Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The Late Great Leonard Cohen

Poet, novelist, and songwriter Leonard Cohen died on November 7 2016 at the age of 82.

Leonard Cohen was born on September 21 1934 in Westmount, Quebec. His paternal grandfather was Lyon Cohen, co-founder of the Canadian Jewish Times, the first English language Jewish newspaper in Canada, and the first president of the Canadian Jewish Congress. His father, Nathan Cohen, owned a successful clothing store. His mother, Masha (née Klonitzky), was a nurse and the daughter of Talmudic writer, Rabbi Solomon Klonitsky-Kline. Leonard Cohen's father died when Leonard Cohen was only nine years old.

Leonard Cohen attended Roslyn Elementary School in Westmount. He attended several years at Herzliah High School in Montreal before transferring to  Westmount High School. He became interested in poetry and music while still in school, and became particularly interested in the work of  Federico García Lorca. He taught himself to play acoustic guitar.

In 1951 Leonard Cohen enrolled at McGill University in Montreal. The magazine CIV/n published his first poems in March 1954. Leonard Cohen graduated from McGill University in 1955. It was in 1956 that his first book of poetry, Let Us Compare Mythologies, was published. Mr. Cohen furthered his education with a term at the law school of McGill University and then a year at the School of General Studies at Columbia University. His next book of poems, The Spice-Box of Earth, was published in 1961. It was followed by the novel The Favourite Game in 1963 and another book of poems, Flowers for Hitler, 1964. Another novel,  Beautiful Losers, was published in 1966.

Leonard Cohen made little money from his writing upon the initial publication of his books, and as a result he turned to songwriting. He wrote the songs "Suzanne" and "Dress Rehearsal Rag" in 1966. Both were recorded by Judy Collins and appeared on her album In My Life. Miss Collins also released "Suzanne" as a single. Mr. Cohen released his first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, in 1967.  Many of the songs on the album would be covered by other artists. "Suzanne" was recorded by Noel Harrison, Neil Diamond, Tori Amos, Nick Cave, Peter Gabriel, and others. "Sisters of Mercy" was recorded by Judy Collins and The Chieftains; it also provided the name of the Goth band The Sisters of Mercy. "So Long Marianne" was recorded by Brian Hyland and the band James.

In the late Sixties and in the Seventies Leonard Cohen followed his first album with four more albums (Songs from a Room in 1969, Songs of Love and Hate in 1971, New Skin for the Old Ceremony in 1974, Death of a Ladies' Man in 1977, and Recent Songs in 1979). As with his first album, many of his songs would be covered by others. "Story of Isaac", from Songs from a Room, was covered by Suzanne Vega and others.  "Famous Blue Raincoat", from Songs of Love and Hate, was recorded by Jennifer Warnes, Tori Amos, and others. "Ballad of the Absent Mare", from Recent Songs, was covered by  Emmylou Harris and others. Mr. Cohen also published two more books: The Energy of Slaves in 1972 and Death of a Lady's Man in 1978.

It would be in 1984 that what might be Leonard Cohen's most covered song appeared on the album Various Positions. "Hallelujah" has been covered by such artists as John Cale, Jeff Buckley, and many, many others. Over 300 versions of the song are known to exist. It was also in 1984 that his book Book of Mercy was published. In 1988 Mr. Cohen released the album I'm Your Man.

The Nineties saw the release of Mr. Cohen's album The Future in 1992 and his book Stranger Music: Selected Poems and Songs in 1993. He spent most of the Nineties as a a Buddhist monk  in the Mount Baldy monastery near Los Angeles. At the time many pondered if he would ever record again, but in 2001 he released the album Ten New Songs. He followed it with Dear Heather in 2004. His book Book of Longing was published in 2006.

The Teens saw more new music from Leonard Cohen. He released the albums Old Ideas (2012), Popular Problems (2014), and, his final album, You Want It Darker (2016).  His book Poems and Songs was published in 2011 and Fifteen Poems in 2012. Leonard Cohen continued to work even as he was dying. He was working on two other musical projects and another book of poetry.

To say that Leonard Cohen was one of the greatest songwriters of all time might well be an understatement. He was certainly one of the greatest lyricists. Through his songs Mr. Cohen addressed a number of topics, both timeless and current: love, religion, despair, isolation, war, politics, and many more. His songs could at times be depressing, although even at their darkest there would always be a glimmer of hope. Mr. Cohen could even address the darkest themes with a sense of humour (as in his song "Everybody Knows").  Even when Mr. Cohen's songs did not directly address the subject of religion, his songs were always deeply spiritual. What is more, anyone could identify with Leonard Cohen's songs. He was Jewish all his life and had lived as a Buddhist monk, but his songs could be appreciated by anyone, whether they were Christian, Muslim, atheist, or someone with no particular belief system at all. Quite simply, like any great poet, Leonard Cohen addressed the human condition, and he did so with lyrics that were as often oblique as they were clear.

Throughout his career Leonard Cohen saw little success on the charts. Only his first album ever went gold. Even so, he must stand as one of the most successful songwriters of all time. There are over 300 versions of "Hallelujah" alone. With the exception of his most recent album, nearly all of his albums boasted at least one song, usually more, that was covered by multiple artists. Much of this was perhaps because Leonard Cohen's songs were much like he was: elegant and charming, yet human and approachable. While Leonard Cohen may not have seen much success on the charts, there can be no doubt he will be remembered long after many pop sensations have been forgotten.

No comments: