Speaking of this song in a 1993 interview with Song Talk, Cohen explained: "It was begun in Greece because there were no wires on the island where I was living to a certain moment. There were no telephone wires. There were no telephones. There was no electricity. So at a certain point they put in these telephone poles, and you wouldn't notice them now, but when they first went up, it was about all I did – stare out the window at these telephone wires and think how civilization had caught up with me and I wasn't going to be able to escape after all. I wasn't going to be able to live this 11th-century life that I thought I had found for myself. So that was the beginning.
Then, of course, I noticed that birds came to the wires and that was how that song began. 'Like a drunk in a midnight choir,' that's also set on the island. Where drinkers, me included, would come up the stairs. There was great tolerance among the people for that because it could be in the middle of the night. You'd see three guys with their arms around each other, stumbling up the stairs and singing these impeccable thirds. So that image came from the island: 'Like a drunk in a midnight choir.'"
Ron Cornelius ran Cohen's band for four years. Here's what he told Songfacts about this song: "Bird On The Wire is a classic in my book. Leonard has a home on an island in Greece called Hydra, and from his living room, there's an electric wire you can see, and that's where he got the idea. He just happened to mention that one night because me and a friend that was a road manager for him all over the world, Bill Donovan, we went and stayed a couple of weeks there but Leonard just went there to open the house up and then he split for Montreal and we stayed there by ourselves, he said, 'see that wire, that's the wire right there.' When I was their there still was not a gasoline engine on the island anywhere."
In 1990, the title was used for a movie starring Mel Gibson and Goldie Hawn - well, sort of; the song and movie were changed to "Bird On A Wire," which is how many people who cover the song do it, including The Neville Brothers, who sang the version used in the movie.
Joe Cocker, Willie Nelson, Joe Bonamassa, Tim Hardin and Johnny Cash have all recorded versions of this song.
Cohen had a difficult time recording "Bird on the Wire," as the song never sounded "honest" enough to him. Depressed, Cohen finally gave up and went back to his hotel room. It wasn't until four days before the final scheduled recording session that he got what he was after. He asked everyone except for essential personnel, including producer Bob Johnson, to leave the studio. "I just knew that at that moment something was about to take place," Cohen said in Sylvie Simmons' I'm Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen. "I just did the voice before I started the guitar and I heard myself sing that first phrase, 'Like a bird,' and I knew the song was going to be true and new. I listened to myself singing, and it was a surprise. Then I heard the reply and I knew it was right."
Bob Johnson produced the Cohen performance of "Bird on the Wire" that appeared on 1973's Songs from a Room and is the version most people know. Johnson was a highly respected producer whom Bob Dylan called "unreal." In addition to Cohen, Johnson produced such classic albums as Dylan's John Wesley Harding, Simon & Garfunkel's Bookends, and Johnny Cash's At Folsom Prison.
Cohen always started his concerts with this song. "It seems to return me to my duties," he said. "It was begun in Greece and finished in a motel in Hollywood around 1969 along with everything else. Some lines were changed in Oregon. I can't seem to get it perfect. Kris Kristofferson informed me that I had stolen part of the melody from another Nashville writer. He also said that he's putting the first couple of lines on his tombstone, and I'll be hurt if he doesn't."
"The song is so important to me," Cohen told New Musical Express in 1973. "It's that one verse where I say that I swear by this song, and by all that I have done wrong, I'll make it all up to thee. In that verse it's a vow that I'll try and redeem everything that's gone wrong. I think I've made it too many times now, but l like to keep renewing it."
David Crosby initially produced "Bird on the Wire," along with "Lady Midnight" and "Nothing to One," over the course of two days. He was talked into doing this by Joni Mitchell, whom he was also producing and who was his lover at that time. Crosby went on to regret the experience because he didn't know enough about production to do Cohen justice. "It really was not a happy experience," Crosby said. "It's an embarrassing story for me and a bitter pill to swallow because I could produce him now in a minute, but then I had no idea how to record him."
The Crosby-produced versions of "Bird on the Wire" (with the altered titles "Like a Bird (Bird on the Wire") and "Nothing to One (You Know Who I am)" were released in 2007 as bonus tracks on the digital remaster of Songs from a Room.