- 20 Dec 16
"Leonard was intensely aware of other people's feelings," she told Stuart Clark.
Last night it was Portland’s Alberta Rose Theater, tomorrow it’s The Triple Door in Seattle with her old pal Teddy Thompson supporting. The reason the New Yorker’s sacrificing her one lie-in of the week is to talk about another of her old pals, Leonard Cohen. There had been backstage encounters before, but the first time they had a proper heart to heart was in October 1992 when she’d just scored her fourth international hit with 99.9F° and Mr. C was about to unleash The Future, one of about half-a-dozen of his albums that can genuinely be described as a career best.
“It was set up by A&M Records, who knew I loved Leonard, and asked him if he’d do this interview with me for putting out to radio and magazines,” she explains. “We were in a spare room in the A&M lot that had all sorts of promotional material thrown against the walls. He was there as formal as ever in his suit. Maybe you’d have caught him in jeans and a t-shirt at home – I somehow doubt it! - but the only sartorial deviation I was privy to from that was his occasional wearing of cowboy boots. I was in a suit, too, and not drinking while he had a bottle of wine that was gradually consumed over the course of the interview. By the end of the hour he as was loose as he ever got in a professional situation, all of which I found howlingly funny. Anyway, I asked him about his record and he conducted what can only be described as a forensic examination of mine. It was a little dance he was doing, probing into my psyche but not in a way that felt unsettling or inappropriate. Leonard was intensely aware of other people’s feelings, which was one of the reasons I loved him so. And, of course, somebody of his standing being so interested in my work was incredibly flattering.
“Afterwards when we went for dinner, Leonard was quite different. He stopped all the probing because that was an act for the microphone. Which isn’t to say that his asking about myself and my music was in any way insincere. Leonard just had this sense of formality and, to a certain extent, living up to people’s expectations. Doing interviews he’d speak in complete sentences; he never just riffed off the cuff. He spent years on his songs, and did not reveal himself casually to anyone. In an age where people go out and do crazy things purely for publicity, he managed to maintain this wonderful elegance.”
As fully developed as her own songwriting was by then, did Vega learn anything from that tête-à-tête?
“I’d started learning from Leonard long before that,” she reflects. “There’s the eloquence of his phrasing and the fact that his songs can fit into situations that they weren’t necessarily intended for. We just heard ‘Hallelujah’ performed on Saturday Night Live by the woman who’s been parodying Hillary Clinton and it sounded almost prophetic.”
The first song I reached for at six o’clock in the morning when it became mathematically impossible for Clinton to catch up with Trump was ‘Democracy’.
“‘The river’s going to weep, and the mountain’s going to shout, ‘Amen!’” she recites. “I can see how that would work!”
Suzanne was still basking in the afterglow of their first meeting when Leonard asked her to guest with him at the Juno Canadian Music Awards.
“We sang ‘Who By Fire’ together, which was one of those ‘pinch me am I dreaming?’ moments that don’t happen very often. Leonard then gifted me the best 50th birthday present possible when he asked me to play with him at the Mercedes-Benz World concert just outside of London. That was seven years ago and the last time we met face-to-face.”
Asked about her first time hearing that voice, Suzanne smiles somewhat mournfully and says, “Back when I was a child, all of my friends’ parents had a copy of the 1966 Judy Collins album, In My Life, that had her version of ‘Suzanne’ on it. Later on Judy ended up being my neighbour, but that’s another story! I was so mystified and intrigued by this beautiful song, which, of course, seemed extra special because it bore my name. When I was 14 I managed to rustle up enough money to go and buy his first album at a store in New York. I was enchanted by his voice and the songs on that record from the second I put it on. How could I not have been when it included the likes of ‘Sisters Of Mercy’, ‘Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye’, ‘Suzanne’, of course, and ‘So Long, Marianne’.”
Her choice of partner aside, my girlfriend is a wise woman who, after listening to 2012’s Old Ideas for the first time, nailed it on the head when she proffered, “He really likes women!”
“Yes, he liked their company very much. He had a way of handling you as a woman. I don’t mean that physically, but in the way he genuinely wanted to know more about you. He had a wonderful magnetism and, of course, was attractive to all the women.”
Like the rest of us, Vega admits to tearing up when she read Leonard’s farewell letter to Marianne Ihlen, the former lover who inspired ‘So Long…’ and ‘Bird On A Wire’.
“‘We are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon…’” she recites again. “That was him saying: ‘Okay, I’m ready for this.’ As he did, almost in those exact same words, on You Want It Darker. His entire career this past 10 years or so was Leonard celebrating his work and a life that he knew was drawing to a close. There’s some solace to be taken from the fact that like David Bowie, who we also lost this year, Leonard was around to witness the enthusiasm with which his last record was greeted by everybody.”
Are there particular lyrics or songs that have helped Suzanne cope with her friend’s death?
“I’ve always loved ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’,” she reflects. “Listening to it and the songs off Leonard’s first album, which have been part of my life for so long, makes it feel like he’s still alive.”
To buy our Leonard Cohen tribute special simply click here.