Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell – Just One Of Those Things


I am republishing selected posts from Cohencentric (my former Leonard Cohen site) here on AllanShowalter.com (these posts can be found at Leonard Cohen). Initially designated a “casual Saturday post,”1 this essay on the Leonard Cohen – Joni Mitchell relationship has not only evolved into a popular read but has also become a frequently used reference. Because of this continued interest in the topic, I’ve conscientiously revised and updated the post as new material becomes available. The original portion of this entry was first published Mar 31, 2007.

Just One Of Those Crazy Flings

For a few months in 1967 and 1968, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen had a fling, the consequences of which continue to echo in their work.

Introduced to each other backstage at Judy Collins’ songwriter’s workshop2 at the 1967 Newport Folk Festival by Judy Collins herself,3 who was, in large part, responsible for jump-starting the musical careers of both singer-songwriters,4 Cohen and Mitchell were officially an item by the time the two of them co-hosted a workshop at the Mariposa Folk Festival.5 Their romance ignited, flared, and exhausted itself within months.

Joni spoke about that meeting to Malka Marom:

J: This picture [shown above] of us hugging at the Newport Folk Festival … Leonard did “Suzanne.” I’d met him and I went, ‘I love that song. What a great song.’ Really. “Suzanne” was one of the greatest songs I ever heard. So I was proud to meet an artist. He made me feel humble, because I looked at that song and I went, ‘Woah. All my songs seem so naive by comparison.’ It raised the standard of what I wanted to write.

M: And what were you doing in that same Newport Folk Festival?

J: I was performing also.

M: Yet you looked up to him, rather than seeing him as an equal?

J: Yeah, oh definitely. I thought he was much more sophisticated. It made me feel like, “Oh Jesus, my songs are kind of naïve. Stupid.” My “Both Sides Now” took such ridicule from Chuck, I came out of the marriage with a chip.6

Mariposa Folkfest to Roll,” an article published in the July 15, 1967 issue of Billboard offers a useful indicator of the points on the ascending trajectories of these rising stars at the time when their romance was developing. That article announces that Festival performers that year would include “Buffy Sainte-Marie, Tom Rush, the Staple Singers, Bonnie Dobson, the Buddy Guy Blues Band from Chicago, Ritchie Havens, Louis Killen, the Lily Brothers and Tex Logan.”

It is telling that also listed in the same paragraph with the artists Billboard infers were the major stars of the show is “Canadian poet Leonard Cohen.” [emphasis mine] That Cohen walked on stage with his guitar and sang was incidental to Billboard’s take on him as a poet. It is only in the next and final paragraph that Joni Mitchell is listed with other “local folk artists.” [emphasis mine]

Joni Mitchell, who had played Mariposa in 1965 and 1966 appeared on the first day’s schedule while Cohen’s performance took place, along with Buffy Sainte-Marie’s, at the concert on the night of August 13.

Depending upon the source and the skew of ones perspective, preferences, and prejudices, Cohen either terminated the relationship himself for unspecified reasons or incited Mitchell to end it because of his interest in other women.7


Cohen, who was then better known as a poet and novelist than as a musician, was almost 33 when they met; Mitchell was nine years his junior.

Conveniently, Cohen was often in New York where he would spend time with Mitchell, who was living at the Earl Hotel in the Village, and Mitchell was routinely playing dates in Montreal, where Cohen lived.8 Cohen also spent a month at Mitchell’s Laurel Canyon home when he was recruited by Hollywood in 1968 to score a movie based on his song, “Suzanne.” (The movie project failed to materialize.)

Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song

Mitchell’s Rainy Night House9 is her farewell account of that liaison:

M: I heard that your song “Rainy Night House” was a farewell to Leonard Cohen. Is it?

J: Yeah. I went one time to his home and I fell asleep in his old room and he sat up and watched me sleep. He sat up all the night and he watched me to see who in the world I could be.10

The second verse is poignantly bittersweet:

I am from the Sunday school
I sing soprano in the upstairs choir
You are a holy man
On the FM radio
I sat up all the night and watched thee
To see, who in the world you might be

Mitchell points out

There’s some poetic liberty with those two lines; actually it’s “you sat up all night and watched me to see who in the world …” I turned it around. Leonard was in a lot of pain. Hungry ghosts is what it’s called in Buddhism. I am even lower. Five steps down.11

Joni Mitchell – Rainy Night House

According to Brian Hinton’s 1996 biography, “Joni Mitchell,” Sheila Weller’s “Girls Like Us,” and other sources, Cohen appears in at least two other Joni Mitchell songs, That Song About The Midway and The Gallery.12 Judy Collins comments on Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, and That Song About The Midway in her book, Sweet Judy Blue Eyes – My Life In Music:13

Joni and Leonard met for the first time at that concert [the Newport afternoon concert] and began a love affair. Still, everyone was a little off-center. I remember being in bed with a man I did not know who was coming down from an acid trip and wanted me to “comfort him,” no sex involved. Leonard sat in the room with us, singing “The Stranger Song” softly to himself, not paying any attention at all to what was happening on the bed. The Chelsea Hotel indeed! I trusted Leonard completely in very intimate situations and although we never had an intimate exchange of that kind ourselves, he was a constant ally I could take into battle with no fear of betrayal. Joni wrote “That Song About The Midway” about Leonard, or so she says. Sounds right: the festival, the guy, the jewel in the ear.14

Although these lyrics are also frequently identified as bittersweet, to my ear, they seem predominantly bitter and even resentful in spots.

These excerpts from That Song About The Midway,15 are telling:

I met you on a midway at a fair last year
And you stood out like a ruby in a black man’s ear
You were playing on the horses, you were playing on the guitar strings
You were playing like a devil wearing wings, wearing wings
You looked so grand wearing wings

You were betting on some lover, you were shaking up the dice
And I thought I saw you cheating once or twice, once or twice


Joni Mitchell – That Song About The Midway

And the sentiment behind these words from The Gallery16 seems clear:

When I first saw your gallery
I liked the ones of ladies
Then you began to hang up me
You studied to portray me
In ice and greens
And old blue jeans
And naked in the roses
Then you got into funny scenes
That all your work disclose

Lady, please love me now, I am dead
I am a saint, turn down your bed
I have no heart, that’s what you said
You said, I can be cruel
But let me be gentle with you

Joni Mitchell and Malka Marom discussed Leonard Cohen’s role in this song:

J: Some of them are very unflattering portraits. They scared me. He could be so harsh on women.

M: Harsh in what way?

J: In the songs. “Your thighs are a ruin, you want too much / let’s say you came back some time too soon.” [from “Master Song” by Leonard Cohen] That’s harsh. I countered it with thinking of the pleasure I’m gonna have watching your hairline recede, which is a similar line. I think both of those things are mean. But Leonard gets funny. When you take him seriously, eventually, you start to …

M: Yes, he’s got this ironic twist in him that I like.17


Joni Mitchell – Gallery

The introduction is especially revealing.

Hinton’s “own uninformed guess is that A Case Of You18 is also about Leonard Cohen.” Mitchell herself, according to Sheila Weller, told “a confidante in the mid-1990s that it was about Leonard Cohen” but told Estrella Berosini the song was about another lover, James Taylor.19 In any case, the chorus does have a Cohen sort of ring to it.

Oh you are in my blood like holy wine
And you taste so bitter but you taste so sweet
Oh I could drink a case of you
I could drink a case of you darling
Still I’d be on my feet
And still be on my feet

Update: “I am as constant as the Northern Star” From Leonard Cohen (& Shakespeare) To Joni Mitchell’s A Case Of You20

No lover gave her poetry like Leonard, and even after their affair ended, she continued to communicate with him in song; most memorably in “A Case of You.” She recalled that Cohen told her, “I am as constant as the Northern Star.” Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar says this to Brutus, and it’s not far from there to “Et tu, Brute.” “I knew it was from Julius Caesar,” Cohen recalled, “but I didn’t say it with Shakespeare’s irony. I think I actually meant it in relation to her.”

“When I played ‘A Case of You’ for him, he said, ‘I’m glad I wrote that,’” Joni recalled. The song begins: Just before our love got lost you said, “I am as constant as a northern star.” And I said, “Constantly in the darkness Where’s that at? If you want me I’ll be in the bar.” It was a tension that spoke to a schism in their songwriting …

Leonard got mad at me actually, because I put a line of his, a line that he said, in one of my songs. To me, that’s not plagiarism. You either steal from life or you steal from books. Life is fair game, but books are not. That’s my personal opinion. Don’t steal from somebody else’s art, that’s cheating. Steal from life – it’s up for grabs, right?


Joni Mitchell – A Case Of You

He Said; She Said

Hinton’s book also directly quotes Mitchell saying her song, “Marcie,” was influenced by Cohen:

I think I’m rather Cohen influenced. I wrote “Marcie” and afterwards thought that it wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been for “Suzanne.”21

In Joni Mitchell In Her Own Words, however, Malka Marom proffers the following conversation:

M: I read somewhere that Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” inspired you to write “Marcie.”

J: No. “Marcie” was complete fiction. At that point, I was writing mostly fiction.

… M: So “Marcie” has no connection to Leonard.22

Hinton’s book also includes this quote:

My lyrics are influenced by Leonard. After we met at Newport last year (1967) we saw a lot of each other. Some of Leonard’s religious imagery, which comes from being a Jew in a predominantly Catholic part of Canada, seems to have rubbed off on me too.Leonard didn’t really explore music. He’s a word man first. Leonard’s economical, he never wastes a word. I can go through Leonard’s work and it’s like silk.

Finally, Hinton notes that, in 1969,

Joni is also catching up on her reading. Herman Hesse, Leonard Cohen –“her favourite poet”– and McKuen.

Mitchell requested that Cohen “give [her] a reading list.” Cohen acceded, offering works by Lorca and Camus as well as the I Ching, even though he was concerned that the reading might attenuate her creative originality.23

A more extensive account of the reading list request and Cohen’s response follows:

So when I met Leonard, I said to him, “I need to read some books,” and he said, “What kind of books?” “Well, I hear people talking about books, and I got a kind of a chip out of my marriage that I’m stupid because everybody’s read a lot of books that I haven’t read. Give me a reading list.” He said, “Well, you’re writing quite well for someone who hasn’t read anything. Maybe you shouldn’t read anything.” He gave me his reading list, wonderful books: Camus, The Stranger; the I Ching, which I’ve used all my life; Magister Ludi; Siddhartha. A wonderful reading list.24

It is significant that this request for a reading list was preceded by her husband forcing reading assignments on her:

Chuck [Mitchell] called me stupid a lot. He kept trying to get me to read what he read so that we could converse about what he knew. He tried to get me to read Catcher in the Rye and a few things.25

According to Sheila Weller’s “Girls Like Us,”26 Mitchell confided,

Leonard was a mirror to my work and with no verbal instructions, he showed me how to plumb the depths of my experience.

This rather lengthy excerpt from Joni Mitchell by Les Brown, an article published in Rolling Stone on July 6, 1968, is worth quoting for the kicker at the end:

Here is Joni Mitchell. A penny yellow blonde with a vanilla voice. Influenced, or appearing influenced, by Judy Collins, gingham, leather, lace, producer David Crosby (the ex-Byrd), Robert Herrick, North Battleford (Saskatchewan), New York (New York), Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Chuck, seagulls, dolphins, taxicabs, Dairy Queen floats, someone named Mr. Kratzman, “who taught me to love words,” the Lovin’ Spoonful, rain, sunlight, garbage, metermaids and herself.

To folk music followers, Joni Mitchell is no stranger. Her songs have been recorded recently by Judy Collins, Tom Rush, Ian and Sylvia, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Dave Van Ronk and others. Now she sings her songs herself. Some of her better known numbers (“Circle Came,” “Both Sides Now,” “Urge for Going”) have been omitted in favor of new material, but after hearing it you know she’s been saving some of her best for herself.

The Joni Mitchell album, despite a few momentary weaknesses, is an good debut. Her lyrics are striking. Her tunes are unusual, Her voice is clear and natural.

Miss Mitchell is a lyrical kitchen poet. “Michael brings you to park/ He sings and it’s dark, /When the clouds come by, /Yellow slickers up on swings /Like puppets on strings /Hanging in the sky . . .”

Joni Mitchell is Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne: she shows you where to look among the garbage and the flowers. [emphasis mine]

Ira Nadel, in “Various Positions,” declares that

Joni Mitchell acknowledges [that Cohen] inspired her, giving her another standard in songwriting … . He and Dylan, she has remarked, were her “pace runners,” the ones that kept her heading to new and higher musical ground.27

Nadel then immediately goes on to note that

Cohen characterizes their relationship as “the extension of our friendship,” a friendship that has endured.28

Another Rolling Stone article, Joni Mitchell, published May 17, 1969 makes the by now familiar observations about the effect Cohen had on Mitchell’s music:

The old names are back, but in more commercial regalia. Judy Collins, softened, orchestrated, countrified (and even, on national TV, miniskirted) is a popular chart item now, after years of limited success. The music (someone called it “Art Rock” but that can be ignored) features a lighter, more lyrical style of writing, as exemplified by Leonard Cohen.

And her compositions reflect the influences of Cohen.

Miss Mitchell reads more now than ever before. Herman Hesse is a favorite author; Leonard Cohen her favorite poet, with Rod McKuen also on her side.

But, Mitchell is clearly ambivalent about the impact Cohen had on her work. Michelle Mercer writes:

I pressed for her to say something kind about Leonard Cohen, because his influence is clear, and she now sees him as a plagiarist and has gone on the record as saying that many, many times.

I said, “C’mon, he’s his own poet on songs like ‘Hallelujah,’ Joni.” She said, “Yeah, yeah, I guess he’s his own poet; I’ve always loved some of his songs.” And then she couldn’t help taking a stab at him: she said, “He owns the phrase naked body, for example; it appears in every one of his songs.”

That’s just defensiveness on her part, because she feels as if she has not been recognized for what she did in the ’70s. She still has a wound, even though I think she has been recognized for the breadth of her contribution to music. Admitting the influence of (the men in her life) would’ve been relinquishing any creative input in her own work.29

In a 2001 interview for Border Crossings with Robert Enright, Words and Pictures: The Arts of Joni Mitchell, this exchange takes place:

BC: I’ve often thought that the way you wrote song lyrics – with such intensity and honesty – was similar to what Leonard Cohen was doing. He romanticized his life and in some sense you were doing the same thing.

JM: Leonard was an early influence. I remember thinking when I heard his songs for the first time that I was not worldly. My work seemed very young and naive in comparison. At the time I met him I was around 24, around the time of my first record. But thematically I wanted to be broader than he was. In many ways Leonard was a boudoir poet.

BC: Was it that you wanted the lyrics to stand for more that just a personal anecdote?

JM: I was scared of the way the world was going. I was disappointed in humanity in general and myself in particular for our lack of evolution, for our pride in technology and our degenerating morality. For example, I wasn’t a fan of the Beats. I didn’t like to see the underbelly revered. I figured it had its place but I didn’t want to be an imitator of it. I’m not a book burner but I longed for something more wholesome. God knows why I longed for the impossible. In high school I did a lot of satire on the Beats and on abstraction. In my show you can still see that attitude. There’s a lot of humour, which you’re not supposed to take yourself more seriously. I give funny names to a lot of the paintings, like Canadian Bacon, but that’s because I’m not in the art game. I paint them, then I hang them in my house and I can say flippant things about them if I want to. I don’t have to adapt or adopt any kind of mystical stance. I always think I don’t have to play the poet like Leonard Cohen does. You have to watch everything you say. I like to be dumb and ordinary because that’s where fun takes place. Leonard doesn’t have a lot of fun; he’s been studying all his life to try. I still like to and I have blessed friends who are capable of it. It’s the spirit of child-play that Picasso was trying to get back. I admire him for his effort, but he said all children are genius painters and he spent his whole life trying to undo the precocious education his father gave him. I’ve been able to get to that impulsive, joyous place by not having to make a career out of painting. By just doing portraits of friends and animals. This show is curated, so it isn’t the whole picture. But the work is very personal. I don’t write for an audience. If there is an audience, it’s just the divine keeping me honest.

It does not require a hot-shot psychiatrist to infer Ms. Mitchell’s point of view from this excerpt of a New York Magazine interview:

[Interviewer:] Were you similarly skeptical about the folk scene in New York in the late sixties?
[Mitchell:] No. I briefly liked Leonard Cohen, though once I read Camus and Lorca30 I started to realize that he had taken a lot of lines from those books, which was disappointing to me.

Mitchell elaborates on this episode to Malka Marom:

But, unfortunately, in the Camus, I found he [Cohen] lifted lines. “Walk me to the corner, our steps will always …” That’s literally a Camus line. So I thought that’s like Bob Dylan … When I realized that Bob and Leonard were lifting lines, I was very disappointed. And then I thought that there’s this kind of a self-righteous quality about — you’re a plagiarist and I’m not. So I plagiarized from Camus in “Come In from the Cold” intentionally. I forget which verse it is, but when I put the single out, I edited that verse out. I just took it out. Leonard got mad at me actually, because I put a line of his, a line that he said, in one of my songs. To me, that’s not plagiarism. You either steal from life or you steal from books. Life is fair game, but books are not. That’s my personal opinion. Don’t steal from somebody else’s art, that’s cheating. Steal from life — it’s up for grabs, right? So I put something that he said in one of my songs and he got real irritable, [saying], “I’m glad I wrote that.”31

In that same New York Magazine interview, Mitchell also slams poets and poetry in general:

I didn’t like poetry. When I read the Shakespearean sonnets, I feel like some of them are mercenary. How many poems can you write where you say, “You’re so beautiful that you should reproduce yourself and I’m the guy to do it”? [Laughs.] They can’t all be inspired. It’s like somebody came to him and said, “Give me a poem like you did for Joe and I’ll give you 50 bucks.” I find a lot of poetry to be narcissistic. I agree with Nietzsche on the poets. He said something like: “The poet is the vainest of the vain, the peacock of the peacocks . . . he muddles his waters so that they might appear deep.” I know I’m throwing the baby out with the bathwater in a lot of ways. I guess there are a few poets I like, though, like E. J. Pratt and Carl Sandburg.

Mitchell also attests to being influenced by Cohen on a more personal level:

I don’t know. I had difficulty at one point accepting my affluence, and my success, even the expression of it seemed to me distasteful at one time, like to suddenly be driving a fancy car. I had a lot of soul searching to do. I felt that living in elegance and luxury cancelled creativity, or even some of that sort of Sunday school philosophy that luxury comes as a guest and then becomes the master. That was a philosophy that I held onto. I still had that stereotyped idea that success would deter it, that luxury would make you too comfortable and complacent and that the gift would suffer from it. But I found that I was able to express it in the work, even at the time when it was distasteful to me. Like “I slept last night in a good hotel / I went shopping today for jewels.” The only way that I could reconcile with myself and my art was to say, “This is what I’m going through now; my life is changing. I show up at the gig in a big limousine and that’s a fact of life.” I’m an extremist as far as lifestyle goes. I need to live simply and primitively sometimes, at least for short periods of the year, in order to keep in touch with something more basic. But I have come to be able to finally enjoy my success, and to use it as a form of self-expression. Leonard Cohen has a line that says, “Do not dress in those rags for me, / I know you are not poor.” When I heard that line, I thought to myself that I had been denying, which was hypocritical. I had been denying, just as that line in that song, I had played down my wealth.32

Leonard Cohen, on the other hand, appears to have been more circumspect about his relationship with Joni Mitchell. One of the few pertinent comments I’ve found is from a 1984 interview with Robert Sward:

RS: How much connection do you feel with Dylan’s music, or with others, like Joni Mitchell, for example? Whose music is closest to you now…?

LC: Well, like the Talmud says, there’s good wine in every generation. We have a particular feeling for the music of our own generation and usually the songs we courted to are the songs that stay with us all our life as being the heavy ones. The singers of my own period, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Ray Charles, all those singers have crossed over the generations. But we have a special kind of feeling for the singers that we use to make love to.

Update: Leonard Cohen On Joni Mitchell33

She existed as a presence for most people who met her. For me, it was her physical beauty that touched me more than her music. The two are connected, but as a young man in the midst of the hormonal avalanche, she was a radiant presence. The music was part of that, but from my perspective, it was just Athena with the heart. It was just the heart was part of the beauty. I didn’t feel competitive with Joni. I was on my own trip. I was a young man entranced by this radiant person. It was already current at that time that Joni was some kind of musical monster, that her gift somehow put her in another category from the other folksingers. There was a certain ferocity associated with her gift. She was like a storm. She was a beautiful young woman who had a remarkable talent. She was a great painter. I love her paintings. Her self-portraits are amazing. She turned several of her paintings into beautiful tapestries. She gave them to a weaver. She’s a great spirit. She is a formidable presence. I wasn’t vulnerable to her complications. Mostly, I saw her as a desirable woman, with whom I had a lot in common because of the musical connection.

More rarely, some authors see Cohen’s work as influenced by Mitchell, one going so far as to call his long labored over “Hallelujah” a “Mitchell-inspired moment of musical onomatopoeia.”34

Update: Was A Joni Mitchell Painting The Inspiration For Leonard Cohen’s Bird On The Wire?35

And Joni was convinced that “Bird on the Wire” was inspired by a painting she showed Cohen, an eccentric statement about not fitting in with her husband’s family. She thought Cohen would appreciate it.

I had this painting I did for the Mitchells. I was such a misfit in that family, and I did painting, which I showed to Leonard. In this painting, there are these sparrows sitting on a wire. It’s got a hot-pink background, and there are sparrows with peacock tails. There are all these fictitious birds. And there was one for each Mitchell, and one of them was hanging upside down. Guess who? I think that had some input on ‘Bird on the Wire.’ I showed it to Leonard. It was something I did on a Sunday about how I how I didn’t fit in. They were the first Yuppies that I met. They were pedigreed consumers. They all had the same education. They were brand-name people. A suit had to be Brooks Brothers. No, you don’t drink Canada Dry, you drink Vernors. Ice cream has to be Häagen-Dazs. Cars have to be a Chevy Corvair. Frank Lloyd Wright architecture and Danish modern furniture.They were so materialistic in such an unfamiliar way to me, and I didn’t know what the fuck they were talking about.

Joni Mitchell

Ongoing Contact

The end of their romance was not the end of their contact. Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell have frequently contacted and visited each other through the years, even when one or both were involved with new lovers.

Susan Gordon Lydon in an April 20, 1969 New York Times article, In Her House, Love, describes the home Joni Mitchell then shared with Graham Nash, the furnishings of which included a gift from Cohen,

Joni Mitchell lives in Laurel Canyon, in a small pine-paneled house lovingly cluttered with two cats, a stuffed elk’s head, stained glass windows, a grandfather clock given her by Leonard Cohen, a king’s head with a jeweled crown sticking out from the brick fireplace, votive candles, blooming azaleas, a turkey made of pine cones, dried flowers, old dolls Victorian shadow boxes, colored glass, an ornamental plate from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, where she grew up, an art nouveau lamp in the shape of a frog holding a lily pad, a collection of cloisonne boxes, bowls and ashtrays, patchwork quilts, Maxfield Parrish pictures, various musical instruments, and Joni Mitchell and Graham Nash. [emphasis mine]

Later in the same article, Mitchell notes Cohen’s influence on her:

… It’s more than mere coincidence that she [Joni Mitchell] and Leonard Cohen are both native Canadians. “We Canadians are a bit more nosegay, more Old-Fashioned Bouquet than Americans,” she said. “We’re poets because we’re such reminiscent kind of people. I love Leonard’s sentiments, so I’ve been strongly influenced by him.”

Over dinner with Cohen in Los Angeles in 1975, Mitchell remarked to another guest, “I’m only a groupie for Picasso and Leonard.”36

In December 1975, Joni Mitchell, then performing in Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, spent some time with Cohen when the tour played Montreal and he attended the concert. Happily, Larry (Ratso) Sloman, who was present at the concert and the dinner Cohen and Suzanne hosted for Suzanne, Sloman, and Roger McGuinn the day after the concert, recorded the episodes in his account of the Rolling Thunder Revue, “On The Road With Bob Dylan.”37 Highlights include Cohen greeting Mitchell backstage at the concert with “Joni, my little Joni” and Mitchell proclaiming the next night, “I’m a stone Cohenite.”

Mitchell relates this bittersweet event:

I went out to dinner with him [Cohen] one time. He was always hard to talk to. We were briefly romantically involved, but he was so distant, and so hard to communicate with. There wasn’t much relationship other than the boudoir. I thought there had to be more than that. So I asked a lot of questions of him, trying to get to the heart of it. I remember him saying, “Oh Joni, you ask such beautiful questions,” but he evaded the questions. We still became friends and he would stop to see me in Laurel Canyon from time to time. But years went by and I saw him less and less, and one night we went out to dinner and he hardly spoke to me. I felt uncomfortable. It felt unfriendly for the first time, and I said, “Do you like me?” And he said, “Well, what is there to say to an old lover?” I said, “Well, that’s kind of a shame. There should be many things.” He said, “Well, you like ideas.” And I said, “Well, you can hardly open your mouth without an idea popping out of it.” So after that, all he’d say to me [was] “Joni, they’ll never get us.” That’s all he’d ever say, “Joni, they’ll never get us.”38

Cohen and Mitchell (and Malka Marom) seem to coalesce around spiritual movements and leaders:

J: I remember riding down Sunset with Leonard on the way to a restaurant that was some kind of Indian religion or fellowship, with white women in saris. We passed a building, a little shack that had a hand-painted sign that said “Scientology,” and I said to Leonard, “What’s Scientology?” and he said it was some crackpot religion. He later joined Scientology in New York, then found it kind of scary and got out. He eventually took up with a monk at Mount Baldy, a Japanese Zen roshi. There came another time that we went, Leonard and I, to see the great Karmapa, who was the head of Chögyam Trungpa’s lineage. He was visiting L.A. and he was in the home of a Hollywood movie star, with a podium, kind of, built up for him. Leonard had gone on behalf of his roshi. I had gone along with him. Well, there was a receiving line, and as we approached Karmapa in this line, there were a couple of American monks on either side and I saw the monk recognize me and whisper something in his ear. Then when my turn came in, he invited me, “Oh, come and see us at the palace.” And I thought, “Oh, the world’s an Italian restaurant.” Like, everyone sucks up to a celebrity. I did some drawings of Leonard’s teacher, Roshi, for a cookie drive; they were printed in a Zen magazine called Zero. So I had a little bit of contact with Roshi. He was a jolly little guy. He liked to drink and he liked to smoke and he liked to giggle, all things that I’m fond of — not so much the drinking, but smoking and giggling are up my alley. So I did spend a little bit of time in his company and Leonard’s. This was in the early ’70s when I was staying with David Geffen. I’m gonna tell you a couple of stories. One New Year’s Eve, I was supposed to meet Leonard and Suzanne at the club On the Rocks, and I was at a New Year’s party at Ringo Starr’s. When I was leaving to get to On the Rocks for midnight, it was about eleven thirty, into the room came Mae West and two wrestlers — kind of like a Gorgeous George, a bleached blond bodybuilder on each arm. [She was] wearing a pink negligee with marabou feathers, and in her eighties still looking recognizably Mae West. She swaggered in and I couldn’t leave. I sat down and talked with her and I remember the dialogue between us was pretty funny. Anyway, midnight hit. There was all of the hurrah of that. And I went over to On the Rocks. In the meantime, Leonard had left. So I called with my apologies and we planned to get together the following night. And I remember we were sitting on the floor and suddenly Leonard said to Roshi, “Roshi, how do you get rid of …” envy or jealousy, I can’t remember. Roshi was distracted and just kind of giggled and ignored him. So I said, “Easy,” because I have anger problems, but I don’t have envy problems. “Easy,” I said, and my cigarettes were sitting on the table. So I picked them up and I said, “You just give it up, like smoking.” I dropped the pack of cigarettes on the table, like I gave it up and then I made this bawdy English joke about desperately needing another cigarette. Leonard just looked at me like I was from Mars. It was never quite the same between us after that, and I don’t know if it was that, that I answered a question which was meant for Roshi. Or … there was another thing. Roshi served me a cup of tea, and I received the tea on the palm of my left hand, I kind of guarded it, pulled it. And Leonard said, “How did you know how to do that?” “Do what?” “Well, you took it in the correct manner.” “That’s the way my father does it.” It’s just kind of practical. Nothing’s gonna spill if you do it that way and you draw it back towards you. There’s a grace to the movement. My father, I could remember him receiving a cup of tea in company like that, cautiously. Following that event, Roshi came up to me and I hugged him, because I enjoyed him. He was giggling and I was giggling. We were finding kind of the same things funny that night. I hugged him. He was a little tiny man, in his seventies at that point. Next day I get a call from Leonard and he says, “Roshi wants to move in with you.” I said, “Great. I’ve got a spare room. He’s welcome to stay here.” Because I know he’s gonna be up at Mount Baldy most of the time. He was married at that time to a young Japanese girl who was a math, kind of, wizard. I didn’t know much about Buddhism and monks at that time. “He’s welcome to stay here.” So they came over and, at the time, I was dating a very handsome actor, and so he was here also. I was entertaining them in the living room, but I treated Roshi like an elder monk, with more respect than the younger men. Suddenly, Roshi jumped up and he said, “C’mon, Cohen, Roshi lonely. Let’s go.” I realized, oh my God, I didn’t know that he had some kind of romantic designs on me, which I never would have guessed. And I was kind of horrified, coming from a Christian backwoods, like, “Oh, you monk, you’re not supposed to be human.”

M: Something like that happened to me also, with Roshi, I mean. Also in the ’70s, while I was on a shoot in Montreal, I get an invitation from Leonard to come to his house for dinner. So I walk in and I see this amazing-looking elder, almost like a halo around him, sitting cross-legged on a chair by the table. And I said to Leonard, “Who is this luminous elder?” “That’s my teacher. I call him Roshi,” Leonard said. So I turn to Roshi and start talking to him. Like, “Pleased to meet you, how fortunate you are to have Leonard for a student …” Leonard interrupted with that grin of his that I love, “Roshi doesn’t understand a word of English.” “Wow, is he ever radiant, Leonard, what a glow about him …” “Yeah, but you know, he can’t get it up. Would you get it up for him?” Leonard said, joking or teaching some illuminating Buddhist lesson? I couldn’t tell. It certainly illuminated to me that under my sort of bohemian, debonair, woman of- the-world spirit is the daughter of my father: a religious observant Jew, who, though a bit shocked and very embarrassed, reverted to the Jewish traditional way of learning: answering a question with a question. “Why would you follow a teacher who can’t get it up?” “For the balance,” Leonard replied, barely able to keep a straight face. “I have one teacher who can’t get it up and one teacher who can’t get it down.”

J: Oh! That’s why Leonard said, “One of my teachers can’t get it up. One can’t get it down.” Irving Layton …39

It turns out that Mitchell attended a Leonard Cohen concert sometime just before a 2012 interview. Characteristically, Mitchell manages to register both her approbation for the show and the distinction between Cohen’s and her approach to performing:

M: How wonderful it would be if you went on tour, like Leonard Cohen is these days. You saw his concert in Toronto, and you liked it.

J: Yeah, I thought it was the best I ever saw of him. I thought it was the best band he ever had, best orchestra, the best arrangements plus the repertoire — across the board, good collection of songs. M: I thought he was amazing, especially if you consider how frail he feels in your arms when you hug him. J: Yeah, he’s very frail. Very delicate. Like my dad was at the end.

M: And yet on the stage. To see him bending and almost dancing. I thought he was really wonderful. He seemed to derive a lot of energy from the audience, from their love for him and his work. Are you tempted to go on the road?

J: No. I just was never addicted to applause or honorariums. The measure for me was the art itself. Leonard’s such a seducer he could probably believe that that many people could be in love with him. [laughs] I can’t. I don’t trust mass adoration. It doesn’t feed me. I see it as a potential dragon. I’m not that addicted to applause that I want to manipulate the monkey to roar for me. I wouldn’t get a thrill out of that, or try for a sense of victory. It wouldn’t work for me. I’d rather that they forget to applaud. That they’re so stunned, they’re tranced in. That would be more exciting to me than the biggest applause of the night. Then I feel that I’ve accomplished something. I’m really not a performing animal. I don’t have that need. I prefer the creation of the song. I like the collaborations, the camaraderie of players, and small clubs. I did small clubs when there was no hype around you back then, and when I packed a club of 300, 400 people, that was very exciting. I’d grin from ear to ear. I couldn’t believe it that people were standing at the back … I loved it when it was small, little clubs. I never liked the big stage,40


Being reminded that most songs dealing with relationships are written about real relationships rather than abstractions is useful. Cohen himself as pointed out

It is not just the observance and the documentation and the record of a few museum songs. After all I wrote these songs to myself and to women several years ago and it is a curious thing to be trapped in that original effort, because here I wanted to tell one person one thing and now I am in the situation where I must repeat them like some parrot chained to his stand, night after night.41

Knowing about the origins and referents of a song may make it more meaningful. The realization that the model for a holy man On the FM radio is Leonard Cohen, for example, enhances these lyrics for me.

Addendum (14 April 2008)

1. I only recently found this brief excerpt from As a New Generation Discovers Leonard Cohen’s Dark Humour Kris Kirk Ruffles the Great Man’s Back Pages by Kris Kirk (Poetry Commotion, June 18, 1988), and it’s just too good not to include here, however belatedly. For reference, Cohen is 53 at the time of the interview.

[Interviewer] Another lover was the goddess Joni Mitchell.

[Cohen] “I’m still very friendly with Joni – I had dinner with her before the tour, and I have the same admiration for her as you do. But I think it was Noel Harrison who came up to me in the LA Troubadour and said ‘How d’you like living with Beethoven?'”

2. It is worth noting that on Herbie Handcock’s River: The Joni Letters, the 2007 Album of the Year, Leonard Cohen is a featured artist, reciting the poetic lyrics to “The Jungle Line.”

3. Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen both wrote songs called “Winter Lady.” Quelle coincidence, eh?

Credit Due Department: Photo of Leonard Cohen atop this post from York University Libraries, Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections, Toronto Telegram fonds, F0433, Photographer: John Sharp, ASC01709.


  1. The original post began with this rambling explanation of its evolution:

    I’ve been busily over-analyzing Leonard Cohen’s Take This Waltz intermittently over the past few weeks, amassing enough data bits to put Heck Of A Guy readers at risk for one of my elaborate posts with the length and detail of those New Yorker non-fiction feature articles on water filtration technologies in Saudi Arabia but without the cachet. I have also manufactured a bucketful of fascinating, insight-laden hypotheses, all of which are mutually exclusive. Consequently, the Take This Waltz post, until it matures into coherency, remains a coming attraction.

    From Lorca, it’s – oh, let’s call it a leap, a hop, two skips, and an Olympics-level jump to Joni Mitchell, a connection I’ll explain in a moment. In any case, I have accumulated a few dollops of information about the relationship between Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen that has no significant association with Take This Waltz.

    Then, this morning I found that Mimus Pauly at Mockingbird’s Medley had written that [Joni] Mitchell is [Leonard] Cohen’s female equivalent, going on to note that “not only do they write wonderful songs, they engage in other forms of art as well. Cohen writes poetry and likes to draw. Mitchell likes to paint.”

    And that, at least when I began this peregrination, seemed a good enough excuse to unload my Joni and Leonard tidbits (waste not, want not) into a casual Saturday post. []

  2. Will You Take Me As I Am: Joni Mitchell’s Blue Period by Michelle Mercer. Free Press; 1st Edition, April 7, 2009 []
  3. Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon–And the Journey of a Generation by Sheila Weller. Atria: April 8, 2008 []
  4. According to Sweet Judy Blue Eyes – My Life In Music by Judy Collins (Crown Archetype, October 18, 2011), Judy Collins was introduced to Joni Mitchell by Al Kooper and to Leonard Cohen by his manager, Mary Martin. For more about those first meetings, see Stranger Song, Indeed – Leonard Cohen, Judy Collins, Joni Mitchell, & The Man On An Acid Trip. []
  5. Will You Take Me As I Am: Joni Mitchell’s Blue Period by Michelle Mercer. Free Press; 1st Edition, April 7, 2009 []
  6. Joni Mitchell In Her Own Words by Malka Marom. ECW Press: September 9, 2014 []
  7. According to Trips – Rock Life in the Sixties by Ellen Sander (Charles Scribner’s Sons-New York: 1973), “[David] Crosby had never really gotten over Joni Mitchell, who had jilted him for Leonard Cohen, who had jilted her.” []
  8. It was also where Cohen’s mother lived and, indeed, it was on one of these Montreal trips that Mitchell was taken to Cohen’s mother’s home which was later featured in Mitchell’s song “Rainy Night House.” []
  9. The complete lyrics to “Rainy Night House” can be found at http://jonimitchell.com/music/lyricsprint.cfm?id=4 []
  10. Joni Mitchell In Her Own Words by Malka Marom. ECW Press: September 9, 2014 []
  11. Joni Mitchell In Her Own Words by Malka Marom. ECW Press: September 9, 2014 []
  12. Mitchell directly confirms that “Leonard is an influence on that song [The Gallery]” in Joni Mitchell In Her Own Words by Malka Marom. ECW Press: September 9, 2014 []
  13. Sweet Judy Blue Eyes – My Life In Music by Judy Collins. Crown Archetype, October 18, 2011 []
  14. I’ll leave it to the reader to determine (1) why a sentence about Joni and Leonard meeting and beginning a love affair is followed immediately in the same paragraph with the non sequitur, “Still, everyone was a little off-center,” and then by a scene portraying the narrator in bed with and (asexually) comforting a man coming down from an acid trip while Leonard sings a song while “[without] paying any attention at all to what was happening on the bed” and (2) how Judy Collins feels about Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell. []
  15. The complete lyrics of “That Song About The Midway” can be found at http://jonimitchell.com/music/song.cfm?id=34 []
  16. The complete lyrics of “The Gallery” can be found at http://jonimitchell.com/music/song.cfm?id=44 []
  17. Joni Mitchell In Her Own Words by Malka Marom. ECW Press: September 9, 2014 []
  18. The complete lyrics of “A Case Of You” can be found at http://jonimitchell.com/music/song.cfm?id=181 []
  19. Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon–And the Journey of a Generation by Sheila Weller. Atria: April 8, 2008. P 314 []
  20. From Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell by David Yaffe. Sarah Crichton Books (October 17, 2017).) []
  21. This was a popular quotation. A similar quote, “I think I’m rather Cohen-influenced. I wrote a song called ‘Marcie,’ which I don’t think would have happened if it hadn’t been for ‘Suzanne'” is also attributed to Mitchell by Michelle Mercer in Will You Take Me As I Am: Joni Mitchell’s Blue Period, Free Press; 1st Edition, April 7, 2009. It appeared again in Ian Mann’s September 2, 1970 ZigZag piece, Joni Mitchel, “Of Leonard Cohen: I think I’m Cohen influenced. I wrote ‘Marcie’ and thought that it wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been for ‘Suzanne,’ which is another character sketch song. []
  22. Joni Mitchell In Her Own Words by Malka Marom. ECW Press: September 9, 2014 []
  23. Will You Take Me As I Am: Joni Mitchell’s Blue Period by Michelle Mercer. Free Press; 1st Edition, April 7, 2009 []
  24. Joni Mitchell In Her Own Words by Malka Marom. ECW Press: September 9, 2014 []
  25. Joni Mitchell In Her Own Words by Malka Marom. ECW Press: September 9, 2014 []
  26. Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon–And the Journey of a Generation by Sheila Weller. Atria: April 8, 2008. Pp 241-242 []
  27. Various Positions: A Life of Leonard Cohen by Ira B. Nadel. Pantheon; 1st edition (October 8, 1996) Pp 156-157 []
  28. Ibid []
  29. Will You Take Me As I Am: Joni Mitchell’s Blue Period by Michelle Mercer. Free Press; 1st Edition, April 7, 2009 []
  30. This quotation was the connection that took me from Lorca to Joni Mitchell []
  31. Joni Mitchell In Her Own Words by Malka Marom. ECW Press: September 9, 2014 []
  32. Joni Mitchell In Her Own Words by Malka Marom. ECW Press: September 9, 2014 []
  33. From Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell by David Yaffe. Sarah Crichton Books (October 17, 2017). []
  34. Will You Take Me As I Am: Joni Mitchell’s Blue Period by Michelle Mercer. Free Press; 1st Edition, April 7, 2009 []
  35. From Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell by David Yaffe. Sarah Crichton Books (October 17, 2017). []
  36. I’m Your Man by Sylvie Simmons. Ecco: 2012 []
  37. “On The Road With Bob Dylan” by Larrry Sloman was first published in 1978 with a revised edition released August 27, 2002. []
  38. Joni Mitchell In Her Own Words by Malka Marom. ECW Press: September 9, 2014 []
  39. Joni Mitchell In Her Own Words by Malka Marom. ECW Press: September 9, 2014 []
  40. Joni Mitchell In Her Own Words by Malka Marom. ECW Press: September 9, 2014 []
  41. Leonard Cohen, “Bird On A Wire,” Motion Picture, 1974: quoted at Diamonds In The Lines []

5 thoughts on “Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell – Just One Of Those Things

  1. Thanks for this fascinating compendium.

    Leonard repeatedly said that Joni had pinched one of his lines. Which offended her because she said she thought you could only plagiarse from books.

    Do you have any idea which line or song he might have been referring to?

  2. good job, you meld the two into an understanding of both whom i never really considered that close, wrong again! never knew
    joni was entranced with leonard but it makes so much sense that she would revere someone with his religiosity of song, because maybe that was what they had in common, and he was already an adept while she was just launching. but then she discovers he’s not above purloining the goods from other adepts hey, like mr. dylan, another adept purloiner (whom could not resist nicking a good part of his nobel acceptance speech, whilst sending patti smith to accept it) ..well, i really liked yr juxtapositions in their own words, leaves out the need for crass speculation or subjective interpretation, delivering the often paradoxical sentiments from the horses’ mouths!, …. this is where the academic biographers all collapse, they can’t do what you have done here, there’s tangible transmission of the fabric of their character, of these rather larger-than-life personalities, which is the meat of the matter so often lost in the trappings of fame, wealth, and persona, who are these people?…like joni says, she was never that into applause….i can dig it, but certainly not what most musicians are made of, but then again it’s the writing of words w/music, which separates the wheat from the chaff, most musicians are not writers, and most writers are not musicians, it’s those very few whom can straddle the opposites, it’s an alchemical talent…

  3. Allan, thank you for sharing this blog post with Joni Mitchell lovers. I’m in my 60’s so her music filled my life with her magical voice, poetic lyrics and unique music. Listening to her perform in her 20-50’s is like being near some huge gravity pulling me in irresistibly. But that experience doesn’t illuminate who she was and what it was like to be with her in conversation. SO your work is really filling a “need” of sorts. All my best! Michael

Leave a Reply