"Bird on the Wire" is one of Leonard Cohen's signature songs. It was recorded 26 September 1968 in Nashville and included on his 1969 album Songs from a Room. A May 1968 recording produced by David Crosby, entitled "Like a Bird", was added to the 2007 remastered CD. Judy Collins was the first to release the song on her 1968 album Who Knows Where the Time Goes.
In the 1960s, Cohen lived on the Greek island Hydra with his girlfriend Marianne Ihlen, the woman depicted on the back cover of Songs from a Room. She has related how she helped him out of a depression by handing him his guitar, whereupon he began composing "Bird on the Wire" – inspired by a bird sitting on one of Hydra's recently installed phone wires, followed by memories of wet island nights. He finished it in a Hollywood motel.
Cohen has described "Bird on the Wire" as a simple country song, and the first recording, by Judy Collins, was indeed done in a country setting. He later made various minor changes, such as the modifications present on Cohen Live. Different renditions are included on all of his live albums. On occasion he also performed Serge Lama's French version, "Vivre tout seul", in concert.
In the sleevenotes to a 2007 rerelease of Songs From A Room the song was described as "simultaneously a prayer and an anthem, a kind of bohemian 'My Way'."
In the liner notes to the 1975 compilation The Best of Leonard Cohen, Cohen wrote about the song:
I always begin my concert with this song. It seems to return me to my duties. It was begun in Greece and finished in a motel in Hollywood around 1969 along with everything else. Some lines were changed in Oregon. I can't seem to get it perfect. Kris Kristofferson
informed me that I had stolen part of the melody from another Nashville writer. He also said that he's putting the first couple of lines on his tombstone, and I'll be hurt if he doesn't.
It has been suggested that the song to which Kristofferson was referring is "Turn Me On", written by Nashville songwriter John D. Loudermilk, which was originally recorded by Mark Dinning in 1961 and later covered by many other artists, including Nina Simone, and which shares a similar melody and some lyrical patterns with Cohen's song.
Many artists have covered the song, often as "Bird on a Wire" (indeed, this variation appears in the compilation The Essential Leonard Cohen), including:Joe Cocker on Joe Cocker! (1969) and the live album Mad Dogs & Englishmen (1970)Jackie DeShannon on the album To Be Free (1970)Dave Van Ronk on Van Ronk (1971)Tim Hardin on the album Bird on a Wire (1971)Pearls Before Swine on the album Beautiful Lies You Could Live In (1971)Rita Coolidge on the album The Lady's Not for Sale (1972)Fairport Convention on the album Heyday: the BBC Radio Sessions, 1968–1969 (1987)Jennifer Warnes on the tribute album Famous Blue Raincoat (1987)Tom Cochrane and Red Rider on The Symphony Sessions (1989)The Neville Brothers on the album Brother's Keeper (1990); also included in Bird on a Wire (1990) starring Mel Gibson and Goldie HawnThe Lilac Time on the tribute album I'm Your Fan (1991)Soul Asylum did an acoustic versionThe Bobs on the album Cover the Songs of … (1994), in a skate-punk styleJohnny Cash on the album American Recordings (1994), and also live with orchestra (released on the 2003 compilation Unearthed)Willie Nelson on the tribute album Tower of Song (1995)Stina Nordenstam on the album People Are Strange (1998)k.d. lang on the album Hymns of the 49th Parallel (2004)autorickshaw on the album So the Journey Goes (2007)Perla Batalla on the album Bird on the Wire: the Songs of Leonard Cohen (2005) and on the film soundtrack Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man (2005)Eva Dahlgren on the tribute album Cohen – the Scandinavian Report (2009)Tony Carey on Rewind (2010)Joe Bonamassa on the album Black Rock (2010) and live on his album Beacon Theatre: Live from New York (2012)Kiko Veneno on the album Dice la Gente (2010), adapted to SpanishKatey Sagal on the television program Sons of Anarchy in Season 3 Episode 4 (2011)Prince Edward Island jazz guitarist Ian Toms on his album Playbook (2012)Madeleine Peyroux on her album The Blue Room (2012)Anonymous Choir (featuring Nona Marie Invie from Dark Dark Dark) on their album Anonymous Choir sings Leonard Cohen (2015)Tedeschi Trucks Band performed this song during their January 2016 appearance on Austin City Limits.Paul Kelly on Death’s Dateless Night (2016) w/Charlie Owen.Frally Hynes performed an acoustic version on Cinemax's Quarry (TV series) in Season 1 Episode 8 "Nước Chảy đá Mòn" (2016).The chorus to Todd Rundgren's song "Boat on the Charles" from his 1971 sophomore album Runt. The Ballad of Todd Rundgren concludes with the line: "Boat on the Charles/Bird on a wire outside my window pane."A cover is featured in the concluding scenes of director Robert Altman's 1978 film A Wedding.It was also featured in the Movie Bird on a Wire.The Norwegian band Midnight Choir had its name from the song's opening lines, "Like a bird on the wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir, I have tried in my way to be free."In British sitcom Absolutely Fabulous, protagonist Edina Monsoon recites and sings this song in the episode Jealous in 1995.Nigel Blackwell of the UK band Half Man Half Biscuit occasionally sings the opening lines of the song during live versions of his band's song '24 Hour Garage People', after mentioning being able to hear the songs playing on Graeme the shop assistant's iPod. The song is also referenced in another Half Man Half Biscuit song 'Letters Sent.It was featured in a promo for an episode of the TV series Lost.It was also featured in the TV series Parenthood.