Ray Padgett on how Cohen viewed the tribute albums he inspired
From Judy Collins in the ‘60s through I’m Your Fan and Jeff Buckley in the ‘90s through today, covers have played an enormous role in exposing audiences to Leonard Cohen’s songs. “I was born with the gift of a golden voice,” he sang on “Tower of Song,” and everyone knew it was a joke; in concert, the audience would dutifully laugh and clap at that line every night. It took others to spread his songs far wider than he could on his own.
But what did Leonard Cohen think of covers of his songs, and the ones on I’m Your Fan specifically? Given how important covers were to his career, you’d think there might be mountains of evidence of him talking about this or that cover. There isn’t (trust me, I looked). His manager Robert Kory told me why: “The covers were personally very, very gratifying to him, [but] he didn’t like to pick favorites. On the other hand, he was deeply appreciative of both covers in English and also the translations because he saw it as keeping his music alive. He was deeply grateful that so many artists thought his work was worth that attention.”
Cohen himself said at one point: “I’ve never gotten over the pleasure of somebody covering one of my songs… Somehow my critical faculties go into a state of suspended animation when I hear someone’s covered one of my tunes. I’m not there to judge it, just to say thank you.”
Luckily, he spoke more about the covers on I’m Your Fan than he typically did. When it first came out in 1991, a reporter for Britain’s Q Magazine played the entire album for him, and recorded his comments. Cohen noted the Pixies’ “I Can’t Forget” – “wow, hear the conviction in that?” – and Ugandan singer Geoffrey Oryema’s “Suzanne” – “When you hear a guy singing a song like this, which you wrote before he was born, it gives you a good feeling.” He called Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ sound-collage cover of “Tower of Song” “weird,” but added that “it’s a really intelligent approach . . . he’s caught the spirit of the song.” Cohen at one point grew choked up with emotion, telling the reporter, “This isn’t a casual moment for me.”
He brought up other songs in other interviews. He said he liked David McCombs and Adam Peters’ hip-hop-inspired version of “Don’t Go Home with Your Hard-On” more than his own version, even shouting it out almost twenty years later when he shared a stage with McCombs’ former band The Triffids. He told Entertainment Weekly he was “tickled pink” by all the younger bands who covered his songs for I’m Your Fan, and even contributed a self-deprecating blurb to the album’s press materials: “It’s nice to know your songs have lasted that long, as long as a Volvo, the car that’s supposed to last 30 years. It’s like you’re up there with other well-made items in the marketplace. To be affirmed in one’s tender years such as I am enjoying is always agreeable.”
My favorite Cohen quote though comes in response to one of the bands themselves. I interviewed many artists on I’m Your Fan, and they all professed their love for Leonard Cohen. All except one: Dons Savage, frontwoman for Flying Nun Records band Dead Famous People said she didn’t care for Cohen’s music at all. She said as much in the liner notes too: “He makes me glad I am not as miserable as he is. We covered this song because it was the only one that didn’t make us want to slit our wrists.”
Cohen took the criticism in stride. When the Australian magazine Basta asked him about her remarks, he responded, “I’m glad that I could serve my colleagues as an awful warning. Sometimes I’m glad, sometimes I’m sad. But my black image is well established, although I still fight against it.”
Buy your copy of Various Artists’ I’m Your Fan: The Songs of Leonard Cohen today!