Leonard Cohen died on Friday 11 November 2016, aged 82 at his home in Los Angeles. He had just released his 14th studio album ‘You want it darker’ to great acclaim and was preparing for a world tour.
Although his music is often associated with melancholy introspection, his lyrics often had witty twists which chimes with an on-stage and off-stage personality that was warm and self-deprecating.
Leonard Norman Cohen was born in Westmount, a well-to-do area of Montreal, Canada on 21 September 1934.
His mother had emigrated from Lithuania to Canada and his father Nathan, whose ancestors came from Poland, owned a successful clothing store.
His father died when Cohen was just nine years old but left his son a trust fund that would enable him to pursue his chosen literary career.
The young Cohen attended a privately run Jewish co-educational day school where he learned to play guitar and formed a folk group called the Buckskin Boys.
In 1951 he started studying English Literature at Montreal’s McGill University and published his first collection of poetry, Let Us Compare Mythologies, in 1956. His poetry was generally well received and he went on to release a second volume whilst studying at Columbia University in New York , entitled The Spice Box of Earth, in 1961, aged 27.
He took up travelling the world and indulged in whatever substances were available including LSD. After a spell in London he bought a typewriter, blue raincoat and moved to the Greek Island of Hydra.
He lived there with Norwegian Marianne Jensen, for whom he later wrote So Long Marianne. Her death in early 2016 inspired Cohen’s final album, You Want It Darker, released just three weeks ago.
He went on to publish two novels and moved to New York in 1966 with the aim of becoming a songwriter and singer. His debut album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, was released in December 1967 to reasonable commercial success, but instantly became a cult classic with stars such as Judy Collins covering the classic song Suzanne.
Leonard Cohen, Janis Joplin and the Chelsea Hotel
Leonard Cohen wrote the song Chelsea Hotel about a sexual encounter with singer Janis Joplin and the story he often recounts on stage is rich with his typical dark humour and charm.
“A thousand years ago I lived at this Hotel in NYC. I was a frequent rider of the elevator on this Hotel. I will continuously leave my room and come back. I was an expert on the buttons of that elevator. One of the few technologies I really ever mastered. The door opened. I walked in. Put my finger right on the button. No hesitation. Great sense of mastery in those days. Late in the morning, early in the evening. I noticed a young woman in that elevator. She was riding it with as much delight as I was. Even though she commanded huge audiences, riding that elevator was the only thing she really knew how to do. My lung gathered my courage. I said to her “Are you looking for someone?” She said “Yes, I’m looking for Kris Kristofferson “I said “Little Lady, you’re in luck, I am Kris Kristofferson.” Those were generous times. Even though she knew that I was somewhat shorter than Kris Kristofferson, she never let on. Great generosity prevailed in those doom decades. Anyhow I wrote this song for Janis Joplin at the Chelsea Hotel.”
Although it became known that the female protagonist was Janis Joplin, Cohen always regretted the locker room revelation of lines like “giving me head on the unmade bed, while the limousines wait in the street.”, although this is balanced by “You told me again you preferred handsome men but for me you would make an exception.”
The man who others covered
Although his albums and music had a dedicated following, Leonard Cohen’s songs were frequently covered by other people. Arguably, his most famous song is Hallelujah which was covered many times with a particularly haunting version by Jeff Buckley in 1994 followed by another cover by Rufus Wainwright which featured in the hit movie Shrek.
Songs like ‘I can’t forget’, ‘First we take Manhattan’ and ‘Tower of Song’ have also been covered by diverse artists such as The Pixies, Nick Cave etc etc. ‘Suzanne’ has had versions by Neil Diamond, Nina Simone and Roberta Flack. The album ‘I’m Your Fan’ has various Alternative artists covering his songs including three increasingly unhinged versions of Tower of Song by Nick Cave.
Leonard Cohen’s lyrics and music will live on and he leaves a rich legacy.