Judy Collins on Leonard Cohen and His Musical Evolution

Judy Collins/Photo © Brad Trent

Editor's Note:

Judy Collins has recorded forty-three albums over her long career, which has spanned more than forty years. She has several top-ten hits, Grammy nominations, and gold and platinum albums to her credit. She received an Academy Award nomination for her film “Antonia: A Portrait of the Woman” and has her own label, Wildflower Records, which contributes a portion of its proceeds to charity and nonprofit organizations. Collins is the author of Sanity and Grace, Trust Your Heart, Singing Lessons, and the novel Shameless. Her latest book is Cravings.

In 1966 I was making an album called In My Life and it was nearly finished. My producer, Mark Abramson, and I had recorded the new album with orchestrations by Josh Rifkin – “In My Life,” “Pirate Jenny,” “La Colombe,” “Tom Thumb’s Blues,” “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” – the first time I had worked with more than a guitar and the “folk feel” of earlier recordings. I felt the recording – my sixth for Elektra – was just about done.

Jac Holzman, the president of Elektra, kept saying we needed something else. He didn’t know what, and neither did I. But Holzman got me and Mark Abramson thinking and worrying about what that additional song, or songs, might be. We were in a quandary and, frankly, stuck.

One day I got a call from Mary Martin, an old friend, who is smart, savvy, and engaging. She is a Canadian from Montreal and at the time worked for Albert Grossman, the manager of Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix, and she was famous for putting Peter Paul and Mary together. Mary and I would have dinner in the Village occasionally with our mutual friends – Lily Tomlin, Jane Wagner, and Linda Leibman – at the Fat Black Pussycat or the Cookery or one of the folk clubs. Mary had gone to McGill University in Montreal and was still friends with a classmate, Leonard Cohen, a poet she always described as being brilliant and unknown, his poems obscure.

Now as we spoke on the phone, she told me Leonard wanted to play me some of his new songs. “Are they obscure?” I asked. “Oh yes,” she replied, laughing.

Out of all the singers in New York, she said, he had chosen me, probably because most other singers in the Village were writing their own songs. Leonard knew I searched for the right songs to record and had done so on Elektra for five of my previous albums – helping Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Dylan, Eric Andersen, Richard Farina, and David Blue find their way to wider audiences and fans. He also knew I had not written any of my own songs.

When I think now about Leonard’s arrival at my front door at West Seventy-ninth Street, in the spring of 1966, I am struck with the feeling of having been visited by a character from one of Leonard’s own songs – an angel, perhaps, with wide, glistening wings extended into a thunderous sky or one of those travelers in the hills around Jerusalem, where vendors carried jugs of wine and spices for miles and where wild-looking women wept and prayed at shrines as old as time.

Leonard was a handsome man all through his life, but the moment he appeared at my door with his striking looks and shy smile, I did not fall in love. And for that I am eternally grateful. But when he put his fingers on his guitar and began to sing “Suzanne” (after telling me, “I can’t sing, and I can’t play the guitar, and I don’t know if this is a song,”), I did fall in love. I loved Leonard’s music and his soul, but I was spared the heartache other women experienced eventually (or so I imagine) if they were in a romance with his body. As in his song “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye”:

I loved you in the morning,
Our kisses deep and warm,
Your hair upon the pillow
Like a sleepy golden storm

I imagined they all said goodbye sooner than I could have borne. I never had to say goodbye because it was his music that charmed and seduced, surrounded and sought, pleased and pleasured me. I was lost in the spirit of his gifts, as though wedded to the ideas in his mind, and I was privileged to have with Leonard the kind of friendship – over a span of fifty years – of kindness and wonder, tender times and great gifts, shared friends – his with me, mine with his. That is a rare jewel in any life. In mine it shone through like fire and lightening, like diamonds and crystal, like laughter.

Like tears.

Every few weeks over the course of our friendship Leonard would send me cassettes of his new songs. “Take what you like, sing a few or all of them” he wrote me. I did – on In My Life. Jac said that “Suzanne” and “Dress Rehearsal Rag” answered our search for what would make the album complete. Then came “Sisters of Mercy” and “Story of Isaac,” “Joan of Arc,” and “Bird on the Wire.” And, of course, “Hey, That’s No Way to say Goodbye.” Leonard made me weep and dance with these lyrics of his, with hearing that deep, mournful voice; singing with him the few carefully chosen songs of his we harmonized together. Those duets never found their way to vinyl, only to TV specials, and then to YouTube, which makes them rarer still.

A few weeks after “Suzanne” had become a hit and, according to Leonard, had made him famous, Leonard and I had dinner together and he said, “I have to ask you a question; and I don’t want you to stop recording my songs – see how things have changed for the better for me! But I want to know why you have not written any of your own songs?”

I went home, sat down at my Steinway, and wrote “Since You’ve Asked.”

A few weeks later I was asked to sing at the Fillmore in the East Village at a fundraiser. I asked Leonard to join me and sing “Suzanne,” by then a well-known song as sung by me. I wanted people to hear the writer who had told me so many times he wouldn’t sing in public.

At first he refused and said under no circumstances would he walk out on that stage and sing. I begged and pleaded, and finally he agreed. Halfway through the song he stopped and began to cry, then he apologized and walked off the stage.

“You must go back out there,” I told him. He said no. I took his arm and walked him back out onto the stage where we finished the song together. The audience went wild; and Leonard began fifty years of singing, in his concerts and on his recordings.

He is singing still – in our hearts, as he speaks to our souls.