We’re taking a look back at the legendary 1969 cover of Leonard Cohen song ‘Suzanne’ by the imperious Nina Simone, as the singer takes the Canadian’s ethereal lead protagonist and embodies every mystical moment.
Whether it’s because he began writing without the intention of ever singing his material, or indeed that his poetic imagery was so universal that almost everyone can connect with it, Cohen emerged as one of the most imitated artists of a generation. Either way, Leonard Cohen has been etched into the annals of music history as one of the most well-covered artists of all time thanks, largely, to his incredibly illustrative style of writing lyrics.
Countless renowned artists have decided to pay homage over the years and, naturally, your mind wanders to Jeff Buckley’s incredible handling of ‘Hallelujah’ as the shining example — but there was one another cover that really grabbed Cohen’s work by the scruff of the neck.
That person is, of course, Dr. Nina Simone. The artist may well be thought of now as a powerhouse performer, human rights activist and civil rights hero, but Simone was only just getting started when she took on Cohen’s track with such verve. While others may have played with the idea of the titular character, Simone purely embodied her.
Written by Cohen in 1966, the song was performed by Judy Collins way before Cohen ever attempted the track himself. The song’s protagonist was a real person, too. 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.
“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. “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 so much background information on the song’s creation, but just how much Simone would have had access to that in 1969 is questionable, you might expect Simone to play it relatively straight. The song is so deeply enriched by the beauty that by adding Simone’s vocals to the lyrics you could easily have a classic without much extra work. However, this wasn’t Simone’s way, she was an artist that was determined to put her own style on everything.
Rather than take the easy route of just belting the number out – or indeed playing the role of the male observer in the song – Simone instead embodies the mystical Suzanne. By doing so, by making the character even more real than we had previously thought, she does the impressive balancing act of adding grandeur to her iconography and weight to her ideals, all the while adding humour at the expense of her adorer.
While the recording says a lot of things, it is clear to see that Nina Simone’s brilliance remains unquantifiable. Her cover of his song ‘Suzanne’ is all the proof you need of that.