Leonard Cohen, Suzanne and “Tea From China”

This has been a truly dreadful year for loss. In my first 10 days of blogging I had written about the deaths of three of my heroes from the world of music and film, and as the year has progressed there seems to have been little respite. Of course once I thought about it a bit more, this being a blog mainly about artists from the ’60s and ’70s, it was going to be highly likely that some may well leave this mortal coil before I got round to writing about them. Most of these people will be of advanced years by now and in many cases already past their biblical three score and ten.

There were exceptions however. I wrote about the 57-year-old Prince only 10 days before we heard of his sudden death and I was actually in the process of writing about music from the ’80s which featured an amusing story about Pete Burns (also 57), when his sudden death was announced. Will have to come back to that one now from a different angle.

This week (a momentous one indeed) also saw the death of Leonard Cohen. As it turns out I wrote briefly about Mr Cohen as part of another post back in February, in the context of him being one of the new discoveries I made as a student in the late ’70s:

“After a confusing 1st Year at University where my friends and I still had ties to our old lives and friendships from school days, by the start of 2nd Year we had finally morphed into late-’70s students. We dressed in interesting clothes from charity shops (they weren’t called vintage in those days), hung around dingy bars and listened to “The Songs of Leonard Cohen” (in between attending lectures of course). Looking back, the tracks of my years had up until then, revolved around what was on Top of The Pops, what was played on BBC Radio 1 and the music from film soundtracks so this was a whole new branch of music that I hadn’t really experienced before. Artists like Cohen didn’t release singles that would appear in a chart show run-down, but whole albums of songs to be listened to late at night, in a soporific condition with preferably, a significant other.

Also, the great thing about having a boyfriend who flat-shared with an older brother, was that you immediately had access to their record collection as well. Being of the opposite sex and having a few more years’ worth of vinyl, his collection was vastly different to my own and so it came about, that in late 1979 I fell in love with the music of Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Carole King and last but not least, Leonard Cohen.”

Since then his name has cropped up many times when researching other artists, specifically women artists. I got the impression that he really “liked” (in the truest sense of the word) women and they liked him right back, often helping him out at times when a little nudge in a certain direction was required.

Judy Collins recorded his song Suzanne in 1966 and it was she who persuaded him to get out on stage and start performing his songs himself. She first introduced him to television audiences during one of her shows in 1976, where they performed duets of his songs, and was once quoted as saying, “People think Leonard is dark, but actually his sense of humor and his edge on the world is extremely light”. I like that considering his style of music produced albums often quoted as being full of songs to slash your wrists to!

LeonardCohenJudyCollins.jpg
Leonard and Judy Collins

His songs often had girl’s names in their titles and So Long, Marianne was inspired by Marianne Ihlen whom Cohen met on the Greek island of Hydra in 1960. Cohen said she was the most beautiful woman he had ever met. The two hit it off and lived together throughout the ’60s. She died earlier this year and Cohen’s words, written to her before her death were read out at her funeral. “Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine… Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road”.

The song Suzanne was inspired by Cohen’s platonic relationship with Suzanne Verdal, the then-girlfriend of sculptor Armand Vaillancourt. Its lyrics describe very literally the routine they enjoyed when they met. Suzanne would invite Cohen to her apartment by the harbour in Montreal, where she would serve him tea, and they would then walk around Old Montreal past the church of Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours, where sailors were blessed before heading out to sea. I have always loved that song and am amazed how he managed to convert such seemingly simple routines into such colourful and romantic lyrics, “And she feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China”.

Suzanne by Leonard Cohen:

When I wrote about Jennifer Warnes a couple of months ago it came as a surprise to me that this American singer, songwriter, arranger and record producer, most famous for having performed on no less than three Oscar-winning songs from movies, was also a close friend and collaborator of Mr Cohen. In the ’70s, Cohen toured twice with Jennifer Warnes as a backup singer and she would become a fixture on Cohen’s future albums, receiving full co-vocals credit. In 1987 she recorded a tribute album of Cohen songs, “Famous Blue Raincoat” even though her career at the time was in much better shape than his. “So this is a real friend,” he said. “Someone who in the face of great derision, has always supported me”. The tribute album helped restore Cohen’s career in the U.S.

jennifer-warnes
Leonard and Jennifer Warnes

I am glad that Mr Cohen’s music entered my life when it did and he has left a great body of work for us to enjoy forever. I also love that he had all these great relationships with women who seemed to really appreciate having him as a friend. Says a lot about the man. RIP Leonard.

Suzanne Lyrics
(Song by Leonard Cohen)

Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river
You can hear the boats go by
You can spend the night beside her
And you know that she’s half crazy
But that’s why you want to be there
And she feeds you tea and oranges
That come all the way from China
And just when you mean to tell her
That you have no love to give her
Then she gets you on her wavelength
And she lets the river answer
That you’ve always been her lover
And you want to travel with her
And you want to travel blind
And you know that she will trust you
For you’ve touched her perfect body with your mind.
And Jesus was a sailor
When he walked upon the water
And he spent a long time watching
From his lonely wooden tower
And when he knew for certain
Only drowning men could see him
He said “All men will be sailors then
Until the sea shall free them”
But he himself was broken
Long before the sky would open
Forsaken, almost human
He sank beneath your wisdom like a stone
And you want to travel with him
And you want to travel blind
And you think maybe you’ll trust him
For he’s touched your perfect body with his mind.

Now Suzanne takes your hand
And she leads you to the river
She is wearing rags and feathers
From Salvation Army counters
And the sun pours down like honey
On our lady of the harbour
And she shows you where to look
Among the garbage and the flowers
There are heroes in the seaweed
There are children in the morning
They are leaning out for love
And they will lean that way forever
While Suzanne holds the mirror
And you want to travel with her
And you want to travel blind
And you know that you can trust her
For she’s touched your perfect body with her mind.

Author: Alyson

Whenever I hear an old song on the radio, I am immediately transported back to those days - I know I'm not alone here and want to record those memories for myself and for the people in them. 50 years ago the song "Alfie" was recorded for the film of the same name and I'm hoping that by writing this blog, I might finally work out the answer to his question, "What's it all about?"

6 thoughts on “Leonard Cohen, Suzanne and “Tea From China””

  1. I think there’s an interesting comparison to be made with Prince who also liked women. Because both artists were always respectful to women, they were able to be a lot more outspoken about sexuality and their admiration of women (in all senses of that word) than other, more blokey, artists who might have been seen as misogynist if they’d written some of the things Prince or Cohen wrote.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes that’s exactly it – I have actually edited my final paragraph a few times as difficult to put it into words. You are right Prince also had many women “friends” and it served him well, just as it served Mr Cohen well.

      Like

  2. Terribly saddened to hear about Leonard’s passing while I was away, I played his recent album ‘You Want it Darker’ several times in the days before I left. He increasingly mused on mortality over his final brace of LP’s, though never lost his lightness of touch. I too am irritated by people who regard his work as excessively maudlin – a strong streak of dark humour runs through so much of it. So long Leonard.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The outpouring of grief we have seen just shows how highly he was regarded. At 82 however he was not cheated of life unduly and was well-prepared for what was to come. Like that he was the kind of man that women warm to – Can really understand why.

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