Singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen penned emotionally moving, highly poetic ruminations on love, faith, the present and the future over the course of a highly respected career that drew comparisons with such iconic musicians as Bob Dylan. An acclaimed poet in his native Canada, Cohen began writing songs in the late 1960s, garnering initial attention for his song "Suzanne," which, like so much of his material, was covered by numerous artists. Though possessed of a gravely, near-monotone singing voice, Cohen's dramatic, jazz-infused delivery imbued songs like "Bird on a Wire," "Famous Blue Raincoat" and "Sisters of Mercy" with considerable passion and gravitas, which elevated him to cult status in the United States and full-fledged stardom around the world. A tribute album by longtime collaborator Jennifer Warnes in 1987 led to a career revival that positioned him as the musical forebear of the independent music scene, as well as a peer of such established songwriters as Paul Simon, Lou Reed and Joni Mitchell. During this period, his 1984 song "Hallelujah" found a second life in the hands of younger artists including Jeff Buckley and Rufus Wainwright. Cohen continued to remain prolific and relevant well into the 21st century, touring and recording with the energy and commitment to his craft of much younger performers. An inspirational figure to writers, poets and lovers for over a half-century, Leonard Cohen underscored rock-n-roll's status as a true art form by bringing literary brilliance to the medium. His death in November 2016 at the age of 82 was greeted with international displays of mourning befitting his status as an elder statesman of the arts.
Born Sept. 21, 1934 in Westmount, an English-speaking city in Montreal, Quebec, Leonard Cohen was the son of clothing storeowner Norman Cohen and his wife, Marsha Klonitsky. Both parents were descended from significant figures in Canada's Jewish community; his parental grandfather was Lyor Cohen, who founded the Canadian Jewish Congress, while his mother's father was Talmudic writer Rabbi Solomon Klonitsky-Kline. Cohen's father died when he was nine years old, and his mother became his guiding force, especially in regard to his interest in the arts. Poetry captured his attention when he was in high school, while music was, for a time, an afterthought. Eventually, he formed his own country-folk group, the Buckskin Boys, which performed at local cafes. Cohen enrolled at McGill University in 1951, where his poetry earned the prestigious Chester MacNaughton Prize for Creative Writing. After graduating in 1955, he published his first book, Let Us Compare Mythologies (1956), which compiled poems he had written between the ages of 15 and 20. After a term at McGill's law school and an unsatisfying year at Columbia University's School of General Studies, Cohen began work on a second book, The Spice-Box of Earth (1961), which established him as a leading literary figure in Canada.
The success of the book, as well as a modest trust fund from his father's estate, allowed Cohen to travel extensively before settling on the Greek island of Hydra. There, he penned a pair of poetry collections, Flowers for Hitler (1964) and Parasites of Heaven (1966) as well as two novels, The Favourite Game (1963) and Beautiful Losers (1966). The latter drew some of the strongest critical praise of Cohen's literary career, with critics comparing his work to James Joyce. However, save for Losers, his books only saw modest sales. Cohen soon began writing music, eventually moving to Nashville for a period, and then New York, where he briefly became involved with Andy Warhol's Factory scene. One of his original songs, "Suzanne," was championed by folksinger Judy Collins, who recorded it for her 1966 album, In My Life. The exposure afforded by Collins' version gave Cohen's music career a considerable boost, which soon led to performances at the 1967 Newport Folk Festival and appearances on American television.
Producer John Hammond, Sr., who had been instrumental in the recording careers of artists like Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, got Cohen signed to Columbia Records. There, he recorded his debut album, Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967), which featured "Suzanne" along with such well-loved numbers as "Sisters of Mercy" and "Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye." The record immediately established Cohen as a prominent figure on the folk-rock scene, selling over 100,000 copies, while artists ranging from Collins and James Taylor to Noel Harrison and Harry Belafonte recorded their own versions of songs from the album. Director Robert Altman would also use three songs for the soundtrack to his 1971 film "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," which further expanded Cohen's popularity. During this period, he also continued to write poetry, much of which was collected in Selected Poems: 1956-1968 (1968), which earned Cohen the Governor-General's Award, the highest literary honor in Canada. Cohen turned down the award and its monetary prize, citing that he wanted nothing from a "callous" world, which famously prompted fellow Canadian author Mordecai Richler to threaten Cohen with a "punch in the nose."
Cohen's next records, 1969's Songs from a Room and Songs of Love and Hate (1970), were marked by their unadorned arrangements of Cohen's increasingly bleak material. Though fewer listeners purchased these records, those that did were deeply enamored by such heartfelt and powerful songs as "Bird on a Wire," the anti-war screed "The Story of Isaac" and "Famous Blue Raincoat." Cohen's career soon morphed into that of a beloved cult performer with a connection to a small but dedicated audience that viewed his material as deeply personal expressions of their own emotional states. In 1970, he gave his first international tour, which included a performance at the Isle of Wight Festival alongside such '60s icons as Jimi Hendrix, The Who and The Doors. These live sets were documented in the 1973 compilation album Leonard Cohen: Live Songs, as well as in the concert film "Bird on a Wire" (1972), which Cohen initially blocked due to his dissatisfaction with the end result. It would remain out of circulation until its restoration for DVD in 2010.
Pianist and arranger John Lissauer, who had accompanied Cohen on tours of the United States, Europe and Israel between 1971 and 1973, served as producer for the songwriter's four album, New Skin for the Old Ceremony. A more lush-sounding effort than his previous releases, the album featured one of Cohen's most talked-about numbers, "Chelsea Hotel #2," which reportedly detailed a sexual encounter with Janis Joplin at the titular location, where both lived in the early 1970s. After a lengthy tour through 1976 and 1977 to promote Columbia's release of The Best of Leonard Cohen, he returned to the studio for Death of a Ladies' Man (1977), which paired him with notorious producer Phil Spector. The over-produced end result was met by negative response from nearly all listeners, including Cohen himself, who was reportedly barred from the studio by an armed Spector. Perhaps as a response to the problems with the notoriously unhinged producer, Cohen began co-producing his own work, beginning in 1979 with the jazz-driven effort Recent Songs.
Though he remained extremely popular with international audiences, Cohen's profile in the United States dwindled during the 1980s. He had spent several years working on the score for a rock musical called "Night Magic" (1985) which earned a Juno for Best Movie Score but went largely unseen by stateside audiences, and an album of poetry recitations called Songs for Rebecca was abandoned. When he finally returned with a new record, 1984's Various Positions, Columbia refused to release it in the United States, citing their lack of faith in his ability to generate record sales. The album, which credited longtime backing singer Jennifer Warnes as co-vocalist, featured two enduring songs from Cohen's catalog: the tragic ballad "Dance Me to the End of Love" and "Hallelujah," which was covered by a dizzying array of pop acts after Jeff Buckley revived the track in 2006. The album's release coincided with Book of Mercy (1984), his first collection of poems since 1978. The publication received the Canadian Authors' Association Literary Award for Poetry.
Cohen devoted his energies to live performance in the wake of Various Positions. But 1987's Famous Blue Raincoat, an album of Cohen covers performed by Warnes, helped to revive interest in his songwriting, and Cohen himself would rebound with 1990's I'm Your Man. Driven largely by synthesizers, the album featured one of Cohen's darkest compositions, "Everybody Knows," which would introduce the singer to a new generation of listeners through its inclusion on the soundtrack to Allan Moyle's "Pump Up the Volume" (1990). I'm Your Man proved to be not only one of Cohen's best-selling records in over a decade, but also the beginning of a career revival that positioned him as a natural forerunner to such independent artists as Nick Cave and R.E.M., both of which paid tribute to the singer on I'm Your Fan: The Songs of Leonard Cohen by., a cover compilation that also featured Ian McCullouch of Echo and the Bunnymen, the Pixies, Lloyd Cole and other alternative rock acts.
Cohen quickly responded with The Future (1992), a meditation on political and social upheaval that also generated healthy sales. The inclusion of three songs, including "The Future," on the soundtrack for Oliver Stone's controversial "Natural Born Killers" (1992), further expanded Cohen's fan base, which in turn led to a new book of poems, Stranger Music (1993) and a second, higher-profile tribute record, Tower of Song (1994), featuring covers by such A-list artists as Billy Joel, Sting, Willie Nelson and Bono. In the midst of this flurry of activity, Cohen surprised many by beginning a five-year retreat at the Mt. Baldy Zen Center in Los Angeles. There, he was ordained as a Buddhist monk while working on a large number of new songs and poems, which he previewed on a fan site before recording 2001's Ten New Songs, an album co-written and produced by longtime musical partner Sharon Robinson. Shortly after Cohen was made a Companion of the Order of Canada in 2003, he released Dear Heather (2004), a surprisingly upbeat collaboration with singer and romantic partner Anjani Thomas. In interviews, Cohen attributed the album's lighter tone to the alleviation of his longtime depression due to his Buddhist studies. His newfound optimism clearly aided him in a lengthy legal battle with his former manager, Kelley Lynch, over alleged misappropriation of $5 million of Cohen's financial savings. Lynch was eventually sentenced to 18 months in jail for harassing the singer and violating restraining orders.
Cohen again rebounded from this setback with a flurry of new releases, including Blue Alert (2006), an album of songs co-written and sung by Thomas, and a best-selling collection of poems and drawings called Book of Longing (2006). Composer Phillip Glass later set the text from the book to music as part of a multimedia tribute to Cohen called Book of Longing: A Song Cycle Based on the Poetry and Artwork of Leonard Cohen. A documentary/concert film called "Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man" (2006) rounded out this round of activity before Cohen launched his first tour in over 15 years in 2008, the same year he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and made a Grand Officer of the National Order of Quebec. Though well into his seventh decade at the beginning of the two-year tour, Cohen eventually played over 200 dates, including critically acclaimed appearances at major international festivals, including the Coachella Festival in 2009. The tour also generated two concert CD/DVDs, including his first official DVD, "Live in London" (2009). After receiving a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011, Cohen completed a new studio album, Old Ideas, which became his highest-charting album in the United States by reaching No. 3 on the Billboard 200 upon its release in 2012. That same year, Cohen and Chuck Berry were the first recipients of the PEN Award for Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence. Releasing new material with a speed not seen since the earlier years of Cohen's career, he quickly followed that commercial high point with Popular Problems in 2014 and You Want It Darker in 2016. Less than two weeks after that release, Leonard Cohen's death was announced on November 10, 2016; it was later revealed that he had died in his sleep on November 7 after falling earlier in the night. He was 82.
By Paul Gaita
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Moved to NYC after graduating from McGill University (date approx.)
Published first book of poetry Let Us Compare Mythologies
Wrote first novel The Favourite Game
Penned "Suzanne" and "Dress Rehearsal Rag" for folk singer Judy Collins' album In My Life
Released debut album Songs Of Leonard Cohen
Made musical performing debut at Newport Folk Festival
Made acting debut in drama feature "The Ernie Game"
Sophomore album Songs from a Room featured single "Bird on a Wire"
Released Songs of Love and Hate; featured the singles "Avalanche" and "Famous Blue Raincoat"
First live album, Live Songs: Leonard Cohen
Released Various Positions, which included signature track "Hallelujah"
Co-wrote screenplay and soundtrack to musical fantasy film Night Magic with Lewis Furey
Guest starred on NBC's "Miami Vice"
First cover of "Hallelujah," recorded by Welsh singer John Cale, featured in tribute album I'm Your Fan: The Songs of Leonard Cohen
Three tracks from 1992 album The Future "Waiting for the Miracle," "The Future," and "Anthem" featured in Oliver Stone's "Natural Born Killers"
Jeff Buckley's cover of "Hallelujah" included in late singer's only complete album Grace
Retreated to the Mt. Baldy Zen Center near Los Angeles, CA for five-year seclusion
Made musical comeback with 10th studio album Ten New Songs
Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
Album of live performances Songs from the Road released
Received a lifetime achievement Grammy Award
Reached No. 3 on Billboard 200 chart with twelfth studio album Old Ideas