Leonard Cohen Obituary: Influential singer and songwriter who made his music both memorable and moving

‘His gift or genius is in his connection to the music of the spheres,’ Bob Dylan said of the man whose incantatory, half-spoken songs were more in the tradition of the European troubadour than the rock star

Matt Schudel
Saturday 12 November 2016 02:26
 ‘All of my writing has guitars behind it,’ Cohen said, “even the novels’
‘All of my writing has guitars behind it,’ Cohen said, “even the novels’

Leonard Cohen, a Canadian-born poet, songwriter and singer, whose intensely personal lyrics exploring themes of love, faith, death and philosophical longing made him the ultimate cult artist, and whose enigmatic song “Hallelujah” became a celebratory anthem recorded by hundreds of artists, died on 7 November. He was 82. His death was confirmed by his biographer, Sylvie Simmons. Other details were not immediately available.

Cohen began his career as a well-regarded poet and novelist before stepping onto the stage as a performer in the 1960s. With his broodingly handsome looks and a deep, weathered voice that grew rougher and more expressive with the years, he cultivated an air of spiritual yearning mixed with smouldering eroticism. Cohen never had a song in the Top 40, yet “Hallelujah” and several of his others, including “Suzanne”, “First We Take Manhattan” and “Bird on the Wire”, were recorded by performers as disparate as Nina Simone, REM and Johnny Cash.

His lyrics were written with such grace and emotional depth that his songwriting was regarded as almost on the same level as that of Bob Dylan – including by Dylan himself. Cohen was named to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008, but his incantatory, half-spoken songs were more in the tradition of the European troubadour than the rock star.

Lyrics were paramount to Cohen, but whether he was composing songs, poetry or fiction, there was always an underlying musical pulse. “All of my writing has guitars behind it,” he said, “even the novels.” A character in Cohen’s 1963 novel The Favourite Game said: “I want to touch people like a magician, to change them or hurt them, leave my brand, make them beautiful.”

He laboured over his songs, spending five years on “Hallelujah”, which appeared on his 1984 album Various Positions and is generally acknowledged as his masterpiece. Like much of his music, it took years to gain a popular foothold. A 1994 recording by Jeff Buckley found a niche, and over time it was recorded by at least 300 artists. KD Lang’s performance of “Hallelujah” formed the centrepiece of the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

Cohen performing at the 47th Montreux Jazz Festival in July 2013 (AFP/Getty Images)

It was difficult for critics to explain exactly what made Cohen’s music so memorable and moving. The lyrics were poetic, of course, but his musical settings were ingenious, with shifting chords and deceptively simple melodies. His first song to pierce the public consciousness was “Suzanne”, which became a minor hit for Judy Collins in 1966 and was later performed by Simone and others. The song, written about one of Cohen’s many girlfriends, is on one level a simple love song:

And you want to travel with her, and you want to travel blind
And you know that she will trust you
For you’ve touched her perfect body with your mind.

But Cohen broadens the lyrics to included references to Jesus walking on water before referring to the hidden heroes in life:

There are heroes in the seaweed, there are children in the morning
They are leaning out for love and they will lean that way forever
While Suzanne holds her mirror.

In one of Cohen’s most direct songs, “I’m Your Man”, he issued a direct plea, saying he was willing to do anything he could to win a woman’s love. The song appeared in the late 1980s, but it gained added poignance in his later years, particularly when an ageing Cohen delivered the lyrics in a deep croak that was vulnerable, yet strangely compelling:

If you want a lover
I’ll do anything you ask me to
And if you want another kind of love
I’ll wear a mask for you
If you want a partner, take my hand, or
If you want to strike me down in anger
Here I stand
I’m your man.

Perhaps no song encapsulated so many of Cohen’s characteristic strengths as a songwriter as “Hallelujah”. The tune’s rising melodic line even figures in the lyrics as “the fourth, the fifth / the minor fall, the major lift”.

The lyrics have been subject to endless interpretation over the years, as they weave through religious references, sexuality and personal confession:

Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew ya
She tied you
To a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah.

In the 1980s, Dylan often performed “Hallelujah” in concert. In the New Yorker magazine last month, Dylan, who recently was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, explained he found Cohen’s songs so powerful. “His gift or genius is in his connection to the music of the spheres,” Dylan told New Yorker editor David Remnick. “‘Hallelujah’ has resonance for me. There again, it’s a beautifully constructed melody that steps up, evolves, and slips back, all in quick time … These are all great songs, deep and truthful as ever and multidimensional, surprisingly melodic, and they make you think and feel.”

Leonard Norman Cohen was born on 21 September 1934, in Montreal. His family was prominent in the city’s Jewish community, founding a synagogue and owning several clothing and manufacturing businesses. He was 9 when his father died. “I have a deep tribal sense,” Cohen told the New Yorker last month. “I grew up in a synagogue that my ancestors built. I sat in the third row.”

Marianne Ihlen with Cohen in 1966

He undertook various religious studies and spiritual pursuits throughout his life, but he remained grounded in the Jewish tradition, sometimes using Hebrew phrases and traditional melodies in his music. As a teenager, Cohen was a member of a country and western band in Montreal, but his interests were primarily literary.

He graduated from Montreal’s McGill University in 1955, with a bachelor’s degree in English. He won a writing prize in college and published his first volume of poetry in 1956. He later moved to New York, where he studied briefly at Columbia University and read his poetry in coffee shops. He often found himself in odd places at odd times. In 1961, he was in Cuba during the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion. He wrote a poem about the experience, called “The Only Tourist in Havana Turns His Thoughts Homeward”.

He lived in London before impulsively travelling to Greece in 1960 and ended up buying a house on the island of Hydra. It was there that he met and fell in love with a married Norwegian woman named Marianne Ihlen. She divorced her husband, and they lived together for several years. Ihlen, who was often described as Cohen’s muse during the 1960s, died in August. Cohen also had well-known relationships with Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell and actress Rebecca De Mornay. “My reputation as a ladies’ man was a joke,” he said. “It caused me to laugh bitterly through the 10,000 nights I spent alone.”

Cohen with son Adam and grandson Cassius

In the 1970s, he had two children with his common-law wife, Suzanne Elrod. Survivors include Adam Cohen and Lorca Cohen, both of Los Angeles, and a grandson, Cassius. A documentary about his life, Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man, was released in 2005. His final album, You Want It Darker, appeared last month. In “Hallelujah” he sang:

I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though
It all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

Washington Post

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