The story behind “Suzanne”, one of Leonard Cohen’s most enduring and widely covered songs, is all true: there really was a girl called Suzanne who would only allow the celebrated ladies’ man to touch her perfect dancer’s body with his mind. Recently separated from her husband, Québécois sculptor Armand Vaillancourt, Suzanne Verdal and her young daughter lived in a warehouse by the Saint Lawrence River in Montreal, and she engaged the smitten young poet in deep conversations about religion over “tea and oranges that come all the way from China”.
Or, at least, she recalls serving him a deliciously exotic combination of jasmine tea and mandarin oranges. But Cohen says she combined the two more frugally in cups of Constant Comment tea: a brew developed by the Bigelow Tea Company in the 1940s containing pieces of orange rind and undisclosed “sweet spice”. Still hugely popular in America, it was designed with an intense taste so that only a small spoonful would be required per cup. Though it’s true that the fruits in the Bigelow bags are harvested in America, the orange itself is thought to originate in China, where it has been cultivated since around 2500 BC. Perhaps this is what Cohen was singing about.
“The song was begun, and the chord pattern was developed, before a woman’s name entered the song,” he told the BBC in 1994. It started as a song about his hometown of Montreal, inspired by the sailor’s church of Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secour on the harbour with its statue of the Virgin Mary stretching her arms out toward the seamen heading into the waters of the Atlantic. Then in 1965 along came this dark-haired, blue-eyed muse, inviting him to share the poetic view from the home where she prayed daily to Jesus Christ and Saint Joan.
“I would always light a candle,” she told the Guardian in 2008. “It sounds like a séance, but obviously Leonard retained those images, too. I was living in a crooked house, so old, with mahogany and stained glass. I loved the smell of the river and the freight trains and boats. Out of my window was total romance. Leonard was a mentor to me. We would walk together and we didn't even have to talk. The sound of his boots and my heels was weird, like synchronicity in our footsteps.”
Despite being described as “half-crazy” in Cohen’s lyrics, Verdal was “flattered” when she heard the song. But she also felt that Cohen had betrayed the intimacy of their relationship by making it so public without telling her first. After a back injury stopped short her dancing career, she ended up living in a converted van in Los Angeles and said she didn’t listen to the song anymore as it made her wonder why she and Cohen were no longer friends. “There was some ill feeling there,” she told the BBC in 1998, “or some sadnesses that were not there at the beginning at all.”
But it’s hard to see how Cohen could have resisted immortalising these encounters. His writing had always been motivated by ritual and repetition, by the intense tangling of sexual and spiritual longing. In his 1974 song, “Chelsea Hotel #2”, he famously describes a sexual encounter with Janis Joplin. She was looking for Kris Kristofferson. “You told me again you preferred handsome men/ but for me you would make an exception,” go the lyrics – even amid the desire, humour is never far from the surface in a Cohen encounter. Photographed in 1987 during the filming of the Jennifer Warnes video of his song, “First We Take Manhattan”, Cohen was amused to see himself “in shades and nice suit” but caught half way through a banana. “And it suddenly occurred to me that’s everyone’s dilemma: at the times we think we’re coolest, what everyone else sees is a guy with his mouth full of banana…”
Many of Cohen’s subsequent recordings have been fuelled by a cocktail he invented in the 1970s called the Red Needle: tequila, cranberry juice, lemonade and fresh-cut fruit. When recording his 1992 album, The Future, Cohen recalls preparing “pitchers of this cocktail for the musicians and we couldn’t stop playing. I did fall down in it; that’s where the guitar solo occurs. It was a very exuberant, passionate evening, and several musicians told me it was the happiest time they ever spent in a recording studio.”
But things got out of hand. By his 1994 tour he was drinking three bottles of wine a day. “I only drank professionally,” he told Uncut in 2008, claiming never to drink after the intermission during the 60 or 70 shows on a long tour. “I was very nervous,’ he said, citing wine as another of his preferred poisons: ‘It’s curious with wine. The experts talk about the flavour and bouquet and whether it has legs and the tannins and the fruit and the symphonies of tastes. But nobody talks about the high. Bordeaux is a wine that vintners have worked on for 1,000 years. Each wine has a specific high, which is never mentioned.”
Cohen still thinks “Suzanne” is his finest song and compares it to a bottle of his beloved wine. “It’s hard to sing it,” he says. “It’s hard to enter it. Because it’s a serious song. I’m alone singing it. In my own curious magical universe, it is a kind of doorway. So I have to be careful with it. I can’t speak too much about it as I can’t put my finger on the reason, except to say it is a doorway, and I have to open it carefully.”