Album: Songs Of Leonard Cohen (1968)


  • In Cohen's 1975 Greatest Hits album, the liner notes say: "I wrote this in 1966, Suzanne had a room on a waterfront sheet in the port of Montreal. Everything happened just as it was put down. She was the wife of a man I knew. Her hospitality was immaculate. Some months later, I sang it to Judy Collins over the telephone. The publishing rights pilfered in New York City but it is probably appropriate that I don't own this song. Just the other day I heard some people singing it on a ship in the Caspian Sea."
  • In a 1994 BBC Radio Interview Cohen said: "The song was begun, and the chord pattern was developed, before a woman's name entered the song. And I knew it was a song about Montreal, it seemed to come out of that landscape that I loved very much in Montreal, which was the harbour, and the waterfront, and the sailors' church there, called Notre Dame de Bon Secour, which stood out over the river, and I knew that there're ships going by, I knew that there was a harbour, I knew that there was Our Lady of the Harbour, which was the virgin on the church which stretched out her arms towards the seamen, and you can climb up to the tower and look out over the river, so the song came from that vision, from that view of the river.

    At a certain point, I bumped into Suzanne Vaillancourt, who was the wife of a friend of mine, they were a stunning couple around Montreal at the time, physically stunning, both of them, a handsome man and woman, everyone was in love with Suzanne Vaillancourt, and every woman was in love with Armand Vaillancourt. But there was no... well, there was thought, but there was no possibility, one would not allow oneself to think of toiling at the seduction of Armand Vaillancourt's wife. First of all he was a friend, and second of all as a couple they were inviolate, you just didn't intrude into that kind of shared glory that they manifested.

    I bumped into her one evening, and she invited me down to her place near the river. She had a loft, at a time when lofts were... the word wasn't used. She had a space in a warehouse down there, and she invited me down, and I went with her, and she served me Constant Comment tea, which has little bits of oranges in it. And the boats were going by, and I touched her perfect body with my mind, because there was no other opportunity. There was no other way that you could touch her perfect body under those circumstances. So she provided the name in the song." >>
    Suggestion credit:
    Shannon - Kathleen, GA, for above 2
  • Judy Collins was the first to record this, releasing it on her 1966 album In My Life. Cohen released it on Songs Of Leonard Cohen, which was his first album, and many other artists have since recorded it, including Nina Simone, Neil Diamond, Joan Baez, Anni-Frid 'Frida' Lyngstad (in Swedish) and Pauline Julien (in French).
  • In 2006, the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) found Suzanne Verdal, who inspired the song. She was a dancer and traveled around the world, but in the '90s, she hurt her back and was living in a homemade camper in Venice Beach when they found her. She revealed that Cohen lost touch with her by the time he recorded it, although she did meet him briefly after one of his concerts in the '70s, where he commented that she gave him a beautiful song.

    Responding to Cohen's quote, "It's not just the copulation. It is the whole understanding that we are irresistibly attracted to one another, and we have to deal with this. We are irresistibly lonely for each other, and we have to deal with this, and we have to deal with our bodies and with our hearts and souls and minds, and it's an urgent appetite," Verdal said, "I was the one that put the boundaries on that because Leonard is actually a very sexual man and very attractive and very charismatic. And I was very attracted to him, but somehow I didn't want to spoil that preciousness, that infinite respect that I had for him, for our relationship, and I felt that a sexual encounter might demean it somehow. That precious relationship produced a great piece of art." >>
    Suggestion credit:
    Rory - Davis, CA
  • Suzanne Verdal said in The Guardian, December 13, 2008: "Leonard was a friend of my husband, Armand. We were all hanging at the same places in Montreal - Le Bistro, Le Vieux Moulin, which was the place to dance to jazz. Black turtle-neck sweaters, smoke, beatniks and poets - it was that bohemian atmosphere in the 60s. Leonard spent hours at the Bistro. He was quite a bit older than me but he saw me emerging as a schoolgirl, working three jobs to subsidize my dance classes.

    By 1965 I had separated from Armand and was living with our little girl. Leonard would come over and I would serve him jasmine tea with mandarin oranges, and light a candle. It sounds like a seance, but obviously Leonard retained those images, too. I was living in a crooked house, so old with mahogany and stained glass. I loved the smell of the river and the freight trains and boats. Out of my window was total romance. Leonard was a mentor to me. We would walk together and we didn't even have to talk. The sound of his boots and my heels was weird, like synchronicity in our footsteps. He felt it, I felt it and we got such a rush just grinning at each other.

    We were never lovers of the flesh but on a very deep level we were. I had the opportunity more than once but I respected his work and what he stood for so much, I didn't want to spoil it. Also, Leonard is an incredibly sexual man! He's very attractive to women and I didn't want to be just one of the crowd.

    I left Montreal for the States in '68 and when I came back people said, 'Have you heard the song Leonard's written about you?' In my wildest dreams I didn't know it would be huge. I felt flattered, but I also felt there was an invasion of privacy. After that, things changed course. I stayed true to the 60s. He became this big pop icon and was not accessible any more. It hurt. The song is bittersweet for me. Sometimes I'll be in a restaurant and hear it and I'll be overcome."
  • Ever wonder why Suzanne feeds him tea and oranges? It's not as exotic as it sounds. Said Cohen in Song Talk: "She fed me a tea called Constant Comment, which has small pieces of orange rind in it, which gave birth to the image."
  • Judy Collins recalled to Uncut in 2014 how she came to record this song by a then-unknown Leonard Cohen: "(Cohen's manager) Mary Martin was an old Canadian friend of mine who was always mentioning Leonard and his books. And one day in 1966 she said, 'What if I sent Leonard over to see you? Because he's written some songs.'"

    "The first night came to my apartment, he was charming, shy. I don't think he knew what he was doing, and he never sang a note. He said, 'oh, I'm embarrassed too...'"

    "He came back the next afternoon and sang me 'Suzanne,' 'Dress Rehearsal Rag' and 'The Stranger Song.' and the next day he came back and sang 'Suzanne' again and I recorded it shortly thereafter. There was no question immediately that it was a classic. There's a spiritual center to it that's authentic. The authenticity is what really grabbed me."
  • In 1969, Cohen met another Suzanne: a 19-year-old named Suzanne Elrod. They had a passionate and tumultuous affair that lasted about 10 years. The couple never married, but Elrod gave birth to his two children, son Adam and daughter Lorca.

Comments: 30

  • David from ScotlandHi Dot. I'm not great at interpretation but for me the second verse is Cohen describing Christ displaying a devine ability to "walk on water". This elevates Christ above Man and when he realises that this was a barrier for Man to follow him "when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him" so for "all men (to be) sailors" he realises that he must offer himself available on a physical level "almost human" but as the story goes even Christ, by offering this physical availability, is betrayed and forsaking by the inevitable error of Man. In verse 1 when Cohen is about to tell Suzanne that he has "no love to give her" I believe he's referring to physical relationship, which he later explained was never pursued, and the answer he realises is that he's "always been her lover". Meaning love is much more than just a physical relation it can be a spiritual or platonic bond with clear attraction but the fact that neither act on this physical desire meant their love is forever untainted. I think verse 2 carries on the themes of water and references Suzanne's religious beliefs but Cohen uses this idea that they never fell into the trap (that Christ experienced) by exposing yourself to the vulnerabilities that come by offer yourself on a physical level - further reinforce his admiration for Suzanne's beauty in body and mind "he sank beneath your wisdom like a stone".
  • Dot from UsaI'm curious as to the lyrics about Jesus, does anyone know what he is trying to say about Jesus???
  • Bert-jan from NetherlandsWhen I first heard the song it was the version by Tom Rapp or Pearls Before Swine on the album Balaklava,

    I immediately thought it was about a women that had been traumatized in her younger years, fe. the loss of a brother or grandfather, and had been struggling to understand why he had left her all her life, thinking it was because of her or something she did or didn't do, in the process forgetting herself and learning to love herself and others whilst growing up.

    Later on in life, like the period of life Suzanne is in as the song takes place, late twenties or early thirties I imagined, the singer met her and recognizes the pain and anguish in a torn woman, though pretty to behold, who feeds him tea and oranges from China, instead of knowing how to love another person.

    The tea and oranges line to me is a metaphor for the closest thing she knows to love which she can give.

    Never did I think it was about sex as some of the comments here describe and the mere notion of that thought to me is horrible and false.

    Trauma bites hard the next of kin.
  • Barry from Sauquoit, Ny'And Jesus was a sailor, when he walked upon the water'
    On October 22nd 1967, "Suzanne" by Noel Harrison entered Billboard's Hot Top 100 chart at position #86; and on November 19th, 1967 it peaked at #56 {for 2 weeks} and spent 8 weeks on the Top 100...
    He had one other record make the Top 100 chart, "A Young Girl", it reached #51 in 1966 and it also stayed on the Top 100 for 8 weeks...
    R.I.P. Noel John Christopher Harrison {1934 - 2013}.
  • Marylee from Stardust, TxI've known this song since I was a teenager, listening to it on the radio - but I'd never heard of Leonard Cohen until just a few years ago. I finally came up with a name - Noel Harrison, who had a hit with it in 1967. I didn't see him listed as an "also recorded by..." so I looked it up to make sure. It's from his 1967 album, "Collage."
  • David from Nottingham, United KingdomThere is an interesting version by Fairport Convention, not to be compared with the original but worth a listen.
  • Vince Cooper from Derby, United Kingdommy favourite song for what seems like the last 100 years.So beautiful. So intimate, and so stimulating. An over used word but this is truly a MASTERPECE. Thank you Mr. Cohen..... sublime.
  • Dale from Augusta, GaOne of my all-time favorite artists. Going to see him in a couple of weeks!
  • Eric from Camas, WaI know the Cohen-heads won't like this, but I feel that the Judy Collins version is the only one that does justice to the song. The atmosphere it has is incredible. Cohen's version is dry and dull by comparison. Maybe even Leonard likes hers better. Sorry! Sacrilege, I know.
  • Rachel from Toledo, OhThis is such a beautiful song. I actually heard it first on Joan Baez's "From Every Stage," though I think she may have changed the lyrics a bit...? Maybe not. I love it anyway.
  • Nic from Houston, TxThis song kind of reminds me of Tales of Brave Ulysses by Cream. Listen to the lyrics and the melody. The lyrics are very similar during some parts.
  • Andrea from Sønderborg, DenmarkLeonard Cohen is giving a cincert in Århus tomorrow and I'll be there :D
  • Betsy from Belle Vernon, PaThis song was covered by Esther Ofarim. Cohen was a favorite composer of hers and she sang many of his songs. There are videos of her singing Bird On a Wire & Song of the French Partisan on Youtube.
  • Kelley from Hickory, KyNeil Diamond does a version of this song on the "Stones" album. "Suzanne" coupled with the song "Stones" give haunting portraits of loving women that give disproportionately to what they receive in return.
  • Tim from Shaftesbury, Englandwhen i grew up i was always fascinated by the songs from "macCabe and mrs miller"...that got me onto greatest hits..with so long marianne...suzanne was always the "suicidal one".
    music "to cut your wrist with a spoon" by..thats what the greatest hits album was known as
    when i got over my own "blues" and inner grief i saw the beauty of leonard cohen's suzanne in more depth. it is now my highest rated song of all time...especially due to the second verse..and i am not religious...
    there is just "something" about the whole song...that wont go away
  • Frank from Brampton, Ontario, CanadaReally nice song! I think it's Cohen's most popular one. But that's only my opinion.
  • Evelyne from Montreal, CanadaWonderful C.S. Lewis quote. Please, could you tell me where it is from exactly?

    That same kind of longing for the ungraspable always hits me when I hear the line in "A Thousand Kisses Deep"
    You lose your grip/And then you slip/ Into the masterpiece
  • Senorita from Canada, CanadaIn ?Suzanne?, he sings about a woman named Suzanne who seems to give an impression of an old lady who invites strangers into her home to give them some food and talk about herself and her past. However, once she starts talking, you just can?t seem to be drawn to her stories as illustrated by the phrase ??she gets you on her wavelength and she lets the river answer?? Cohen continues by describing a parallel to the story of Jesus? whose charm had also drawn people to follow him. Like Jesus, Suzanne did not have wealth nor name to boast. In fact, she was just a simple person who bought clothing ?from Salvation Army counters? but in the last verse, we see that she has a deep appreciation for the simplicity of life.
  • Tricia from Edinburgh, ScotlandYes it still comes back 30yrs on, I still sing it now and again, specially when sad
  • Mark from Lancaster, OhWell, I'll be, and thank you Songfacts. Everyone was chasing allegories through the forest to come up with the true meaning of the words to Suzanne, and here it turns out to be simply a description of a true story. I did wonder about the tea.

    You could hear Mr Cohen droning virtually everywhere in Madison, Wisconsin in 1968. I think everyone knew every song on that album by heart.
  • Teresa from Mechelen, BelgiumYesterday I bought a cd from Leonard Cohen called "Death of a Ladies' man" because it's co-written en produced by Phil Spector. No hesiatation for a Spector's fan like me to buy this cd even if I'm not a fan of Cohen. PHIL SPECTOR IS GREAT, A PURE TALENT OF POP MUSIC.
  • Scott from Mound House , NvLeonard Cohen has influenced me more than anyone I have never personally met. I did get a chance to meet Perla Batallla, who is a beautiful and talented person. Thanks Leonard for your insight
  • Joanna from Newfoundland, Canadacbc recently.. as in within the past hours.. released a documented article about suzanne. spoke about the inspiration process, hers and cohens entire history together. and where she is now. beautiful and moving story.
    i love that dancing, writing, gingerbread house living, leonard cohen muse.

    what a beautiful soul. look it up.
  • Loelle from Sydney, Australiamike, westfield, nj - someone else who's tracked from leonard cohen to cs lewis? call me, at once!
  • Craig from Dunedin, New ZealandSometimes i think that perhaps the delivery makes this song depressing. Hes kicking himself in the arse because he wants more than a cup of tea!
  • Craig from Madison, WiCohen may be the most depressing musician of all time, as Kieren points out, but that is why he's great. If I wanted Sunshine and Lollipops I'd listen to Lesley Gore. If I want truth and emotion and a quick peek into the abyss, I have Mr Cohen to turn to. As for Suzanne, I don't think I have the power to describe the beauty of this song. I just want to travel with it and I want to travel blind.
  • Mike from Westfield, NjThere are about 50 lines in the song and 16 of them deal with Jesus. There are quatrtain lyrics about Suzanne and Jesus that are almost identical (i.e.: traveling blind and touching perfect bodies with minds).

    "And just when you mean to tell her that you have no love to give her and ....she lets the river answer that you've always been her lover"

    There is a pantheism in these lyrics that reminds me of a passage by C.S.Lewis....."the secret which pierces with such sweetness....;the secret we cannot hide and cannot it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter......The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not 'in' them, it only came 'through' them, and what came through them was longing...For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited."

    I see the song as a longing for something that can't be found.
  • Kieran from Harlow, United StatesCohen is the most depressing musician of all time
  • Geri from Nova Scotia, CanadaI agree Jens from Linksping, Sweden, totally a masterpiece.
  • Jens from LinkÅ¡ping, SwedenProbably one of the finest songs ever made. It's really a masterpiece !
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