#151: 1967, Leonard Cohen, Suzanne

by Jackie_South on April 20, 2011

The last song I posted was one my dad used to play when I was still at primary school.  This is another, which often got played on the car stereo on some family outing or other.  I don’t think my dad had bought it – it was on a cassette taped by a work colleague.  Dad did have the later Death of A Ladies’ Man at home, but as its best track was Don’t Go Home With Your Hard On it didn’t get much play in front of the kids.

It certainly left an impression on me, with its slow gentle guitar and slightly toneless downbeat vocals.  The song tells of spending the (imagined) night with the older Suzanne, the wife of a sculptor he knew.  It is remarkably mature for a first record, although Cohen was of course a late developer as an artist: 33 at the time.

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 just when you mean to tell her
That you have no love to give her
Then she gets you on her wavelength

As a child, it was the second verse that really grabbed my attention, about Jesus.  Coming from a small village where I went to church every Sunday and where I had a story about the Good Samaritan published in the Parish News a few months before, I was just beginning to question the certainties of religion.  The lines in this verse appeared sacrilegious, scurrilous, cynical, anti-establishment and yet held a truth for me:

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”

Of course now I realise that this verse probably isn’t poking fun at Christianity.  The Jewish Cohen grew up in very Catholic Montreal, a slightly strange place which seems to have transplanted parts here and there of Medieval France across the Atlantic.  Much of the song takes place around a church on the banks of the St Lawrence, and I think the verse about Jesus is a Jew trying to process the alien iconography of that French Catholic place of worship.  The remainder of the verse deals with the fragile humanity of ‘God’ and Cohen understanding at a distance the appeal of Jesus to Catholics.

It is a truly beautiful song.

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