A Brief Foray Into The Ornithology Of Leonard Cohen
Above him on the electric wires perched the first crows of the year, arranged between the poles like abacus beads.
– From Beautiful Losers by Leonard Cohen
Like a bird on the wire,
– From Bird On The Wire by Leonard Cohen
Happening onto the line from Beautiful Losers shown above, I reflexively called to mind the opening of A Bird On The Wire.
Now, observing warm-blooded egg-laying vertebrates characterized by feathers and forelimbs modified as wings roosting on above-ground power and communication transmission hardly qualifies as unusual or otherwise noteworthy these days. Spotting birds lighting on an early set of telephone wires on Hydra in the 1960s, however, was sufficient inspiration for Leonard Cohen’s Bird On The Wire.
Bird on the Wire began in Greece, when Cohen first arrived in Hydra, there were no wires on the island, no telephones and no regular electricity. But soon telephone poles appeared, and then the wires. I would 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 eleventh-century life that I had thought I had found for myself. So that was the beginning.Then he noticed that the birds came to the wires. The next line referred to the many evenings Cohen and friends climbed the endless stairs up from the port of Hydra, drunk and singing. Often you see: three guys with the arms around each other , stumbling up the stairs and singing these impeccable thirds. He finished the song in a Hollywood motel on Sunset Boulevard in 1969.
Given Cohen’s penchant for efficacious stewarding of images and phrases, it seems possible he may have used the same event as the basis for the line of prose from Beautiful Losers and the more celebrated opening of Like A Bird On The Wire.
This is, as the following timeline of pertinent dates demonstrates, at least a chronological possibility:
- September 27, 1960: Leonard Cohen purchases house in Hydra
- May 1968: Version of Bird On A Wire, entitled Like a Bird and added to the 2007 remastered CD, produced by David Crosby, recorded
- September 26, 1968: Version of Bird On A Wire used in Songs From A Room recorded in Nashville
- April 1969: Songs From A Room album released
OK, Leonard Cohen could have viewed lots of birds on lots of wires on Hydra over that nine year span and come upon multitudes more examples of this phenomenon in Montreal and other locations before penning the text of Beautiful Losers.
And, yes, it’s difficult to construct a literary hypothesis that would ascribe any significance to whether the same scene or different events served as the origins of those lines from Beautiful Losers and Bird On A Wire.
So, why write a post about the issue?
The Little Bird by Leonard Cohen
Well, because (1) it’s the kind of speculation in which ex-English majors indulge – and it follows that if an ex-English major who blogs about Leonard Cohen expends every minute of his blogging time indulging in this speculation, the need to post eventually supersedes the need for significance, and (2) it provides a segue into a selective overview of Cohen’s use of bird imagery in his songs.
While far from a comprehensive listing of avian references in Leonard Cohen’s songs (and omitting any such allusions in his poetry, novels, or art), the following instances suggest Cohen may preferentially choose tropes involving birds to arouse emotional intensity and evoke poignancy. And that notion, if it holds up to a more comprehensive analysis, is significant.
The birds they sang
at the break of day
I heard them say
Don’t dwell on what
has passed away
or what is yet to be.
From Story of Isaac:
Thought I saw an eagle
but it might have been a vulture,
I never could decide.
From Chelsea Hotel:
I don’t mean to suggest that I loved you the best,
I can’t keep track of each fallen robin.
I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel,
that’s all, I don’t even think of you that often.
From The Great Event:
What a sigh of relief, as
the senile robins become bright red again,
and the retired nightingales, pick up their
dusty tails, and assert the majesty of creation!
Fare thee well my nightingale
‘Twas long ago I found you
Now all your songs of beauty fail
The forest closes ‘round you
From The Traitor:
But the Rose I sickened with a scarlet fever
and the Swan I tempted with a sense of shame
She said at last I was her finest lover
and if she withered I would be to blame
Ah the wars they will
be fought again
The holy dove
She will be caught again
bought and sold
and bought again
the dove is never free.
From Take This Waltz:
Now in Vienna there’s ten pretty women
There’s a shoulder where Death comes to cry
There’s a lobby with nine hundred windows
There’s a tree where the doves go to die
From Dance Me To The End Of Love:
Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin
Dance me through the panic ’til I’m gathered safely in
Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove
Dance me to the end of love
Dance me to the end of love
Yeah but I remember, yeah when I moved in you,
And the holy dove, she was moving too,
Yes every single breath that we drew was Hallelujah.
From The Gypsy’s Wife:
Too early for the rainbow, too early for the dove
These are the final days, this is the darkness, this is the flood
And there is no man or woman who can’t be touched
But you who come between them will be judged