Suzanne (Leonard Cohen, and France)

Somewhere along the line, my family acquired Leonard Cohen’s first two albums — I don’t know if it was my father or mother who bought them, but I know no one listened to them, including, mostly, me. I recall once attempting the first album, and the relief I felt when I got to “So Long, Marianne,” because at least it had some energy.

However… my sister had the usual folk/girl tastes — which, as someone with typical folk purist/male/know-it-all tastes I regarded as such — so I heard Peter, Paul and Mary, and Joan Baez, and Judy Collins, and my sister also got the Judy Collins Songbook, and my voracity was even more compulsive than my prejudices, so I went through it and tried my hand at some Judy Collins songbooksongs I never would have attempted otherwise, including “Suzanne.”

And that worked out for the best, because when I was sixteen my mother shipped me off to France for two months, in the vain hope that it would improve my language skills, and the first three weeks were at a summer camp where I was the only non-French kid, and I somehow made it to the train in Paris, and was wandering down the corridor feeling very lost, and a young French camper with long curly hair spotted my guitar and pulled me into his compartment…

He spoke barely any English and I spoke barely any French, despite five years of it in school, but he had a guitar and began questioning me about what music I liked, and the first name that came up, or maybe the second, after Dylan, was something incomprehensible and polysyllabic that I finally figured out was Lay-oh-nard Coh-hhen, with the H painstakingly aspirated, like we do in English.

To make a long story short, I had no need to learn French in that allwright - cohensummer camp, because I was an American guitar player and could sing Dylan songs, and blues, and “Suzanne,”  which was a huge hit in France, in French, for Graeme Allwright — and which would even have had romantic possibilities, if I had been just a tiny bit more daring. And when I went over to Europe a couple of years later to earn my living as a player, I continued to have this one handy for French fans.

By then I’d also seen McCabe and Mrs. Miller, a great movie in which Cohen’s songs and voice are perfect, and learned “Sisters of Mercy.” And Dave Van Ronk’s performance of “Bird on a Wire” temporarily turned that into one of my most doleful showpieces. But what the French wanted was “Suzanne.”

And the end of that story is that when my future wife heard my CD Elijah and Sandrine, port townsend 2012for the first time, before we really knew each other, and complimented me by saying I reminded her of Leonard Cohen — which I had heard before, and generally understood to mean I couldn’t carry a tune — I factored in the fact that she was French and took it as a compliment. Which said, one of the many, many things I love about her is that she has never asked me to play “Suzanne.”.