ROBERTA FLACK / “Suzanne”
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.” 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 – “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 – “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 – “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. 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””
Leave a Reply
| top |