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Cover Story: (26) Joan of Arc. Leonard Cohen with and without Jennifer Warnes


June 2021 update:  there is no specific anniversary to justify reposting this item though it is half a century this year (inconveniently earlier this year) that Leonard Cohen's Joan of Arc was first released.  And we're far too soon, as in 10 years too soon, for the 600th anniversary of Joan of Arc being burned at the stake in Rouen.

But since I am delving into the extensive Salut! Live archive, cleaning up and republishing the content as I go along, I felt another urge to draw attention to by far my favourite performance of any Cohen song.

To warrant its inclusion in the Cover Story series I invited readers' comments on the respective merits of Cohen singing the song solo and Cohen singing it with Jennifer Warnes, and I was not disappointed with the response you see below. My own view? Without her delivering Joan's lines, I would have no lingering wish to hear it ...

Joan of Arc, the Maid of Orleans.

Is this the song, maybe one among many, that confounds my electronic (and previously slow-mail) friend Leon Rosselson, a master songsmith, and his stern view of Leonard Cohen?

Read the linked piece at your leisure but the key extract is this: "The range of [Cohen's] subject matter is remarkably small. In fact, his interests as expressed in his songs can be narrowed down to one: himself. He had no imagination. He was incapable of making up stories, of inventing characters which are the warp and weft of song."

Rosselson's case against Cohen may or may not be coloured by a sharply differing outlook on the Israel-Palestine conflict. His broader point is that poetry makes for poor music; he suggests Cohen viewed songwriting as a lesser art, to the extent of making do with half-rhymes and line endings that don't rhyme at all ...


731px-Leonard_Cohen _1988_01
Image by Gorupdebesanez


On the day I read news of Leonard Cohen's death, I was perched on a high stool in a music shop in Ealing, west London, picking out the notes of That's No Way So Say Goodbye on a Yamaha guitar which I then bought.

I like the song while acknowledging the fairness of Leon Rosselson's criticism of what he calls its "nonsensical similes" ("Your hair upon the pillow/Like a sleepy golden storm").

But there are plenty of other examples of Cohen's work, too many to list here, that I would say also answer Rosselson's complaint.

Which leads me to my Cohen song of choice. Joan of Arc, rightly a heroine of French history and wrongly treated by France's odious Front National as its own property, was burned at the stake on May 30 1431, not by the wicked English but by the French at the behest of the wicked English after a trial that was a mockery of justice even by 15th century standards.

A friend, Fiona Barton, a former colleague and now a successful author (The Widow is a gripping, well-written thriller) , tells an amusing story from her time working during a languages degree course as a helper at a French children's summer camp.

Colleagues made her stand up in front of all the young campers to apologise, in their language naturellement, for her countrymen having fait crémer Jeanne d'Arc. I am sure her efforts to undo harm done in the 100 Years' War (actually it was 116 but that figure isn't quite as eye-catching) worked wonders for Anglo-French relations.




Cohen's song has gripping solemnity, an insistent melody, powerful imagery and some compelling lines ...

She said, "I'm tired of the war,
Want the kind of work I had before"

    ... as well as what Rosselson might describe as sloppy rhyming, heart with Arc, dress with guests. It works for me. And if I had heard it sung only by Cohen alone, I might be satisfied with the essentially solo performance on his third album, dating from 1971.

    But since hearing the Famous Blue Raincoat tribute album by Jennifer Warnes when it was released in 1987, I have had time only for the sublime duet.

   Warnes, who was among Cohen's closest friends and performed with him on tour from the 1970s, is an accomplished singer and delivers the lines attributed to Joan with firmness and clarity, adding genuine vocal beauty to counter Cohen's gruff monotone.

   I turned for authoritative help to the Cohencentric: Leonard Cohen Considered website. There, Allan Showalter, a "devotedly irreverent" Cohen fan in Durham, North Carolina, writing as DrHGuy, considers the use of female voices for the purpose of "cushioning the imperfections" - a splendid phrase, though Showalter quotes it so may not be its originator - of the writer's own voice.

   Showalter refers to rigorous research by Tom Sakic ("ie listening to a staggering number of Leonard Cohen bootlegs") that revealed the first such “featured female vocalist” to have predated Warnes.

   He summarises Sakic's findings: "During the 1976 tour, backup singers Laura Branigan and Cheryl Barnes sang the Joan of Arc lines together, a role that in later years would be assigned to a single vocalist. Moreover, Sharon Robinson and Anjani Thomas, who were the sole backup singers in 1980 and 1985, respectively, and who were not listed in the original post, also sang the female part of the Joan of Arc duet."

   Many diehard Cohen admirers may prefer to hear their man undiluted by female company.

   As more of a Cohen dilettante, I am left musing that comparison of the two versions - without, for now, extending my own listening to Brannigan and the others - confirms my admittedly narrow-minded view that a long Cohen concert would perhaps not have been for me.



* Buy Famous Blue Raincoat at Salut! Live's Amazon link by clicking on this sentence
Leonard Cohen: Songs of Love and Hate can be bought here and contains both the song under brief discussion and Famous Blue Raincoat. Joan of Arc's chorus does have faint female accompaniment (Corlynn Hanney and Susan Mussmano, maybe) but this is unmistakeably Cohen solo.
And don't worry: the commission I earn from Amazon if you do make purchases using my links will not make me wealthy.



Who said lyrics/poetry had to be "sensical"? Your hair upon the pillow/Like a sleepy golden storm is a great line!


Great piece. Think Cohen was the first to admit his vocals could be a bit much on their own

Sue Nicholson

While I've been a fan of LC since the 60s, I prefer his later work with the big backings and other voices. His last series of concerts - I was privileged to go to three - were joyous affairs, the man himself bopping, getting down on his knees (and back up again, at almost 80!) and the backing singers sashaying alongside.

Mick Goulding

That’s no way to say goodbye has always been my favourite of his since the 60s and there’s nothing wrong with the lyrics. As Jake says, Sleepy golden storm is a great line and works regardless of whether you label it a simile or not.

It’s true that song lyrics and poetry aren’t the same thing, but that’s the point of calling one a song and one a poem. If you want a good example of rubbish poetry being turned into a good song, consider what Elton John has always done with the crap presented to him by Bernie Taupin.

Colin Randall

I think it is clear enough from the posting that I do not side with Rosselson on this (though I see his point on the line Jake and Mick admire). But it's an interesting discussion on more than one level, for example Sue and Phil agreeing with me that the Cohen vocals sometimes cried out for help, as in the form of Warnes.

Mick Goulding

His vocals are often poor, in an absolute sense. Being generous, you could call them "idiosyncratic"; and I say the same about Bob Dylan. But I accept that, if I like the song. The Joan of Arc song is good with Jennifer Waynes, and almost excruciating with LC on his own. Same goes for Famous Blue Raincoat from the same album.

I really like loads of his stuff from across his career. But there's a certain effect he generates on some songs which I have always characterised as "music to slit your wrists by".

Bill Taylor

"They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom
For trying to change the system from within
I'm coming now, I'm coming to reward them
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin..."
It takes a lot of chutzpah to rhyme "boredom" and "reward them" but First We Take Manhattan is is a great song and the mark of a great lyricist. I like Cohen's version better than Jennifer Warnes' but with Joan of Arc, as Mick says, Cohen's rendition is excruciating.
Let us also consider Closing Time - Cohen both at his performing and writing best. A wonderful song with some wonderful lines:
"I missed you since the place got wrecked
By the winds of change and the weeds of sex
looks like freedom but it feels like death
it's something in between, I guess ..."
Genius or facile? Something in between, I guess.


I just listen to Cohen's recordings and enjoy them! I'm certainly not qualified to dissect the reasoning or objectively criticise the voices employed, like the other, distinguished and learned, commentators. What I have gleaned and what I can say about his work is that it seems that he was preoccupied with sex (and not the only one!) and that listening to so many of his performances made/makes me cry. Of all the men I never met, I think that his work has inspired me to love him all the more. I'm so sad that I never had the opportunity to attend a live concert, something that my son accomplished in my stead at Glastonbury.
Leonard Cohen, greatly missed!

Sharyn Dimmick

Cohen's singing got better as he aged: he developed depth and resonance as well as a reverence for life. If you were near him (I ushered for him once in San Francisco) he was charismatic -- you could feel his energy from several feet away -- and he was always courteous. The album quoted above, Songs of Love and Hate, was the first Cohen album I bought -- and not the last. For me, the nylon-strung guitar and the vocal here are enough to carry the melody and the words. I sometimes write formal poetry (rhymes, meter and all the rest) and I am not jarred by Cohen's lines. That said, I love Jennifer Warnes as well -- Cohen often chose impeccable back-up singers. It is a mark of his humility, not often cited, that he chose to sing with them. Warnes' Famous Blue Raincoat is a lovely album: if I am not hearing Cohen himself I am happy to listen to Warnes' interpretations.

Frank Loreto

Via Facebook

Before my first Leonard Cohen concert in the 70s, I anticipated a gloom fest of dark songs. It was probably the best show I ever attended. Cohen was hilarious in his way and the music was sensational. I was never more pleased to have been wrong. Saw him every ten years after that. I saw him do Hallelujah in Winnipeg. The song was new then and the memory still gives me chills. (Sadly it's been done so often now, I can't stand it). A Cohen concert was one of a kind. We are poorer now sans Leonard.

Lou Kalka

Via Facebook

I was not really a fan the first time I saw him in concert about 15 years ago... what an amazing gig... saw him 2 or 3 more times, in my top 5 concerts ever ..

Nina Grand

Via Facebook where, at the Uncharted Jukebox group, I described the Cohen/Warnes duet as magical ....

Colin Randall ...Magical is definitely the right word for this. Have you heard If It Be Your Will, sung by The Webb Sisters? Another enchanted Leonard Cohen piece.

Colin randall

I must say Sharyn and the others who have risen in Cohen’s cause make me regret that in never saw him live. The last chance I had was in France and the cost of tickets was simply beyond what I was willing to pay.

Anyone who follows the link to the Rosselson piece will also see Sharyn’s measured, effective defence of Cohen’s songwriting generally

Mike Ritchie

Via Facebook

🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿 Saw him at Edinburgh Castle in the summer of 2008. Hugely atmospheric though it was a wet and windy evening - no surprise for us Scots. But he was marvellous as he delivered a magic set list with charm, warmth and no little showmanship. 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿

Jerry Robertson

Via Facebook

I was fortunate to see him at Princeton University in early ‘71. He had just released “Songs From A Room.” Way back then, a mesmerizing performer.

Patrick O’Gara

Good Cohen line: '' I ache in the places where I used ro play.''

Lori Rhea

I saw L. Cohen when I was young in NYC, at a place in the village, which may have been The Bitter End-- not sure. It cost us about $20 and we sat right up front. I recall the "sisters of mercy" sang with him. Right before be died, he played in CA, and the tickets were expensive, so I chose not to go. I wish I had.

Kendall C Acques

I regret never seeing him.

Vicki Solomon

I went to his farewell concert at the Paramount in Oakland. He's a phenomenal performer.

Jerry Robertson

Colin Randall Jennifer Warnes “Famous Blue Raincoat” album is outstanding. But whenever I hear someone cover him, I just want to hear him do his own song. Although “Hallelujah “ by k.d. lang is just amazing. Saw her perform it live at the Ryman in Nashville about a decade ago!

Jeremy Robson

Read the linked piece at your leisure but the key extract is this: "The range of [Cohen's] subject matter is remarkably small. In fact, his interests as expressed in his songs can be narrowed down to one: himself. He had no imagination. He was incapable of making up stories, of inventing characters which are the warp and weft of song."

How on earth can anyone, and I mean anyone suggest that Leonard Cohen had no imagination? Utterly staggering. This is beautiful performance with Jennifer Warnes.

Colin Randall

As I’ve made clear, Jeremy , I wholly disagree with Leon Rosselson on this. But then , much as I respect him, we’ve differed quite a lot before

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