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Music

The singer Leonard Cohen called a "musical monster"

Few singers of the 20th century have had the same acclaim and admiration that has followed Leonard Cohen. Over more than 60 years, Cohen managed to transcend folk music, poetry, and rock ‘n roll to create a style that was uniquely his own, filled with emotive vocals, impressionistic lyrics, and palpable whisps of darkness.

It wasn’t just his fans who loved him either: you would be hard pressed to find a peer of Cohen’s within the worlds of folk and rock who didn’t have a strong sense of appreciation for the Canadian singer-songwriter. Everyone from Bob Dylan to Kurt Cobain voiced their love for Cohen and his music, making him a cross-generational favourite and a songwriter’s songwriter.

When it came time for Cohen to dish out the praise, the mercurial singer could occasionally be measured in his praise. But more frequently, Cohen was enthusiastic in his praise, shining lights on a diverse array of singers, including Nico and Janis Joplin. One singer, in particular, got some of Cohen’s kindest words: fellow Canadian folkie, and onetime lover, Joni Mitchell.

“Joni was some kind of musical monster, that her gift somehow put her in another category from the other folksingers,” Cohen said in a 1984 interview. “There was a certain ferocity associated with her gift. She was like a storm. She was a beautiful young woman who had a remarkable talent.”

Cohen had mentioned having a strong preference for Mitchell’s Blue cut ‘California’, a song so antithetical to his own moody brand of folk that it’s almost comical to imagine Cohen listening to it. Mitchell also believes that she was the impetus for Cohen’s song ‘Bird on the Wire’. “I had this painting I did for the Mitchells,” she recalls, “I was such a misfit in that family, and I did painting, which I showed to Leonard. In this painting, there are these sparrows sitting on a wire. It’s got a hot-pink background, and there are sparrows with peacock tails. There are all these fictitious birds. And there was one for each Mitchell, and one of them was hanging upside down. Guess who? I think that had some input on ‘Bird on the Wire.’ I showed it to Leonard.” 

Of course, the inspiration flowed both ways. Mitchell penned ‘Rainy Night House’ from her 1970 LP Ladies of the Canyon as a portrait of Cohen and his uniquely gloomy approach to love. The pair didn’t last long as a couple, but they remained friends as they both ascended to equally legendary status as singer-songwriters. Mitchell was also known to cover Cohen’s ‘Winter Lady’, and you can hear the two versions of that song down below.