I initially thought it strange that Leonard Cohen’s famous ballad “Suzanne” has so much appeal for female singers. At first listen, it’s difficult to tell why a woman would relate to the song. Not only did Cohen write it entirely from the point of view of the man, he also used both the second person and the present tense (“Suzanne takes you down…” etc.), choices that almost force the listener to put themselves in the protagonist’s place. And since the ‘you’ in question is intended to be a man, what is it that women relate to so strongly? I think it’s Suzanne herself that women relate to. Suzanne, as Cohen presents her in the song, has an near-omniscient sense of peace, wisdom and acceptance. She doesn’t judge anyone or anything. She accepts you just as you are. Early on, as the song goes, you intend to tell Suzanne that you have no love to give. But rather than respond with anger or sadness, Suzanne “gets you on her wavelength” and answers—or lets the river answer for her—“that you’ve always been her lover.” leonard cohen 01.jpg Cohen describes both this first meeting and a later one (or is it several later meetings? – it’s difficult to tell) neither as events that have occurred nor as events that may yet occur, but as events that are occurring—and will forever occur—in some misty sort of self-sufficient and eternal Now. You can see what Cohen is getting at: the hushed tone of the lyrics, the lullaby-ish cadence of the vocals, the lack of chronology – it’s like something out of utopiotic fantasy. Cohen breaks up Suzanne’s story with a puzzling middle stanza in which he paints a picture of Christ as a tragic, lonely figure who, in desperation for human contact, turns all men into sinners in order that he might save them:

Jesus was a sailor When he walked upon the water And he spent a long time watching From his lonely wooden tower And when he knew for certain Only drowning men could see him He said "All men will be sailors…”
Cohen concludes the stanza by saying that “He [meaning, Jesus] sank beneath your wisdom like a stone.” Elsewhere, ‘you’ and ‘your’ refer to the male protagonist, but here I think he’s referring to Suzanne’s wisdom, not his own. I could be wrong about that though, and if I am, the stanza works the other way too. If the wisdom in question is the protagonist’s, then maybe Cohen is criticizing his own cynicism, his unwillingness to believe in or trust in something he cannot see. Suzanne, by contrast, has no such conflict. Cohen sees Jesus as a lonely and broken “almost human.” Suzanne doesn’t deny the protagonist’s description, but she believes in Jesus anyway. This stubborn trust of Suzanne’s doesn’t seem to bring the narrator any closer to Jesus, but it does bring him closer to Suzanne. One could make the argument that Suzanne represents not just a particular woman that Leonard Cohen once met, and not just the abstract notion of ‘love’ or ‘romantic attraction,’ but also the mythical concept of ‘Mother Nature’ personified.  Throughout the song, there is such a powerful sense of the natural. The images are blue and yellow and green; there is a river and tea and oranges; there are feathers and flowers and, echoing the tea and the oranges, a sun that “pours down like honey.” What woman wouldn’t want to be a force like that? What woman wouldn’t want to be a force that communicates through the flow of water and is bathed in the light of a golden sun as she sustains both children and flowers? It even sounds good to me, and I’m a man. Get your versions here: Leonard Cohen – “Suzanne” – From Songs Of Leonard Cohen (Columbia, 1967) … The hushed, intense and quite lyrical original. Perfect. nina simone 41.jpg Nina Simone – “Suzanne” (studio) – From To Love Somebody (RCA, 1969) … A sexy, near-reggae reading delivered with plenty of wit and insight by the High Priestess of Soul. roberta flack 25.jpg Roberta Flack – “Suzanne” – From Killing Me Softly (Atlantic, 1973) … A groove-laden and tension-filled exploration of Cohen’s story, complete with a lovely extended coda. dianne reeves 04.jpg Dianne Reeves – “Suzanne” – From Bridges (Blue Note, 1999) … Gentler than Nina; more dramatic than Leonard; more graceful than René. Dianne’s interpretation is about easy as this difficult tune gets. BTW, the featured sax player is Kenny Garrett. rene marie 12.jpg René Marie – “Suzanne” – From Live At Jazz Standard (Max Jazz, 2003) … Just as she did with the Beatles’ “Blackbird” and the jazz standard “Strange Fruit,” René digs deep into the heart of “Suzanne,” finds everything in it—both the strange and the beautiful—then gives it all back to us more glorious than she found it. Links: -    A story about Suzanne Verdal McCallister, the woman who inspired the song. -    An interview with the real-life Suzanne. -    Lyrics to the song. —Mtume ya Salaam             Suzanne Redux             Check Nina recorded live in Paris 1968 with Tom Smith on guitar, Gene Taylor on bass and Don Alias on drums. I wasn’t there but I’m pretty sure at midpoint she is up dancing and swaying and captivating the audience. Nina touches our imperfections with the magic of her music and carries us away to the land of trance where we see and be beautiful things: orange blossoms and picnics with our beloved by a lazy river with watermelon in the shade of a willow tree or reclining under a cypress on a Louisiana bayou with a basket of potato salad and fresh fried catfish or sipping from a jug of swamp tea in Carolina with crab cakes and cornbread. Man, Nina, is bad like that. While I don’t pretend I understand Cohen’s lyrics, I can’t deny I’m moved by his composition (not his singing, I mean the song itself). I thought I had a favorite version: Rene Marie. Rene is "a" (make that "the") drama queen and I mean that in a good way, the way she can take an intimate song and sing it for all the world to hear even if you don’t understand (who does?) the full import of the lyrics. But then that Roberta Flack version: sweetness. One is on the floor, against the wall, atop the table, in the tub/shower kind of love making; the other is the most tender climax in the world, the one that makes you cry joy tears. Both of them are forever memorable. Neither of them is better than the other, except… well, it really depends, depends on a lot of things that go far, far beyond the way either Rene or Roberta sings. I guess it’s good to be confused some times. Me, I just hit the rewind button and enjoy them both over and over and over again. —Kalamu ya Salaam  

This entry was posted on Saturday, October 6th, 2007 at 11:51 pm and is filed under Cover. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

3 Responses to “ROBERTA FLACK / “Suzanne””

Marian Says:
October 7th, 2007 at 11:07 pm

It’s odd, odd. I never saw this as a song told from a man’s point of view. Maybe because Roberta was singing it….but I always saw it as a woman singing to a man ‘this is why you can trust me’. She’s telling him that she alone knows ‘his perfect body’, his soul.

It was interesting hearing another point of view. I’ve skimmed the articles; I’ll make certain that I read them. Songs have a life of their own. Sometimes they escape their creator’s intention. Sometimes our misunderstanding them gives them another life.

The Magnificent Goldberg Says:
October 9th, 2007 at 9:37 am

In 1969, when Cohen’s first LP came out, I was working in a record shop, so I got to hear this quite a bit more than I was happy to. Frankly, I thought the baby boomers (I was only a bit older 🙂 ) had been suckered.

I couldn’t help notice this song among the others on the LP. However, I was never able to separate the song from the performer – and Cohen is one of the most boring performers of all time. Hearing these versions – particularly Nina’s – remedies that. Anyone, even a boring fart, can write a great song. That’s something I’ve always known, but forgot to apply in this case.


John Shaw Says:
January 23rd, 2015 at 11:33 pm

On first hearing, the reference to Jesus confused me, too. But I think a lot is going on in this song. Part of it is in fact that Cohen seems to be linking Suzanne and Jesus Christ, using a form of Hebrew poetry known as parallelism. He seems to be saying that Suzanne is objectified, almost an object of adoration, like Christ. The other connection is through the church that was visible from Suzanne’s apartment, Notre Dame de Bon Secours or Our Lady of Good Harbors. This was called the Sailor’s Church, as the sailors would go there for confession and mass in Montreal, and seeing it from Suzanne’s window perhaps triggered the verse about Jesus having been a sailor. The third verse links the two themes. Cohen says “The sun pours down like honey on Our Lady of the Harbour.” Of course, in one sense, he means the old cathedral. But he’s been describing Suzanne as she walks down to the river, and it seems likely that Cohen also means that Suzanne is “Our Lady of the Harbour.” Again, the link between Suzanne and the religious overtones of the song is displayed.

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