It would seem that covering a Leonard Cohen song is a rite of passage for most musicians. The list of people who have recorded versions of his work is staggering in its length and diversity.
It seems to be a common opinion, and one that is shared by me, and by Mr. Cohen, himself, that his work is best translated by others. Leonard Cohen was once quoted as saying “I love to hear my songs by anyone else but me. My critical faculties go into suspension. I don’t wonder ‘Do I like it?’ I love it!”
A genius of a songwriter, his rough renditions of songs that are typically moody, raw, evocative compositions often deter from the ambiance his writings cry out for. In the hands of others, the work of Leonard Cohen can make you long to get laid, drive fast, pick a fight, drink, or wallow in some long buried regret.
What follows is my top ten list of Leonard Cohen songs, as covered by others.
10. Joe Cocker “Bird on a Wire (Live)”
Cocker covered “Bird on a Wire” on his 1970 eponymous album. It’s a great version, but I prefer the live version from The Essential Joe Cocker, Volume 2, which was released in 2001. Cocker’s powerful, whiskey tough growl is perfect for the song.
9. James “So Long, Maryanne”
A lot of my favorite Leonard Cohen covers are from one of the tribute albums in his honor, 1991’s I’m Your Fan. This pick is one of them. James is a talented, but generally superficial, pop band. In my opinion, they manage to evoke a lot of previously untapped depth in this cover. I was surprised and thrilled by it.
8. REM “First We Take Manhattan”
Another surprising match for a Leonard Cohen song, REM’s cover of “First We Take Manhattan,” also from I’m Your Fan, is simultaneously gritty and spacey, and thoroughly satisfying.
7. John Cale “Hallelujah”
Gorgeous. “Hallelujah” is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful and stirring songs ever composed. It is arguably the most gut wrenching song in Leonard Cohen’s gut wrenching catalog. On the disc I’m Your Fan, Cale does it justice.
6. Pixies “I Can’t Forget”
No, I’m Your Fan is not the only Leonard Cohen tribute album I have listened to, but it is the one I find the largest number of truly beautiful versions of Leonard Cohen’s tunes all in one place. The Pixies absolutely nailed “I Can’t Forget,” with a surprisingly upbeat rendition that still manages to go for the throat.
5. Johnny Cash “Bird on a Wire”
Leonard Cohen and Johnny Cash- a marriage made in heaven. I get goose bumps when I listen to his cover of “Bird on a Wire” from Cash’s 1994 album American Recordings. The “Man in Black” knows how to wrestle a Leonard Cohen song right to the ground.
4. Willy Nelson “Bird on a Wire”
A 1995 Leonard Cohen tribute album, Tower of Song, also has some fantastic covers to offer. Listening to Willy Nelson singing “Bird on a Wire” is a completely different experience from listening to Cash’s rendition. Surprisingly, in my opinion, it is the (very slightly) more evocative of the two.
3. Concrete Blonde “Everybody Knows”
This track is from their 1994 Album Still in Hollywood, after originally being featured on the soundtrack to the 1990 movie Pump Up the Volume. Concrete Blonde pulled off a stunner in their take on “Everybody Knows.” Johnette Napolitano’s smokey vocals prove that the raw emotion she could convey in other Concrete Blonde singles like “Joey” and “God is a Bullet” was no fluke.
2. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds “Tower of Song”
From I’m Your Fan. If you want to extend your agony, there is also a 30 minute live version of this track on their bootleg album More Kicks than Pricks, but I find the I’m Your Fan version provides a more than adequate number of chills. It also proves that Leonard Cohen’s writing can be incredibly merciless even with a delivery that is, at times, unintelligible.
1. Jeff Buckley “Hallelujah”
There just isn’t any question in my mind. Before his untimely drowning death in 1997, Buckley recorded one of the most haunting songs I have ever heard, and ever hope to hear. His rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” off the 1994 album Grace is a stunner. It is the kind of stunner that leaves you breathless and quiet for a moment after it ends, and then you find yourself reaching for the “repeat” button. It may be the most striking cover of anyone’s work, ever.
There is one Leonard Cohen cover that I have left off this list, much to my own disappointment. It has been left off for the simple fact that it does not yet exist. I am waiting for that moody bastard Tom Waits to cover a song, any song, by that moody bastard Leonard Cohen.
Now, that would be a tower of song.