A poet and novelist as well as a songwriter, Cohen, who has died aged 82, was as much a literary figure as a musical one.
Early in his career, his novel Beautiful Losers (1966) caused the Boston Globe to declare that “James Joyce is not dead. He is living in Montreal under the name of Cohen.” Yet Cohen was determined to establish himself as a songwriter, having been smitten as profoundly as any of his contemporaries by the emergence of rock’n’roll music. “I always loved rock,” he said. “I remember the first time I heard Presley, how relieved and grateful I was that all this stuff he and all of us had been feeling for so long had finally found a particular kind of expression.”
His debut album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, was released in December 1967, and while not everybody loved its funereal tone, the songs it contained, such as Suzanne, So Long, Marianne and Sisters of Mercy, would prove to be cornerstones of his repertoire for the rest of his long musical career.
In his later years he became a Zen monk and spent much of the 1990s sequestered in a monastery on Mount Baldy in California, where he was known as Jikan (the Silent One). Fans often seek spiritual guidance from their idols, but Cohen was a rare example of one who might actually have been capable of providing it.
Cohen was born in Westmount, a well-to-do suburb of Montreal. He was the second child of Nathan, who owned a clothing business, and his wife, Masha (nee Klonitsky), the daughter of a rabbi. Cohen exhibited a passion for country music from an early age and formed a country and western band, the Buckskin Boys, while studying English at McGill University. At the time, this seemed like a mere sideline to a highly promising literary career. He published his first collection of poetry, Let Us Compare Mythologies, in 1956. His second, The Spice-Box of Earth, followed in 1961, and the provocatively titled Flowers for Hitler (1964) won him the Quebec literary award.
By that time, Cohen, after a brief spell at Columbia University, New York, had obtained a grant to enable him to travel, and after rambling across Europe, had settled on the Greek island of Hydra. His love affair with Marianne Jensen – who inspired his song So Long, Marianne – kept him coming back there for the next few years. Meanwhile, he was developing an authentic fiction-writer’s voice, displayed in the novels The Favourite Game (1963) and Beautiful Losers.
Passing through New York in 1966 on the way to Nashville, he was introduced to the folk singer Judy Collins, played some of his songs to her, and won an immediate convert. Collins became the first artist to cover Cohen’s material when she recorded Suzanne and Dress Rehearsal Rag for her album In My Life, released that November, giving Leonard a valuable career boost.
She also played an advisory role in his career as a performer. When Cohen ran offstage in panic at a 1967 anti-Vietnam war benefit in New York, it was Collins who persuaded him to go back out and finish the job. Over the decades, she would record many of his most famous pieces. “His songs carried me through dark years like mantras or stones that you hold in your hand while the sun rises or the fire burns,” she wrote in her 1987 autobiography, Trust Your Heart. “They were songs for the spirit when our spirits were strained to the breaking point.”
Cohen came to the attention of the Columbia records talent scout and producer John Hammond (the man who signed Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and many more), who wasted no time in adding him to the company’s roster and recording his debut album.
He followed it up with Songs from a Room (1969), another powerful but bleak collection that helped to reinforce Cohen’s reputation as music to slash your wrists by. However, British audiences were proving particularly receptive (unlike British critics, who savaged him), and had several chances to see Cohen onstage in 1970 when he appeared at the Royal Albert Hall in London and at rock festivals in Bath and the Isle of Wight. Songs of Love and Hate (1971) was backed up by further bouts of international touring.
However, Cohen was temperamentally ill-suited for a conventional musical career of endless touring and recording. The Energy of Slaves, a new collection of poetry, appeared in 1972, and when a theatrical tribute to his life and music called Sisters of Mercy was produced in New York the following year, it was an indication of the way Cohen’s work cut across boundaries. His next album, New Skin for the Old Ceremony (1974) contained Chelsea Hotel No2, a song offering some explicit details about his brief relationship with the rock singer Janis Joplin.
In 1977 he released Death of a Ladies Man. Cohen had retreated to Greece for a spot of spiritual renewal in the interim. The album was notable for its pairing of Cohen with the producer Phil Spector. Spector, inventor of the “wall of sound” and a notorious control freak, was an unlikely collaborator, and despite some quality songwriting, the disc is an anomaly in the Cohen catalogue. Cohen subsequently referred to it as “Phil’s album”, pointing out that its creation coincided with a rough patch in his own life, when his mother was dying in Montreal. “When we were just working together alone, it was very, very pleasant,” he said of Spector. “But when he gets in the studio he becomes Mr Hyde.” He added that “Phil mixed it in secret under armed guard.”
Something like normal service was resumed with Recent Songs (1979), which worked Cohen’s familiar territory of emotional and sexual relationships while giving rein to the author’s developing spiritual and religious concerns. It also included Cohen duetting with Jennifer Warnes, who had first appeared with him on Live Songs in 1973 and would contribute to all Cohen’s albums up to Old Ideas (2012). She featured prominently on Various Positions (1985), Cohen’s most potent album in a decade, and one which saw him consciously embracing state-of-the-art studio technology. Again, several songs carried a powerful religious undertow.
In 1987, Warnes released Famous Blue Raincoat, an album of covers of Cohen songs including First We Take Manhattan. Cohen’s own recording of this subsequently appeared on I’m Your Man (1988). Twenty years after his debut album, I’m Your Man brilliantly repositioned Cohen as a wise, world-weary and acerbically witty survivor, singing about sexual politics in the era of Aids or the agonising grind of the songwriting process. Suddenly he became marketable again, outside the US at any rate, and the disc topped the charts in several European countries.
It was four years before he released his next disc, The Future (which included a co-producer’s credit for his then-partner, the actor Rebecca de Mornay), but by now a full-scale reappraisal of Cohen’s achievements was under way. The tribute album I’m Your Fan (1991) was a collection of Cohen songs performed by admirers including REM, John Cale, Nick Cave and Ian McCulloch. In 1995, Tower of Song: The Songs of Leonard Cohen trod similar turf, featuring a cavalcade of superstars from Bono and Don Henley to Elton John and Peter Gabriel.
Ten New Songs (2001) apparently marked Cohen’s emergence from monastic seclusion on Mount Baldy, and found him leaning heavily on his co-writer, the musician Sharon Robinson, for support. He had been made an officer of the Order of Canada in 1991, and his creative longevity earned him promotion to the rank of companion of the order in 2003.
Cohen’s album Dear Heather (2004) seemed part valediction, part celebration, and was partly experimental in the way it mixed modern technology with traditional instruments. It included settings of poetry by Byron and Frank Scott alongside precisely wrought all-Cohen compositions, not least his reflections on the 9/11 attacks, On That Day. The disc was in part a homage to the role women had played in his life, with significant contributions from Robinson, Leanne Ungar and Anjani Thomas. “Women have been exceptionally kind to my old age,” he sang in Because Of.
The tone of wry self-mockery was classic Cohen, and he confessed that his monastic immersion in Zen Buddhism had helped to dispel the depression which had hung over him in his earlier years. Although he had just turned 70, he did not sound much older than he had at 35, and of course he had never had to rely on deafening volume or theatrical showmanship in presenting his work to the public. This new-found optimism must have been of significant assistance during a protracted legal battle with his former manager Kelley Lynch. She was judged liable by a California court for millions of dollars she had siphoned from Cohen’s estate, and ordered to pay him $9.5m (about £5.4m), but recovering the money proved arduous.
Her emptying of the singer’s retirement fund proved an effective goad to his creativity. In 2006 he released Blue Alert, an album of songs he had written with Thomas, though listeners were taken aback to discover that it was she who handled all the vocals. She had been intrigued by some handwritten lyrics she had found on Cohen’s desk – “There’s perfume burning in the air / bits of beauty everywhere” – and asked if she could take a shot at singing them, which she did in her own idiosyncratic jazzy style. Cohen liked the results so much that, as he recalled, he “let her rummage through a notebook for lyrics that interested her”. Book of Longing (2006), a collection of poetry and drawings, became an instant bestseller and the following year was staged as a concert work incorporating Cohen’s images and text, with music composed by Philip Glass.
In 2008, Cohen was not only inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but also embarked on his first concert tour in a decade and a half, criss-crossing Canada, Europe and the Antipodes. At the Glastonbury festival that June, hysteria greeted his performance of his song Hallelujah, suddenly a mini-phenomenon after having featured on the US TV talent show American Idol. The publicity propelled Jeff Buckley’s 1994 recording to the top of the iTunes chart, while the UK’s Christmas 2008 chart would list Buckley’s recording at No 2, pipped to the top by a version from Alexandra Burke, the winner of the UK TV talent show The X Factor.
Cohen’s touring odyssey continued into 2009, though concerns about his health were aroused when he collapsed onstage in Valencia, ostensibly because of food poisoning. Later that month he performed in Israel, which triggered controversy at a time when other musicians were proposing a cultural boycott of the country.
He continued touring into 2010 (the year in which he received the Grammy lifetime achievement award), and undertook a further world tour in 2012-13. In 2012 he released Old Ideas, a collection of songs which pondered such durable themes as mortality, love and redemption and which became the highest-charting of his career, reaching No 1 in a string of territories. His 13th studio album, Popular Problems (2014), arrived on the day after Cohen’s 80th birthday, and it won him album of the year at the 2015 Junos, the Canadian music awards.
In October 2016 he released You Want It Darker, a sombre and fastidiously crafted set of songs (produced by his son, Adam) in which Cohen seemed to be taking stock of his life while contemplating its approaching end. In an interview in the New Yorker magazine to coincide with the album, he struck a fatalistic tone, while declaring his determination to keep working at his craft until the end. “I’ve got some work to do,” he said. “Take care of business. I am ready to die. I hope it’s not too uncomfortable. That’s about it for me.”
He is survived by Adam, a singer-songwriter, and a daughter, Lorca, a photographer and videographer, from his relationship with the artist Suzanne Elrod.
Leonard Cohen, singer, songwriter, poet and novelist, born 21 September 1934; died 10 November 2016, aged 82
This article was written by Adam Sweeting, for theguardian.com on Friday 11th November 2016 02.49 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010