With an extraordinary career spanning more than forty years, Canadian musical icon Leonard Cohen has earned the distinction as one of the most influential artists of his generation. A legendary songwriter, Cohen has brought honesty and artistry in a way few others have. His stark images of love, beauty and despair have touched fans and inspired writers and musicians over the world.
Throughout his storied lifetime, Cohen has succeeded as both a poet and a pop star. Inspired by his own history and romantic experiences, his intelligent musings and musical gifts have endured no matter where he resides – be it the urban chaos of LA and Montreal, the domestic comfort of a Greek island or monastic isolation of a Zen Buddhist Monastery.
His intense lyrics, spiritual observations and deft humour weave throughout his impressive body of work. Cohen’s extraordinary writing and musical talents have gained him numerous accolades, among them: the Governor General’s Award for poetry in 1969 which he declined, stating, “the poems themselves forbid it absolutely,” followed by several Juno Awards, honorary degrees, and in 2003, the Companion of the Order of Canada, Canada’s highest civil honor for achievement in the arts.
Leonard Norman Cohen was born in Montreal on September 21, 1934. He attended McGill University, where at 17, he formed a countrywestern trio called the Buckskin Boys. While still an undergraduate, Leonard became part of Montreal’s burgeoning Bohemian scene and published his first collection of poetry (Let Us Compare Mythologies) in 1956. The Spice Box of Earth (1961), his second collection of poems, catapulted Cohen to international recognition.
After a brief stint at Columbia University in New York, Cohen traveled throughout Europe and settled on the Greek island of Hydra where he wrote another collection of poetry (Flowers for Hitler, 1964) and two highly acclaimed novels (The Favourite Game, 1963 and Beautiful Losers, 1966). The books have been translated into many languages including Chinese and Japanese.
After seven years on Hydra, Cohen’s restless spirit led him to the United States where he pursued his career as a songwriter. Championed by singer/songwriter Judy Collins, Cohen appeared at the Newport Folk Festival in 1967 where he caught the eye – and ear – of legendary Columbia A&R man John Hammond (who also recruited Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen to the label) and by Christmas of that year, Columbia released his signature debut album, The Songs of Leonard Cohen.
Songs like the enduringly popular Suzanne and Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye, So Long, Marianne, and Sisters of Mercy propelled Cohen to the top of the pop music pantheon. The songs had such power that Robert Altman’s 1971 film, McCabe and Mrs. Miller became, in effect, the first longform video for Cohen’s soundtrack.
Songs From a Room (1969), his second album, and Songs of Love and Hate (1971) further reinforced Cohen’s standing as a sentry of solitude. With Bird On a Wire, The Story of Isaac, Joan of Arc, and Famous Blue Raincoat, he continued to stretch the borders of the lyrical landscape of the times.
Recent Songs (1979), coproduced with Henry Lewy (who had previously worked with Joni Mitchell), continued Cohen’s dissection of the male female union, but also reflected his many explorations into the religious sphere. Various Positions (1984) marked the full flowering of these religious journeys. Songs like Hallelujah, The Law, Heart With No Companion, and If It Be Your Will, are contemporary psalms, born of an undoubtedly long and difficult spiritual odyssey, so difficult that its conclusion left Cohen – in his words “wiped out.” I’m Your Man (1988) was the culmination of Cohen’s professional and personal reintegration, a beautifully crafted work that speaks eloquently to his experience as a musical elder. Buoyed by now classic songs like First We Take Manhattan, Tower of Song, and Ain’t No Cure For Love, the album went to #1 in several countries.
Despite many long passages of time between albums, Cohen’s music has been kept on the airwaves through interpretations by artists as diverse as Neil Diamond, Nick Cave, Diana Ross, Joan Baez, Rita Coolidge, and Joe Cocker. Longtime musical colleague Jennifer Warnes released the critically acclaimed Famous Blue Raincoat in 1986, an entire album of Cohen’s work.
In 1992, a number of contemporary recording artists collaborated on a tribute to Leonard Cohen. I’m Your Fan (1991) was the brainchild of Christian Fevret, editor of French rock magazine, Les Inrockuptibles. Originally intended for release on the magazine’s small offshoot label Oscar, the project mushroomed into an 18 song cover collection released by Atlantic, featuring such prominent musicians as REM, John Cale, Nick Cave, lan McCulloch, The Pixies, House of Love and Lloyd Cole. Tower of Song (1995) featured interpretations of Cohen songs by more mainstream artists such as Billy Joel, Sting, Elton John, Willie Nelson and Bono.
1992 saw the release of his eleventh album, The Future, an amazingly aural documentation befitting a cultural malaise. It was following the 1993 “Future” tour that Leonard Cohen retreated from public life and lived several years at the Zen Center on Mount Baldy in Southern California.
In January 1999, Cohen came down from the mountain armed with hundreds of new lyrics and poems. He settled in Los Angeles where he released two records, first another live album entitled Field Commander Cohen Tour of 1979 and in October, after nine years, the entrancing collection, Ten New Songs. After such a long silence, the power of this new studio album lay in its singleness, its unity of tone, songs flowing one into the other with a grave, contained intensity. In 2002, many of his best known songs were digitally remastered and released on the double CD The Essential Leonard Cohen.
In 2004, Cohen returned with Dear Heather, produced with collaborators and singers, Sharon Robinson and Anjani Thomas. This musically diverse collection of songs seemed to celebrate the beauty of the world he had returned to with soaring lyrical styles and musical arrangements. Cohen’s supporters and the sizeable online community of newsgroups and chat lines continually dissecting his creations anxiously await his next release.
A lyrical icon whose musical trials and travails have led him through an odyssey of hope, conflict and love, Leonard Cohen has taken us to that place by the harbor and our world has become much richer for the journey.