Suzanne Takes You Down

One of the most beautiful songs to come out of the Sixties was Suzanne, by Leonard Cohen. It has softened many a warm night among my friends as we sat cross-legged and luxuriating in billows of sandalwood, mellow guitars, grass, and jugs of red wine. In our circle, it was Dee's song: she always performed it and I added the harmony on the chorus. I don't know why, but I never thought to find out who this Suzanne was, so yesterday I started digging around. She wasn't hard to find, and her story is as fascinating as the song...

 Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river
You can hear the boats go by
You can spend the night beside her

And you know that she's half crazy

But that's why you want to be there

And she feeds you tea and oranges

That come all the way from China

And just when you mean to tell her

That you have no love to give her

Then she gets you on her wavelength

And she lets the river answer

That you've always been her lover

And you want to travel with her

And you want to travel blind

And you know that she will trust you

For you've touched her perfect body with your mind.

And Jesus was a sailor

When he walked upon the water

And he spent a long time watching

From his lonely wooden tower

And when he knew for certain

Only drowning men could see him

He said "All men will be sailors then

Until the sea shall free them"

But he himself was broken

Long before the sky would open

Forsaken, almost human

He sank beneath your wisdom like a stone

And you want to travel with him

And you want to travel blind

And you think maybe you'll trust him

For he's touched your perfect body with his mind.

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 harbour

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.

Suzanne Verdal, a young and beautiful, bohemian dancer who had just graduated from high school, moved in the Beat world of Montreal in the early Sixties, where she met and married sculptor Armand Vaillancourt. As the decade progressed, they became part of the Montreal arts scene of which the still unknown Cohen also was a part. The two met at Le Bistro, a coffee house on rue de la Montagne. Actually, Suzanne remembers that their first meeting was at Le Vieux Moulin four years earlier, but no connection was made between them. She was, after all, the wife of one of his friends.
"There was a woman named Suzanne," Cohen remembers, "who was the wife of a friend of mine, Armand Vaillancourt, who is a great Montreal sculptor, still a friend of mine, and his wife was Suzanne Vaillancourt. She invited me down to her place near the river, and she did serve me constant tea (Constant Comment) filled with little pieces of orange."
When Suzanne and her husband separated, she and their young daughter Julie moved into a place with crooked floors, on Rue de la Commune on the waterfront in Old Montreal. It's now a boutique hotel, Auberge de la Place Royale. Cohen heard about it and began visiting her, and they sat up late into night talking in candlelight about poetry, religion, and life.
"It was a very private thing that I felt like I had with Leonard," Suzanne recalls. "It was kind of like a very 'sympathical' wavelength thing - that we would read each other's minds. We were very in tune with each other."
One of the questions that always arises around this song is, were they lovers? Both maintain that they were not, that they didn't want to compromise the intellectual and spiritual purity of their friendship with sex. As someone who has known a friendship or two like that, I believe them.
"It's not just the copulation," Cohen said. "It is the whole understanding that we are irresistibly attracted to one another, and we have to deal with this. We are irresistibly lonely for each other, and we have to deal with this, and we have to deal with our bodies and with our hearts and souls and minds, and it's an urgent appetite."
"I was the one that put the boundaries on that," Suzanne said, "because Leonard is actually a very sexual man and very attractive and very charismatic. And I was very attracted to him, but somehow I didn't want to spoil that preciousness, that infinite respect that I had for him, for our relationship, and I felt that a sexual encounter might demean it somehow."
Suzanne was initially a poem, but people kept telling Cohen to make a song of it. Who knew that song would become his signature piece, and a monumental work of art? Soon after, everyone, it seems, began covering the song and Suzanne, the person, took on the mythology of the Muse whether she wanted to or not. By the time the song became a hit under the cover by Judy Collins, the muse and the poet were no longer in contact with each other. Fame took Cohen from Montreal and Suzanne worked at building her career as a respected dancer and choreographer. Eventually, she went to San Francisco and Los Angeles, where she worked to become a choreographer for music videos.

Tragedy struck when she suffered a catastrophic injury (some reports say it was a fall from a ladder onto concrete and some say it was an auto accident) that broke her back and both wrists. Her dancing career over, she was homeless for a number of years during the 90s in Venice Beach, California, living in a wood-shingled pickup camper with four homeless cats and dancing with a drum circle on the beach on Sundays.

Suzanne, now in her late 50s, was last reported to be making a new life in Santa Cruz as a massage therapist. She is no longer homeless, and has plenty of bohemian friends who love her.
"Suzanne is one of these rare souls who is actually sincere and cares about life and people and sees the world in terms of beauty," says her friend Raj. "A lot of people say that, but she's one of these people who actually lives it."
Dance on, Suzanne!