Famous Blue Raincoat
Influences on Leonard Cohen
Influenced by Leonard CohenCohen's influences are diverse and often as literary as they are musical. In an interview in 1994, he said that if you consider yourself a minor poet operating in a tradition then "you're not just talking about Randy Newman, who's fine, or Bob Dylan, who's sublime, you're talking about King David, Homer, Dante, Milton, Wordsworth, you're talking about the embodiment of our higher possibility." When Cohen was young, he loved Whitman, Yeats, and Henry Miller (Music of our Times: Eight Canadian singer-Songwriters, Marco Adria). The poet he most idolizes, however, is Frederica Garcia Lorca, after whom he named his daughter, Lorca.
Though Cohen may reach for the stars in terms of influence, he's famously modest and in the same 1994 interview he goes on to claim that his work could never match the sublime nature of a song like "Your Cheatin' Heart" by Hank Williams. He actually has a line in one of his songs that says Hank Williams is "a hundred floors above me in the tower of song."
Cohen can afford to be modest. His reputation was enormous amongst influential circles in the 1960s. Allen Ginsberg noted that Cohen was one of the few people not blown away by Bob Dylan's lyrics because he already had such a solid foundation in literature and poetry. Dylan himself said that Cohen's songs sounded like prayers, and Kris Kristofferson asked that the opening lines of "Bird on a Wire" be inscribed on his tombstone.
Today, Cohen's influence is wide-ranging. One of his early breaks came from meeting the famous folk singer Judy Collins, who recorded his song "Suzanne" after he sung it to her over the phone. She also recorded a version of "Famous Blue Raincoat" in 1971, and has since made an entire tribute album to Cohen.
Other tribute albums and covers have been done by Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, REM, Sting, Bono, and Tori Amos. Nick Cave and Suzanne Vega have both cited Cohen as an important influence on their respective careers, and Nirvana's song Pennyroyal Tea has a famous line in which Kurt Cobain wails, "Give me Leonard Cohen afterworld / So I can sigh eternally." The young singer Rufus Wainwright has said, "I really believe he's the greatest living poet on earth."