As It Happens

'He was totally unlike anybody else': Judy Collins remembers Leonard Cohen

Judy Collins remembers the songs Leonard Cohen wrote for her in the '60s and '70s and recalls the night when she pushed him to get onto the stage himself.
Judy Collins and Leonard Cohen. (Judy Collins)
Since news of his death broke Thursday night, people from every corner of the world have been mourning the loss of musician Leonard Cohen. The tributes from those who loved him and collaborated with him over his long career speak to the reach and significance of his unique artistry.

But the poet and writer began as a reluctant performer. He was content to stay off stage. Then he met Judy Collins. Through the '60s and '70s, Cohen wrote some of her best-known songs. And it was Collins who eventually convinced him to play in front of an audience. Their work together in music would continue for decades.

Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen at his hotel during a break in his British Tour in December 1979. (Evening Standard/Getty Images)

As It Happens host Carol Off spoke with Judy Collins about how she will remember her dear friend and collaborator. Here is part of their conversation.

Carol Off: Judy Collins, how are you remembering Leonard Cohen today?

Judy Collins: I'll remember him by continuing, as I always do, to sing his wonderful songs. But today, of course, I'm thinking very much about the first time we meet. I treasure that and have talked about it often. It was miraculous, really.   

Judy Collins and Leonard Cohen attend the 41st Annual Songwriters Hall of Fame Ceremony on June 17, 2010 in New York City. (Larry Busacca/Getty Images)

CO: It was in the 1960s?

JC: It was '66. I was working on my sixth album for Elektra Records, it was called In My Life. I really needed a couple more songs and my friend, who grew up with Leonard in Montreal, had always talked about him. She always said, "You know, he's this obscure poet. He's written all these obscure books and poems." She called me this particular day in '66 and she said, "He's just written some songs and he wants to come to New York. He wants to sing them to you." I said, "Well, that sounds wonderful — are they obscure?" And she said, "Oh yes!" [Laughs].

He came to my home and my apartment in New York. He said, "I can't sing and I can't play the guitar. I don't know if this is a song." Then he sang me Suzanne, Dress Rehearsal Rag and The Stranger Song. I recorded them in the next weeks or so.

Leonard Cohen performs at Madison Square Garden in 2012. (Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)

CO: What was that like when you heard him sing Suzanne, which is such a signature piece? What effect did it have on you?

JC: I fell right off my chair. I was just blown away. It was so different and so evocative of something that was almost ethereal — and how could that be in a song that was so grounded? It wasn't flighty. It wasn't full of strange and inaccessible images at all. It was very present and yet it was very mystical at the same time.

Singer/songwriter Judy Collins performing in 2015. (Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images)

CO: And there's something else that you did, not that you just sang his songs, but you encouraged him to go on stage. This was a very famous night in New York in 1967, to get him to sing Suzanne. Can you describe what happened that night?

JC: [Laughs] I sort of blackmailed him. I said to him, "You know, I'm doing this big benefit." It was huge — Jimi Hendrix was on that show and it was a big New York power fundraiser. I said, "You know that Suzanne is now really a hit for me." He said, "I know that because it's put me on the map. Now people know who I am because of your recordings." I said, "I want to introduce you to your audience because they are going to be there and they want to hear you sing." He said, "I'm not going to do that!" I said, "Please, why don't you just do it for me because I'm your friend and I have faith in you and I think you should." So he finally agreed.
JC: He came out and he sang. He did have a little problem. He stopped in the middle of a song and walked off the stage, which we always think is very funny. I don't think he thought it was funny at all. He was just mortified. He came off stage. The audience went crazy because they always love it when you lose it. They loved him. They were quite smitten with him already and he was only half way through the song. So I said, "Why don't I go back out with you and we'll sing it together?" That's what happened. I took him back out and we finished the song together. But that was his trial by fire. Of course he understood, he got it, that people loved him. They loved his singing, not only the songs, but that they loved him.

"He would be kneeling, in the crouch, like a Russian dancer does when he gets down to do those things where the legs fling out," recalls Judy Collins. (FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)

CO: You wrote in your memoir that he looked like he was 10-years-old when he was backstage. That he had his head on your shoulder and you had your arms around him.

JC: [Laughs] Yes he did. You know, it's a shock for somebody to go out on the stage. I mean, he had read his poetry to little poetry gatherings in Montreal. But he didn't know. He had never been out in front of basically a rock n' roll, wildly enthusiastic crowd of people. It must have been a shock. But he got over it fast. He became a great performer. He was remarkably professional and remarkably moving — and totally unusual. He was totally unlike anybody else. He spent years doing his concerts practically on the floor. He would be kneeling, in the crouch, like a Russian dancer does when he gets down to do those things where the legs fling out. He was a total athlete. I just think that he learned, he got to the point, that he could do anything on the stage that he wanted.

Leonard Cohen speaking to CBC host Bill Craig in 1967, just a few weeks before he released his debut album "Songs of Leonard Cohen."

CO: When was the last time you spoke with Leonard Cohen?

JC: I spoke with him maybe a year and a half ago. But over email we spoke often. I have not had a personal conversation with him for about six months. But I knew he wasn't doing well. I knew he was working on You Want It Darker. He and his son Adam were putting it together.

Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images (Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images)

CO: How did he seem to you in his final months?

JC: He's always seemed amazing. The thing about Leonard, and his work and his life, very much reflected the same philosophy — that one must always be ready for anything — that that's part of the deal in life. You wake up in the morning. You have no idea what's going to happen and you have to be prepared for disaster, joy, tragedy, you know, whatever comes up.

For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Judy Collins.


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