Contrary to popular belief, the song "Suzanne", one of Leonard Cohen's best-known songs, takes its title from the name of Suzanne Vaillancourt, the wife of a friend, and not from the name of his own wife.
And though, as Cohen says, "The song was begun [in 1966], and the chord and picking pattern were developed before a woman's name entered the song. I knew it was a song about Montreal : it seemed to come out of that landscape that I loved very much in Montreal, which was the harbour, and the waterfront, and the sailors' church there, called Notre Dame de Bon Secour, which stood out over the river, and I knew that there're ships going by, I knew that there was a harbour, I knew that there was Our Lady of the Harbour, which was the virgin on the church which stretched out her arms towards the seamen, and you can climb up to the tower and look out over the river, so the song came from that vision, from that view of the river. I knew there was a song there".
A woman only fit in the picture after that. Cohen : "At a certain point, I bumped into Suzanne Vaillancourt, who was the wife of a friend of mine, they were a stunning couple around Montreal at the time. There was no... well, there was thought, but there was no possibility, one would not allow oneself to think of toiling at the seduction of Armand Vaillancourt's wife. He was a friend. I bumped into her one evening, and she invited me down to her place near the river. She had a loft, at a time when lofts were... the word wasn't used. She had a space in a warehouse down there, and she invited me down, and I went with her, and she served me Constant Comment tea, which has little bits of oranges in it. And the boats were going by, and I touched her perfect body with my mind, because there was no other opportunity. There was no other way that you could touch her perfect body under those circumstances. So she provided the name in the song".
Cohen worked months and months on the song for matters of intensity. Cohen : "I was still able to juggle stuff: a life, a woman, a dream, other ambitions, other tangents. At a certain point I realized I only had one ball in my hand, and that was The Song".
Before "Suzanne" was released under Cohen's own name, Judy Collins recorded her poignant version of the song that introduced it to the world. Cohen met the folk singer and later sang "Suzanne" down the phone to her and she immediately promised to record it, which she did (124 covers of the song have since been listed). Cohen : "The publishing rights were taken away from me but it is probably appropriate that I don't own this song. I have heard some people singing it on a ship in the Caspian Sea."
About Cohen's relationship with John Simon (producer of the album "Songs Of Leonard Cohen") : "We had a falling out over the song Suzanne. He wanted a heavy piano syncopated and maybe drums and I didn't want drums on any of my songs, so that was a bone of contention. Also, he was ready to substitute this heavy chordal structure under the song to give it forward movement and I didn't like that".
And as for Suzanne ? The young woman is still alive. She was kind of pissed off at Cohen because she felt he should have cut her in on the profits, but Cohen lost the rights of the song anyway.
Available on the album "Songs of Leonard Cohen"