Leonard Cohen didn’t release his debut single, “Suzanne,” until he was 33. He spent his time up until that point writing acclaimed poems and novels, traveling the world and bedding a ridiculous amount of beautiful women. By 1967 it was apparent that there’s not exactly big money in poetry, so he decided to try his hand at singing. Columbia executive John Hammond (who’d previously signed Bob Dylan and countless other greats) gave him a record deal months into his new career.
“Suzanne” was inspired by Cohen’s encounters with Suzanne Verdal, the girlfriend of Canadian artist Armand Vaillancourt. “He got such a kick out of seeing me emerge as a young schoolgirl, I suppose, and a young artist, into becoming Armand’s lover and then wife,” Verdal said in a 1998 interview. “So he was more or less chronicling the times and seemingly got a kick out of it.”
Many of the details from the song are drawn straight from real life, down to the tea and oranges that Verdal served. “He was ‘drinking me in’ more than I even recognized, if you know what I mean,” Verdal said. “I took all that moment for granted. I just would speak and I would move and I would encourage and he would just kind of like sit back and grin while soaking it all up, and I wouldn’t always get feedback, but I felt his presence really being with me.”
Judy Collins released “Suzanne” in 1966, months before Cohen’s original hit shelves. She turned it into a minor hit, but Cohen’s own version of the song went nowhere, at least initially. Much like Dylan in 1962, Cohen was looking like a Hammond discovery with a great gift for songwriting but little ability to sell actual records. “Suzanne,” however, soon took on a life of its own. A huge range of artists, from Nina Simone to Neil Diamond and Robert Flack, covered it over the next few years.
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The most famous version of the song was the Judy Collins rendition. Here’s video of them singing it together on television. It took Joan Baez’s sweet voice to introduce people to the music of Bob Dylan, and this was the same case with Cohen and Collins. College students began checking out Cohen’s own work, and word of this brilliant new singer-songwriter grew, particularly in Europe. Yet he never became much of a commercial force in America, and by the early Eighties Columbia was refusing to release his new albums in the States.
Since returning to the road in 2008, Cohen has undergone one of the most surprising comebacks in musical history. The tour started in tiny theaters and quickly graduated to huge arenas. At age 78, Cohen plays for well over three hours and leaves audiences stunned. A hush always falls over the crowd when he plays the opening notes of “Suzanne.”