Time passed, and the video tape and the cassette went the way of all transitory things. Perhaps I did not want to have that crying experience again, so Song of Bernadette receded into the mists of time in my life. But when I first experienced You Tube, one of my first searches and successes was the Smothers’ clip of Warnes doing Bernadette.I cried.
Recently I needed to learn a song for a church service and I realized that Song of Bernadette would be perfect for the subject of the service. I put it in the back of my mind until just two days before the fateful Sunday, and by chance had a Leonard Cohen tribute CD in the car. It had accompanied one of those slick British music magazines I have to stop buying, and on my way home from a coffeehouse gig later that night I heard Judy Collins’ version of Song of Bernadette. I did okay on the crying thing until I started to sing along to learn the lyrics.
I did the church engagement and did okay. But why does this song impact me in this way?
Jennifer Warnes. I must admit the first time I saw her on the Smothers’ show in the1960s, walking down a staircase on an open stage, wearing what looked like a prom dress and singing Joni Mitchell’s Clouds, I thought that it was a rib, another Leigh French character pulling our legs.But her continued presence on the show, and her versions of songs from Hair after landing the lead in the Los Angeles stage production, convinced me otherwise, and introduced another stellar talent from the Smothers’ show. Smitten? Yes.
But that doesn’t explain my reaction to her Song of Bernadette. Certainly her performance on the Smothers’ show has a great deal to do with the impact. Her eyes lock the viewer into her beatific visage,and she "sells" the song. She has one of the most striking, deliberate voices in pop music, and this performance simply defines that judgment.
And the song, especially as performed on that show! A carefully crafted masterpiece that is equal parts brilliant construction and deep emotion. It unfolds like the flower it is: first we hear of Bernadette, and are reminded of that Miracleof Lourdes. Most of us may only have the vague memory of the Hollywood version of the story, and the beauty of the lyric is that you need not know more. And before the end of the first verse, we have a major serving of hope for the world.
Then Warnes comes into the second verse, and her performance becomes much more intimate. Intimate but not in a glitzy pop sex way like many of today’s divas. And again, this surge of hope.
And then, at last, the chorus. Warnes soars into the stratosphere, and the message of mending for the self-broken hearts culminates in an offer of true consolation, and even though this beautiful woman on screen is offering you comfort in her arms, this isn’t a sexual move, but one of ultimate compassion, the ultimate baring of the breast.
Three minutes and twenty five seconds, it’s over.
Melodically this song is prime Leonard Cohen. His own versions of his songs generally "imply" the melody, since Cohen has a limited vocal range. It takes a Warnes to bring the full melody, like it often took a Baez to find the "full melody" of many Bob Dylan songs early in his career. Song of Bernadette is one of his best, with the verses conversational both lyrically, and then that chorus soaring up above the melody of the verses to bring the song to conclusion.
Cohen is known for his lyrics, and Song of Bernadette is a perfect example. Short, to the point, no wasted words. We hear the narrator mention Bernadette, her vision of "the queen of heaven" and her trials with non-believers. In the second verse, Cohen talks about humanity, and our basic make up… "We run around, we fall we fly; we mostly fall, we mostly run." And then the narrator talks about the basic good of humanity, and how we try to rectify our mistakes… but Cohen says we need not try, that we are basically good and the narrator beams that the song of Bernadette has not been forgotten. Finally, we have an offer from the narrator for solace, perfect solace.
But again, why does the Smothers/Warnes’ version move me so much? It’s the same basic instrumentation as the recording on Famous Blue Raincoat. And the answer is that for probably one time in the history of television, cutting the time for a performance improved it. In Warnes’ TV version, that incredible chorus is only heard once, not twice like every other recorded version I’ve heard.
Did Cohen and Warnes only want one chorus? One assumes not, since the recorded versions all have two. So one can assume that the reality of a jam packed anniversary/tribute show, cuts had to be made. And in this case, holding that magical chorus until the end of the two verses makes so much sense, and brings the emotional climb to a perfect spot. It also offers up one of pop music’s favorite components: the need to hear the song again.
It’s a wonderful chorus, and when I did my church performance, I did not have the bravery to excise one of the choruses, so I fell in line with the others tha thave attempted this jewel. But maybe someday my courage will rise.
Catch the You Tube segment. Buy the recording by Warnes if you don’t already own it. Revere Leonard Cohen. Go see live music. Be happy.
Dennis Roger Reed is asinger-songwriter, musician and writer based in San Clemente, CA. He’s releasedtwo solo CDs, and appeared on two CDs with the newgrassy Andy Rau Band and twoCDs with the roots rockers Blue Mama. His prose has appeared in a variety ofpublications such as the OC Weekly and MOJO magazine. Writing about hismusic has appeared in an eclectic group of publications such as Bass Player,Acoustic Musician, Dirty Linen, Blue Suede News and Sing Out! Hisoddest folk resume entry would be the period of several months in 2002 when hedanced onstage as part of both Little Richard’s and Paul Simon’s revues. He wasactually asked to do the former and condoned by the latter. He apparently knowsno shame.