“I understand over the years I acquired this reputation for being a rather sombre chap but there’s always been a perspective of letting a little light in somewhere,” smiled Leonard Cohen, speaking to his biographer and MOJO Contributing Editor Sylvie Simmons for a story that graced the cover of the March 2012 edition of the magazine. Cohen’s comment suggested that he was aware of his place in the world and yet he immediately denied that he was much interested of self-analysis.
“I’m not a great examiner,” he continued. “I suppose it’s violating some Socratic imperative to know thyself, if that’s who it was, but I’ve always found that examination extremely tedious.”
From a man whose lyricism seemingly sprang from personal experience and his wry view of the human condition, it was a mischievous comment. This was a man who, after all, had given himself over entirely to spiritual study in the mid-’90s, abandoning music. And yet, Cohen’s combination of modesty, perceptiveness, humour, charm and understated elegance were perhaps the qualities that truly defined his life and work.
Born on September 21, 1934, in Quebec into a middle-class Jewish family, he developed an interest in literature from a young age, immersing himself in the work of Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca. An interest in music was piqued by local Socialist folk singers who played around Montreal, followed by his discovery of country music in his teens. By the time rock’n’roll hit in the mid-‘50s, Cohen had graduated from McGill University and he published his first book of poetry, Let Us Compare Mythologies, in 1956.
His second collection followed in 1961 and helped establish him as a poet of note in his native Canada. Two years earlier he had already made the decision to travel, and – thanks to $1,500 left to him by his grandmother – had bought a house on the Greek island of Hydra. There he enjoyed what he called “a very good way of living” with his new Norwegian girlfriend, Marianne Ihlen.
Continuing to write, Cohen relaxed in the sun, dropping acid, smoking hash, drinking wine, nursing hangovers, and listening to a clutch of albums by Nina Simone, Edith Piaf, Ray Charles and Sylvie Vartan. If his existence seemed idyllic and his books received good reviews, they were not selling – forcing him to return to Canada in search of work. In 1966 he headed to New York where he moved into the Chelsea Hotel and fell in with the folk crowd. It was there that he considered songwriting seriously for the first time.
The scene’s matriarch was Judy Collins – then already five albums into her career - who had actively championed emerging songwriters including Richard Fariña and Phil Ochs. Introduced to Collins by Albert Grossman’s assistant, Mary Martin, Cohen arrived at her apartment on a spring afternoon to play her his music.
“Leonard wasn’t sure whether his songs were legitimate enough,” Collins told this reporter in 2008. “We had some tea, and he sang me Suzanne and Dress Rehearsal Rag, and they were just gorgeous songs.”
Stunned by what she heard, Collins recorded both tunes on her next album, In My Life, which was released in June 1966. She also encouraged Cohen to perform his own songs, introducing him onstage at an anti-nuclear benefit at the Town Hall Theatre on April 30, 1967, for what would be his debut as a singer. “He was shaking like a leaf,” she recalled.
If the 33-year-old’s performance was nervy, it did not deter John Hammond, who signed him to Columbia and began routining songs with him - Master Song and Sisters Of Mercy among them. The sessions themselves were fraught, with the singer intimidated by the seasoned musicians who were initially employed. “I’ve never been confident about the process,” he would later remark.
To aid the proceedings, Cohen called for a full length mirror to be installed the studio so he could watch himself play guitar. It was, he later remarked, an exercise in narcissism but, equally, it appeared to intensify the performances.
During the mix he clashed with John Simon over the elaborate arrangements, and wrested the final mix from the producer, delivering an album that placed his rich, semi-spoken baritone centre-stage. With lyrical themes ranging from sex to religion via loss and conflict, Cohen’s poetry had translated intact.
Released on December 27, 1967, Songs Of Leonard Cohen barely bothered the lower reaches of the US Top 100, and yet its influence was instantly evident, drawing competitive glances from labelmate Bob Dylan. Musically, it also provided Cohen with a template that he would explore further across albums that included Songs From A Room (1969), Songs Of Love And Hate (1971) and New Skin For The Old Ceremony (1974).
Cohen’s fifth album, the sardonically titled Death Of A Ladies’ Man (1977), proved to be a point of departure, Phil Spector’s ‘Wall Of Sound’/kitchen sink production dulling the impact of the songs, and forcing their author to declare that he liked “nothing” about the record. His audience agreed.
Recent Songs (1979) – dedicated to Cohen’s mother, Masha, who had recently passed away – saw him return to a warmer, jazz-inflected sound, while Various Positions (1984) was a stylistic rebirth that saw him employ synthesisers while showcasing his deepening vocal style. The latter also begat two ‘mid-period’ classics - the trenchant Dance Me To The End Of Love, and the subsequently much-covered Hallelujah. 1988’s I’m Your Man, meanwhile, was hailed as a bona fide futuristic masterpiece; sophisticated songs like Take This Waltz, First We Take Manhattan and Tower Of Song ranked with his finest work.
Cohen’s withdrawal from music following the release of his 1992 album, The Future, in favour of spiritual exploration at the Mt. Baldy Zen Center seemed to mark the end of a career that had always ebbed and flowed in accordance with the singer’s own emotional state. And yet, in 2001, he made an unexpected return, releasing Ten New Songs, and opening the door on what would become a period of further remarkable work. If, in 2008, he began touring out of financial necessity, he bore the burden with good grace, delivering performances that astounded those who attended the shows.
Cohen’s most recent work, You Want It Darker, was released on October 21 just a few weeks before his passing on November 7. The album’s urgency is evident while tracks such as Leaving The Table hint at a farewell. According to his son, Adam, who produced it, Cohen considered it to be “one of his greatest records”.
In a recording career that spanned 49 years, Cohen’s work is enshrined in 14 studio albums and 15 books. His legacy and impact, however, remain incalculable.
“Somehow he has the ability to shine a light on our finer qualities as people in a way that makes you feel that you have an ally,” explained Cohen fan Will Oldham, aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy, speaking to MOJO in 2012. “Even if you’re looking at the beautiful and the ugly in the world, you can value it. I can look around at the good and the bad and say, Well this is humanity and I’m going to keep on dealing with it because I have this man who is doing that too.”
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