Leonard Cohen was called “the high priest of pathos” and the “godfather of gloom”.
But the influence and appeal of this poet, novelist, songwriter and legendary ladies’ man has endured throughout his career.
Often prone to depression, his witty, charming and self-deprecating manner – not to mention his black humour – was reflected in his lyrics.
And after a period of retreat in the 1990s he remerged with his creativity undimmed.
Leonard Norman Cohen was born in Westmount, a well-to-do area of Montreal, on 21 September 1934. His mother had emigrated from Lithuania to Canada and his father Nathan, whose ancestors came from Poland, owned a prosperous clothing store. His father died when Cohen was just nine years old but left his son a trust fund that would enable him to pursue his chosen literary career. The young Cohen attended a privately run Jewish co-educational day school where he learned to play guitar and formed a folk group called the Buckskin Boys. “Guitars impress girls”, was the reasoning he gave. In 1951 he enrolled at Montreal’s McGill University to study English Literature, and published his first collection of poetry, Let Us Compare Mythologies, in 1956.
His poetry was well-received and after a year at Columbia University in New York he turned to writing full-time producing his second collection of poems, entitled The Spice Box of Earth, in 1961 when he was 27. The volume established Cohen’s reputation as a serious poet and became his most popular work. The poem, You Have the Lovers, captured his fascination with human relationships. He used the royalties from the book, along with literary grants from the Canadian government, to travel around the world, sampling what it had to offer – including some use of LSD when it was still legal.After a spell in London, where his first purchases were an Olivetti typewriter and a blue raincoat, he moved to the small Greek island of Hydra, publishing his first novel The Favourite Game in 1963. He lived there with Norwegian Marianne Jensen, for whom he later wrote So Long Marianne. Her death in early 2016 inspired Cohen’s final album, You Want It Darker, released just three weeks ago. In 1973, Cohen went to Israel to volunteer for active service in the Yom Kippur war. Instead he was assigned to entertain troops in a tank division where he once found himself coming under fire in the Sinai desert.
Cohen’s music fell out of favour in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but interest revived in 1985 with the release of the album Various Positions. This featured the track Hallelujah, which had taken the musician five years to write.A mournful ballad, it touches on themes of love, sex, religion, longing and regret. Cohen said it explained “that many kinds of hallelujahs do exist, and all the perfect and broken hallelujahs have equal value”.
Hated by his record company, it later became the most-covered Cohen song of all time. Jeff Buckley’s haunting, melodic version in 1994 became the standard interpretation – but it only received mainstream recognition when Rufus Wainwright sang it for the animated film Shrek in 2001. In 1991 a tribute album, I’m Your Fan, a collection of his songs covered by artistes such as REM, The Pixies and John Cale, again pushed Leonard Cohen back into the limelight. However, by this time, Cohen had begun spending time at a Buddhist retreat in California and eventually moved there to become a Buddhist monk in 1996. He finally emerged in 1999 with a wealth of new material, some of which featured on his 2001 album, aptly titled Ten New Songs. 2012 saw the release of Old Ideas, which became his highest charting album of all time. Many critics saw the songs on the album as an intimation of his own mortality. However, despite his advancing years, Cohen set off on a world tour to promote the album.
When the Grand Tour ended in December 2013, Cohen largely vanished from the public eye – but he continued to write. Just last month, he released You Want It Darker, produced by his son Adam. Severe back issues made it difficult for Cohen to leave his home, so Adam placed a microphone on his dining room table and recorded him on a laptop. Like David Bowie’s Blackstar, the record felt like a swansong. “I’m leaving the table / I’m out of the game,” he lamented on Leaving The Table. The album received positive reviews, but a New Yorker interview tied to the release revealed Cohen making peace with mortality.
“I am ready to die,” he said. “I hope it’s not too uncomfortable. That’s about it for me.” Cohen was, arguably, one of the most enigmatic poets and songwriters of his generation. While many of the themes in his work hinted at depression, he always felt that he was just a keen observer of the realities of life. “Seriousness, rather than depression is, I think, the characteristic of my work,” he once told an interviewer. “I like a good laugh, but I think there’s enjoyment that comes through seriousness. We all know when we close the door and come into your room and you’re left with your heart and your emotions, it isn’t all that funny.”
As a fitting epitaph, I leave you with some of Cohen’s most famous words, from his most famous song. Something that no one besides Cohen could write for himself.
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 went all wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.