In 1969, Leonard Cohen was living on the small Greek island of Hydra, where there was no electricity. When the government finally installed the necessary infrastructure, the wires stretched across his windows and disturbed his view. As his friend Marianne Ihlen recounted, “While we’re sitting there, birds are landing on the wire like notes on a music sheet.” She brought Cohen his guitar and he began to compose the song that became one of his greatest successes.
Perhaps the most remarkable fact about Bird on The Wire is the sheer number of artists who have had hit albums and singles with it. Folk queen Judy Collins was first, recording the song as a country ballad on her 1968 “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” album. It reached No. 29 on Billboard’s album chart.
Cohen himself then recorded his song, but it took two attempts before he was satisfied. First his former lover Joni Mitchell suggested that David Crosby (another of her lovers) should produce it. This they attempted in a Los Angeles studio, but neither Crosby nor Cohen was satisfied. (The track was put aside for almost forty years until it was included as Like a Bird on the “Songs from a Room” reissue.)
Cohen’s second attempt came with the more experienced producer Bob Johnston in Nashville in 1968. Again it proved challenging to birth the song, requiring several days. Finally the “Songs from a Room” album was released in April 1969; a minor hit in North America, it enjoyed greater success in Britain, where it ranked No. 2.
Cohen’s 45-rpm single (Columbia 4-44827) won a BMI Certificate of Honour. A Spanish version came out in 1971 (Pajaro En El Alambre), and a live single followed in 1974.
Meanwhile Bird on The Wire picked up steam as a popular cover song. England’s heavy-weight blues export Joe Cocker covered it in 1969 and again on his albums “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” (1970) and “With a Little Help From My Friends” (1971). Cocker’s single charted on RPM’s Top 100.
Among the Canadians who have recorded Bird on The Wire are Grammy-winner k.d. lang, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and Tom Cochrane. Other cover artists include Perla Batalla, Blackeyed Susans, Jackie DeShannon, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Rita Coolidge, Sandy Denny, Fairport Convention, Tim Hardin, Toby Lightman, Midnight Choir, Soul Asylum, Regina Spektor, Dave Van Ronk, and Kate Wolf.
The hits weren’t over yet. Jennifer Warnes, who had toured as Cohen’s backing singer, recorded Bird on The Wire on her hugely successful “Famous Blue Raincoat” album of Cohen’s songs. After his death in 2016, Warnes told a magazine how the album came about: “I felt that his arrangements were not as rich as the lyrical content of his music. So producer Roscoe Beck and I decided to make Famous Blue Raincoat …. We were singing his songs back to him so he could hear who he really was.” In Canada it went gold and the single charted, reviving Cohen’s career.
And three years later, two more Bird on The Wire singles charted: Rocker Tom Cochrane’s in March 1990, followed by the Neville Brothers’ soft rock-soul Top 40 cover in July. (This served as the title song for a Mel Gibson-Goldie Hawn movie.)
Bird on The Wire also features on the Cohen tribute albums “I’m Your Fan” and “Tower of Song,” the latter version sung by Willie Nelson. 1996 saw SOCAN honour Cohen’s single as a SOCAN Classic.
As for Cohen’s own performances, the song became his go-to favourite to open his concerts (where he sometimes changed the lyrics). He said that he continued to make his sincere apology (for what, we don’t know) through the lyrics’ appeal for forgiveness:
“I swear by this song
And by all that I have done wrong
I will make it all up to
The inimitable Leonard Cohen, poet and songwriter (1934 – 2016), was born in Montreal. His honours have been many: he is in the Rock and Roll and Canadian Music halls of fame and the U.S. Songwriters Hall of Fame, and received a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement. He made multiple gold and platinum recordings, and was a nine-time Juno winner.