Biography

Leonard Cohen

Members: Leonard Cohen

Active: 1967-present

HISTORY

Leonard Norman Cohen, CC (born September 21, 1934 in Montreal, Quebec) is a Canadian poet, novelist, and singer-songwriter. Cohen began his career in literature, publishing his first book of poetry in Montreal in 1956 and his first novel in 1963. Following his breakthrough in the music industry in the late 1960s, Cohen became one of the most distinguished and influential songwriters of the late twentieth century.

Musically, Cohen's early songs are based in folk music, both for melodies and instrumentation, but, beginning in the 1970s, his work shows the influence of various types of popular music and cabaret music. Since the 1980s he typically has sung in a deep bass register, with synthesizers and female backing vocals.

Cohen's songs are often emotionally heavy and lyrically complex, owing more to the metaphoric word play of poetry than to the conventions of song craft. His work often explores the themes of religion, isolation, sex, and complex interpersonal relationships.

Cohen's music has become very influential on other singer-songwriters, and more than a thousand cover versions of his work have been recorded. He is iconic in his native land, having been inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. He is a Companion of the Order of Canada, the nation's highest civilian honour.

EARLY LIFE

Cohen was born to a middle-class Jewish family of Polish ancestry in 1934 in Montreal, Quebec. He grew up in Westmount on the Island of Montreal. His father, Nathan Cohen, was the owner of a substantial Montreal clothing store, and died when Leonard was nine years old. Like many other Jews named Cohen, Katz, Kagan, etc., his family made a proud claim of descent from the priestly Kohanim: "I had a very Messianic childhood," he told Richard Goldstein in 1967. "I was told I was a descendant of Aaron, the high priest." As a teenager he learned to play the guitar, subsequently forming a country-folk group called the Buckskin Boys. His father's will provided Leonard with a modest trust income, sufficient to allow him to freely pursue his literary ambitions for some time without risking economic ruin.

Cohen idolized his father, and his death threw him into a deep depression. As he grew older he began taking the then-legal drug LSD. Cohen has said that he believes the drug opened his awareness to the "hypocrisy" and "self-delusion" that are "common traits of humanity," ideas which are prominent themes in his songs. His mother Masha Cohen, from whom he inherited his love for songs and poets, died in 1978. Cohen's depression did not lift until the late 1990s.

DEVELOPMENT AS A POET

In 1951, Cohen enrolled at McGill University, where he was president of the McGill Debating Union as well as pursuing a career as a poet. His first poetry book, Let Us Compare Mythologies (1956), was published while he was an undergraduate. The Spice-Box of Earth (1961) made him well known in poetry circles, especially in his native Canada.

Cohen applied a strong work ethic to his early and keen literary ambitions. He wrote poetry and fiction through much of the 1960s, and preferred even as a young man to live in quasi-reclusive circumstances. After moving to Hydra, a Greek island, Cohen published the poetry collection Flowers for Hitler (1964), and the novels The Favourite Game (1963) and Beautiful Losers (1966). The Favourite Game is an autobiographical bildungsroman about a young man finding his identity in writing. In contrast, Beautiful Losers can be considered as an 'anti-bildungsroman' since it - in an early post modern fashion - deconstructs the identity of the main characters by combining the sacred and the profane, religion and sexuality in a rich, lyrical language. Reflecting Cohen's Quebecois roots, but perhaps unusually for someone from a Jewish background, a secondary plot in Beautiful Losers concerns Tekakwitha, the Roman Catholic Iroquois mystic. Beautiful Losers, greeted initially with shock by Canadian reviewers who berated it for its explicit sexual content, is today considered by many critics[citation needed] to be among the finest literary novels of the 1960s. For a good early survey of Cohen's written work, see Leonard Cohen by Steven Scobie (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1978).

MUSIC

In 1967, Cohen relocated to the United States to pursue a career as a folk singer-songwriter. His song "Suzanne" became a hit for Judy Collins, and after performing at a few folk festivals, Cohen was discovered by John H. Hammond, the same Columbia Records representative who discovered Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen, among others.

The sound of Cohen's first album Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967) was too dark to be a commercial success, but was widely acclaimed by folk music buffs and by Cohen's peers. He became a cult name in the UK, where the album spent over a year on the album charts. He followed up with Songs from a Room (1969) (featuring the oft-covered "Bird on the Wire"), Songs of Love and Hate (1971), Live Songs (1973), and New Skin for the Old Ceremony (1974).

Throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, Cohen toured the United States, Canada and Europe. In 1973, Cohen toured Israel and performed at army bases during the Yom Kippur War. Beginning around 1974, his collaboration with pianist/arranger John Lissauer created a live sound almost universally praised by the critics, but never really captured on record. During his time, Cohen often toured with Jennifer Warnes as a back-up singer. Warnes would become a fixture on Cohen's future albums and recorded an album of Cohen songs in 1987, Famous Blue Raincoat.

In 1977, Cohen released Death of a Ladies' Man (note the plural possessive case; one year later in 1978, Cohen released a volume of poetry with the coyly revised title, Death of a Lady's Man). The album was produced by Phil Spector, well known as the inventor of the "wall of sound" technique, in which pop music is backed with thick layers of instrumentation; an approach very different from Cohen's usually minimalist instrumentation. The recording of the album was fraught with difficulty; Spector reportedly mixed the album in secret studio sessions and Cohen said Spector once threatened him at gunpoint. Cohen thinks the end result is "grotesque" but also "semi-virtuous".

In 1979, Cohen returned with the more traditional Recent Songs. Produced by Cohen himself, and Henry Lewy (Joni Mitchell's sound engineer), the album-included performances by a jazz-fusion band, introduced to Cohen by Mitchell, and oriental instruments (oud, Gypsy violin and mandolin). In 2001, Cohen referred to Recent Songs as his best album, releasing the live version of songs from its 1979 tour on record Field Commander Cohen: Tour of 1979.

In 1984, Cohen released Various Positions, featuring the oft covered "Hallelujah," but Columbia declined to release the album in the United States, where Cohen's popularity had declined in recent years. (Throughout his career, Cohen's music has sold better in Europe and Canada than in the U.S.; he once satirically expressed how touched he is at the modesty the American company has shown in promoting his records.)

In 1986 he made a guest appearance in an episode of the TV series Miami Vice.

In 1987, Jennifer Warnes' tribute album Famous Blue Raincoat helped restore Cohen's career in the U.S., and the following year he released I'm Your Man, which marked a drastic change in his music. Synthesizers ruled the album, although in a much more subdued manner than on Death of a Ladies' Man, and Cohen's lyrics included more social commentary and dark humour. It was Cohen's most acclaimed and popular since Songs of Leonard Cohen, and "First We Take Manhattan" and the title song became two of his most popular songs.

He followed with another acclaimed album, The Future, in 1992. The Future is his most political album to date, articulating a politics to urge (more often than not in terms of biblical prophecy) perseverance, reformation, and even hope in the face of prospects ranging from the grim to the dire. The use of the album track "Everybody Knows" (co-written by Sharon Robinson) in the 1990 film Pump Up the Volume helped to expose Cohen's music to a younger audience.Three tracks from the album - "Waiting for the Miracle", "The Future" and "Anthem" - were featured in the controversial movie Natural Born Killers.

In the title track Cohen prophesies impending political and social collapse, reportedly as his response to the L.A. unrest of 1992: "I've seen the future, brother: It is murder." In "Democracy," Cohen, criticizes America but says he loves it: "I love the country but I can't stand the scene." Further, he describes his own politics as: "I'm neither left or right/I'm just staying home tonight/getting lost in that hopeless little screen."

Cohen's humility also shines through "Waiting for the Miracle" (co-written with Sharon Robinson), where he lampoons his own severity (along perhaps with his religious austerity and even his instrumentation), singing: "There ain't no entertainment and the judgments are severe/ The maestro says it's Mozart but it sounds like bubble-gum/ When you're waiting for the miracle to come." And in "Closing Time", Cohen gives the dire prophecies of "The Future" as forgiving and humble a reworking as is perhaps imaginable, observing biblical, personal, and political "end times" from the perspective of an old guy being kicked out of a sleazy but jubilant bar. The album also contains "Anthem", where in perhaps the album's best-loved and most-often-quoted passage, he urges perseverance and faith in the face of broken Liberty: "Ring the bells that still can ring/ Forget your perfect offering/ There is a crack in everything/ That's how the light gets in."

In 2001, following five years' seclusion as a Zen Buddhist monk at the Mount Baldy Zen Centre (where he served as personal assistant to Kyozan Joshu Sasaki Roshi), Cohen returned to music with Ten New Songs, featuring a heavy influence from producer and co-composer Sharon Robinson. With this album, Cohen shed the relatively extroverted, engaged, and even optimistic outlook of The Future (the sole political track, The Land of Plenty, abandoning stern commandment for yearning but helpless prayer) to lament and seek acceptance of varieties of personal loss: the approach of death and the departure of love, romantic and even divine. Ten New Songs' cohesive musical style (perhaps absent from Cohen's albums since Recent Songs) owes much to Robinson's involvement. Although not Cohen's bitterest album, it may rank as his most melancholic.

In October 2004, he released Dear Heather, largely a musical collaboration with jazz chanteuse (and current Cohen partner) Anjani Thomas, although Sharon Robinson returns to collaborate on three tracks (including a duet). As light as the previous album was dark, Dear Heather reflects Cohen's own change of mood - he has said in a number of interviews that his depression has lifted in recent years, which he attributes to the neurological processes of aging. Dear Heather is perhaps his least cohesive, and most experimental and playful album to date, and the stylings of some of the songs (especially the title track) frustrated many fans. In an interview following his induction into the Canadian Songwriters' Hall of Fame, Cohen explained that the album was intended to be a kind of notebook or scrapbook of themes, and that a more formal record had been planned for release shortly afterwards, but that this was put on ice by his legal battles with his ex-manager.

Blue Alert, an album of songs co-written by Anjani and Cohen, was released on May 23, 2006 to positive reviews. The album is sung by Anjani, who according to one reviewer "sounds like Cohen reincarnated as woman. . . . though Cohen doesn't sing a note on the album, his voice permeates it like smoke."The album includes a recent musical setting of Cohen's "As the mist leaves no scar," a poem originally published in The Spice-Box of Earth in 1961.

In 1994, following a tour to promote The Future, Cohen retreated to the Mount Baldy Zen Center near Los Angeles, beginning what would become five years of seclusion at the center. In 1996, Cohen was ordained as a Rinzai Zen Buddhist monk and took the Dharma name Jikan, meaning 'silent one'. He left Mount Baldy in 1999.

Cohen has been under new management since April 2005. He recently wrote and produced the album Blue Alert for Anjani Thomas. Cohen's new book of poetry and drawings, Book of Longing, was published in May 2006; in March the Toronto publisher offered signed copies to the first 1500 orders placed online, which saw the entire amount sold within hours. The book quickly topped bestseller lists in Canada. On May 13, 2006, Cohen made his first public appearance for thirteen years, at an in store event at a bookstore in Toronto. Approximately 3000 people turned up for the event, causing the streets surrounding the bookstore to be closed. He sang two of his earliest and best-known songs: "So Long, Marianne" and "Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye", accompanied by the Barenaked Ladies and Ron Sexsmith. Also appearing with him was Anjani, the two promoting her new CD, along with his book. Cohen's new album meanwhile is also slated for late 2006, with subsequent touring.

This recent activity has been necessary - Cohen states - because his financial resources, including the publishing rights to his songs, reportedly have been gutted, leading him to file suit against his longtime former manager, Kelley Lynch, for gross misappropriation of funds. Cohen stated that he has been deprived of over US$5 million placed in a fund for his retirement, leaving only $150,000. Cohen was sued in turn by other former business associates. These events have put him in the public spotlight, including a cover feature on him with the headline "Devastated!" in Canada's Maclean's magazine. In March of 2006, Cohen won the civil suit, and was awarded US$9 million by a Los Angeles County superior court. Lynch, however, had completely ignored the suit, and did not respond to a subpoena issued for her financial records. As a result it has been widely reported that Cohen may never be able to collect the cash.

THEMES

Recurring themes in Cohen's work include love and sex, religion, psychological depression, and music itself. He has also engaged with certain political themes, though sometimes ambiguously so.

Love and sex are common enough themes in popular music; Cohen's background as a novelist and poet brings an uncommon sensibility to these themes. "Suzanne," probably the first Cohen song to gain broad attention, mixes a wistful type of love song with a religious meditation, themes that are also mixed in "Joan of Arc." "Famous Blue Raincoat" is from the point of view of a man whose marriage has been broken (in exactly what degree is ambiguous in the song) by his wife's infidelity with his close friend, and is written in the form of a letter to that friend, to whom he writes, "I guess that I miss you/ I guess I forgive you Know your enemy is sleeping/ And his woman is free", while "Everybody Knows" deals in part with the harsh reality of AIDS: " the naked man and woman/ Are just a shining artifact of the past." "Sisters of Mercy" evokes of genuine love (agape more than Eros) found in a hotel room encounter with two Edmonton women, whereas "Chelsea Hotel #2" treats his Janis Joplin one-night stand rather unsentimentally, and the title of "Don't Go Home with Your Hard-On" speaks for itself.

Cohen comes from a Jewish background, most obviously reflected in his song "Story of Isaac", and also in "Who by Fire," whose words and melody echo the Unetaneh Tokef, an 11th century liturgical poem recited on Rosh Hashanah. Broader Judeo-Christian themes are sounded throughout the album Various Positions: "Hallelujah", which has music as a secondary theme, begins by evoking the biblical king David composing a song that "pleased the Lord"; "Coming Back to you" and "If It Be Your Will" are clearly addressed to a Judeo-Christian God. In his early career as a novelist, Beautiful Losers grappled with the mysticism of the Catholic/Iroquois Katherine Tekakwitha. Cohen has also been involved with Buddhism at least since the 1970s and in 1996 he was ordained a Buddhist monk. However, he still considers himself also a Jew: "I'm not looking for a new religion. I'm quite happy with the old one, with Judaism."

Having suffered from psychological depression during much of his life (although less so with the onset of old age), Cohen has written much (especially in his early work) about depression and suicide. The wife of the protagonist of Beautiful Losers commits a gory suicide; "Seems So Long Ago, Nancy" is about a suicide; suicide is mentioned in the darkly comic "One of Us Cannot Be Wrong"; "Dress Rehearsal Rag" is about a last-minute decision not to kill oneself; a general atmosphere of depression pervades such songs as "Please Don't Pass Me By" and "Tonight Will Be Fine." A reviewer once remarked tongue-in-cheek that Cohen's albums should be sold with razor blades.

As in the aforementioned "Hallelujah", music itself is the subject of many songs, including "Tower of Song", "A Singer Must Die", and "Jazz Police".

Social justice often shows up as a theme in his work, where he seems, especially in later albums, to expound a leftist politics, albeit with culturally conservative elements. In "Democracy" lamenting "the wars against disorder/ the sirens night and day/ the fires of the homeless/ the ashes of the gay," he concludes that the United States is actually not a democracy: A specifically (and classically) leftist position, as is his practically Chomskyan observation (in "Tower of Song") that "the rich have got their channels in the bedrooms of the poor/ And there's a mighty judgment coming." In the title track of The Future he recasts this prophecy on a pacifist note: "I've seen the nations rise and fall/ / But love's the only engine of survival." In "Anthem," he promises that "the killers in high places [who] say their prayers out loud/ [are] gonna hear from me." In "The Land of Plenty," he characterizes the United States (if not the opulent West in general) of benightedness: "May the lights in The Land of Plenty/ Shine on the truth some day." And in "On That Day," in a sincere and genuine lament for the 9-11 tragedy, he nevertheless, startlingly, raises (and takes an agnostic position on) the question of whether "It's what we deserve/ For sins against God/ For crimes in the world."

War is an enduring theme of Cohen's work which in his earlier songs, as indeed in his early life, he approached ambivalently. In "Field Commander Cohen" he (perhaps metaphorically) imagines himself as a soldier/spy socializing with Fidel Castro in Cuba - where he had actually lived at the height of US - Cuba tensions in 1961 - allegedly sporting Che Guevara-style beard and military fatigues. This song was actually written immediately following Cohen's front-line stint with the Israeli air force, the "fighting in Egypt" documented in an (again perhaps metaphorical) passage of "Night Comes On:" In 1973, Cohen, who had traveled to Jerusalem to sign up on the Israeli side in the 1973 war with Egypt, had instead been assigned to a USO-style entertainer tour of front-line tank emplacements in the Sinai Desert, at one of which he both came under fire and reportedly shared cognac with an unlikely self-professed fan, then-General Ariel Sharon. Disillusioned by encounters with captured and wounded enemy troops, and having expressed ambivalence from the start about the causes of the conflict, he eventually left, but not before beginning to write his song "Lover Lover Lover," as he later claimed, "for the soldiers of both sides."

His recent politics continue a lifelong predilection for the underdog, the "beautiful loser,". Whether covering "The Partisan", a French Resistance song by Anna Marly and Emmanuel d'Astier, or singing his own "The Old Revolution", written from the point of view of a defeated royalist, he has throughout his career through his music expressed his sympathy and support for the oppressed. Although Cohen's fascination with war is often as metaphor for more explicitly cultural and personal issues, as in New Skin for the Old Ceremony, by this measure his most "militant" album.

Cohen blends a good deal of pessimism about political/cultural issues with a great deal of humor and (especially in his later work) gentle acceptance. His wit contends with his stark analyses, as his songs are often verbally playful and even cheerful: In "Tower of Song," the famously raw-voiced Cohen sings ironically that he was "? born with the gift/ Of a golden voice"; the generally dark "Is This What You Wanted?" nonetheless contains playful lines "You were the whore and the Beast of Babylon/ I was Rin Tin Tin"; in concert, he often plays around with his lyrics (for example, "If you want a doctor/ I'll examine every inch of you" from "I'm Your Man" will become "If you want a Jewish doctor ?"); and he will introduce one song by using a phrase from another song or poem (for example, introducing "Leaving Green Sleeves" by paraphrasing his own "Queen Victoria": "This is a song for those who are not nourished by modern love").

Some of his songs, such as "Ballad of the Absent Mare" and "Hallelujah" are simply beautiful, and "Democracy" looks at a future as hopeful as that of "The Future" is bleak.

Cohen has also covered such love songs as Irving Berlin's "Always" or the more obscure soul number "Be for Real" (originally sung by Marlena Shaw), chosen in part for their unlikely juxtaposition to his own work.

ALBUMS

1967 - Songs of Leonard Cohen
1969 - Songs from a Room
1971 - Songs of Love and Hate
1973 - Live Songs
1974 - New Skin for the Old Ceremony
1977 - Death of a Ladies' Man
1979 - Recent Songs
1984 - Various Positions
1988 - I'm Your Man
1992 - The Future
1994 - Cohen Live: Leonard Cohen in Concert
2001 - Field Commander Cohen: Tour of 1979
2001 - Ten New Songs
2004 - Dear Heather
2006 - Blue Alert

COMPILATIONS

1975 - The Best of Leonard Cohen (also known as Greatest Hits)
1997 - More Best of Leonard Cohen (including two new tracks)
2002 - The Essential Leonard Cohen, double CD

POETRY

"It was only when you walked away I saw you had the perfect ass. Forgive me for not falling in love with your face or your conversation." - from The Energy of Slaves (1972)
"Rust rust rust
in the engines of love and time" - from "Front Lawn" in Flowers for Hitler (1964)
"and you kissed me
shy as though I'd
never been your lover" - from "Song" in The Spice-Box of Earth (1961)

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