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A Master’s Reflections on His Music

Scores of today’s most acclaimed musical figures, from U2’s Bono and Willie Nelson to Courtney Love and Trent Reznor, have spoken with awe about the music of Leonard Cohen, frequently asking how anyone was able to write in such a deeply personal, unguarded style.

But Cohen himself speaks with disarming ease about the songs that have made him such a respected force for the last quarter-century. Here, he gives his feelings about my 10 favorite Cohen songs, listed in chronological order:

* “Suzanne” (1966)

“I was very excited when I finished it because it had all the qualities of the kind of song I loved myself. It sounded a little like a folk song, but it had a modern feel.”

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* “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” (1967)

“It’s hard to be honest when I talk about this song because the song is connected with somebody and I don’t feel like disclosing the name. I was leaving one woman and courting another, and I wasn’t quite sure what I was feeling at the time. I think both of these songs would be in my own top 10. I’ve revived them for every tour.”

* “Sisters of Mercy” (1967)

“This was inspired by two young women that I met in a snowstorm in Edmonton. I was on tour, singing in college towns just by myself, and we were in the same doorway.

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“They didn’t have any hotel and I had one, so we all went back and they fell asleep on the double bed and I sat in the armchair. They were so lovely, just sleeping. You have to remember I was someone who had always struggled with this problem of loneliness, and I was always hoping to meet women on the road. . . .

“I was awake with my pen and pad, and I remember the moonlight shining on the ice of the river and thinking it was like as good as it was going to get.”

* “Bird on a Wire” (1968)

“I wrote it on this island in Greece, right after they put up electrical wires for the first time. They were stretched right across my window, and I was very disturbed for a long time because they obstructed this lovely view. Then, one morning I saw a bird on a wire and the bird made me see everything in a new light--the bird who didn’t distinguish between this wire and the branch of the almond tree. Somehow, the wires became quite beautiful to me.”

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* “Famous Blue Raincoat” (1971)

“That’s also a song that perplexes me because I thought there was something unclear about it. I like hard edges and very, very clear imagery, and I wasn’t ready to accept that I had written an impressionistic song. I worried that I was asking the listener to make certain leaps, and I still don’t know if that’s legitimate.”

* “Chelsea Hotel” (1974)

“I wrote it about Janis Joplin, and it wasn’t very gallant of me to tell people I wrote it about her, because there’s an intimacy described in it. I regret doing that. It was an indiscretion that I never expected myself to make, but it just shows you are not as cool as you think you are. I loved Janis’ work, and I still do. There is something so real, so passionate in her voice.”

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* “Dance Me to the End of Love” (1988)

“I’d put that high on my list. There are dozens and dozens of verses of that song that I’ve written over the years. I usually rewrite songs for a long time, sometimes for years. I keep trying to uncover what it is I am trying to say. I know that if I stop too soon I’ll end up with slogans.”

* “Hallelujah” (1988)

“I wanted to write something in the tradition of the hallelujah choruses but from a different point of view. I think the other song that is closely related to that is ‘Anthem.’ It’s the notion that there is no perfection--that this is a broken world and we live with broken hearts and broken lives but still that is no alibi for anything. On the contrary, you have to stand up and say hallelujah under those circumstances.”

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* “Everybody Knows” (1988)

“I wanted to write one of those tough guy songs, one of those saloon songs. If you look closely, you can see it is a guy on the road or in the bar affirming his feelings but in a friendly way. It’s not like someone spitting on your grave. It’s like we are all in this together--everybody knows.”

* “Anthem” (1992)

“I think it is one of the best songs I have written, maybe the best. It’s up there with ‘If It Be Your Will’ and ‘Take This Waltz.’ It is saying there is a crack in everything--forget about your perfect offering. I knew that song was everything that my whole work and life had somehow gathered around. It is absolutely true to me.”

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