We’re taking a look back at the legendary 1969 cover of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Suzanne’ from the imperious Nina Simone, as the singer takes Cohen’s ethereal lead protagonist and embodies every mystical moment. It was once said that Leonard Cohen was the most inimitable artist of his generation but that hasn’t stopped people trying to cover his songs.
Whether it’s because he began writing without the intention to never sing his songs or indeed his poetic imagery was so universal that almost everyone can connect with it. Either way, we’re betting that despite being, as Nick cave once said, “inimitable”, Leonard Cohen is one of the most well-covered artists of all time thanks to his incredibly illustrative style of writing lyrics.
That’s not to say that Leonard Cohen has had the most covers. You’d be looking to David Bowie and The Beatles for that kind of honour. Moreover, when people do eventually pluck up the courage to take on a Cohen song, then it’s usually a brilliant effort, largely because the stakes are so high in picking one in the first place. Naturally, your mind wanders to Jeff Buckley’s incredible handling of ‘Hallelujah’ as the shining example—but there was another cover which we felt 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 serial civil rights hero, but she 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, though how much Simone would have had access to 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.
So while we would tend to agree with Nick Cave that, on the whole, Leonard Cohen is an act that nobody could hope to truly emulate — it’s clear to us that Nina Simone is equally as unquantifiable. Her cover of his song ‘Suzanne’ is all the proof you need of that.