Like A Flock Of Birds On The Wire

Bird On The Wire Already On Heck of a Guy Life List

This is hardly the first appearance Bird On The Wire1 has made in the Heck of a Guy blog. A post on the 2007 remastered CD of Songs from a Room, for example, noted the addition of the version of that song produced by David Crosby, under the title “Like a Bird”, to the album’s original tracks. Last month, the distinctly offbeat – and hilariously drunken – rendition of the same song by a character on a British TV comedy was the topic of The Absolutely Fabulous Version of Leonard Cohen’s Bird On A Wire. And, earlier this month, Jennifer Warnes’ Famous Blue Raincoat: Audiophile Addendum identified the deep humming in Jennifer Warnes’ Bird on a Wire that is audible only on high resolution sound systems as the voice of Willie Greene, Jr.2

More Birds, More Wires

In the past couple of days, Songs: Illinois listed a batch of video versions of Bird On The Wire, including many of my own favorites. When I then came upon American Digest’s Bird on the Wire — Aaron Neville Lays It Down, I was compelled to follow suit.

The Essential Background of Bird On The Wire

There is little controversy about the inspiration; as Cohen himself has commented, “this song was written looking at a bird on a wire.” The wire was part of the then newly installed phone lines in Hydra Greece, where Cohen was living with Marianne.

Elsewhere, however, Cohen elaborates,

I began that song in Greece. The melody began a few of the lyrics, a few of the lines. And then it was still with me. I was in L.A. I was living in a Motel on the Sunset strip – it developed a little further. Then I made a recording of it which David Crosby produced. Ah I never finished that recording. And the song continued to develop. I made a recording of it in Nashville with Bob Johnson as producer. And apparently the lyrics still weren’t finished. I changed the lyrics and a different lyric appears in a record called “Live Songs”. And then the lyrics changed again somewhat in the most recent treatments of the song – so it’s continued being written for about eight or nine years.3

Indeed, Diamonds In The Lines lists numerous version of lyrics from Cohen’s live concerts. For example, at Frankfurt in June 1970, these lines appeared

Like a fish on a hook
Like a Knight from some old-fashioned book
I have broken all my sorrows to thee.

In München in October 1979 and later in Israël in 1980, Cohen sang this variation on the first verse:

…like a worm on a hook
like a monk bending (down) over the Book
I have tried……

And, in 1985 at Graz, he used this version,

I saw this beggar standing on his wooden crutch
He says “How Dare You, how dare you,
how dare you ask for so God damn much ?”
There was a woman leaning in her darkened door
She says “come on, you can ask for just a little bit more”…

Not only has Cohen produced many variations of Bird On The Wire, but many others have also covered the song, including but not limited to Perla Batalla, Joan Crowe, KD Lang, Jennifer Warnes, Joe Cocker, The Bobs, Johnny Cash, Judy Colins, Adam Cohen, Sandy Denny, Fairport Convention, Pearls Before Swine, Soul Asylum, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Rita Coolidge, The Lilac Time, Jackie de Shannon, and Yasmine.

View Videos

Happily, several of these covers are available on YouTube. Some of my favorites, including Cohen’s own performances, can be viewed at

Epitaph

This Kris Kristofferson quotation from “A celebration of Leonard Cohen” provides the finest conclusion to a consideration of Bird On The Wire I can imagine,

Like a bird on a wire, Like a drunk in some midnight choir,
I have tried in my way to be free ….

That’s my epitaph

 

  1. Once more, for clarification, the original name of the song was “Bird On The Wire,” but others covering the song have often labeled it “Bird on a Wire” as did Cohen himself in the version that appears in The Essential Leonard Cohen []
  2. The original post tentatively identified the source of the humming as Leonard Cohen. Just over a year later, Jennifer Warnes sent word that Mr. Greene was the singer responsible. For the full story, see Blog Error On Jennifer Warnes Famous Blue Raincoat Corrected – By Jennifer Warnes []
  3. The Song of Leonard Cohen: Portrait of a Poet, A Friendship & a Film by Harry Rasky, Mosaic Press (NY) February 27, 2001 []

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