Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


COHEN, Leonard

(b 21 September 1934, Montreal, Canada; d 10 November 2016, Los Angeles) A gloomy poet who became the bard of bedsits. His father had a successful clothing store, but died when Cohen was nine; he began to write and to search for gurus, inspired by poets Louis Dudek and Irving Layton. He chased fame and women and ran away from both.

He was a member of Montreal country group the Buckskin Boys '54; then acquired a considerable reputation as poet and novelist in Canada, the first of his six books of poems published '56 while he was studying at McGill University. He lived on a Greek island, wrote novels The Favorite Game '65, Beautiful Losers '66, but turned down Canada's most prestigious literary award '68 saying that 'the poems themselves forbid it absolutely'. He became a songwriter because, he said many years later, he wasn't making a living with his writing. His early songs were covered by folksingers such as Judy Collins and Tim Hardin; he had told Collins that he couldn't sing and suffered from stage fright, but an appearance at the Big Sur Festival '67 established him as a performer. His first LP Songs Of Leonard Cohen '68 was long considered his best, including 'Suzanne', 'Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye', 'Stranger Song', but his European art-song style and icy emotional precision were unusual at the peak of the hippy era. Songs From A Room '68 worked the same formula of personal, often bitter experience steeped in religious symbolism, and was his best chart entry at no. 63, but his albums kept selling for years, the way good records used to do.

By '70 Cohen was touring with his group the Army, including producer Bob Johnson and back-up singers; Songs Of Love And Hate that year included additions to his canon 'Famous Blue Raincoat', 'Joan Of Arc', 'Avalanche' (covered by Nick Cave '84). Director Robert Altman used songs effectively in McCabe And Mrs Miller '71; Cohen was filmed by Tony Palmer in concert and backstage '72 in Bird On A Wire; album Live Songs appeared '73. The style seemed to wear thin, though New Skin For The Old Ceremony '74 included a memory of Janis Joplin in 'Chelsea Hotel No. 2'; the audience was switching to younger singer/songwriters (who owed a debt to Cohen) such as James Taylor and Joni Mitchell. Death Of A Lady's Man '78 was a strange, intriguing failure, with his funereal voice, backing including Bob Dylan and Phil Spector's 'wall of sound'. Recent Songs '79 drew on Cohen's European ancestry; Various Positions '84 revived an affinity with country music, but his sales had dropped off and Columbia refused to release it in the USA. It included 'Hallelujah', which a decade later had become one of his best-known songs. 

He was received ecstatically at European concerts that year, often playing generous sets of over three hours. His songs tapped a raw nerve and still stand up as an austere chronicle; a collection by Jennifer Warnes Famous Blue Raincoat '86 on Cypress USA/RCA UK was highly praised and reminded people how much they liked his words. I'm Your Man '88 modernized his sound with electronic keyboards and had him growling with scabrous humour; The Future '92 dealt with social calamities (stand-out tracks included 'Closing Time'). He's been with Columbia since the beginning and jokes about their failure to promote his albums. In Every Style Of Passion '96 by Jim Devlin was a worthwhile book; the title of biography Various Positions: A Life of Leonard Cohen '97 by Ira B. Nadel is a reference to the Zen Buddhism he studied for many years. I'm Your Fan '91 was a tribute collection of his songs by alternative rock bands.

In the mid-1990s he retreated to a monastery near Los Angeles and was ordained a Buddhist monk, but he hadn't left music; albums Ten New Songs and Dear Heather appeared in 2001 and 2004. In 2005 he sued his former manager, Kelley Lynch, accusing her of appropriating millions of dollars of his money and leaving him with a big taxbill; he won a settlement but could never collect any of the money. In 2006 he published a new book of poems, Book Of Longing, which Philip Glass set to music and took on tour with a recording of Cohen's voice. In 2008-10 Cohen toured widely because he needed the money, so impractical, he told a newspaper, that he didn't even know where his bank was. CDs and videos of the touring were Live In London and Songs From The Road. His financial situation restored, in 2012 he released Old Ideas, his first album of new songs in seven years, and embarked on yet another tour. Another biography in 2013 was I'm Your Man, by Sylvie Simmons The album Popular Problems was released in 2014, and a three-CD one-DVD set called Live in Dublin. His final studio album, You Want It Darker, came out the month before he died, recorded while he sat in an orthopedic chair to ease his pain from cancer and problems with his back. He retained his equanimity and sense of humour to the end.

People complained in the 1960s that Bob Dylan couldn't sing, but he warbled like a nightingale compared to Leonard Cohen. Dylan won the Nobel prize for literature for his lyrics in 2016; when he had said that he regarded Cohen as his only rival, one hopes he was referring to Cohen's lyrics. In any case, the more-or-less cheerful resignation to his fate in Cohen's songs had brought him world-wide fandom.