Rare footage of Nina Simone performing Leonard Cohen song ‘Suzanne’ in Rome, 1969
‘Suzanne’ is undoubtedly one of Leonard Cohen’s greatest masterpieces, a song that showcased exactly why he is one of the finest songwriters to have ever mastered the craft. However, as with some of his best songs, Cohen doesn’t hold the title of ‘finest performance’ of the track. For ‘Suzanne’, Nina Simone’s performance of the classic track is one of the finest attempts at covering the legendary Canadian’s work that there is.
Many have tried to cover Cohen’s songs over the years with perhaps Jeff Buckley’s version of ‘Hallelujah’ being the most famous example. Buckley’s rendition, which arguably became even more famous than the original, offered a raw take on his songwriting which exhibited the lyrics perfectly. For Simone’s cover, it would be a different case as she grabbed the quality of the song and somehow supercharged it with her own talent.
‘Suzanne’ would be Cohen’s debut single at the age of 33, arriving in 1967. However, before he had even released the track, there were already versions of the material circulating around music fans after Judy Collins came up with the bold idea to transform the poem into a piece of music a year earlier. He had played her the song, and she instantly gravitated towards it and its powerful story.
The track sees Cohen provide an infinitely detailed piece of work which captures the encounters he had with Suzanne Verdal, the then-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.”
What makes Simone’s version of the track so special is that she breathes new life into the song rather than delivering it from the male-gaze perspective that Cohen wrote it from. Instead, Simone performs it from Suzanne’s perspective, a decision which makes it the definitive cover of the 1967 single. There aren’t many people who can match up to Nina Simone on vocals, and she confirms herself as the queen on this cover.
Her stunning performance of the track from Rome in 1969 is all different types of iconic. With her unmatched vocal ability bringing a different ingredient into the mix, Simone puts a unique spin onto a song that countless artists like Bruce Springsteen, R.E.M and Joan Baez have all immaculately performed over the years. But there’s something about Simone’s voice that just makes her version unparalleled.
The track featured as the opening number on her 1969 album To Love Somebody, and although the studio version of ‘Suzanne‘ is utterly glorious, when she transitions it into the live arena she manages to elevate her cover even further, and it is a must-watch. Enjoy it below.