sinks beneath your wisdom like a stone...

For what its worth, I've been experimenting with playing two versions of Leonard Cohen's early masterpiece, "Suzanne." One is based on Judy Collins' popular iteration from her "In My Life" album in 1966 and the other is Cohen's own interpretation. "Suzanne" began as a poem first published in 1966 and later recorded by the artist for his Columbia album debut in 1967. Others have been drawn to it, too including Noel Harrison's pop chart version in '67 - I remember seeing him "do it" on NBC's "Hullabaloo" - as well as Nina Simone's unique reworking from 1969. Still, Cohen and Collin understand this song in clearly different ways. Their insightful performances define the breadth and depth of its poetry and emotional significance.

 Like many young guitarists in the 60s, Judy Collins introduced me to the magic and mystery  of  "Suzanne."  The "In My Life" recording was an audible blessing to many as she tenderly planed-down the rough places on songs like Dylan's "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues," Richard Farina's "Hard Lovin' Loser" and the wild "Marat/Sade" so that we might take in each song's significance. She and her arranger, Jeremy Rifkin, understood that not every 
soul could or would devote the energy necessary to search for pearls of insight hidden beneath the challenging aesthetics of these artists. Consequently, Rifkin and Collins did the hard work of discerning a composition's core so that it could be shared with integrity to the wider public. NOTE: this is NOT dumbing down a song or amputating it's complicated truths as so often happens with purely consumer driven musical production. Rather, this work strikes me as popularizing what is good, true and noble in marginalized music by helping the average listener cultivate an ear for what lies just beyond the status quo. Rifkin and Collins applied this genius in spades to Cohen's songs on "In My Life" and their efforts were fully realized on "Suzanne."

First, they changed Cohen's guitar introduction from a haunting three note melody that evokes loneliness to a descending guitar riff that feels warm and inviting. Second, there is no question that Ms. Collins' voice is truly lovely and honest while Cohen voice sounds wounded. This alone makes her version of the song more engaging for some - not better, in my judgment - but beauty is salvific as Dostoevsky wants us to recall. And third, the Collins' take on "Suzanne" is squared-off and rendered regular - like a hymn of a once popular folk song that formalizes a tune for  easier group singing - making this "Suzanne" not only simpler to  hear, but also less complicated to remember. The way Judy Collins interprets this song sounds to me like a gentle waterfall in a wood side stream: it's tone is bright, it's mood is nourishing and it's effect is warm and reassuring.  

I don't hear any of that in Leonard Cohen's interpretation.  It sounds to me like Montreal: complex and brooding. This take pulsates through a city with unresolved longing while the other wafts through the woods with an invitation to rest. Cohen creates a mystical dance that treats spirit and flesh as equals, sometimes embracing, other times sparring and never fully at peace. I hear a sensuality here that is unashamedly human. It suggests paradox as well as unsettled inner contradictions: a lover who is half crazy, a Messiah who sadly grasps that "only drowning men can see him," heroes in the seaweed, children in the morning and trust born of touching perfect bodies with the mind. Listen to the undulating female chorus that starts with words of loneliness and crescendos when Cohen speaks of freedom only to fade away like mist on the St. Lawrence River where Jesus "sinks beneath your wisdom like a stone." Written in the shadow of Notre-Dame de Bonne Secours (Our Lady of Good Help, Montreal's sailor's chapel blessing seaman for hundreds of years) we're left to wonder is Suzanne "our lady of the harbor" or is it the Blessed Virgin? Or both at different times?  Who is bringing blessing? Where is there serenity amidst the garbage and the flowers? Cohen sings of both prayer and seduction, confession and confrontation, hope and bewilderment. 

Small wonder that this song hails from a 1966 poetry collection Cohen called Parasites of Heaven. The paradox of faithful living remains:  now we see as through a glass darkly, later we shall see face to face. Even though I owned Cohen's version of "Suzanne" back in the day, I couldn't really hear it. I was a child and "when I was a child I spoke and acted like a child" to paraphrase St. Paul. There was comfort and naiveté in Judy Collins's version and like the multitudes of that dreamy season, I wanted to believe. "But when I matured I put childish things away... faith, hope and love, these three remain... and the greatest is love." In 2017, Cohen evokes St. Paul's sober wisdom for me. I listen to Collins nostalgically, like watching the film "Woodstock." Oh, that it could have been. Then I put that recording away and sit for a spell with St. Leonard in the mystery of mature love. My daughter recently wrote that her mantra for this era comes from Cohen's "Anthem" - a tune we sang at my installation 11 years ago - that holds a hint of "Suzanne's" paradoxical truth:

You can add up the parts, you won't have the sum
You can strike up the march, there is no drum
Every heart, every heart to love will come... but like a refugee


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