They Say It’s Your Birthday celebrates an artist’s special day with other people singing his or her songs. Let others do the work for a while. Happy birthday!
Music’s poet laureate, author and Zen Buddhist monk, Leonard Cohen, turns 77 years old today. A product of Montreal, Cohen began his writing career while attending McGill University in the ’50s, achieving some critical acclaim but little financial success. Frustrated, he moved to New York City in his thirties and became a musician, releasing his first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, in 1967.
The album sold well, but his career waxed and waned through the ’70s and into the ’80s, reaching a low point when he elected not to release even 1984’s Various Positions (you know, the one with “Hallelujah”) in the U.S. He regained prominence later that decade on the strength of the double-platinum I’m Your Man and attention from a new generation of young musicians such as Nirvana and REM. He disappeared for several years into a Zen monastery, only to resurface in 2001 with a new album. His extensive 2008-2010 world tour included three-hour setlists and appearances at Coachella and Glastonbury. Pretty impressive for a man in his seventies.
So, to celebrate Mr. Cohen’s special day, we’ve compiled five covers of his work, leaving out the done-to-death “Hallelujah.” Check them out below.
Dry Creek – Bird on a Wire (Leonard Cohen cover)
Part of the Dallas Family Band and hailing from, you guessed it, Dallas, Dry Creek get things off to a subdued start. While they may not go out on a wire (ahem) in this version of Cohen’s gospel lament, the delicate vocal perfectly captures the poignancy of the lyric. And don’t forget the rousing, but not too rousing, backing vocals.
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Avalanche (Leonard Cohen cover)
Cohen aficionado Nick Cave chose to open his first solo album, From Her to Eternity, with this biting version of “Avalanche,” originally found on 1971’s Songs From a Room. Cave attacks the lyric with all the viciousness it deserves, something Cohen only hinted at in his version. The raw instrumental arrangement features angry guitar and monstrous drums, again reflective of the lyrical content but a stark contrast to the original.
The Handsome Family – Famous Blue Raincoat (Leonard Cohen cover)
Few singers can lay claim to a voice with a resonance and depth that rivals Cohen’s. Brett Sparks of The Handsome Family can, and has used that voice to deliver a moody and dramatic form of alt-country for the last 16 years or so. Here, they present a fairly straight-up version of Cohen’s letter to his lover’s lover, but you’ll find Spark’s voice haunting you long after the song ends.
Madeleine Peyroux – Dance Me to the End of Love (Leonard Cohen cover)
Born in the US but partially raised in France, chanteuse Madeleine Peyroux sounds like a mix of Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan on this track from 2004’s Careless Love. Don’t let the jaunty beat fool you, Cohen found inspiration for the song while reading about string quartets that played as people were marched into the gas chambers during the Holocaust (the end of love, get it?). While popular modern vocal jazz often sounds too slick and glossy (yep, that’s you Michael Buble), Peyroux and her band prove there’s another way.
Warren Zevon – First We Take Manhattan (Leonard Cohen cover)
While Cohen wrote this song, longtime collaborator Jennifer Warnes actually released the first version of it in 1987 as a b-side. Cohen opened 1988’s I’m Your Man with the track, here covered by the late great Warren Zevon, backed live by the Vancouver Canucks (ugh) house band Odds. Zevon turns the track into a grinding rocker but doesn’t lose the lyric in the process.
Check out more Leonard Cohen on his website.