What a shock to hear of the passing of this man who, to many, was somewhat enigmatic. Leonard Cohen, an artist who has retained an audience across four decades of music-making, will definitely be missed. Sadly, like a lot of other great artists, regard will likely be greater with his passing.
So much to say about this man – so much has already been covered in very fine fashion, so I will merely try to provide here a brief account.
Leonard Cohen – Suzanne
Leonard Cohen and Judy Collins – “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye”
Leonard Cohen – Hallelujah
Ladies and Gentlemen… Mr. Leonard Cohen
This informal black-and-white portrait of Leonard Cohen shows him at age 30 on a visit to his hometown of Montreal, where the poet, novelist and songwriter comes “to renew his neurotic affiliations.” He reads his poetry to an enthusiastic crowd, strolls the streets of the city, relaxes in this three-dollar-a-night hotel room and even takes a bath.
Leonard Cohen & Sharon Robinson – Here It Is
Leonard Cohen Interviews
Leonard Cohen – Traveling Light
Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker
Leonard Cohen – Bird On The Wire
Leonard Cohen – Closing Time
Leonard Cohen – Waiting For A Miracle
The Official Leonard Cohen web site https://www.leonardcohen.com/ is a good place to start for further reference.
Cohen was born on 21 September 1934 in Westmount, Quebec, an English-speaking area of Montreal, into a middle-class Jewish family. His father died when Cohen was just nine years old but left his son a trust fund that would enable him to pursue his chosen literary career.
By 1948 attending Westmount High School, Leonard he studied music and poetry and became especially interested in the poetry of Federico García Lorca.
The young Cohen attended a privately run Jewish co-educational day school where he learned to play guitar and formed a country–folk group called The Buckskin Boys. “Guitars impress girls”, was the reasoning he gave.
Although he initially played a regular acoustic guitar, he soon switched to playing a classical guitar after meeting a young Spanish guitar player who taught him some flamenco. Right there, you can start to see the emerging of a young man who became interested in aspects of music beyond what was going down in the popular scene such as Country, jazz, blues and rock.
As a young adult, Cohen purchased a place in Montreal’s Little Portugal on Saint-Laurent Boulevard. In this small neighbourhood, he would read his poetry at various local clubs. It is also during his time that he wrote the lyrics to what would become some of his most famous songs.
In 1951 he enrolled at Montreal’s McGill University to study English Literature, and published his first collection of poetry, Let Us Compare Mythologies, in 1956.
The book contained poems written largely when Cohen was between the ages of 15 and 20, and he dedicated the book to his late father. The volume established Cohen’s reputation as a serious poet and became his most popular work. The poem, You Have the Lovers, captured his fascination with human relationships.
The book was published by Dudek as the first book in the McGill Poetry Series the year after Cohen’s graduation.
He used the royalties from the book, along with literary grants from the Canadian government, to travel around the world, sampling what it had to offer – including some use of LSD when it was still legal.
A very studious young man, Cohen spent a term in McGill’s law school and then a year (1956–57) at New York’s Columbia University. He described his graduate school experience as “passion without flesh, love without climax.”
Returning to Montreal in 1957, Cohen began focusing on the writing of fiction and poetry, including the poems for his next book, The Spice-Box of Earth (1961, which helped him to reach beyond the confines of McGill U. to the poetry scene across Canada.
His poetry was well-received and after a year at Columbia University in New York he turned to writing full-time, producing his second collection of poems entitled The Spice Box of Earth, in 1961 when he was 27.
During the 1960s, Cohen preferred to live in quasi-reclusivness as he continued to write poetry and fiction. After a spell in London, where his first purchases were an Olivetti typewriter and a blue raincoat *, he bought a house on Hydra, a Greek island in the Saronic Gulf. There he published the poetry collection Flowers for Hitler (1964), and the novels The Favourite Game (1963) and Beautiful Losers (1966).
In Hydra, Cohen lived there with Norwegian Marianne Jensen, for whom he later wrote So Long Marianne. (Her death in early 2016 inspired Cohen’s final album, You Want It Darker (released just weeks before Cohen’s own passing).
In a 1998 interview, Cohen said his writing process was “like a bear stumbling into a beehive or a honey cache: I’m stumbling right into it and getting stuck, and it’s delicious and it’s horrible and I’m in it and it’s not very graceful and it’s very awkward and it’s very painful and yet there’s something inevitable about it.”
Disappointed with his lack of financial success as a writer, in 1966 Cohen set out for Nashville, where he hoped to become a country songwriter, but instead got caught up in New York City’s folk scene.
After performing at a few folk festivals, Cohen came to the attention of Columbia Records representative John H. Hammond, who signed him to a record deal and produced Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967).
Although Hammond was originally supposed to produce the record, he was ill and was replaced by the producer John Simon. Simon and Cohen clashed over instrumentation and mixing; Cohen wanted the album to have a sparse sound, while Simon felt the songs could benefit from arrangements that included strings and horns.
According to biographer Ira Nadel, although Cohen was able to make changes to the mix, some of Simon’s additions “couldn’t be removed from the four-track master tape.” Nevertheless, the album became a cult favourite in the U.S., as well as in the UK, where it spent over a year on the album charts. Several of the songs on that first album were covered by other popular folk artists, including James Taylor and Judy Collins.
Cohen’s song “Suzanne” became a hit for Judy Collins.
The album features some of Cohen’s most celebrated songs. Mojo has described the album as “not only the cornerstone of Cohen’s remarkable career, but also a genuine songwriting landmark in terms of language, thematic developments and even arrangements.
Over the next seven years he recorded three more albums: Songs From a Room, Songs of Love and Hate and New Skin for the Old Ceremony, which featured Chelsea Hotel – an account of Cohen’s sexual encounter with singer Janis Joplin.
Despite a paralyzing fear of playing live, he toured these albums extensively around the world.
During that time he went though several stages of how to best showcase his material by using various bands and arrangements. Beginning around 1974, Cohen’s collaboration with pianist and arranger John Lissauer created a live sound praised by critics. From April to July, Cohen gave 55 shows, including his first appearance at the famous Montreux Jazz Festival.
Death of a Ladies’ Man was the fifth studio album by Leonard Cohen. Produced and co-written by Phil Spector, the voice of typically minimalist Cohen was surrounded by Spector’s Wall of Sound, which included multiple tracks of instrument overdubs.
Two songs from that album are:
Ultimately, Cohen became so resentful of this over-produced recording style that he completely distanced himself from the Spector production.
He toured twice with Jennifer Warnes as a backup singer (1972 and 1979) and Warnes would become a fixture on Cohen’s future albums, receiving full co-vocals credit on his 1984 album Various Positions.
The album contains two songs that would become live standards for Cohen: “Hallelujah“, and this one, “Dance Me to the End of Love“.
The song “Hallelujah” found greater popular acclaim through a recording by John Cale, which inspired a recording by Jeff Buckley. Buckley’s version is the most popular version of the song to date.
Cohen said of “Dance Me to the End of Love“:
…it’s curious how songs begin because the origin of the song, every song, has a kind of grain or seed that somebody hands you or the world hands you and that’s why the process is so mysterious about writing a song. But that came from just hearing or reading or knowing that in the death camps, beside the crematoria…a string quartet was pressed into performance while this horror was going on…they would be playing classical music while their fellow prisoners were being killed and burnt. So, that music, ‘Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin,’ meaning the beauty there of being the consummation of life, the end of this existence and of the passionate element in that consummation. But, it is the same language that we use for surrender to the beloved, so that the song — it’s not important that anybody knows the genesis of it, because if the language comes from that passionate resource, it will be able to embrace all passionate activity.
Various Positions was produced by John Lissauer. He met with Cohen at New York City’s Royalton on 44th Street so Cohen could present his songs. Lissauer was surprised:
…instead of presenting me with the new songs exclusively on a Spanish guitar as usual, he had this dinky little Casio keyboard with him…
The Casio was a great discovery for Leonard because these machines allows you to put one finger down and have a whole band come back at you…and this is how he came up with “Dance Me to the End of Love.”
A remarkable change in Cohen’s singing was that his voice was getting lower in pitch. To author Paul Zollo, Cohen remarked:
‘My voice has gotten very very deep over the years and seems even to be deepening. I thought it was because of 50,000 cigarettes and several swimming pools of whiskey that my voice has gotten low. But I gave up smoking a couple of years ago and it’s still getting deeper…My voice really started to change around 1982. It started to deepen and I started to cop to the fact that it was deepening.’
The use of synthesizers and Cohen’s “new voice” would mark the beginning of a new era in Cohen’s composing style and sound.
In 1986 Warnes would record an album of Cohen songs, Famous Blue Raincoat.
Jennifer Warnes & Leonard Cohen – First We Take Manhatten
In 1994, Cohen retreated to the Mt. Baldy Zen Center near Los Angeles, beginning what became five years of seclusion at the center. Then in 1996, he was ordained as a Rinzai Zen Buddhist monk and took the Dharma name Jikan, meaning “silence”. He served as personal assistant to Kyozan Joshu Sasaki Roshi.
Some of the other artists in our blog have paid homage to Cohen:
- Bryan Hyland https://strathdee.wordpress.com/2016/10/23/brian-hyland/
- James Taylor https://strathdee.wordpress.com/2016/07/04/james-taylor/
- Neil Larson https://strathdee.wordpress.com/2015/04/03/larsen-feiten-band-buzz-feiten-neil-larsen/
- The Tractors https://strathdee.wordpress.com/2015/01/23/the-tractors/
A post on his Facebook page on Thursday evening reads: “It is with profound sorrow we report that legendary poet, songwriter and artist, Leonard Cohen has passed away. We have lost one of music’s most revered and prolific visionaries.”
There were no details about the cause of Cohen’s death. A memorial will take place in Los Angeles at a later date, according to the announcement.