Now Suzanne takes your hand and she leads you to the river
She is wearing rags and feathers from Salvation Army counters
And the sun pours down like honey on our lady of the harbor
And she shows you where to look among the garbage and the flowers
There are heroes in the seaweed, there are children in the morning
They are leaning out for love and they will lean that way forever
While Suzanne holds the mirror.
And you want to travel with her and you want to travel blind
And you know that you can trust her
For she’s touched your perfect body with her mind.
—– Leonard Cohen
Okay. Let me define TMI for you, TMI as in Too Much Information. The Great Spirit of Cyberspace giveth, and The Great Spirit of Cyberspace taketh away. I’m not kidding you.
In the summer of 1965 a very young, beautiful free-spirited woman named Suzanne Verdal moved into an apartment along the waterfront of the St. Lawrence River with her daughter Julie. She was recently separated from her husband Armand who was a sculptor as well as her dance partner. She was very much a part of the cultural scene in Montreal at the time. The time was the 60s and the poetry was called Beat and the music was called folk. Evidently Suzanne was so hot she became the muse for many of the Beat Poets and folk singers in Canada.
Leonard Cohen was one of her frequent waterfront visitors in the summer of ’65. A year later he published a poem about their summer together – a poem that Judy Collins fell in love with – and the rest, as they say, is history. Leonard Cohen became a legendary poet and songwriter as a result of the song’s success and went on to fame and fortune and a ton of awards. I love happy endings.
Why couldn’t I leave it at that? No, that would be too easy. I had to wonder what happened to the beautiful mysterious woman who was the bohemian inspiration for the poem and yes, it is possible to find out anything about anyone in cyberspace. Beep, beep, beep – danger, danger. Keep away from Suzanne and Leonard. They didn’t stay in touch much.
Through my research I learned that the tea of “tea and oranges” was Constant Comment Tea. Seriously? Constant Comment Tea? I remember it well. It was the tea in gift packages I got for Christmas in the 60s from people who didn’t know I never drank any tea brand other than Lipton. It was a fancy tea all right because it came in tiny little expensive decorated boxes with only six bags and not the super size I usually bought of Lipton with at least twenty-four bags.
And the “oranges that came all the way from China” and are indirectly responsible for my posts about the song were Mandarin oranges. Duh. Of course. But here’s the difference between most of us who write and Leonard Cohen. Leonard transformed la-tea-dah Constant Comment and ordinary oranges into exotic words that stirred our imaginations and became a part of the incredible beauty of a love song that haunts a generation of lovers to this day nearly fifty years later.
Suzanne was also an early recycling activist and really did make her clothes and her daughter’s clothes from pieces of cloth she bought at the Salvation Army in Montreal. She never reaped any financial rewards from her association with the song that bore her name, but she said in a BBC radio interview in 1998 she knew it was about her and that summer of 1965 in Canada. She described her memory of the physically unconsummated spiritual relationship with Cohen and their subsequent lack of communication as now bittersweet but thought of it as a tribute to her youth.
In one of life’s great ironies Suzanne lived a few miles away from the Mt. Baldy Zen Monastery in California in 1998. Yes, indeedy, the same monastery where Leonard lived for five years from 1994 through 1999 and became a Buddhist monk. I mean, they were just right down the road from each other and didn’t speak.
Please don’t let me read any more, I said to myself but kept right on reading. I discovered to my horror that Suzanne’s later real life became a tragedy of looking among the “garbage and the flowers” when she suffered an injury in 1999 from a fall and became a homeless person living on the streets of Santa Monica. Her career as a dance teacher and choreographer that had supported her in the years after she left Montreal was over – and so was my research.
In 1966 when I heard Judy Collins sing Suzanne at the UT concert in Austin, I didn’t know anything about Suzanne Verdal and was just becoming aware of Leonard Cohen. I didn’t care. I only knew it was the most beautiful folk love song I’d ever heard and I memorized the lyrics and learned to play it on my tenor guitar and proceeded to sing it to girls I was trying very hard to impress with my romantic sense and sensibilities. Those efforts were unsuccessful but it wasn’t the song’s fault.
I confess my favorite song in 1965 was Stop! In the Name of Love by Diana Ross and The Supremes. I belted that song out over and over in the privacy of my parents’ living room every time I was home from college. I turned the stereo up full tilt and filled in for Diana Ross as The Supremes backed me up. I never sang it to impress anyone other than myself.
So two borders away (the US and Texas borders) from Suzanne and Leonard strolling along the St. Lawrence River of life in 1965, I was blissfully unaware that a song I will always love was being born and that the stories behind it are the life stories of us all.
P.S. Luckily for you all, I skipped the second verse.