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Six of the best Leonard Cohen covers

By Mark Savage
BBC Music reporter

11 November 2016

Like many people, I discovered Leonard Cohen through other people's interpretation of his work.

The singer's lugubrious, gravelly delivery was the perfect vehicle for his poetry, but fellow musicians often
uncovered melodies and meanings obscured by Cohen's originals.

Some of those covers - notably Jeff Buckley's spine-tingling arrangement of Hallelujah - even became the
definitive versions.

Here are six of the best. But be sure to check out the originals, too. As Bob Dylan once said, they're "like
prayers".

Tributes paid to Leonard Cohen

Obituary: The godfather of gloom

Cohen's life in pictures

The songs of Leonard Cohen

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Nina Simone - Suzanne


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First published as a poem in 1966, Suzanne described Cohen's platonic relationship with Suzanne
Verdal, the then-girlfriend of sculptor Armand Vaillancourt. It describes how she would feed him "tea and
oranges" while loafing around in Montreal. Although they never became lovers, Cohen makes his feelings
clear - describing how he "touched her perfect body" with his mind.

Judy Collins recorded it first, but Nina Simone's earthy, conversational interpretation brings the story to
life. When she sings, "Now Suzanne, takes your hand," you can almost hear the sparks fly.

Watch Nina Simone perform Suzanne in 1969.

REM - First We Take Manhattan

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The tinny, 1980s synths and overbearing backing vocals on Leonard Cohen's original version of First
We Take Manhattan have not aged well. Which is a shame, as the excruciating production masks one of
his most disturbing lyrics - "an examination of the mind of the extremist," as he called it.

Thankfully, REM stripped back the song to its basics for their 1991 cover, released in the UK as the b-side
to Drive. Michael Stipe sings at the bottom of his register, lending a true menace to the hook: "How many
nights I prayed for this, to let my work begin / First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin."

Listen to REM's cover.


Lana Del Rey - Chelsea Hotel No. 2

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Written on the back of a napkin, Chelsea Hotel No. 2 is Cohen's description of a sexual encounter with
Janis Joplin.

"I used to bump into her in the elevator, about three in the morning," he once told an audience in Paris.
"She wasn't looking for me. I think she was looking for Kris Kristofferson, somebody taller than me. I was
looking for Brigitte Bardot. Anyway, we fell into each other's arms, through some process of elimination."

His depiction of their tryst is unflattering ("You told me again, you preferred handsome men / But for me
you would make an exception"), but that makes it perfect fodder for Lana Del Rey, whose languid vocals
drawl over the song's seedier details.

Listen to her cover on YouTube.

Fairport Convention - Bird On the Wire

English folk-rockers Fairport Convention were early champions of Cohen, covering several of his songs in
the late 1960s. Their version of Bird On The Wire was recorded for Stuart Henry's BBC radio show in
December 1968, and officially released on the album Heyday almost 20 years later.

The song was written during a bout of depression when Cohen lived on the Greek island of Hydra. He
noticed a bird sitting alone on a telephone wire, and began to compare their situations. Fairport
Convention embellish the lyrics with beautiful harmonies, but Sandy Denny's fluttering vocals, in
particular, root the song in delicate sorrow.

Listen to Fairport Convention's cover.

John Cale and Suzanne Vega - So Long, Marianne

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Cohen spent months trying to perfect this song, which was written for his muse, Marianne Jensen, in the
1960s. It features one of his most passionately romantic lyrics, yet it is tinged with sadness.

"Well you know that I love to live with you," he sings, "But you make me forget so very much / I forget to
pray for the angels / And then the angels forget to pray for us".

"I didn't think I was saying goodbye," he later said, "but I guess I was".

The original, which appeared on Cohen's debut album, is almost unimpeachable - but Velvet
Underground musician John Cale added Suzanne Vega as a co-vocalist on his cover, turning the song
into a heartbreaking conversation between two lovers clasping at the connection they once shared.

Cale later covered Hallelujah - his finger-picked guitar arrangement forming the basis for Jeff Buckley's
infamous version of the song.

Listen to So Long, Marianne on YouTube.

Jeff Buckley - Hallelujah


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Hallelujah has become such a beloved song, a modern-day hymn, that it's easy to forget it languished in
obscurity for more than a decade.

Cohen spent an unusually long time working on the song, drafting more than 80 verses over five years
before he was satisfied - but his record label was unimpressed. They initially refused to release the album
it came from, 1984's Various Positions, arguing it wouldn't sell.

The song's fortunes started to turn around in 1991, when John Cale asked Cohen's permission to cover
it. Cohen faxed over all of those draft verses, and Cale set to work on a new version, trading the gospel
choirs and heavy drums for a simple, haunting, piano arpeggio.

It was this arrangement that Jeff Buckley used to cover at his infamous early gigs at New York's Sin-e
club. He interpreted the lyric as a homage to "the hallelujah of the orgasm".

Buckley expressed reservations over how Cohen would respond to his erotic take on the song, but his
tremulous, fragile recording of the track became the definitive performance. In turn, it inspired Rufus
Wainwright's cover - which featured on the soundtrack to Shrek and propelled the song into the
mainstream.

Listen to John Cale, Jeff Buckley and Rufus Wainwright's versions of Hallelujah.