Leonard Cohen was a fascinating man and artist whose work both in literature and in music, resonated across generations. He was a Poet, songwriter and for sometime a Buddhist monk by the name of Jikan. It is with a heavy heart that we look back on the life and career of the man who was known as ‘the Godfather of Gloom’, a nickname given to him by his fans due to his unmistakeable deep vocals and haunting lyrics.
Born into a middle class jewish family in Quebec, Canada on September 21st, 1934 in what he called “a very Messianic childhood“, his interest in the arts began at an early stage, where he found a literary mentor in one of his high school teachers and pursued music and poetry in his studies. He learned to play the guitar as a teenager and started a country folk group called the Buckskin Boys, spending most of his downtime at the Main Deli Steak House, where according to journalist David Sax, Cohen and one of his cousins would go to “watch the gangsters, pimps, and wrestlers dance around the night.”
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In 1951 college was calling and Cohen enrolled at McGill University where he continued to pursue his writing interest, and later went on to win a literary award for his original work. Influenced at the time by William Butler Yeats and Irving Layton, a political science professor at McGill, who later became a mentor and friend.
Three years later, his name appeared in print, as the first of his published work was printed in CIV/n Magazine followed soon after by a book of poetry entitled Let Us Compare Mythologies, a composition of poetry he had written between the ages of fifteen and twenty, which had him recognised by critic Robert Weaver as “the best young poet in English Canada“.
He continued to write poetry and fiction throughout most of the 60’s where he lived in recluse in Hydra, a Greek island in the Saronic Gulf, throughout the years he found musical love and depression, both of which inspired what was soon to be his first album.
During this time he published several books and poetry collections including, critically acclaimed ‘The Spice-Box of Earth’ (1961), ‘Flowers for Hitler’ (1964), and the novels Beautiful Losers (1966) and The Favourite Game (1963), which stirred up controversy in the Canadian press due to several sexually graphic passages.
In 1967, disappointed by the financial aspect of his writing career, Cohen moved to New York and pursued a folk music career. The New York scene was buzzing and Cohen found himself amidst an incredible crowd with characters like Andy Warhol, Velvet Underground and German singer Nico, which brings us to the creation and release of his first album ‘Songs of Leonard Cohen’, produced by John Simon and featuring two of his most acclaimed compositions, ‘Suzzane’ and ‘So Long Marianne’. The album quickly became a cult favourite in both the United States and the UK, where it spent over a year on the album charts. Artists like Willie Nelson and James Taylor began to look at Cohen for songwriting.
The success of the first album was followed by ‘Songs from a Room‘ (1969) featuring ‘Bird on the Wire’ and ‘Songs of Love and Hate’ (1971), whose success warranted that Cohen go on his first tour through the United States, Canada and Europe as well as a an appearance at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970. Not two years later, The Army, a nickname for the band, was on the road again, this time with Charlie Daniels and producer Bob Johnston.
In 1971, Cohen’s music made an appearance on the big screen, ‘The Stranger Song’, ‘Winter Lady’ and ‘Sisters of Mercy’, from his debut album, were featured on the soundtrack of the western film McCabe & Mrs. Miller directed by Robert Altman.
Shortly after its big screen debut, a raw sound of Cohens music was released by Columbia Records with ‘Leonard Cohens: Live Songs’, where he performed tracks like ‘Passing Through’, ‘You Know Who I Am’, ‘Bird on a Wire’, ‘Nancy’, ‘Story of Isaac’, ‘Please Don’t Pass Me By’, and ‘Queen Victoria’.
Most of the seventies would keep Cohen on the road, twice with the wonderful back up singer, Jennifer Warnes. She was to become an integral part of future albums, most notably the 1984 album, ‘Various Positions‘, which includes Cohen’s best-known composition ‘Hallelujah’.
At this point the timeline of his musical career takes a sudden turn. In August 9th 1995, marking the anniversary of Jerry Garcia’s death and just outside of Los Angeles, Cohen was entering the Mt. Baldy Zen Center, where he is ordained as a Buddhist monk and given the name Dharma name ‘Jikan’ (silence). At 6500 feet above sea level a bald-headed Leonard Cohen remained in the monastery for the next five years.
It wasn’t until 2001 that Cohen broke his silence, and returned to the world of music in collaboration with Sharon Robinson resulting in ‘Ten New Songs‘ and ‘Dear Heather‘ (2004). However, the hardships were far from over, as in 2005 Cohen discovered his longtime manager, Kelley Lynch, had robbed him of more than $5 million, forcing him to undertake an incredible world tour with 387 performances between 2008 and 2013, whilst simultaneously recording ‘Old Ideas‘ (2012) and ‘Popular Problems‘.
As the Grand Tour came to an end in 2013, Cohen returned to his reclusive ways, and remained out of the public eye until October 2016 with the release of ‘You Want It Darker‘, an incredibly powerful album. Cohen was already in ill health at the time and his son Adam produced the album on the dining room table at home, with just a microphone, a laptop and his fathers golden voice.
Leonard Cohen created his own space in music where his soulful poetry begged to be accompanied by music, and in this union, gave to the world 14 albums during the span of his incredible five-decade long career. We salute you.