I’m Your Fan

Laughing Lenny

Tomorrow night, BBC Four have a Leonard Cohen night from 9.00pm until just before midnight. First up is Leonard Cohen Live in London, an hour of live music from 2008 that features ten songs including Suzanne and Hallelujah. That’s followed by Songs From a Life, a documentary featuring interviews and live footage that was recorded in 1973. The night’s final programme is What Leonard Cohen Did For Me, a look back at his career that includes interviews with a number of performers who have been influenced by his music

Cohen started out as a poet and novelist and did not release his first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967), until he was in his thirties. He released a further five albums over the following decade and only five more have followed since then. He has never received much radio play nor had any hits, but many of his songs have become known through interpretations by other artists. He spent the latter half of the nineties at the appropriately named Mount Baldy Zen Centre in California, becoming a monk in 1996 and remaining there until 1999. In the last few years, it has emerged that his former manager ran off with all of his money. This may have been the catalyst for him to embark on his first concert tour in fifteen years. He has also been the subject of a film, Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man, which features interviews with the man himself as well as complete performances from a concert that includes versions of his songs by Nick Cave, Jarvis Cocker and members of the Wainwright clan. It’s well worth a watch even though I found the ending to be quite painful as it includes an appearance from Bono duetting with Lenny on Tower of Song. I was traumatised for a while after that.

A number of contemporary performers have paid tribute to the music of Leonard Cohen in song. I Love Leonard Cohen is by an English singer named Robin Grey. It’s the title track of a 5-track EP and you can download the whole thing here. The song is a humorous look back on the music that the singer liked in the past. His fascination with Weezer, Ani DiFranco and REM has been replaced by his love of the music of Mr Cohen. Musically, the song features a guitar being picked, a female backing singer and an almost spoken lyric that bears some resemblance to its subject’s own musical style

01 I Love Leonard Cohen – Robin Grey

Earlier in the week, I included a song called Dylan by Emmy the Great in my post about Robert Zimmerman. The title track of her debut album, First Love, cleverly draws on some of the themes of Cohen’s songs. In particular, the singer remembers listening to a tape of the song, Hallelujah, “The original Leonard Cohen version”

02 First Love – Emmy the Great

The Chelsea Hotel Oral Sex Song by Jeffrey Lewis can be found on his album, The Last Time I Did Acid I Went Insane (2001). It’s another plucked guitar, spoken word piece that is more like a short story. The narrator overhears a girl on the street talking about that “Leonard Cohen Chelsea Oral Sex Song”. He interupts them and a conversation ensues. It is a very clever and witty lyric that makes great use of rhyme and metre. The Cohen song that Lewis refers to is Chelsea Hotel #2. The song recounts a sexual encounter between Cohen and Janis Joplin that took place in the famous New York hotel that was later witness to the tragic deaths of Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen

03 The Chelsea Hotel Oral Sex Song – Jeffrey Lewis

Leonard Cohen is not known for performing songs by other songwriters, but a few years ago he took part in an eveing celebrating the songs of Paul Simon that was held as part of the Montreal International Jazz Festival. Cohen got the event underway with this recitation of one of Simon’s most famous songs, The Sound of Silence

04 The Sound of Silence (Paul Simon cover) – Leonard Cohen

The concert film of Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man also produced a fine live album. Teddy Thompson, son of fellow songwriters, Richard and Linda, does a brilliant version of Tonight Will Be Fine

05 Tonight Will Be Fine (Leonard Cohen cover) – Teddy Thompson

Tonight Will Be Fine was one of four Leonard Cohen songs that New York-based band, The Walkmen, played for a Daytrotter session in March, 2008. Their vocalist does not sound unlike Cohen and the songs they chose are similar in tempo. I really like their version of Passin’ Through. You can check out the rest of the songs here

06 Passin’ Through (Leonard Cohen cover) – The Walkmen

Many people are put off by the image of Cohen as dour and depressing and the songs I’ve posted so far may not have dispelled that myth. The next song should go some way towards rectifying that. I don’t know too much about Ravens and Chimes except to say that they’re from New York and have been going for a few years. Their version of So Long, Marianne is very different to the original. In fact, it sounds like Arcade Fire doing Leonard Cohen! And it’s the best version of a Leonard Cohen song that I’ve heard so far

07 So Long, Marianne (Leonard Cohen cover) – Ravens & Chimes

The Bobs are an a capella group who have been on the block for a few decades. They create all the music and instrumentation with their voices and other body parts. Bird on a Wire is one of the least humorous songs in Cohen’s catalogue, but you wouldn’t think so from The Bobs’ version. It probably helps their cause that they’ve combined it with Surfin’ Bird by The Thrashmen

08 Bird on a Wire (Leonard Cohen cover) – The Bobs