Behind The Song: Leonard Cohen, “Bird On The Wire”

The birds on the wire were just there as the songwriter’s imagination fired up, and they were known for late-night revelry bouts. The island was also known as the “choir of midnight drunks.” The construction of telephone poles in this idyllic place was soon witnessed by Cohen, but there was no electricity on the island, even when he first arrived. “The Wire On Bird” was inspired by Cohen’s time living on the rustic Greek island of Hydra in the ’60s.

In the mid-60s, Bob Dylan, who was known for his work on the landmark album “Highway 61 Revisited,” applied his skill in producing the light and tender essence of the song “Bird on the Wire” to Cohen’s coat. Later that year, Judy Collins recorded her own version of the song before Cohen included it on his second LP, “Songs from a Room.”

Besides Collins’ initial interpretation, there have been outstanding renditions of the tune by various renowned musicians, such as Fairport Convention, Joe Cocker, The Neville Brothers, Tim Hardin, and K.D. Lang, among numerous other artists. Even Johnny Cash performed a somber rendition that emphasized the song’s more ominous aspects. Cohen’s music has consistently attracted artists seeking material to cover, and “Bird On The Wire” has particularly been a rich source, possibly due to its adaptable melody being one of the Canadian poet’s most versatile tunes.

The vulnerability and authenticity of the song’s main character become apparent in the middle portions, as that famously resonant voice reaches its modest boundaries. He navigates the slow tempo with a staggering grace, resembling one of the inebriated vocalists he references in the verses. Particularly in the original studio recording, Leonard himself captures the essence of the song just as effectively, if not better than any of these interpreters.

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By admitting his faults without plain made, it is clear that this guy is not “me” like a beast with his horn that I have torn everyone who reached out for me. However, those destructive flaws are somewhat redeemed by his intentions to do better.

The guy likely wins admiration, despite all the harm he has caused, due to his gallantry and charm that allude to knights and ribbons, as well as his use of the archaic word “thee”. His reticence and the accusation of greed by the pretty woman and the beggar, respectively, further reveal his inner struggle later in the song.

The original lyrics of “The Wire On Bird” often bring forth the buried nuances, suggesting that the character’s betrayal may have caused him immense suffering and damage to his own ideals. If I’ve ever been untrue to you, I hope you never know. This is a common theme in Leonard Cohen’s compositions, as he rarely produces a finished product.

If I had thought that there could be any kind of lover who puts the blame solely on the character of ignorance, I would have considered it to be untrue. But things change around a bit at Cohen’s concert.

In Harry Rasky’s 1979 book, “Leonard Cohen: The Song of Leonard Cohen — A Portrait of a Poet, a Friendship, and a Film,” the line about the quest character’s freedom was discussed. I have attempted to be free in my own way, like a drunk in a midnight choir. Similar to a bird on a wire, the lines of the song never change, and there are many others who are also captivated by Kristofferson’s enraptured ones.

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Cohen stated, “It is as clear as possible.” “It lessens a type of haughty human expression, which is ‘I have attempted to attain freedom’ – well, everyone attempts to attain freedom. ‘In my own manner’ somewhat alters and eases the concept, and also encompasses the potential for failure. Because you declare, you are aware, based on my own understanding and in my own manner I have attempted, and I have made mistakes like everyone else, but that was the endeavor.”

Leonard Cohen noted in the liner notes of a 2007 re-release of Songs From A Room that the song was “simultaneously a prayer and an anthem, a type of bohemian ‘My Way’.” However, when examining it more closely, the comparison to the classic Frank Sinatra song falls short. While “My Way” focuses on a man who simply forces himself to succeed, “Bird On The Wire” acknowledges that the human spirit’s struggle against internal weaknesses and external pressures often leads to futile outcomes. Nonetheless, Cohen beautifully pointed out that it is the effort that truly matters.

Do you write songs? Participate in the American Songwriter Lyric Contest.

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