A typically eloquent Leonard Cohen lyric, "The Smokey Life" finds him singing to a lover at a time when the relationship is coming to an end. It was clearly an intimate union, but as Cohen explains, they have to keep it light enough to let it go, which is a beautiful thing.
Cohen studied Zen Buddhism for much of his life, and was ordained a monk in 1996. This song is in line with his teachings: nothing is permanent, there is only the now. He looks to nature to make this point in the lines:
Take a lesson from these Autumn leaves They waste no time waiting for the snow
Clinging to the branch will do no good. Best to release and go where the wind blows.
At the suggestion of Joni Mitchell, Cohen brought in Henry Lewy to produce the album with him (Lewy was working on Mitchell's album Mingus). When Cohen played him "The Smokey Life," Lewy brought in bass player Roscoe Beck to play on it, and they recorded it with just guitar, bass and voice. It went well, so Lewy enlisted Beck and the rest of his band, a jazz group called Passenger, to play on the entire album. The group ended up serving as Cohen's backing band on the subsequent tour, and Beck became his musical director. In addition to Beck, members of Passenger are:
Mitch Watkins - guitar Bill Ginn - keyboards Steve Meador - drums Paul Ostermayes - sax
Cohen sang this as a duet with Jennifer Warnes, who had been singing backup for him since 1972. On Cohen's 1979 tour, they performed it together live (a version from this tour can be heard on the live album Field Commander Cohen). Warnes told Songfacts about recording the song.
"We did it at A&M, and Henry Lewy just said, 'Sing whatever you want.' Which is generally what Leonard always said. 'Whatever you hear. Whatever you want.' And then I would sing for 10-20 passes and then I'd go home. What ended up on the record was whatever they liked."
The smoke in this song is quite figurative, but Cohen was a prodigious smoker, often photographed with a cigarette.