Suzanne (1970-2001)

"Suzanne" is very hard to sing. I can't seem to find the place to sing it from, though the song does have the Montreal landscape in it: the church by the harbor, the place we used to live by the river, and my mother's house that I still go back to. The woman there and that experience were very much a part of the emotional landscape of Montreal.

Leonard COHEN , Interview (appeared in Details for men,January 93)
(read the complete interview)

The original poem verses are different from the sung verses of 1968

"...And she feeds you tea and oranges
That come all the way from China.
Just when you mean to tell her
That you have no gifts to give her,
She gets you on her wavelength..."

last verse

And you want to travel with her
And you want to travel blind
And you're sure that she can find you
Because she's touched her perfect body with her mind

Oh It's good to be here alone in front of six hundred thousand people. It's a large nation but it's still weak, still very weak. It needs to get a lot stronger before it can claim a right to a land

Joan Baez, I've heard her sing Suzanne and she completely changes the song. She doesn't like the metaphysical possible ways of somebody having their bodies touched with somebody else's minds. So that offends her anticlerical position. It sounds religious to her. It smacks of something that she doen't embrace. So she changes it around to like "touched her perfect body with her thumb" I don't know exactly what it is, but she moves it around that way, but that's okay. It's okay because a song enters the world and it gets changed like everything else. That's okay as long as there are more authentic versions. A good song I think will get changed.

* Indeed, on her earlier recordings of Suzanne (live 1971 "Carry it on", "Live In Italy" 1967, Live "From Every Stage" 1975) Joan Baez gave her own version of that verse. It goes like .."And he's (she's) touched you, and he's (she's) moved you and he's (she's) kind...". It was only on her last version (Live "Ring Them Bells" 1995) that she sang the original Leonard's verse

Joan Baez first recorded "Suzanne" in 1971. It was live, for the O.S.T. "Carry It On".
Leonard Cohen told us about her version of the song during an interview in
December 4th, 1974 with Kathleen Kendal (Pacifica).

I wrote this in 1966. Suzanne had a room on a waterfront street 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 were pilfered in NYC 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.

verse variation

You can hear the boats go by
You can hear the night beside her.

"Suzanne", I wrote it in Montreal. I had been working on the melody and the idea. The landscape that was being written out was the landscape around the church "Notre-Dame de Bon-Secours". She's down the street. And that was the feeling in the song, those buildings at the St Laurent. I had the melody, I had the accompaniment. And then an old friend of mine,whose name was Suzanne, invited me down to her place near the river. And she served me tea and oranges that come all the way from China (*) and you know the purity of the event was not compromised by any carnality. The song is almost a reportage. It's just a very accurate evocation of exactly what happened. But the song had been begun. It was as though she handed me the seed for the song. That's the song and that is the landscape of Old Montreal, that is the church. She becomes of course Our Lady of the Harbor. Notre-Dame de Bon-Secours, Our Lady of the Good Health is her church already there. So Suzanne becomes an incarnation of that Church for sailors, "Notre-Dame du Bon Secours" or "Our Lady of Consolation", that's her church. Suzanne becomes of course Our Lady of the Harbour, or she manifests as our Lady of the Harbour. "Notre-Dame du Bon Secours" is a church for sailors. Inside the church there are models of ships hanging. The church faces the river and it is the sailors that are blessed from that church. So the very next verse moves very easily into the idea that Jesus was a sailor, sank beneath your wisdom like a stone. So you know you could establish a real coherence in the song if that was where you (i.e the interviewer, Harry Rasky) went, you know if you liked to do those sort of things. But it hangs together very very neatly".

(*) "a tea called Constant Comment, which has small pieces of orange rind in it, which gave birth to the image." (from the Interview in magazine "Songtalk" 1993)

The church "Notre-Dame de Bon Secours" is the center of a landscape that inspired the song "Suzanne". It is located "rue Saint-Paul" in Montreal, near the St Laurent river. Saint Marguerite Bourgeoys, a French Sister, undertook the construction of this chapel that she wanted to be a place for pilgrimages dedicated to the Virgin Mary. This picture belongs to the "Bibliothèque Nationale du Québec"

variation 2nd verse

And now you want to travel with him
You want to travel blind
And you think okay this time he'll trust you
For he's touched your perfect body with his mind.

Suzanne was a composite of a number of women that I know but the actual Suzanne did take me down to her place near the river and did serve me a kind of tea called “Constant Comment” that had oranges, a little piece of orange skin, in it. So a lot of it was reportage, and that young woman is still alive, yes of course. She has kind of pissed off at me because she felt I should have cut her in on the profits. Interviewer: Oh she wanted to share in your royalties? Yes, more or less, but the song was stolen from me anyway. I lost the rights of the song myself.

There was a girl named Suzanne, who invited me down to her place near the river and she did serve me a kind of tea that had oranges in it and...... I didn't sleep with her, in that sense I touched her perfect body with my mind. The landscape was the Montreal Harbour. There is a church there that has a Virgin overlooking the Harbour, "Our Lady of the Harbour", "Notre-Dame de Bon Secours", it's her name, but the whole landscape is the Montreal waterfront. So in a sense it's just reportage, just as accurate as I could make it… and the boats go by, and she invited me down to the river. She was a little flipped out. She did serve me tea and oranges. And that's exactly as it happened.

(The song).... is a miracle. I don't know where the good songs come from or else I'd go there more often. I knew that I was on top of something. I developed the picking pattern first. I was spending a lot of time on the waterfront and the harbor area of Montreal. It hadn't been reconstructed yet. It's now called Old Montreal and a lot of buildings have been restored. It wasn't at that time. And there was that sailor's church that has the statue of the Virgin. Gilded so that the sun comes down on her. And I knew there was a song there. Then I met Suzanne, who was the wife of Armand Vaillancourt, a friend of mine. She was a dancer and she took me down to a place near the river. She was one of the first people to have a loft on the St. Laurent. I knew that it was about that church and I knew that it was about the river. I didn't know I had anything to crystallize the song. And then her name entered into the song, and then it was a matter of reportage, of really just being as accurate as I could about what she did.

* Read the complete Interview

About the fact of including "Suzanne" in the new Live album of 1994.

For me "Suzanne" is the best song from this record. Precisely because you can compare yesterday with today, compare different versions. The voice has completely changed, the tempo changed a lot, the experience of the singer also, it's more evident today.. It seems to me that between the original version and this one, there is all the real-life of a man passing through. Of a man who's not the same anymore. And this is a thing I appreciate very much, to be able to measure these changes. The original version of "Suzanne" is full of hope, compassion and idealism. This last one offers a crack, a bruise. It's the end of the story somehow... My wanting to sing this song today is maybe reckless, but I intended to show this crack, this ending of the story.

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-Secours ,which stood out over the river, and I knew that there were 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.

Painting by Antonello de Messine "Ecce Homo", XVth century

About the relation between John Simon (producer of the album "Songs Of L. Cohen") and Leonard

We did have a falling out over the song Suzanne. He wanted a heavy piano syncopated and maybe drums and I didn't want drums on any of my songs, so that was a bone of contention. Also, he was ready to substitute this heavy chordal structure under the song to give it forward movement and I didn't like that.

Latest Single Vinyl of "Suzanne"


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