Leonard Cohen & The Pervasive Bird On A Wire Motif


If Leonard Cohen Hadn’t Seen That Bird On That Wire In Hydra …

Perhaps he would have been inspired by this Becksondergaard C Birds on a Wire Wool and Silk Blend Scarf from The Dressing Room.

Leonard Cohen has recounted the origins of  Bird On The Wire in several interviews. This excerpt from a1992 interview with Paul Zolo (Songwriters On Songwriting) is representative:

It was begun in Greece because there were no wires on the island where I was living to a certain moment. There were no telephone wires. There were no telephones. There was no electricity. So at a certain point they put in these telephone poles, and you wouldn’t notice them now, but when they first went up, it was about all I did — stare out the window at these telephone wires and think how civilization had caught up with me and I wasn’t going to be able to escape after all. I wasn’t going to be able to live this 11th-century life that I thought I had found for myself. So that was the beginning. Then, of course, I noticed that birds came to the wires and that was how that song began.

Bird On The Wire is one of the few songs written by the Canadian singer-songwriter that was inspired by a discrete moment. In this case, Cohen’s genius was an intuitive recognition of an image that resonates with multitudes.

In support of this notion, I offer a profoundly unscientific but still, I think,  persuasive exercise that demonstrates the cultural pervasiveness of the bird on a wire motif.

  1. Google “bird on a wire painting -cohen.”1 Check the number of hits. Click around on the links.
  2. Repeat the process with the search terms “bird on a wire merchandise -cohen” and “bird on a wire photo -cohen”

For_the_Birds_(film)_posterThere are a lot more examples such as Pixar’s animated film “For The Birds” that is about, well, birds on a wire, but you get the idea.

Given that above-ground wires strung across significant lengths were non-existent before the development of the telegraph in the early 1800s and didn’t become a common sight anywhere before the middle of the 1800s, it’s remarkable that the bird on a wire image has become ubiquitous and sought after (it’s my contention that there wouldn’t be a half-dozen bird on a wire shower curtain designs  if someone didn’t want one enough to purchase it).

I’m especially taken with the scope of the bird on a wire themed merchandise available.  I’ve set up a display of several examples at Bird On A Wire Merchandise Gallery.

So, when that bird landed on a telephone wire in Hydra, Leonard Cohen found a widely resonant image that not only enhanced his song and conveyed his message but also immediately registered in the minds of listeners.

Not too shabby.


  1. The “-cohen” eliminates some of the images directly associated with Leonard Cohen’s Bird On The Wire []

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