The great troubador bows out

The Week Middle East - - Front Page -

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

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