“I get tagged as an art-song intellectual,” Leonard Cohen observed during the early 80s. “But I’ve always tried to have hits.”
Cohen — who died on Thursday (10 November) at the age of 82 — didn’t have any of those. But the poet, songwriter and singer wielded enormous influence as a kind of pop music laureate, writing literate, evocative material that was admired and frequently recorded by others. In some cases they even became hits—“Suzanne” and “Bird On a Wire” for Judy Collins, for instance, or “Hallelujah” for the late Jeff Buckley —and other artists’ regard for Cohen has been chronicled via multiple high-profile tribute albums.
Cohen’s multi-generational mark is even echoed via name-checks in songs by Nirvana (”Pennyroyal Tea”), Better Than Ezra (“Under You”) and Mercury Rev (“A Drop In Time”).
Inducting him into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008, Lou Reed said Cohen was among the “highest and most influential echelon of songwriters.” The The’s Matt Johnson said that, “When I listen to his songs, it’s a simple, stripped-down naked soul.” Collins, meanwhile, added that Cohen’s songs “are just so deep and full of the human experience, and yet so open to interpretation, which is what a singer craves.” And frequent Cohen backup singer Sharon Robinson, who recorded many of his songs and co-wrote her 2001 album “Ten New Songs” with him, explained that, “The beauty in Leonard’s songs is that he expresses really universal feelings. A hundred singers could sing the same (Cohen) song and they’d all be different.”
A native of Quebec, Cohen was born to a middle class family with deep Judaic roots. His maternal grandfather was a Talmudic scholar, while his paternal grandfather founded the Canadian Jewish Congress. His father Nathan Cohen, a clothing retailer, died when Cohen was nine years old. Cohen began studying music can poetry as a youngster, taking up clarinet but turning his attention primarily to writing as he grew older and attended McGill University. He published his first book of poetry, “Let Us Compare Mythologies,” and his first novel, “Beautiful Losers,” in 1966.
It was Collins’ success with “Suzanne” that led to his recording career. Columbia signed him and released “The Songs of Leonard Cohen,” the first of 13 studio albums, in 1967. His singles did not chart in the US — his sonorous, semi-spoken vocals were not the stuff of the pop mainstream — but the masses began catching on with 2012’s “Old Ideas,” which peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard 200, and 2014’s “Popular Problems,” which debuted at No. 15. That didn’t keep the material from becoming celebrated and analyzed, however, whether it was “Chelsea Hotel,” a dry observation about a brief afternoon fling with Janis Joplin, relationship paeans such as “So Long, Marianne” and “Dance Me to the End of Love” or the starkly political tracts like “First We Take Manhattan” and “Democracy.”
“I’ve never chosen a style that was deliberately obscure,” Cohen once told Entertainment Weekly. “I never came up with the idea of writing a song that would mystify anybody or prevent anyone from tapping their foot to it.” And mining the dark side of the psyche was a stock in trade he came by naturally. “I always experience myself as falling apart,” Cohen explained to Rolling Stone. “The place where the evaluation happens is where I write the songs, when I get in that place where I can’t be dishonest about what I’ve been doing.”
Cohen became a practicing Buddhist during the mid-70s and spent time between 1994-99 secluded at a monastery in Mount Baldy, California., as a personal assistant to his teacher Kyozan Joshu Sasaki — an experience that produced his 2006 poetry collection “Book of Longing,” which inspired a song cycle by Philip Glass. HIs romantic relationships included Marianne C. Stang (the subject of “So Long, Marianne”), artist Suzanne Elrod — with whom he had son Adam and daughter Lorca but never married — French photographer Dominque Issermann and actress Rebecca De Mornay.
After his monastery years Cohen jump-started his musical career with “Ten New Songs.” After discovering his close friend and longtime manager Kelley Lynch had bilked him out of his life savings and music publishing, leading to a rash of lawsuits, Cohen began touring in earnest again in 2008, delivering generous, acclaimed shows chronicled on a series of concert albums and live videos.
“Maybe he went back on the road for financial reasons, but he really started to love it,” said longtime bassist and musical director Roscoe Beck. “He knows there’s an audience out there who wants to see it, and he enjoys the lifestyle. He likes hotel rooms. He likes the camaraderie of the band and crew. He just felt comfortable being on stage, and you could see it in his performances. It was an amazing thing to be part of and to witness.”
During his career Cohen won four Juno Awards and one Grammy and was also given a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010. In addition to the Rock Hall Cohen was also part of the Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame and received a Princess of Asturias Award among other literary prizes and honorary university degrees. He was named a Companion of the Order of Canada, the country’s highest civilian award, in 2011. Bloomberg