Suzanne

In discussing Nina Simone’s reading of Leonard Cohen’s song ‘Suzanne’, it is worth briefly situating the artist within a trio of female performers whose work around the late 1960s and early 1970s provides some fascinating parallels and overlaps. The trio comprises Simone herself, Judy Collins and Roberta Flack. All three had shared roots in classical music. Simone was a child prodigy at the piano and received many years of training that was intended (at least by her and those closest to her) to lead to a career as a classical pianist. For reasons that remained traumatic for her, she was not able to follow this path but she nonetheless made an ultimately successful diversion to popular music and attached herself to a cause that offered to fight against the reasons for her expulsion from the classical music world. Judy Collins (b. 1939) had a similar background in classical piano, training that, due to her race and social status, she was in a better position than Simone to pursue. Nevertheless, she experienced a politicization at a fairly young age that brought about a conversion to folk music, to which she diverted her talents wholeheartedly. Arriving in Greenwich Village in 1961, she became part of the folk crowd active there. Roberta Flack (b. 1939) was, like Simone, a youthful black piano prodigy who went into popular music following a certain amount of formal classical training. All three artists performed a combination of material made up of their own songs and those of others, with the greater proportion being taken up by cover versions. All three had eclectic tastes and covered a wide array of musical styles, including folk, art song, jazz, country, blues, soul, rock and pop. Although the amount of material included in these artists’ shared repertoire is small (especially between Collins and Flack) in proportion to their large individual catalogues, it represents an interesting “moment” in popular music history.

Of the three, it tends to be Collins’s versions of the songs that maintain the closest lyrical fidelity to the source material. This is perhaps not surprising given the fact that she tends to be the first to record the songs. But it is also noticeable in her late reading of ‘Just like a Woman’, which follows Bob Dylan’s words exactly and avoids the lyrical improvisations, or permanent alterations, that Simone, Flack and numerous others have added in the intervening years. However, Collins does provide a number of innovations in the music that accompanies her versions. This was a notable development in the album that contained her version of ‘Suzanne’. In My Life (1966) marked a distinct move from the folk music of her previous five studio albums towards more of an art song approach. This was achieved partly by the inclusion of material such as Richard Peaslee’s ‘Marat/Sade’ and Brecht/Weill’s ‘Pirate Jenny’ (recorded by Nina Simone in 1964), Randy Newman’s ‘I Think It’s Going to Rain Today’ (recorded by Simone in 1969), Cohen’s ‘Suzanne’ and ‘Dress Rehearsal Rag’, and an unusual setting of Bob Dylan’s ‘Just like Tom Thumb’s Blues’ (recorded by Simone in 1969), providing links to music for the theatre and film and to erudite poetry. In addition to this the instrumental backing to the numbers was quite different from that of the folk styles of Collins’s earlier career: her version of Richard Farina’s ‘Hard Lovin’ Loser’ combined harpsichord with electric blues-rock, for example, while flutes, strings and piano were prominent features of other tracks.

Collins provides a faithful version of ‘Suzanne’, enunciating the lyric clearly over a descending acoustic guitar figure similar to the one Cohen himself would use in his recording of 1968.  Taking its place on In My Life between ‘Pirate Jenny’ and Jacques Brel’s ‘La Colombe’, ‘Suzanne’ is an effective slice of erudite song and a notable debut for Cohen’s songwriting skills. It established a performance style – sombre, reflective, slightly monotonous – that would remain fairly constant in numerous future versions of the song. Because the song is “wordy” and yet subtle (there is a constant shifting of personal pronouns that ensures we are never sure who is singing or to whom) there is a tendency in most renditions not to elaborate on the melody or harmony in order to show fidelity to the material. This has often led to a situation in which, paradoxically, in attempting to master the song, singers have often fallen subject to it.

This subjection is evident to a certain extent in a take of the song recorded by Nina Simone in 1969 but rejected in favour of the (presumably later) version used on To Love Somebody.  The unreleased version features Simone on piano, marking a different approach to the song than that so far attempted by other singers. As the track progresses, however, Al Shackman’s electric guitar gradually dominates and Simone does not sound in complete control of the lyric, with its confusing distribution of personal pronouns. The released version is strikingly different, dominated by Simone’s memorable piano arpeggios, a truly innovative addition to the instrumentation of this hitherto exemplary bedsit troubadour anthem.  There is a much brighter tempo and the track seems to make reference to its own recording, sounding like the layered studio construct it no doubt is. In the unreleased version, Simone sounds as if the song is controlling her; here, she has taken complete control. The repetition of certain words, the stretching of notes and use of melisma (the two syllable “mi-ind” from 1:22 to 1:26) all take the song away from its literal meaning. Added interjections (the “yeah” immediately following “mi-ind” at 1:27) suggest that Simone knows she has initiated an irresistible groove and can now add whatever she wishes to it, continue or cease it at whim.

Roberta Flack’s version of ‘Suzanne’ is nearly ten minutes and closes her album Killing Me Softly (1973); at the time this accounted for around a quarter of an album.  Appropriately perhaps, given the album it appears on, there is a softness to Flack’s version. A constant cymbal ride in the background promises an escalation of the beat that never actually occurs, while a sporadically deployed electric bass marks time rather than developing a rhythm. Only the opening and close of the song seem to suggest freedom. A long introduction on piano provides no clues to the (by this time very familiar) song to come. After the last refrain has been sung, the piano springs to life and the drums follow suit. Strings enter, bringing a sense of soaring drama that had hitherto been absent. Flack improvises wordless vocals, exploring with her voice as the strings waver like sirens. But, seemingly unaware of this promise of freedom, Flack ultimately circles back to the start of the song: “Suzanne takes you down to a place by the river”. But it seems as though it is she who has been taken down, imprisoned by the song and unable to escape to the giddy heights discovered by Simone.

The groove that Simone found for the album version of ‘Suzanne’ can be witnessed in a different form in this mesmerising performance from Rome in 1969. Here, Simone foregoes the piano accompaniment for most of the song (save for a few brief, Monk-sharp stabs), opting for a standing performance that allows her to sway and dance to the rhythm maintained by her band. That rhythm is set up by the strummed acoustic guitar and the percussion and underlined by Simone’s body movements and claps. The singer throws unexpected shapes in the middle of lines by swooping down or up with her voice (“takes you down” and “you know she’s half crazy” respectively in the first verse) and changing the rhythm of the words (“you know you wanna travel with him” at the end of each verse). Placing emphasis on rhythm and groove rather than slavish attention to melody and metre allows Simone to take occasional breaks from Cohen’s lyric to dance, pause and reflect; each time she comes back seamlessly into the song’s narrative. Perhaps there’s still a sense of imprisonment – of being locked into a groove that could prove endless – but Simone manages to show the posssessive dialectic that marked her finest performances, the sense of owning and being owned, of leaving her witnesses unsure who or what was in control until, pin-sharp and perfectly poised, she brings the song to its calm resolution.

2 Responses to “Suzanne”

  1. […] to what her hands were doing, as, for example, on her rendition of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Suzanne‘, where the voice seems to be operating in a different time zone to her piano accompaniment […]

  2. […] brilliance similar to her version of ‘Suzanne‘ can be found in Simone’s reading of ‘My Way’, a song associated with Frank […]

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