The great troubador bows out
Leonard Cohen, who has died aged 82, gave up a promising literary career to become one of the most extraordinary singer-songwriters of his generation. Enigmatic, gravelvoiced and broodingly handsome, “he cultivated an air of spiritual yearning mixed with smouldering eroticism”, said The Washington Post. His songs – spare, oblique, uplifting yet bleak – dwelt on love and faith, war and politics, depression and exaltation. An unconventional pop star (if he was one at all), he didn’t release his first record until he was 33 – an old man by 1960s standards; “his incantatory, half-spoken songs were more in the tradition of the European troubadour” than the rock star; and in a recording career spanning almost 50 years, he didn’t have a single Top 20 UK hit. Yet his songs – Suzanne, Bird on the Wire, So Long, Marianne, Dance Me to the End of Love, I’m Your Man, Hallelujah – have been covered by everyone from Aretha Franklin to REM; and have come to be regarded as some of the most powerful ever written. “In an era in which anyone who warbled about ‘the unicorns of my mind’ was liable to he hailed as a poet, Cohen was the genuine article,” said The Times. As Bob Dylan once noted, his songs “make you think, and feel”.
Leonard Norman Cohen was born into a prosperous family in Montreal in 1934. His father – whose family had emigrated from Poland – ran a successful clothing business; he died when Leonard was nine, but left his son a trust fund that would later enable him to pursue his literary ambitions. His mother, a nurse, was the daughter of a rabbi and Talmudic scholar. He loved the language of the synagogue, he would say, “where everything is important. The absence of the casual always attracted me.” Aged 15, said Dorian Lynskey in The Guardian, Cohen discovered Federico García Lorca, and the consolation of poetry. “The loneliness was dissolved,” he recalled, “and you felt that you were this aching creature in the midst of an aching cosmos, and the ache was OK. Not only was it OK, but it was the way that you embraced the Sun and the Moon.” It was a sentiment he returned to in his song Anthem: “Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.”
In 1951, Cohen went up to Montreal’s McGill University, to study English. There, he won prizes for creative writing, and published his first book of poetry, Let Us Compare Mythologies. In the early 1960s, he travelled to Cuba, and then on to Greece. On a whim, he bought a house on the small island of Hydra that he shared with a young Norwegian woman named Marianne Ihlen. They would remain together for about ten years, despite his infidelities, and she inspired many of his early songs. It was also around this time that he suffered for the first time the “mental violence” of depression. Years later, he described depression as “the background to your entire life, a background of anguish and anxiety, a sense that nothing goes well, that pleasure is unavailable and all your strategies collapse”.
Having spent his late 20s shuttling between Hydra and Montreal, he published his first novel, The Favourite Game, in 1963, then followed it up with Beautiful Losers in 1966. Both were critically acclaimed, and the latter eventually became a bestseller – but sales were slow at first, and in despair at ever making any money from literature, he decided to move to Nashville, to become a singersongwriter (as a teenager, he’d learned the guitar and played in a country and western band). But he stopped en route in New York, discovered the Greenwich Village folk-revival scene, and instead checked into the Chelsea Hotel, where he lived for the next two years. It was the folk singer Judy Collins who put him on the musical map, when she featured his song Suzanne (inspired by his platonic friendship with Suzanne Verdal) on her hit album In My Life (1966).
She also encouraged Cohen, who suffered from crippling stage fright, to perform himself. Soon, he had been spotted by the legendary A&R man John Hammond (who also signed Dylan) and given a contract at Columbia. His first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967), was not universally admired by the critics, said The Daily Telegraph, but its pared-back melodies struck a chord with troubled youth, who “would listen to his songs and plunge into an ocean of delicious sadness”; it remained in the UK charts for 70 weeks. Songs from a Room followed in 1969, and helped cement his reputation as the “bard of the bedsit”. It featured Bird on the Wire, with its famous lyric: “Like a bird on the wire / Like a drunk in a midnight choir / I have tried in my way to be free.”
As the 1970s wore on, his music became ever bleaker as his depression intensified. In 1977, he produced Death of a Ladies’ Man, which paired him, disastrously, with Phil “Wall of Sound” Spector. It is generally regarded as his worst album. “Leonard, we know you’re great,” Columbia boss Walter Yetnikoff supposedly said when Cohen delivered Various Positions, in 1984. “But we don’t know if you’re any good.” The album wasn’t even released in the US, yet it contained not only Dance Me to the End of Love – inspired by the Holocaust – but Hallelujah. Cohen insisted that he knew the difference between a poem and a song, but he approached his work as though it were poetry: painstakingly chiselling away at the words. Hallelujah took him five years to write but remained relatively obscure until it was covered by Jeff Buckley in 1994; it has since been recorded hundreds of times. It took the synth-pop of I’m Your Man (1988) to restablish Cohen’s reputation. In the 1990s, he spent five years living in a Zen Buddhist monastery in California, where he was known as Jikan, meaning “silence”. When he emerged, he found that his manager had stolen millions of dollars from his retirement fund, and so it was that in his 70s, he went back on tour. The depression banished, he smiled, he danced, he tipped his fedora hat. Interviewers found him gracious, humorous, self-deprecating – and in the midst of an astonishing late-life flowering. One of his best albums was his last, You Want it Darker, produced by his son, Adam. (Cohen never married, but had two children, Adam and Lorca, by artist Suzanne Elrod.) He knew he didn’t have long. This summer, he heard that Marianne Ihlen was dying. Though he hadn’t seen her for decades, he wrote her a last love letter, in which he told her he’d soon be following her. “Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch your hand, I think you can reach mine… Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road.”
“His pared-back melodies struck a chord with troubled youth, who would listen to them and plunge into an ocean of delicious sadness”
Cohen: spent five years in a Zen Buddhist monastery