Story behind the record cover – Songs from a Room (1969) – LEONARD COHEN

What else do you want. You look out from your house on the Greek island of Hydra. The sun is shining and you can actually hear the sea in the distance. There are some birds on the cables of a telephone mast. You just spent an entire night with a nice Norwegian girl, Marianne. You walk to the bedroom. Marianne has just woken up and is sitting behind your typewriter, just for fun. You grab your camera and take a picture of her. Life is perfect, not a shadow in sight. You write a song ‘Bird on a wire’ and you drink a cup of coffee. Can it be more perfect? Marianne will become the love of your life. You do have a few relationships on the side, but Marianne is your muse and a source for many more songs. You stay together for the rest of your life. Life reaches the pinnacle of perfection. And then one day the Finnish filmmaker Seppo Pietikäinen drops by. Accompanied by his Dutch friend Henk Hofstede, lead singer of Dutch popgroup the Nits. They want to make a documentary about you. Life can’t get any better.

Hofstede talked about it during his solo performance on June 27 at De Boerderij. He went to Hydra with Pietikaïnen to record a movie. They just didn’t know that cars were not allowed on the island. Donkeys were the preferred means of transport. Loaded with Pietikaïnen’s film gear, the animals trudged towards Cohen’s house. Cohen forgot to mention that it was undergoing renovation just at the time. Pietikaïnen and Hofstede found one big mess. The room where the photo from the back cover was taken was completely gutted. On the way back the donkeys must have thought: “we’ve totally had it”. They refused to take another step with their heavy load, in the middle of the mountains. For a moment the lyrics for a new song flashed through Hofstede’s head. However, ‘In the Greek Mountains’ never seemed to work out well.

It’s a pity that this picture with Marianne Ihlen behind the typewriter did not become the front cover of Leonard Cohen’s album “Song from a Room”. This picture appeals to me much more than the dark black and white photo of Cohen on the front cover. A somewhat gloomy photo. Does life have its dark side? Does the perfect life exist? Is that what Leonard Cohen wants to convey on the front cover? In any case, his lyrics are full of the struggle between freedom and connectedness. Like the bird on the telephone wire. Do I want to be put in a cage with another bird? Or shall I fly freely through the air, on my own?

Leonard Cohen with his monotonous, melancholic voice. As a teenager I didn’t like it that much. But the girls around me raved about the man. So I felt compelled to delve into his music and lyrics. And suddenly I got the hang of it. For example, the song ‘Hallelujah’ is a gem. His lyrics are pure poetry, his music has been covered by a variety of musicians for decades. Also by Henk Hofstede; I can definitely recommend his solo performance in which he sings Leonard Cohen’s songs.

Leonard Cohen and Marianne Ihlen both passed away in 2016, she died just six months before him. The house is now private property of Cohen’s son. Hydra has become a place of pilgrimage for Cohen fans, who come to taste a touch of the sixties, get drunk with the locals and sing along to ‘So long, Marianne’ with all their heart. It has been a long time since I went to the Greek islands with my backpack. Who knows, maybe I’ll do it again soon; just a little while and all restrictions will be lifted and I can feel free as a bird again.

By Gerrit-Jan Vrielink

Translation Alex Driessen