The passing of Leonard Cohen on 7 November has produced an outpouring of material in the digital and printed media. Two-page obituaries in the Times and Telegraph, long pieces on the BBC and other news sites. Almost as much as for the Trump victory.
Listening to his last album “You want it darker’ as I write this the songs seem prescient. “I’m ready my Lord”, “It’s au revoir. I’m running late”, “I’m leaving the table, I’m out of the game”.
However he’s been called the “godfather of gloom” and the “high priest of pathos” so perhaps no real surprises. In fact listening to “Tower of Song” (covered by Tom Jones in 2012) that’s saying goodbye too.
Talking of covers, “Suzanne” was an early hit from his first album released at the end of 1967. It was based on a poem he wrote (he only turned to singing in his thirties after a career as a novelist and a poet) and was a hit for Judy Collins (who was the first to record one of his songs) and at one time was his most covered song.
In this recording he wryly describes how he was robbed of the rights to the song when he was asked to sign a “standard song-writing contract”. Not the first time in his career he was ripped off by management.
His most covered song however is “Hallelujah” which has over 300 recordings or recorded performances, many of them far distant from his sparser approach. It’s said it took him five years to write and that he wrote 80 verses for it.
It featured on his “Various Positions” album in 1984 and was the start of a period of renewed creativity. Film producer Oliver Stone included three of his songs in the film “Natural Born Killers”. Shortly after the film’s release Cohen took himself off to a buddhist retreat, apparently disillusioned with show business, or maybe just with life.
He had been brought up in a middle class jewish family in Montreal, his father owned a clothing store – which probably explains Cohen’s snappy dress style in his comeback years but died when Cohen was 9. His mother was the daughter of a rabbi and brought him up steeped in a messianic culture. He went to a private co-ed school and learned to play the guitar to “impress the girls” and formed a folk group called the “Buckskin Boys”.
His early influences were Jack Kerouac and the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca. Rather than rock ‘n roll he was drawn initially to country music, which he had heard on US Armed forces radio when he was living in Greece ( he bought a house there after living in Cuba for a while). He decided to move to Nashville but never got there. He landed in New York and heard all the new folk music from Baez, Dylan and Collins. So he rented a room in the Chelsea hotel.
But he also lived the sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll lifestyle for a while including a night with Janis Joplin immortalised in the song Chelsea Hotel #2. He is reported to have said “I love hotels to which, at 4am, you can bring along a midget, a bear and four ladies, drag them to your room and no-one cares about it at all”. He lived in the Chelsea Hotel for two years where he met Andy Warhol and Nico from the Velvet Underground. He also released his first album “Songs of Leonard Cohen“.
He described himself as a “broken down nightingale” and turned to drink and drugs to help his creativity and deal with his depression. This affected his voice – which had been likened by a critic to a strangely appealing buzzsaw – turning it from a baritone to “subterranean”.
In his 50 year recording career he made only 14 albums. This was partly due to his taking time out to pursue various philosophies including Scientology, the Talmud, and Zen Buddhism. It was after his five-year retreat in a buddhist monastery, where he became a monk in the 1990s, that he wrote and recorded his 2001 album “Ten New Songs”.
Five years later he discovered his manager Kelly Lynch had defrauded him of over $5 million dollars. She was sent to prison and he was awarded $9 million in damages but he never got the money back,
So at the age of 73 he had to go on world tours to build up his pension pot – for which we should be grateful as it seemed to energise his song-writing again. And fortunately for him he soon made up the money Lynch stole earning almost $10 million from his 2009 tour alone.
So there he was recording again with some wonderful songs – on his highest charting 2012 album “Old Ideas” – and performances. He embraced getting old as “the only game in town“ and often made references to his age in his concerts. He was inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame by Lou Reed in 2008. Although recording right to the end he stopped touring in 2013.
He never married. Living on the Greek island of Hydra in the 1960s he wrote poetry and met Norwegian Marianne Ihlen, an inspiration for some of his songs, with whom he had a ten-year relationship. He later had a long relationship with Suzanne Elrod, an artist and photographer with whom he had two children. Adam is a singer-songwriter who produced his last album and Lorca his daughter is a photographer like her mother.
Apart from Joplin he also had relationships with Rebecca De Mornay and Joni Mitchell, who wrote several songs about him. His biographer wrote “Cohen’s romantic relationships tended to get in the way of the isolation and space, the distance and longing, that his writing required”. Cohen himself described love as “the most challenging activity humans get into” and thought his reputation as a ladies man was a joke “that caused (him) to laugh bitterly through the 10,000 nights (he) spent alone.”
He seemed to be preparing himself for death when he wrote to Marianne Ihlen after her death in August this year. He wrote “Our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand I think you can reach mine”
Trying to pick one song to close this post is so hard. Cohen singing “Save the Last Dance for Me” “Dance to the End of Love“? Anyway I chose this one featuring him singing with