’s help, she might achieve that same brevity.
When Mitchell finally met Cohen, she asked him for some book suggestions, to which he replied: “‘What kind of books?’ ‘Well, I hear people talking about books, and I got a kind of a chip out of my marriage that I’m stupid because everybody’s read a lot of books that I haven’t read. Give me a reading list.’ He said, ‘Well, you’re writing quite well for someone who hasn’t read anything. Maybe you shouldn’t read anything.’ He gave me his reading list, wonderful books: Camus, The Stranger; the I Ching, which I’ve used all my life; Magister Ludi; Siddhartha. A wonderful reading list.”
But, after delving into Cohen’s prescribed list, she made an important discovery. After reading Lorca and Camus, she began to notice similarities between the lines she was reading and Cohen’s supposedly original lyrics. “I started to realise that he had taken a lot of lines from those books, which was disappointing to me,” she remembered. “Unfortunately, in the Camus, I found he [Cohen] lifted lines. ‘Walk me to the corner, our steps will always’. That’s literally a Camus line. So I thought that’s like Bob Dylan … When I realised that Bob and Leonard were lifting lines, I was very disappointed”.
Mitchell’s discovery of Cohen’s borrowing of words unravelled the shroud of mystery that had once surrounded him. A man who had once seemed so wise and philosophical, it transpired, was just like her; an artist feeling his way through life with the help of those who came before him.