RIP Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen
Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen at the Arena in Geneva, 27 October 2008. Pic: Rama/Creative Commons.

Music world is in mourning after one of the greatest songwriters of his generation dies at the age of 82

Revered singer-songwriter, poet and novelist Leonard Cohen has passed away at the age of 82. The cause of his death has not been made public, but the Canadian recently hinted that he may have been having health problems, telling New Yorker magazine that, “I am ready to die. I hope it’s not too uncomfortable. That’s about it for me.”

Leonard Norman Cohen was born on 21 September 1934 in Westmount, Quebec, and attended Westmount High School, where he was a keen student of music and poetry. As a teenager, he learned to play the guitar and formed a country-folk group called the Buckskin Boys. Although he initially played a regular acoustic, he switched to playing a classical guitar after meeting a young Spanish flamenco guitar player who taught him “a few chords and some flamenco”.

Already established as a poet and novelist (his first book of poems, Let Us Compare Mythologies, was published in 1956), Cohen became interested in the Greenwich Village folk scene while living in New York in the mid-1960s, and began setting his poems to music. In 1967 Judy Collins recorded two of his songs, Suzanne and Dress Rehearsal Rag, and that same year he began performing in public, including an appearance at the Newport Folk Festival. By the end of the year, he had recorded The Songs of Leonard Cohen, which included the melancholy Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye. That album was followed by Songs From A Room (1969), featuring the much-covered Bird On A Wire, and Songs Of Love And Hate (1971), containing Famous Blue Raincoat, a ballad in the form of a letter from a cuckold to his wife’s lover.

Though some did not care for Cohen’s baritone voice and deadpan delivery, he enjoyed considerable critical and commercial success. Live Songs (1973) and New Skin For The Old Ceremony (1974), which included Chelsea Hotel No 2, a frank recollection of a brief dalliance with Janis Joplin, further enhanced Cohen’s standing as a songwriter of exceptional emotional power. His 1977 album Death Of A Ladies’ Man (1977) saw him working with legendary producer Phil Spector, but Spector’s grandiose style was ill-suited to Cohen’s understated songs and for most of the 1980s Cohen was out of favour.

Nonetheless, 1984’s Various Positions included what was probably his best-known song, Hallelujah – as later covered by John Cale, Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright, Willie Nelson and kd lang, as well as over 300 other artists including 2008 X-Factor winner Alexandra Burke. His 1988 album, I’m Your Man, included the hits First We Take Manhattan and Everybody Knows, and introduced his songwriting to a new generation.

After releasing The Future (1992), he retired to a Buddhist monastery outside Los Angeles. He emerged in 1999 and returned to the studio, producing Ten New Songs (2001) and Dear Heather (2004). The critically acclaimed documentary Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man (2005) blended interview and archival footage with performances of Cohen’s songs by a variety of musicians.

In 2005, Cohen discovered that his business manager had embezzled some $5 million from his savings, and in 2008 he embarked on a concert tour – his first in 15 years – to rebuild his finances. One show was recorded for the album Live In London (2009), a two-disc set which proved that, at age 73, Cohen was as vibrant and vital as ever. The aptly titled Old Ideas (2012) was a bluesy exploration of familiar themes – spirituality, love, and loss – that eschewed the synthesized melodies of much of Cohen’s post-1980s material in favour of the folkier sound of his earliest work, a vein he mostly stuck to on his final two studio albums, 2014’s Popular Problems and 2016’s You Want It Darker.

During his lifetime, Cohen was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame, the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. He was also a Companion of the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honour. Giving the speech at Cohen’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008, Lou Reed described Cohen as belonging to the “highest and most influential echelon of songwriters.”

On Twitter today, artists paying their respects have so far included (in the order we spotted them) Carole King, Alanis Morrisette, Boy George, Paloma Faith, Bette Midler, Mark Knopfler, Biffy Clyro, Nick Cave, Beth Orton, Reverend & The Makers, Charlotte Church and Gabrielle Aplin – not to mention publications ranging from Billboard and the NME to Time, actor Russell Crowe, writer JK Rowling, Canadian president Justin Trudeau, and BBC Radios 2, 4 and 6. That Cohen could reach such a diverse fanbase surely pays greater tribute to his songwriting genius than our mere words ever could.

Rest in peace Leonard Cohen, 1934-2016. The world of music will be poorer without him.

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