Leonard Cohen died a few months ago and in all the excitement of the election season I forgot to go beyond the usual obituaries and read any commentary from his close friends and musical collaborators. Jennifer Warnes probably worked more with Cohen more than any other anyone else. She began singing backup vocals for Cohen shortly after they met in the early seventies and soon became vocal arranger for much of his work until the early eighties.
If you are at all interested in Warnes’ and Cohen’s musical work together, I highly recommend this interview. I do have to dispute her statement that Cohen was Dylan’s equal. Bob Dylan was an important cultural figure fir a time, but Leonard Cohen’s songwriting is much more relevant today.
Warnes’ and Cohen’s best known work together is her 1987 album Famous Blue Raincoat. Here’s a short interview from the 80s on that album’s production:
I was surprised to hear that Warnes had trouble finding backing for the project at the height of her career. The early eighties were a bit of a slump for Cohen and as Warnes herself explains in the interview Raincoat was a bit contrary to the spirit of the times.
Readers of The Board can probably guess that “First, We Take Manhattan” is my favorite track off of that record. That comma I put in the title is my own personal addition. Take a listen and see if you don’t think it belongs there:
Leonard Cohen has gone on record that this song is about terrorism, which I think is pretty clear from the atmosphere of the lyrics. I strongly suspect that the “I don’t like what happened to my sister” line is about Karen Carpenter. It makes sense in context, but there’s no official confirmation of a Carpenter connection. I like this version of the song with Stevie Ray Vaughan’s guitar track a bit more than Cohen’s own electronica-influenced version released a year later.
And if you always wanted to like The Waterboys, but never quite liked them, maybe Jennifer Warnes can change your mind.