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#SaturdaySongs No.4 – Sisters Of Mercy

November 12, 2016 23 comments

I was planning to write about something else for today’s #SaturdaySongs post, but the terribly sad news of Leonard Cohen’s death has changed my mind.

I have loved Leonard’s music ever since his first album, The Songs Of Leonard Cohen. To my thinking, he is first and foremost a poet, who transformed his beautiful words into songs, and would I think have been a more deserving winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, as much as I like Bob Dylan. Maybe they can award him a posthumous prize to recognise the vast body of amazing literature that he produced in his lifetime.

My musical memory of this song isn’t initially picking it up as being on his album, though. Back in the late 60s the record company Columbia – or CBS as it was to those of us outside the USA – began a series of ‘sampler’ albums, priced at roughly half the rate of a regular album. These were collections of tracks from artists in their catalogue, largely American acts but with some notable additions from elsewhere, such as the Zombies from here in the UK and Leonard Cohen, who was Canadian. The first of these albums was called The Rock Machine Turns You On, and my song for today was featured on it.

Initially, the sampler albums were intended to encourage us to explore – and buy! – the music that we liked, and this is how I came to Leonard Cohen’s remarkable lyricism, some time in 1968. I was 14 at the time, such an impressionable age, and this mysterious man, with his unusual, deadpan delivery, was so very different from most of the music that we listened to at that time. I probably wore that old vinyl album out! I now have every album he ever released, and these have been receiving a lot of attention in the past day or so. Today’s song is one of his most famous: Sisters of Mercy. This has been interpreted as being about nuns, and even prostitutes, but the inspiration for it is best explained by the author himself:

In the April 1993 issue of Song Talk magazine he explained: “That’s the only song I wrote in one sitting. The melody I had worked on for some time. I didn’t really know what the song was. I remember that my mother had liked it. Then I was in Edmonton, which is one of our largest northern cities, and there was a snowstorm and I found myself in a vestibule with two young hitchhiking women who didn’t have a place to stay. I invited them back to my little hotel room and there was a big double bed and they went to sleep in it immediately. They were exhausted by the storm and cold. And I sat in this stuffed chair inside the window beside the Saskatchewan River. And while they were sleeping I wrote the lyrics. And that never happened to me before. And I think it must be wonderful to be that kind of writer. It must be wonderful, because I just wrote the lines with a few revisions and when they awakened I sang it to them. And it has never happened to me like that before. Or since.” (Information from songfacts.com).

That is a great story, and such a wonderful basis for a song. The song itself is beautiful and, as befitting the rest of the original album, was played and sung very simply. The version I’m sharing comes from one of his recent tours, after he had to go back on the road to make up for the money his business manager had swindled from him, and gives the song new depth, in a lovely performance:

Hearing this again has taken me back to those days when, as a teenager, I used to ‘borrow’ Mum and Dad’s record player and take it up to my bedroom, to play the music I wanted to listen to without unwelcome comments!

And just in case you remain to be convinced of Leonard Cohen’s poetic spirit, a final story: another of his famous early songs, again from that first album, is So Long, Marianne. Recently, Marianne Ihlen, the lady who was the inspiration for the song, passed away and Leonard wrote her a memorial letter in which he told her ‘Our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon.’ He has his wish, and I’m left to write this through my tears.

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