Tombstones and lyrics are a funny old affair. It is a mark of how much music means to us and its transcendent majesty that the two so often meet. As the masterful writer, Kurt Vonnegut once brilliantly declared: “If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph: The only proof he needed for the existence of God was music.” Considering Vonnegut was a humanist, that line is all the more remarkable.
However, the flip side to that is the sad truth that one of the finest modern lyricists, the late great David Berman of Silver Jews, expressed when he sang, “I came all this way to see your grave / To see your life as written paraphrased.” To call an epitaph reductive is an understatement, alas something has to be etched in Memoriam and that makes the words chosen all the more important.
Thus, if you’re opting for lyrics then you best make sure they were meaningful. It is a mark of the depth of Leonard Cohen’s songwriting that Kris Kristofferson won’t be the only one who has proclaimed that they want their life in paraphrase to be lines from the folk star’s hymn to the dispossessed and the salvation of music.
Cohen played ‘Bird on a Wire’ just about more than any other song in his back catalogue, frequently opening his concerts with the anthem. “It seems to return me to my duties,” he said of the song’s spiritual impact. “It was begun in Greece and finished in a motel in Hollywood around 1969 along with everything else. Some lines were changed in Oregon. I can’t seem to get it perfect.”
Nevertheless, Leonard, many musicians – from Kristofferson to Father John Misty – would disagree with you there. “Kris Kristofferson informed me that I had stolen part of the melody from another Nashville writer,” Cohen continued. “He also said that he’s putting the first couple of lines on his tombstone—and I’ll be hurt if he doesn’t.”
Those first couple of lines in question read: “Like a bird on the wire / Like a drunk in a midnight choir / I have tried in my way to be free.” The brilliance of much of Cohen’s lyricism is that it etches itself on the sensibilities of any attentive listener. As such the refrain of “I have tried in my way to be free” is one that flutters and then nestles into the psyche like a bird from flight into a nest.
Cohen has described ‘Bird on the Wire’ as a simple country song, and indeed that is how the track first debuted via the Judy Collins version. In many respects, it does have the straightforward heart of a country song, but its wayfaring ways betray its creator’s folk stylings. It is a heartbreak song of transcendence, and it clearly struck a befitting note with Kristofferson, God forbid he should ever die.