Leonard Cohen

Song Review by Richie Unterberger

"Suzanne," from Leonard Cohen's debut album, is probably his most well-known composition. Cohen was noted as the first musician to bring heavy credentials as a previously published novelist and poet into rock music, and "Suzanne" is certainly imbued with the qualities of poetry in its lyrics. It is a character sketch, of a mysterious and ethereal woman who lives by the river and serves tea and oranges; in the song's most memorable line, the narrative touches her perfect body with his mind. Although like many Cohen songs, "Suzanne"'s melody is basic, it's attractive and soothing, though as haunting as the words. Though like much of Cohen's early work it's predominantly built around acoustic guitar, the addition of spectral backup female vocals and strings greatly enhances the song's power. The song gets an added dimension, too, from its second verse, where Cohen detours from the narrative about Suzanne to sing in equally mystical terms about Jesus, who touches your perfect body with his mind. It's hard to know exactly what Cohen might have been intended here, but it does seem to intermingle or compare the experiences of sex and romantic attraction with those of a religious experience or revelation. Cohen revealed that "Suzanne" was inspired by a real woman in Montreal, Suzanne Vaillancourt, who did indeed serve him tea with oranges in her loft. As she was married to a friend of his, he has explained, the only opportunity to touch her perfect body was with his mind. "Suzanne" has been covered by many artists, including Joan Baez, Neil Diamond, Roberta Flack, Peter Gabriel, Francoise Hardy, Pearls Before Swine, and Nina Simone. The first singer to bring it to wide attention, however, was Judy Collins, who sang it on her 1966 In My Life album, which was released well before Cohen put it out on Songs of Leonard Cohen. Oddly, the first occasion many listeners had to hear the song came in 1967, also before Cohen's first album, when Noel Harrison, better known as an actor, took "Suzanne" to #56 as a single. The best cover of "Suzanne," however, was by Fairport Convention, whose 1968 version featured excellent alternation of male and female lead vocals from Ian Matthews and Sandy Denny, as well as a total musical rearrangement featuring dramatic stuttering tempos. Unfortunately this version, recorded for the BBC and included on their 1960s BBC compilation Heyday, never made it onto their studio albums of the period, though a studio outtake from the time (which is inferior to the BBC version, as it has only Matthews on vocals) did surface in 2003. Joni Mitchell, incidentally, has commented that the character-sketch quality of "Suzanne" was influential on some of her own early compositions built around characters, like "Marcie."

Appears On

Year Artist/Album Label Time AllMusic Rating
Songs of Leonard Cohen 1967 Columbia 3:47
Greatest Hits 1975 Columbia 3:47
Breaking the Waves [Hollywood] 1996
Original Soundtrack
Hollywood 3:49
More Best of Leonard Cohen 1997 Columbia 4:19
Folk, Gospel & Blues: Will the Circle Be Unbroken 1999
Various Artists
Legacy / Columbia 3:49
Sony Music 100 Years: Soundtrack for a Century 1999
Various Artists
Sony Music Distribution 3:49
Simply Acoustic [Universal] 2002
Various Artists
Universal International 3:49
The Essential Leonard Cohen 2002 Columbia / Sony Music Distribution 3:50
Mojo Presents 2003 Sony Music Distribution / Columbia 3:50
Woodstock Generation [Sony Box] 2004
Various Artists
Columbia 3:48
Pure Acoustic 2004
Various Artists
Universal Distribution 3:49
Songs of Leonard Cohen/Songs of Love and Hate 2006 Sony Legacy 3:50
The Collection 2008 Columbia 3:50
The Complete Studio Albums Collection 2011 Sony Music 3:50
Wild [Original Motion Picture Soundtrack] 2014
Original Soundtrack
Sony Music 3:47
The Archives 2018 The Broadcast Archive 6:33
The Lost Sessions 2019 Left Field Media 3:58