Obituary: Leonard Cohen

Image: The Rolling Stone
Image: The Rolling Stone
Image: The Rolling Stone

The Canadian folk musician Leonard Cohen has died at the age of 82. The announcement of his death came three days after his passing away on 7 November, just three weeks after the release of his most recent album You Want It Darker. His son and, latterly, producer, Adam Cohen, declared: “My father passed away peacefully at his home in Los Angeles with the knowledge that he had completed what he felt was one of his greatest records. He was writing up until his last moments with his unique brand of humour.”

A soaring pillar of the sixties and seventies’ folk scene, Cohen was best remembered for songs such as ‘Suzanne’ and ‘Hallelujah’, both of which epitomised the piquant but penetrating slants on themes of love, faith and sexuality through his 14 studio albums. Not only did this artistic ascendancy impact upon musical spheres, but he was also a critically-acclaimed writer, releasing countless anthologies of poetry and two well-received novels.

Leonard Cohen was born in Montreal in 1934 to a middle-class Jewish family to the daughter of a rabbi, Masha, and a tailor, Nathan, who himself died when he was nine. Both parents were of Lithuanian-Polish ancestry. In 1956, one year after completing an English literature degree at McGill University in his hometown, under the tutelage of poet and literary model, Irving Layton among others, he released his first collection Let Us Compare Mythologies, most of the material written during his years of higher education. After an uninspiring year of graduate study at Columbia University, he returned to Montreal, bringing out The Spice-Box of Earth, before the first of his many isolations throughout his life to the island of Hydra in Greece in the early 60s. It was here that he enjoyed the most productive literary chapter of his career and a relationship with Norwegian muse Marianne Ihlen, subject of So Long Marianne’, to whom he wrote a letter earlier this year, bidding farewell to his former lover, herself dying of leukaemia, and anticipating his own departure.

Indeed, though Cohen had played acoustic guitar throughout his adolescent years, famously learning flamenco from a Spaniard in Montreal, it was not until his mid-thirties that, disappointed by the lack of financial security as a writer, he applied his undoubted lyrical flair to his debut album Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967) for Columbia Records, the label with which he would be associated throughout his career. The complex and minimalist fret patterns of a single guitar, the sparsely-applied brushes of backing vocals and instrumentation and his orotund bass became characteristic of Cohen’s first and subsequent three albums- the stark Songs from a Room (1969), the deeply melancholic Song of Love and Hate (1971) and the conversational New Skin for the Old Ceremony (1974).

Image: The New Yorker
Image: The New Yorker

In 1977, after his poorly-rated album, Death of a Ladies’ Man, was an unhappy product of a dysfunctional partnership with the legendary producer Phil Spector of Beatles’ fame, his reputation was recovered with Recent Songs (1979). Over the next decade and a half, Cohen provided a more orchestral and synthesised quality to his tracks, with 1984’s Various Positions, to which belongs ‘Hallelujah’, his most famous song, covered most notably by Jeff Buckley, as well as I’m Your Man (1988) and The Future (1992). Never did this richer instrumental texture detract from the deep thought behind his song-writing, most unmistakably in the wry ‘Tower of Song’.

After a lengthy fight with depression in the late nineties, another period of hermitic living at the Buddhist centre on Mt. Baldy in California, he returned, with the help of backing vocalists Sharon Robinson and Anjani Thomas, at the beginning of the millennium with two albums: Ten New Songs (2001) and Dear Heather (2004).

Financial difficulty struck hard in 2005 when Cohen discovered that his manager Kelley Lynch had embezzled $5 million. In some ways this was the beginning of a renaissance for the musician and, having skipped the opportunity of touring since 1992, he embarked on the first of a few ‘World Tours’. These tours marked the beginning of a prolific spell of three of his most-highly rated albums, all containing a distinct kind of chamber music, a blend of electric pianos with string quartet, of which the last, You Want It Darker, was his parting gift.

He is survived by his two children, Adam and Lorca, from his relationship with Suzanne Elrod.


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