A Brief History of Artists Referencing Leonard Cohen in Songs

Lana Del Rey and boygenius aren't the only ones who are super into "Anthem"

March 31, 2023 8:35 am
Leonard Cohen
If you can't be Leonard Cohen, name-dropping him is the next-best thing.

Today, for the second time in two weeks, we find ourselves listening to a highly anticipated new album that happens to include a lyrical reference to Leonard Cohen’s 1992 song “Anthem” and its most memorable line. Last Friday, Lana Del Rey dropped Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd, which includes a nod to the Cohen song on “Kitsugi.” Now boygenius have finally put out their debut full-length album (aptly titled The Album), which features a quote from the same track on “Leonard Cohen.”

Is all this recent love for the legendary singer-songwriter just a coincidence, or part of a growing trend? The truth is, loving Leonard Cohen never really fell out of fashion; artists of all stripes have been name-dropping him in songs for decades, and his influence remains massive. Save for maybe Bob Dylan, there’s no other artist whose name alone serves as shorthand for a certain type of tortured poet. With that in mind, we’ve rounded up some of our favorite references to Leonard Cohen in song below.

Lana Del Rey, “Kitsugi” (2023)

Key lyric: “That’s how the light shines in/That’s how the light shines in/That’s how the light gets in”

“Kitsugi” borrows from Cohen’s “Anthem” (“there is a crack, a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in”), but it’s not the first time Lana Del Rey has worked a reference to the legendary songwriter into her music. “Venice Bitch” refers to “beautiful losers” — the title of his 1966 novel — while “Mariners Apartment Complex” alludes to his 1988 track “I’m Your Man.”

boygenius, “Leonard Cohen” (2023)

Key lyric: “Leonard Cohen once said there’s a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in/And I am not an old man having an existential crisis/At a Buddhist monastery/Writing horny poetry/But I agree”

It’s an early front-runner for the funniest line of 2023, and it’s apparently based on a true story: bandmates Lucy Dacus, Phoebe Bridgers and Julien Baker were in a car having a passionate discussion about great songs with no choruses when Bridgers, who was behind the wheel, got so distracted by playing an example that she accidentally drove an hour in the wrong direction. It was obviously time well spent, however, since it resulted in this lovely track that both reveres Cohen and pokes some good-natured fun at him.

Lucinda Williams, “Rarity” (2008)

Key lyric: “Your words speak volumes/In and out, around flow/Like Leonard Cohen’s”

This one’s a pretty straightforward nod to Cohen’s writing abilities. What better way to compliment someone else’s talent than by comparing them to him?

Nirvana, “Pennyroyal Tea” (1993)

Key lyric: “Give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld / So I can sigh eternally”

In 1993, Kurt Cobain told Impact why he chose to name-drop Cohen on this In Utero track, saying, “That was my therapy, when I was depressed and sick. I’d read things like Malloy Dies [sic] by Beckett, or listen to Leonard Cohen, which would actually make it worse.” In 1995, a little over a year after Cobain’s suicide, Cohen lamented the fact that he wasn’t able to help him, saying, “I’m sorry I couldn’t have spoken to the young man. I see a lot of people at the Zen Center, who have gone through drugs and found a way out that is not just Sunday school. There are always alternatives, and I might have been able to lay something on him. Or maybe not.”

Lizzie West, “Looking For Leonard Cohen, Part 1” (2006)

Key lyric: “I go ask Leonard Cohen, in the morning on South Tremaine/If the dog is just a metaphor/And Whitman is he just the frame, is he just the frame”

Who among us wouldn’t want to pick the legendary Canadian songwriter’s brain and get a few insights into his thought process if given the opportunity?

Erica Pomerance, “To Leonard From the Hospital” (1968)

Cohen’s friend Erica Pomerance only recorded and released one album, 1968’s You Used to Think — a trippy, experimental folk record heavily influenced by free jazz — and while “To Leonard From the Hospital” doesn’t make any direct reference to him by name in its lyrics, Pomerance confirmed that it’s dedicated to him. “I remember we were sitting in my parents’ living room when I played it for him and he predicted it would perhaps gain a very small following of people interested in experimental musical styles,” she said in an interview. “I got the feeling he wasn’t sure it would ever be appreciated or understood — perhaps he was right.”

Mercury Rev, “A Drop in Time” (2001)

Key lyric: “But I was caught, like a fleeting thought/Stuck inside Leonard Cohen’s mind”

Hey, there are worse places to be stuck, right?

James McMurtry, “You’d A’ Thought (Leonard Cohen Must Die)” (2008)

McMurtry doesn’t reference Cohen by name in the actual lyrics of this Just Us Kids track, but the parenthetical in its title is reportedly a cheeky reference to what the Toronto Star once described as “the distracting power of Cohen’s music to wreak havoc on McMurtry’s productivity.”

Jeffrey Lewis, “The Chelsea Hotel Oral Sex Song” (2001)

Key lyric: “If I was Leonard Cohen/Or some other song writing master/I’d know to first get the oral sex/And then write the song after/You can practice writing songs/About romance every day/But if you haven’t loved/Then you’ll have nothing to say”

Lewis also references Cohen’s “Anthem” with the title of his 2003 record It’s the Ones Who’ve Cracked That the Light Shines Through. But here, he offers a tale about meeting a woman who bonds with him over Cohen’s “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” — and, more specifically, its line about “givin’ me head on the unmade bed.”

Electric Light Orchestra, “Illusions in G Major” (1974)

Key lyrics: “I heard the crew a-hummin’/Tunes that sounded like the Rolling Stones and Leonard Cohen/But they didn’t know the words, so I assumed that they was foreign”

In which Jeff Lynne’s narrator tells his psychiatrist about his visions of a “phantom ship” piloted by people who don’t know the correct lyrics to Rolling Stones and Leonard Cohen songs. (“Oh doctor, let me teach ’em,” he begs.)

Say Sue Me, “Out of Bed” (2018)

Key lyrics: “Winter sunshine, ships like lights on Christmas tree/Leonard Cohen singing Christmas songs/I could find a place where we could stay/Wish us a special Christmas”

While it’s true that most of the best Christmas music was written by Jewish people, Cohen isn’t one of them (although many people who don’t actually listen to the lyrics of “Hallelujah” have absentmindedly tossed it onto their holiday playlists). He’s an odd choice to be “singing Christmas songs” in this song by Korean indie rock band Say Sue Me, but we’re not complaining.

Rufus Wainwright, “Want” (2003)

Key lyrics: “I don’t want, no I really don’t want/To be John Lennon or Leonard Cohen/I just want to be my dad, with a slight sprinkling of my mother”

Funnily enough, years after he sang about wanting to be his dad instead of Leonard Cohen, Wainwright actually became the father of Cohen’s grandchild. Cohen’s daughter Lorca and Wainwright — who were childhood friends — welcomed their daughter Viva in 2011.

Better Than Ezra, “Under You” (1998)

Key lyrics: “A sudden memory/You’re a Leonard Cohen song/But every now and then I’d swear/I see you standing on a sidewalk, in a restaurant, from a taxi cab passing.”

Is there any higher compliment than “you’re a Leonard Cohen song”?

La Coka Nostra ft. Bun B, “Choose Your Side” (2009)

Key lyric: “I’m in that Brian Jonestown Massacre zone/A little bit of Leonard Cohen/To set the perfect tone”

Cohen’s influence transcended genre, so it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise to hear him name-dropped by this hip-hop supergroup.

Maria Taylor, “Pretty Scars” (2016)

Key lyrics: “I barely even kissed a guy/Until someday I met you/And you played me Leonard Cohen/On a southside bedroom floor/It was then, I knew what the dark was for”

Taylor has covered Cohen in the past as a member of Azure Ray, and on the gorgeous “Pretty Scars” she traces some of the most impactful moments in her life — including, of course, the first time she fell in love with his music.

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