Initially designated a “casual Saturday post,”1 this essay on the Leonard Cohen – Joni Mitchell relationship has not only evolved into a popular read but has also become a frequently used reference. Because of this continued interest in the topic, I’ve conscientiously revised and updated the post as new material becomes available. The last such revision took place April 14, 2012.
Just One Of Those Crazy Flings
For a few months in 1967 and 1968, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen had a fling, the consequences of which continue to echo in their work.
Introduced to each other backstage at Judy Collins’ songwriter’s workshop2 at the 1967 Newport Folk Festival by Judy Collins herself,3 who was, in large part, responsible for jump-starting the musical careers of both singer-songwriters,4 Cohen and Mitchell were officially an item by the time the two of them co-hosted a workshop at the Mariposa Folk Festival.5 Their romance ignited, flared, and exhausted itself within months.
“Mariposa Folkfest to Roll,” an article published in the July 15, 1967 issue of Billboard offers a useful indicator of the points on the ascending trajectories of these rising stars at the time when their romance was developing. That article announces that Festival performers that year would include “Buffy Sainte-Marie, Tom Rush, the Staple Singers, Bonnie Dobson, the Buddy Guy Blues Band from Chicago, Ritchie Havens, Louis Killen, the Lily Brothers and Tex Logan.”
It is telling that also listed in the same paragraph with the artists Billboard infers were the major stars of the show is “Canadian poet Leonard Cohen.” [emphasis mine] That Cohen walked on stage with his guitar and sang was incidental to Billboard’s take on him as a poet. It is only in the next and final paragraph that Joni Mitchell is listed with other “local folk artists.“ [emphasis mine]
Joni Mitchell, who had played Mariposa in 1965 and 1966 appeared on the first day’s schedule while Cohen’s performance took place, along with Buffy Sainte-Marie’s, at the concert on the night of August 13.6
Depending upon the source and the skew of ones perspective, preferences, and prejudices, Cohen either terminated the relationship himself for unspecified reasons or incited Mitchell to end it because of his interest in other women.7
Cohen, who was then better known as a poet and novelist than as a musician, was almost 33 when they met; Mitchell was nine years his junior.
Conveniently, Cohen was often in New York where he would spend time with Mitchell, who was living at the Earl Hotel in the Village, and Mitchell was routinely playing dates in Montreal, where Cohen lived.8 Cohen also spent a month at Mitchell’s Laurel Canyon home when he was recruited by Hollywood in 1968 to score a movie based on his song, “Suzanne.” (The movie project failed to materialize.)
Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song
Mitchell’s Rainy Night House9 is said to be her farewell account of that liaison. The second verse is poignantly bittersweet:
I am from the Sunday school
I sing soprano in the upstairs choir
You are a holy man
On the FM radio
I sat up all the night and watched thee
To see, who in the world you might be
Joni Mitchell – Rainy Night House
According to Brian Hinton’s 1996 biography, “Joni Mitchell,” Sheila Weller’s “Girls Like Us,” and other sources, Cohen appears in at least two other Joni Mitchell songs, That Song About The Midway and The Gallery. Judy Collins comments on Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, and That Song About The Midway in her book, Sweet Judy Blue Eyes – My Life In Music:10
Joni and Leonard met for the first time at that concert [the Newport afternoon concert] and began a love affair. Still, everyone was a little off-center. I remember being in bed with a man I did not know who was coming down from an acid trip and wanted me to “comfort him,” no sex involved. Leonard sat in the room with us, singing “The Stranger Song” softly to himself, not paying any attention at all to what was happening on the bed. The Chelsea Hotel indeed! I trusted Leonard completely in very intimate situations and although we never had an intimate exchange of that kind ourselves, he was a constant ally I could take into battle with no fear of betrayal. Joni wrote “That Song About The Midway” about Leonard, or so she says. Sounds right: the festival, the guy, the jewel in the ear.11
Although these lyrics are also frequently identified as bittersweet, to my ear, they seem predominantly bitter and even resentful in spots.
These excerpts from That Song About The Midway,12 are telling:
I met you on a midway at a fair last year
And you stood out like a ruby in a black man’s ear
You were playing on the horses, you were playing on the guitar strings
You were playing like a devil wearing wings, wearing wings
You looked so grand wearing wings
You were betting on some lover, you were shaking up the dice
And I thought I saw you cheating once or twice, once or twice
Joni Mitchell – That Song About The Midway
From (Kept By) Her Own Devices, a live concert sometime in 1972
And the sentiment behind these words from The Gallery13 seems clear:
When I first saw your gallery
I liked the ones of ladies
Then you began to hang up me
You studied to portray me
In ice and greens
And old blue jeans
And naked in the roses
Then you got into funny scenes
That all your work disclose
Lady, please love me now, I am dead
I am a saint, turn down your bed
I have no heart, that’s what you said
You said, I can be cruel
But let me be gentle with you
Joni Mitchell – Gallery
The introduction is especially revealing.
Hinton’s “own uninformed guess is that A Case Of You14 is also about Leonard Cohen.” Mitchell herself, according to Sheila Weller, told “a confidante in the mid-1990s that it was about Leonard Cohen” but told Estrella Berosini the song was about another lover, James Taylor.15 In any case, the chorus does have a Cohen sort of ring to it.
Oh you are in my blood like holy wine
And you taste so bitter but you taste so sweet
Oh I could drink a case of you
I could drink a case of you darling
Still I’d be on my feet
And still be on my feet
Joni Mitchell – A Case Of You
He Said; She Said
Hinton’s book also has some direct quotes from Mitchell about Cohen:
I think I’m rather Cohen influenced. I wrote “Marcie” and afterwards thought that it wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been for “Suzanne.”16
My lyrics are influenced by Leonard. After we met at Newport last year (1967) we saw a lot of each other. Some of Leonard’s religious imagery, which comes from being a Jew in a predominantly Catholic part of Canada, seems to have rubbed off on me too.Leonard didn’t really explore music. He’s a word man first. Leonard’s economical, he never wastes a word. I can go through Leonard’s work and it’s like silk.
Finally, Hinton notes that, in 1969,
Joni is also catching up on her reading. Herman Hesse, Leonard Cohen –”her favourite poet”– and Rod McKeun. …
Mitchell requested that Cohen “give [her] a reading list.” Cohen acceded, offering works by Lorca and Camus as well as the I Ching, even though he was concerned that the reading might attenuate her creative originality.17
According to Sheila Weller’s “Girls Like Us,”18 Mitchell confided,
Leonard was a mirror to my work and with no verbal instructions, he showed me how to plumb the depths of my experience.
This rather lengthy excerpt from Joni Mitchell by Les Brown, an article published in Rolling Stone on July 6, 1968, is worth quoting for the kicker at the end:
Here is Joni Mitchell. A penny yellow blonde with a vanilla voice. Influenced, or appearing influenced, by Judy Collins, gingham, leather, lace, producer David Crosby (the ex-Byrd), Robert Herrick, North Battleford (Saskatchewan), New York (New York), Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Chuck, seagulls, dolphins, taxicabs, Dairy Queen floats, someone named Mr. Kratzman, “who taught me to love words,” the Lovin’ Spoonful, rain, sunlight, garbage, metermaids and herself.
To folk music followers, Joni Mitchell is no stranger. Her songs have been recorded recently by Judy Collins, Tom Rush, Ian and Sylvia, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Dave Van Ronk and others. Now she sings her songs herself. Some of her better known numbers (“Circle Came,” “Both Sides Now,” “Urge for Going”) have been omitted in favor of new material, but after hearing it you know she’s been saving some of her best for herself.
The Joni Mitchell album, despite a few momentary weaknesses, is an good debut. Her lyrics are striking. Her tunes are unusual, Her voice is clear and natural.
Miss Mitchell is a lyrical kitchen poet. “Michael brings you to park/ He sings and it’s dark, /When the clouds come by, /Yellow slickers up on swings /Like puppets on strings /Hanging in the sky . . .”
Joni Mitchell is Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne: she shows you where to look among the garbage and the flowers. [emphasis mine]
Ira Nadel, in “Various Positions,” declares that
Joni Mitchell acknowledges [that Cohen] inspired her, giving her another standard in songwriting … . He and Dylan, she has remarked, were her “pace runners,” the ones that kept her heading to new and higher musical ground.19
Nadel then immediately goes on to note that
Cohen characterizes their relationship as “the extension of our friendship,” a friendship that has endured.20
Another Rolling Stone article, Joni Mitchell, published May 17, 1969 makes the by now familiar observations about the effect Cohen had on Mitchell’s music:
The old names are back, but in more commercial regalia. Judy Collins, softened, orchestrated, countrified (and even, on national TV, miniskirted) is a popular chart item now, after years of limited success. The music (someone called it “Art Rock” but that can be ignored) features a lighter, more lyrical style of writing, as exemplified by Leonard Cohen.
And her compositions reflect the influences of Cohen.
Miss Mitchell reads more now than ever before. Herman Hesse is a favorite author; Leonard Cohen her favorite poet, with Rod McKuen also on her side.
But, Mitchell is clearly ambivalent about the impact Cohen had on her work. Michelle Mercer writes:
I pressed for her to say something kind about Leonard Cohen, because his influence is clear, and she now sees him as a plagiarist and has gone on the record as saying that many, many times.
I said, “C’mon, he’s his own poet on songs like ‘Hallelujah,’ Joni.” She said, “Yeah, yeah, I guess he’s his own poet; I’ve always loved some of his songs.” And then she couldn’t help taking a stab at him: she said, “He owns the phrase naked body, for example; it appears in every one of his songs.”
That’s just defensiveness on her part, because she feels as if she has not been recognized for what she did in the ’70s. She still has a wound, even though I think she has been recognized for the breadth of her contribution to music. Admitting the influence of (the men in her life) would’ve been relinquishing any creative input in her own work.21
In a 2001 interview for Border Crossings with Robert Enright, Words and Pictures: The Arts of Joni Mitchell, this exchange takes place:
BC: I’ve often thought that the way you wrote song lyrics – with such intensity and honesty – was similar to what Leonard Cohen was doing. He romanticized his life and in some sense you were doing the same thing.
JM: Leonard was an early influence. I remember thinking when I heard his songs for the first time that I was not worldly. My work seemed very young and naive in comparison. At the time I met him I was around 24, around the time of my first record. But thematically I wanted to be broader than he was. In many ways Leonard was a boudoir poet.
BC: Was it that you wanted the lyrics to stand for more that just a personal anecdote?
JM: I was scared of the way the world was going. I was disappointed in humanity in general and myself in particular for our lack of evolution, for our pride in technology and our degenerating morality. For example, I wasn’t a fan of the Beats. I didn’t like to see the underbelly revered. I figured it had its place but I didn’t want to be an imitator of it. I’m not a book burner but I longed for something more wholesome. God knows why I longed for the impossible. In high school I did a lot of satire on the Beats and on abstraction. In my show you can still see that attitude. There’s a lot of humour, which you’re not supposed to take yourself more seriously. I give funny names to a lot of the paintings, like Canadian Bacon, but that’s because I’m not in the art game. I paint them, then I hang them in my house and I can say flippant things about them if I want to. I don’t have to adapt or adopt any kind of mystical stance. I always think I don’t have to play the poet like Leonard Cohen does. You have to watch everything you say. I like to be dumb and ordinary because that’s where fun takes place. Leonard doesn’t have a lot of fun; he’s been studying all his life to try. I still like to and I have blessed friends who are capable of it. It’s the spirit of child-play that Picasso was trying to get back. I admire him for his effort, but he said all children are genius painters and he spent his whole life trying to undo the precocious education his father gave him. I’ve been able to get to that impulsive, joyous place by not having to make a career out of painting. By just doing portraits of friends and animals. This show is curated, so it isn’t the whole picture. But the work is very personal. I don’t write for an audience. If there is an audience, it’s just the divine keeping me honest.
It does not require a hot-shot psychiatrist to infer Ms. Mitchell’s point of view from this excerpt of a New York Magazine interview:
[Interviewer:] Were you similarly skeptical about the folk scene in New York in the late sixties?
[Mitchell:] No. I briefly liked Leonard Cohen, though once I read Camus and Lorca22 I started to realize that he had taken a lot of lines from those books, which was disappointing to me.
In that same interview, Mitchell also slammed poets and poetry in general:
I didn’t like poetry. When I read the Shakespearean sonnets, I feel like some of them are mercenary. How many poems can you write where you say, “You’re so beautiful that you should reproduce yourself and I’m the guy to do it”? [Laughs.] They can’t all be inspired. It’s like somebody came to him and said, “Give me a poem like you did for Joe and I’ll give you 50 bucks.” I find a lot of poetry to be narcissistic. I agree with Nietzsche on the poets. He said something like: “The poet is the vainest of the vain, the peacock of the peacocks . . . he muddles his waters so that they might appear deep.” I know I’m throwing the baby out with the bathwater in a lot of ways. I guess there are a few poets I like, though, like E. J. Pratt and Carl Sandburg.
Leonard Cohen, on the other hand, appears to have been more circumspect about his relationship with Joni Mitchell. One of the few pertinent comments I’ve found is from a 1984 interview with Robert Sward :
RS: How much connection do you feel with Dylan’s music, or with others, like Joni Mitchell, for example? Whose music is closest to you now…?
LC: Well, like the Talmud says, there’s good wine in every generation. We have a particular feeling for the music of our own generation and usually the songs we courted to are the songs that stay with us all our life as being the heavy ones. The singers of my own period, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Ray Charles, all those singers have crossed over the generations. But we have a special kind of feeling for the singers that we use to make love to.
More rarely, some authors see Cohen’s work as influenced by Mitchell, one going so far as to call his long labored over “Hallelujah” a “Mitchell-inspired moment of musical onomatopoeia.”23
The end of their romance was not the end of their contact. Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell have frequently contacted and visited each other through the years, even when one or both were involved with new lovers.
Susan Gordon Lydon in an April 20, 1969 New York Times article, In Her House, Love, describes the home Joni Mitchell then shared with Graham Nash, the furnishings of which included a gift from Cohen,
Joni Mitchell lives in Laurel Canyon, in a small pine-paneled house lovingly cluttered with two cats, a stuffed elk’s head, stained glass windows, a grandfather clock given her by Leonard Cohen, a king’s head with a jeweled crown sticking out from the brick fireplace, votive candles, blooming azaleas, a turkey made of pine cones, dried flowers, old dolls Victorian shadow boxes, colored glass, an ornamental plate from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, where she grew up, an art nouveau lamp in the shape of a frog holding a lily pad, a collection of cloisonne boxes, bowls and ashtrays, patchwork quilts, Maxfield Parrish pictures, various musical instruments, and Joni Mitchell and Graham Nash. [emphasis mine]
Later in the same article, Mitchell notes Cohen’s influence on her:
… It’s more than mere coincidence that she [Joni Mitchell] and Leonard Cohen are both native Canadians. “We Canadians are a bit more nosegay, more Old-Fashioned Bouquet than Americans,” she said. “We’re poets because we’re such reminiscent kind of people. I love Leonard’s sentiments, so I’ve been strongly influenced by him.”
In December 1975, Joni Mitchell, then performing in Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, spent some time with Cohen when the tour played Montreal and he attended the concert. Happily, Larry (Ratso) Sloman, who was present at the concert and the dinner Cohen and Suzanne hosted for Suzanne, Sloman, and Roger McGuinn the day after the concert, recorded the episodes in his account of the Rolling Thunder Revue, “On The Road With Bob Dylan.”24 The pertinent excerpts from the book, which include Cohen greeting Mitchell backstage at the concert with “Joni, my little Joni” and Mitchell proclaiming the next night, “I’m a stone Cohenite,” can be found, along with further explanations, at Leonard Cohen Declines Bob Dylan’s Invitation To Play In Rolling Thunder Revue and Leonard Cohen Hosts Joni Mitchell & Ratso At Home For Barbequed Ribs.
Insight From Today’s Post
Being reminded that most songs dealing with relationships are written about real relationships rather than abstractions is useful. Cohen himself as pointed out
It is not just the observance and the documentation and the record of a few museum songs. After all I wrote these songs to myself and to women several years ago and it is a curious thing to be trapped in that original effort, because here I wanted to tell one person one thing and now I am in the situation where I must repeat them like some parrot chained to his stand, night after night.25
Knowing about the origins and referents of a song may make it more meaningful. The realization that the model for a holy man On the FM radio is Leonard Cohen, for example, enhances these lyrics for me.
Finally, on a personal level, I’m incredibly grateful that the audiences for any disparagements, deserved or not, broadcast by my Ex’s are limited to a few friends and family members. Watching a song depicting me as, say, a devil wearing wings become a best seller on iTunes could, one supposes, prove unsettling.
Addendum (14 April 2008)
1. I only recently found this brief excerpt from As a New Generation Discovers Leonard Cohen’s Dark Humour Kris Kirk Ruffles the Great Man’s Back Pages by Kris Kirk (Poetry Commotion, June 18, 1988), and it’s just too good not to include here, however belatedly. For reference, Cohen is 53 at the time of the interview.
[Interviewer] Another lover was the goddess Joni Mitchell.
[Cohen] “I’m still very friendly with Joni – I had dinner with her before the tour, and I have the same admiration for her as you do. But I think it was Noel Harrison who came up to me in the LA Troubadour and said ‘How d’you like living with Beethoven?’”
2. It is worth noting that on Herbie Handcock’s River: The Joni Letters, the 2007 Album of the Year, Leonard Cohen is a featured artist, reciting the poetic lyrics to “The Jungle Line.”
3. Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen both wrote songs called “Winter Lady.” Quelle coincidence, eh? A comparison of these songs can be foond at Dueling Winter Ladies..
- The original post began with this rambling explanation of its evolution:
I’ve been busily over-analyzing Leonard Cohen’s Take This Waltz intermittently over the past few weeks, amassing enough data bits to put Heck Of A Guy readers at risk for one of my elaborate posts with the length and detail of those New Yorker non-fiction feature articles on water filtration technologies in Saudi Arabia but without the cachet. I have also manufactured a bucketful of fascinating, insight-laden hypotheses, all of which are mutually exclusive. Consequently, the Take This Waltz post, until it matures into coherency, remains a coming attraction.
But, it is only a short leap from Take This Waltz to Lorca. OK, make that “a very short leap.” Heck, given that Cohen himself has explicitly announced numerous times in concerts and interviews that Take This Waltz is his adaptation of Lorca’s “Little Viennese Waltz,” make that “it is only a baby step from Take This Waltz to Lorca.”
From Lorca, it’s – oh, let’s call it a leap, a hop, two skips, and an Olympics-level jump to Joni Mitchell, a connection I’ll explain in a moment. In any case, I have accumulated a few dollops of information about the relationship between Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen that has no significant association with Take This Waltz.
Then, this morning I found that Mimus Pauly at Mockingbird’s Medley had written that [Joni] Mitchell is [Leonard] Cohen’s female equivalent, going on to note that “not only do they write wonderful songs, they engage in other forms of art as well. Cohen writes poetry and likes to draw. Mitchell likes to paint.” [Note: Both portraits at the top of this post are by Joni Mitchell]
And that, at least when I began this peregrination, seemed a good enough excuse to unload my Joni and Leonard tidbits (waste not, want not) into a casual Saturday post. [↩]
- Will You Take Me As I Am: Joni Mitchell’s Blue Period by Michelle Mercer. Free Press; 1st Edition, April 7, 2009 [↩]
- Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon–And the Journey of a Generation by Sheila Weller. Atria: April 8, 2008 [↩]
- According to Sweet Judy Blue Eyes – My Life In Music by Judy Collins (Crown Archetype, October 18, 2011), Judy Collins was introduced to Joni Mitchell by Al Kooper and to Leonard Cohen by his manager, Mary Martin. For more about those first meetings, see Stranger Song, Indeed – Leonard Cohen, Judy Collins, Joni Mitchell, & The Man On An Acid Trip. [↩]
- Will You Take Me As I Am: Joni Mitchell’s Blue Period by Michelle Mercer. Free Press; 1st Edition, April 7, 2009 [↩]
- The photo of Joni Mitchell and David Rae was found in York University’s digital library. The photo of Leonard Cohen is by John Sharp and was found at the Mariposa Folk Festival section of the Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections of the York University Libraries. [↩]
- According to Trips – Rock Life in the Sixties by Ellen Sander (Charles Scribner’s Sons-New York: 1973), “[David] Crosby had never really gotten over Joni Mitchell, who had jilted him for Leonard Cohen, who had jilted her.” [↩]
- It was also where Cohen’s mother lived and, indeed, it was on one of these Montreal trips that Mitchell was taken to Cohen’s mother’s home which was later featured in Mitchell’s song “Rainy Night House.” [↩]
- The complete lyrics to “Rainy Night House” can be found at http://www.twin-music.com/artist_j/joni_mitchell_lyrics/rainy_night_house_lyrics.html [↩]
- Sweet Judy Blue Eyes – My Life In Music by Judy Collins. Crown Archetype, October 18, 2011 [↩]
- I’ll leave it to the reader to determine (1) why a sentence about Joni and Leonard meeting and beginning a love affair is followed immediately in the same paragraph with the non sequitur, “Still, everyone was a little off-center,” and then by a scene portraying the narrator in bed with and (asexually) comforting a man coming down from an acid trip while Leonard sings a song while “[without] paying any attention at all to what was happening on the bed” and (2) how Judy Collins feels about Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell. [↩]
- The complete lyrics of “That Song About The Midway” can be found at http://jonimitchell.com/musician/song.cfm?id=ThatSongAboutTheMidway [↩]
- The complete lyrics of ” The Gallery” can be found at http://www.lyricsfreak.com/j/joni+mitchell/the+gallery_20075297.html [↩]
- The complete lyrics of “A Case Of You” can be found at http://www.lyricsfreak.com/j/joni+mitchell/a+case+of+you_20075257.html [↩]
- Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon–And the Journey of a Generation by Sheila Weller. Atria: April 8, 2008. P 314 [↩]
- This was a popular quotation. A similar quote, “I think I’m rather Cohen-influenced. I wrote a song called ‘Marcie,’ which I don’t think would have happened if it hadn’t been for ‘Suzanne’” is also attributed to Mitchell by Michelle Mercer in Will You Take Me As I Am: Joni Mitchell’s Blue Period, Free Press; 1st Edition, April 7, 2009. It appeared again in Ian Mann’s September 2, 1970 ZigZag piece, Joni Mitchel, “Of Leonard Cohen: I think I’m Cohen influenced. I wrote ‘Marcie’ and thought that it wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been for ‘Suzanne,’ which is another character sketch song. [↩]
- Will You Take Me As I Am: Joni Mitchell’s Blue Period by Michelle Mercer. Free Press; 1st Edition, April 7, 2009 [↩]
- Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon–And the Journey of a Generation by Sheila Weller. Atria: April 8, 2008. Pp 241-242 [↩]
- Various Positions: A Life of Leonard Cohen by Ira B. Nadel. Pantheon; 1st edition (October 8, 1996) Pp 156-157 [↩]
- Ibid [↩]
- This quotation was the connection that took me from Lorca to Joni Mitchell [↩]
- “On The Road With Bob Dylan” by Larrry Sloman was first published in 1978 with a revised edition released August 27, 2002. [↩]
- Leonard Cohen, “Bird On A Wire,” Motion Picture, 1974: quoted at Diamonds In The Lines [↩]