Song of the Day, January 14: Leonard Cohen’s Bird on the Wire

CohenBirdToday’s song is Leonard Cohen’s personal touchstone, the magnificent Bird On the Wire. He began writing the song while living in Greece in the mid-60s, inspired by his girlfriend, Marianne, to compose as a way out of his depression. He refined it in California just before recording it and has noted that it is a permanent work in progress.

I always begin my concert with this song. It seems to return me to my duties. It was begun in Greece and finished in a motel in Hollywood around 1969 along with everything else. Some lines were changed in Oregon. I can’t seem to get it perfect.

Cohen included it on his 1969 album Songs From A Room and it is considered one of his signature songs. Kris Kristofferson has famously said he will have the opening lines included on his tombstone (and Cohen has noted that he will be hurt if it doesn’t happen).

Like a bird on the wire,
Like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free.

A song of rugged determination, it has been covered dozens of times over the years, by artists ranging from Kristofferson’s ex-wife, Rita Coolidge to k.d. lang, from Joe Cocker to Tony Carey.

FapCoBirdMy favorite interpretation was recorded by Fairport Convention. As they emerged from their California-inspired light folk phase and entered their creative peak in the late 60s, the band included a number of inspired covers in their live shows, including songs by Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen. A version of Bird On the Wire was recorded on December 2, 1968 in BBC Studio 2 for the Stuart Henry Show. Bassist Ashley Hutchings included the track on a cassette of BBC covers that the band sold at shows, eventually released in 1987 as the great snapshot album Heyday. Sandy Denny and Ian Matthews work their vocal magic with the song, creating a stunning rendition.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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