AS ORIGIN STORIES GO, this is one is pretty good, and has survived many a retelling.
In 1966, Judy Collins, a star on the New York folk scene with a peerless voice and musicality, who had already brought the songs of Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan to a wider audience (and within a year would repeat the feat with a young Joni Mitchell), was asked by her friend and influential folk-scenester, Mary Martin, to meet a Canadian poet, already 31-years-old and seemingly out of range of pop music’s youth culture, in town with a satchel of songs.
“The first day we talked all day. He didn’t sing me any songs at all, just came in and my old boyfriend, Michael Thomas, and I and another friend just sat and talked to [him] all day, and then we went out to dinner to Tony’s Steakhouse, which was on 79th, and talked some more ‘til about midnight,” Collins says today, filling in a few more details than she usually offers of her first meeting with Leonard Cohen.
“I said to [him], Mary said you write some songs but I haven’t heard them all day. He said, well, why don’t I come back tomorrow and then I’ll sing them for you.”
Return he did, almost apologetically.
“He said to me: I can’t sing, I can’t play guitar, and I don’t know if this is a song. And then he played me Suzanne,” she chuckles. Within weeks, Collins would record it for her next album, In My Life, which also included the titular Beatles song, Dylan’s Tom Thumb’s Blues, and tracks by a young Randy Neman, Donovan and translations of Jacques Brel and Brecht & Weill. Cohen’s song didn’t lose by comparison.
Collins’ version would be the first of hundreds, the song would appear on Cohen’s debut album a year later, and by the end of the decade was already on its way to being a contemporary pop standard. Not a bad return, and it wasn’t the only revelation that day.
At the same private session for Collins and her then-boyfriend, Michael Thomas, the poet also played The Stranger Song, which also appeared on his first album (though Collins didn’t record it until a few weeks prior to our conversation), and a third number which impressed her even more than Suzanne, the mordant tale of a preparation for suicide, Dress Rehearsal Rag.
Here was a song that cut to the core for Collins as “I had made an attempt on my own life when I was 14, so I was very much in the suicidal realm. When I was drinking I was always suicidal.” And here was a man who seemed compelling, overflowing with potential in song, thought, and life, as Collins describes in the film Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song (which you can read about here).
“I would have jumped off a bridge for Leonard, I would have done anything,” she says there. Well, almost anything. Collins was one of the few not to succumb to the sexual allure of a man whose Hallelujah is described by one wit as “one part biblical, one part the woman he slept with last night”.
“He was intelligent, mysterious, dangerous,” Collins says with a wry smile. “Once you pass 25 you sort of know. I knew that, I knew dangerous when I saw it.”
Though, as Collins tells me, while written in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Hallelujah’s juxtaposition of the divine and the sexual, the spiritual and the carnal, was always part of Cohen’s creative make up.
“Oh my God, yes. It was unique to any songwriter and singer that I had run into,” she offers with clear admiration. “Of course, I knew over the years why that was as I learned more and more about his history steeped in the Bible and the Old Testament and steeped in the core of Judaism which required thoughts and probing and mystery and fundamental knowledge.
“And then of course taking off from that was his unique gift for being able to turn these stories into great works of art.”
Collins can also take credit for turning this poet/songwriter into a performer, setting up a performance at a fundraiser in New York soon after their meeting. Rejecting his claim that he didn’t have the ability, she told him “you are already a great singer though you don’t know it. I told him it’s not a terrible voice, it’s a little obscure. It’s quite wonderful to hear, and people have to hear you sing”.
And when at that first performance he crumbled in the face of an out-of-tune guitar and his own insecurity and left the stage in tears, Collins took him back on stage and sang Suzanne with him. “After that, he got it. He understood.”
Cohen did pay her back in a number of ways, including encouraging her to write songs herself – she happily points to a 60-strong catalogue now, which sits alongside her status as one of the great interpreters. And in some ways his initial encouragement has reached full fruition this year with the album, Spellbound, which showcases not just her still-stunning voice at the age of 83 but the quality of her writing in songs such as Grand Canyon and Gilded Rooms.
Not that Collins is interested in parsing her writing, its motivations or her methods of interpretation, declaring, politely, “I have no time for analysis frankly”.
“Yoko Ono once said to me, a song knows where it wants to go,” she says. “My golden rule is utilise, don’t analyse. I don’t understand anything about why I respond, except that I know it’s like falling in love. Your parameters for falling in love at the same for choosing a song: you must fall in love with the song and in order to do that you have no time to analyse, you only have time to utilise.”
Collins can pinpoint when this first happened for her, as a 15-year-old classical pianist whose father and piano teacher both thought was destined for greatness. She heard a folk song, the Gypsy Rover sung in an Alan Ladd movie, The Black Knight, and “I went crazy”.
“I was practising a Rachmaninov concerto and heard it on the radio. I sprang to my feet, grabbed my purse with my babysitting money, ran down to Wells Music in Denver, and bought a copy. It changed my life.”
The following week she heard the bleak and great folk standard, Barbara Allen, sung by contemporary popular song singer, Jo Stafford, and all bets were off.
“It locked into my consciousness and became part two of my 15-year-old falling in love with folk music and knowing that’s what I was going to do for the rest of my life.”
That’s not a bad origin story either is it?
Every Single Breath We Drew Was Hallelujah - the story of the song that will outlast us all.
I'll Have What He's Having - The joy of Leonard Cohen live on stage, in Wind Back Wednesday
Judy Collins’ Spellbound is out now.
Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song. Screens from July 14 at Ritz Cinemas, Randwick; Lido Cinemas, Hawthorn; Classic Cinemas, Elsternwick; Cinema Nova, Carlton. And from August 11 at Luna Cinemas, Leederville and Luna on SX, Fremantle.