In the Spotlight showcases a cross-section of an artist’s cover work. View past installments, then post suggestions for future picks in the comments!
Leonard Cohen was known for being something of a perfectionist. “Hallelujah,” for example, was apparently whittled down from around 80 verses, while “Anthem” was the product of ten years’ arduous rewriting. With this in mind, it’s safe to say that Cohen took the same considered approach on the rare occasion that he covered a song. Not the type of person to hastily record a cover to fill up space on an album, each one of Cohen’s covers appear to have been chosen and performed with a great deal of care.
The first cover Leonard recorded – “The Partisan,” on his second album Songs From A Room (1969) – sounds so much like a Cohen original that it’s frequently mistaken for one. The lyrics of this anti-fascist protest song, “La Complainte du Partisan”, were penned by actual French Resistance leader Emmanuel d’Astier de la Vigerie (later translated to English by Hy Zaret), and set to a tune written by singer Anna Marly. The melody is slightly altered for Cohen’s version, which features an atmosphere even more desolate and desperate than the original, especially when Cohen and his backing vocalists begin a solemn incantation of the original French lyrics.
There is also a French connection in Cohen’s second studio cover, recorded ten years later on 1979’s Recent Songs. “The Lost Canadian,” or “Un Canadien Errant,” was written by poet Antoine Gerin Lajoie in 1842, following the Lower Canada Rebellion of 1837-38 that left many French Canadians exiled. In Cohen’s hands, the subject matter becomes more personal: a love letter to his home country, from which he had been absent for much of the previous two decades.
Over the years, Cohen voice became progressively lower and more gravelly. By 1992’s The Future, it had deepened almost to Barry White levels, making it all the more appropriate that he chose to tackle a soul tune on the album. The song in question was “Be For Real” by Frederick Knight, originally recorded by Martina Shaw on her 1976 album Just A Matter of Time. Leonard’s arrangement is pretty close to the original, but his glorious rumbling vocal delivery makes the track his own.
Cohen singing a soul tune might have been a shock for listeners in 1992, but he had another surprise in store for them on the very same album: a cover of the Irving Berlin standard “Always,” first recorded by Henry Burr in 1926. Perhaps wisely, Leonard doesn’t play this one completely straight, instead adopting the persona of a tipsy lounge singer while the band plays suitably bleary-eyed jazz behind him.
As well as soul and jazz, Cohen was also a big fan of country music. He counted Merle Haggard, Roy Acuff, and Hank Snow as early influences, and famously name-checked Hank Williams (“100 floors above me…”) on 1988’s “Tower Of Song.” Despite this, Cohen didn’t get around to including a classic country song on one of his studio albums until 2004’s Dear Heather. Leonard’s performance of “Tennessee Waltz” – a song by Pee Wee King’s Golden West Cowboys that had been a hit for Patti Page in 1950 – had actually been recorded live at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1985, but its inclusion on this album 19 years later is more than welcome.
This wasn’t the last time that Cohen covered a country song onstage. On June 26 2013, the day country star George Jones passed away, Leonard paid tribute with a cover of Jones’ 1999 hit “Choices” (Jones’ version had itself been a cover of the original by Billy Yates). The song made numerous reappearances at Cohen’s remaining 2013 concerts, and a performance from Christchurch, New Zealand was included on the live album Can’t Forget: A Souvenir of the Grand Tour (2015).
Intriguing covers can also be found on Cohen’s other live albums. His first live release, 1973’s Live Songs, saw Leonard cover the classic folk song “Passing Through,” with more than a hint of the Bakersfield sound in the arrangement.
Live In London (2009) found Leonard covering “Whither Thou Goest,” a song first recorded by Les Paul and Mary Ford that Cohen had been including in his live shows since 1988.
2014’s Live In Dublin, meanwhile, closes with Leonard performing “Save The Last Dance For Me” by The Drifters. The arrangement, with its violin and acoustic guitar flourishes, conjures a charming French-café atmosphere that suits Leonard to a tee.
Leonard Cohen is synonymous with covers, but mainly for being covered rather than for covering songs himself. As these high quality covers illustrate, however, Cohen approached other people’s songs with every bit of the thought, care, and conviction that he applied to his own masterful compositions.
Read about other artists covering Leonard Cohen in our Cover Classics feature on the tribute album I’m Your Fan, also the subject of an upcoming 33 1/3 book by our very own Ray Padgett – preorder your copy here.