Bird On The Wire (1968-1993)

"There's a lot of songs that lose their meaning, you forget. I'm finding that out now, rehearsing the band. There are some songs I just can't get behind. Some are surprising me, songs I really thought I could sing, like "Bird On a Wire." I'm not sure it's necessary to say, "I swear by this song and by all I've done wrong that I will make it all up to thee." Either I've done that, or there's no point in making that promise again if I haven't. It's very hard to get behind certain lines"

Leonard COHEN - Interview (Magazine "Musician"  July 88
)
(read the complete interview)

"Like a bird on a wire, Like a drunk in some midnight choir, I have tried in my way to be free".... :

"That's my epitaph"

Kris Kristofferson in "A celebration of Leonard Cohen"

This is a song that is really good to sing because it has a confession in it. It has a line: Like a baby stillborn, like a beast with his horn, I have torn everyone who reached out for me. But I swear by this song and by all that I have done wrong that I will make it all up to thee.

This is a song called "Bird on the Wire".You know people have asked about how the song was written.And it's very hard to decide but.this song was written looking at a bird on a wire.

Verse variation

Like a fish on a hook
Like a Knight from some old-fashioned book
I have broken all my sorrows to thee.

Je voudrais dire une chose sur les rapports entre les Festivals et l'Argent. Quand les Festivals seront à vous ils ne seront pas a d'autres.Si vous m'appelez,je serai la déja.Mais une chose...il n'y a pas Une revolution. Quand quelqu'un parle d'une revolution,c'est leur revolution.Laissez la revolution aux proprietaires de la revolution.Ils sont comme tous les autres proprietaires:ils recherchent un profit.Dans le Choeur de la nuit,j'ai cherche ma liberte....like a bird on the wire....

I'd like to say something about the link between money and the festivals. When the Festivals will be yours they will not belong to others.If you call me, I will already be there.But the thing is,there is not a revolution. When others talk about the revolution,it is their revolution.Leave the revolution to the owners of the revolution.They are like any other owners: they're seeking profit.In the Choir of the night,i tried to be free...

Comme l'oiseau sur la branche
Comme l'ivrogne dans le choeur de la nuit
J'ai cherche ma liberte

I wrote this song a long time ago, under the most prosaic circumstances.   I noticed outside of my window that there was a wire directed by the telephone company. On that wire, there was a bird... (singing).....Like a bird"....... (applause) .... (stops playing). I really enjoy your recognizing  the song but I'm scared enough as it is up here. I think something's wrong every time you begin to applaude. So, if you do recognize the song, will you just wave your hand? I would really like to see you all wave your hands if you recognize the song. I hope you bear with me. These songs are kind of,  they become meditations for me and sometimes I just don't get high on it and I feel that I'm cheating you. So I'll try it again, okay? And if it doesn't work, I'll stop in the middle. There is no reason why we should mutilate a song just to save face. But here it goes...

Paris  05 & 06/06/76 - Montreux  25/06/76
(the verses from the Serge Lama's french cover "Vivre tout seul" are sung there,in french,as additional verses)

Je veux vivre tout seul,vivre comme un oiseau sur son fil
(I wanna live all alone,like a bird on his wire)
Sans femme sans famille sans amis
(No woman,no family,no friends)
Je veux vivre tout seul,vivre comme un poete en exil
(I wanna live all alone,like an exiled poet)
Sans visage,sans papiers sans pays
(No face,no papers,no country)

J'en ai marre de toujours faire le beau
(I'm tired of always showing up)
De sourire quand j'ai mal dans mon coeur
(Of smiling when my heart is aching)
J'en ai marre,je veux monter plus haut
(I'm so tired i want to go higher)
A l'abri des chiens et des chasseurs
(Away from hunters and their dogs)

Certains soirs je trouve sur ta peau
(Some nights i found on your skin)
Quelque chose qui ressemble au bonheur
(Seems like happiness)
Mais helas tu t'endors aussitôt
(Alas you're already asleep)
Le matin tu te leves à 8hOO
(The morning,you'll get up at eight)

München  31/10/79  later in Israël 1980
variation on first verse:

"...like a worm on a hook
like a monk bending (down) over the Book
i have tried......"

1976 Backcover of "Greatest Hits" ("Some notes on the songs")
I always begin my concert with this song. It seems to return me to my duties. 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.

1979    from the book by Harry Rasky
"The song of Leonard Cohen - Portrait of a poet, a friendship and a film"
I began that song in Greece. The melody began a few of the lyrics, a few of th lines. And then it was still with me. I was in L.A. I was living in a Motel on the Sunset strip - it developed a little further. Then I made a recording of it which David Crosby produced. Ah I never finished that recording. And the song continued to develop. I made a recording of it in Nashville with Bob Johnson as producer. And apparently the lyrics still weren't finished. I changed the lyrics and a different lyric appears in a record called "Live Songs". And then the lyrics changed again somewhat in the most recent treatments of the song - so it's continued being written for about eight or nine years.

About the line "I've tried in my way to be free" :

I don't think there's much to say about that Harry. It's as explicit as you can get. It mitigates a kind of arrogant human statement, which is "I've tried to be free" - well everybody has tried to be free . "In my way" somewhat modifies and softens the idea, and also includes the possibility of failure. Because you say, you know, according to my own light and in my way I've tried, and I've messed it up like everybody else, but that was the effort.

Munchen  09/03/85
I saw a beggar who was standing there on his wooden crutch
Oh he says to me "Leonard you can't ask for that much"
A pretty woman leaning in her darkened door
Oh she cries out to me "hey why not ask for just a little bit more"

It is written in the Apocalypse ("The Revelation to John", 12;1-6) that a great portent appeared in Heaven, a crown of twelve stars on her head. She cried out in her pangs of birth, in anguish for delivery. A dragon with ten horns stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, that he might devour her child when she brought it forth ...

Illustration : Picture of the XIVth century, Chantilly, Conde Museum

Graz  07/07/85
Modified verses

I saw this beggar standing on his wooden crutch
He says "How Dare You, how dare you,
how dare you ask for so God damn much ?"
There was a woman leaning in her darkened door
She says "come on, you can ask for just a little bit more"…

Reijkavik  24/06/88
Modified verses (some words are inspired by the cover version of the "Neville Brothers")

Ah Don't cry, don't cry no more
It's over now, it's over Baby
You see there's nothing left to pray for
Ah It's over now, don't cry, don't cry no more
It's over, completed, it's finished
It's been paid for, it's been paid for...


Like a bird on the wire, like a drunk in an old midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free

Interview 1993 (Magazine "Songtalk")
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."

* Read the complete Interview

"Vivre tout Seul" ("To live alone") is the adaptation of "Bird On The Wire" Serge Lama wrote. Leonard sang the cover verses in Paris and Montreux (1976 tour). Again, during the 1993' tour, Leonard sang cover verses for "Bird On The Wire", those of "The Neville Brothers " cover version.
photograph: Michel Quainnetier

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