Leonard Cohen’s impact on the music world cannot be measured. He has influenced the likes of Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Patti Smith, Lou Reed, and Bono, all major influencers themselves, and only a handful of artists in the total list. His presence was like a stone being thrown into a lake; the ripples he caused went on forever. Rolling Stone called Cohen the “poet of brokenness” in an article written by Mikal Gilmore shortly after his death in November of 2017. Gilmore felt that despite Cohen’s battle with the dark forces in his life, and his desire to uncover deeper meaning in places where there was often none to be found, he never gave in to that darkness. He is quoted in that same article as saying, “Depression has often been the general background of my daily life. My feeling is that whatever I did was in spite of that, not because of it. It wasn’t the depression that was the engine of my work. . . . That was just the sea I swam in.” Nevertheless, his depression did permeate a good bit of what he wrote, and can be found in his songs as well as his poems and literature. His work exudes an undeniable air of melancholy, and we are aware of his constant quest to uncover the parallels between corporeal and spiritual existence.
There were so many songs that I could have chosen for today’s post, but I decided on “Suzanne” for a number of reasons. Since it’s the first track on his debut album The Songs of Leonard Cohen, released in 1968, it’s one of the earliest that drew attention to him. I love the fact that it was actually written as a poem first, and then revised many times, as was his tendency, before he thought it was good enough to sing to Judy Collins over the telephone. She went on to record it before him in 1966. I also love the fact that “Suzanne” is autobiographical, and is written about a beautiful, free-spirited woman that Cohen knew in Montreal in the early 1960s. Her name was Suzanne Verdal, and she was the wife of an artist friend. Although she did live in an apartment on the river, and she did feed Cohen tea from China with orange flecks in it, and there was a strong and undeniable connection between them, they never had a physical relationship. “And you want to travel with her / and you want to travel blind… for you’ve touched her perfect body / with your mind.” These particular lyrics, juxtaposed against the song’s haunting melody and Cohen’s hypnotic voice, have turned it into an anthem about longing and love to which many people can relate. The second stanza in which Cohen sings about Jesus would seem to come out of nowhere for other artists, but it was not unusual at all for him to bring religious imagery into his lyrics. He was constantly searching for the relationship between sex, love, and religion (think of the lyrics to his “Hallelujah”) and in this song he seems to be saying that Suzanne has more to offer in the way of insight and guidance than Jesus does. “He sinks beneath her wisdom as a stone,” and in the third stanza, it is Suzanne who “holds the mirror” that “shows you where to look.”
I could not help but see parallels between Cohen’s “Suzanne” and Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Woman on a Balcony” that I wrote about this past Monday. Both capture a moment in time and depict it for us, while using their art to transcend that moment and speak to us of transformation and love. The woman on the balcony lives in our minds forever, reaching her hands forward into the light, even though this is an ordinary act that we might see every day. Suzanne was an ordinary person, in much the same way, yet Cohen’s song immortalizes her for us and transforms her into a kind of spiritual guide. Both men attempted to use the creative process to gain a deeper understanding of the spiritual realm, in general, and both remained somewhat disappointed in their efforts right up until the very end.
Because I saw ways in which Cohen and Rilke were similar, I decided to use Standard Wormwood’s gin again as my base spirit for today’s cocktail. To reflect the imagery and the ideas in the song, I also used Mandarine Napoléan, an orange liqueur, and Sukkah Hill Spirits Etrog, both of which have subtle citrus flavoring. I was also drawn to the fact that the etrog has strong religious connotations and is believed by some people to be the original fruit of the Garden of Eden. I thought Leonard Cohen would appreciate that. I also made an Earl Grey simple syrup by brewing a strong cup of the tea and adding half the amount of sugar and some rosemary sprigs, to symbolize the song’s theme of remembrance. I balanced that with some lemon juice and dashes of DRAM’s Citrus Medica and Wild Mountain Sage bitters to pull out the citrus and herbal flavors even more. The sage also represents wisdom, of course, and echoed the song’s lyrics. The end result was a very nuanced cocktail, with ingredients that harmonized so well, capturing the essence of the song in just the way I’d hoped. Cheers everyone. Happy Thursday!
2 oz Standard Wormwood Gin
½ oz Mandarine Napoléan
½ oz Sukkah Hill Spirits Etrog liqueur
¾ oz fresh lemon juice
1 oz Earl Grey tea and rosemary simple
1 dash DRAM Citrus Medica bitters
1 dash DRAM WIld Mountain Sage bitters
Add all the ingredients to a shaker tin with ice and shake vigorously until very cold. Double strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with a rosemary sprig. Enjoy!