The legendary singer and songwriter from Canada was known for his poetic lyrics, iconic songs and his baritone voice that has inspired musicians and lovers of music for decades. Perhaps best known for his 1984 song Hallelujah, the writer and guitarist composed many other familiar folk-rock and pop songs throughout the ages. He died at the age of 82 on November 10, 2016.
Prayer is translation. A man translates himself into a child asking for all there is in a language he has barely mastered.- Leonard Cohen
Cohen was born on September 21, 1934 in Montreal, Canada to an intellectual Jewish family. He was encouraged by his parents to pursue his interests in poetry and music, and he was also immersed in Jewish theology as well as the stories of the Old Testament in his youth. These early interests and influences provided a blueprint for many of his later artistic works.
Leonard Cohen started playing guitar at the age of 13 and it wasn’t long before he was playing country music in the cafes around Montreal. He eventually formed a group known as the Buckskin Boys. Their gigs involved performing traditional songs at square dances. But even though he enjoyed his time on stage, it was still poetry that consumed him the most.
Cohen was inspired by the likes of Federico Garcia Lorca and Jack Kerouac. When he attended the University to study English in 1951, his love for poetry and writing would take over his studies. He graduated in 1955 and the next year the University published his first collection Let Us Compare Mythologies.
The Spice Box of the Earth
After briefly attending Columbia University, Cohen returned to Montreal and worked various odd jobs as he continued to write poetry. His next book, The Spice Box of the Earth was published in 1961 and it marked the beginning of Cohen’s budding career. Spice Box was a critical and commercial success and earned him enough royalties so that he could buy a modest home on the Greek Island of Hydra where he enjoyed writing, swimming and sailing for the next seven years.
Throughout the 1960s Cohen wrote several poetry collections including Flowers for Hitler, Parasites of Heaven, and Beautiful Losers which gained him public outrage in Canada for the book’s overly sexual content. Despite the attention, Cohen was beginning to feel that he would not be able to continue to make a career out of writing poetry and started to explore music once again.
Bird on a Wire
Cohen spent the latter part of the sixties writing songs and more poems. The collection Songs for a Room contains tracks that were covered by notable singers such as Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson. It also featured one of the tracks that Cohen performed in 1969 at the Isle of Wight Festival in England, where he appeared alongside acts such as Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis and the Doors.
The Famous Blue Raincoat
Other songs that he performed during the Isle of Wright set included Famous Blue Raincoat which was a song about a cuckolded husband writing to his wife’s lover. It is one of his best tracks from his third album Songs of Love and Hate. Three of the songs from the 1971 album were featured in the Robert Altman western McCabe & Mrs. Miller which starred Warren Beatty and Julie Christie.
The Brand New Skin
In 1974, Cohen returned to the studio to record the album New Skin for the Old Ceremony which featured a downbeat mood and fuller arrangements than his previous albums. He toured to support the album before releasing a greatest hits collection. While he enjoyed the devotion of his fans, the album didn’t reach the commercial success his label had hoped for.
But if Columbia was expecting different results from his next album, they were to be disappointed. Death of a Ladies’ Man was a problematic release from the very beginning. Cohen worked with the troubled producer Phil Spector who had an erratic behavior, culminating in him holding a gun to Cohen’s head. Spector also mixed the recordings without Cohen’s input, resulting in an overblown end product that Leonard himself described as being “grotesque”.
The Release of Hallelujah
After a five-year hiatus, during which Cohen released no new material, he made up for lost time in 1984 with the publication of the poetry collection Book of Mercy and the album Various Positions, both of which focus more specifically on themes of spirituality, most notably on the song “Hallelujah.” Counted among Cohen’s best-known, best-loved and most-often-performed songs of all time, “Hallelujah” has been covered by hundreds of artists since, including Jeff Buckley and Rufus Wainwright. The album, however, failed to gain much recognition, and it would be another five years before Cohen would release anything new.
Dance Me to the End of Love
In 2006, Cohen, who had released a number of other exceptional works throughout his career, published a new collection of poetry Book of Longing and in 2008, after he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he went on a two-year long world tour which was chronicled on the albums Live in London and Songs from the Road.
Prolific till the end, three weeks before his death, Cohen released You Want It Darker, recorded in his home while his health was rapidly declining. His son Adam produced the album, and told Rolling Stone magazine, “At times I was very worried about his health, and the only thing that buoyed his spirits was the work itself.” Leonard Cohen died on November 10, 2016 at the age of 82.