“Your body like a searchlight
my poverty revealed,
I would like to try your charity
until you cry, ‘Now you must try my greed.’
And everything depends upon how near you sleep to me.”
— from “Take This Longing,” 1974
Leonard Cohen, who was born on September 21, 1934 in Montreal and died on November 7, 2016 in Los Angeles, was one of the most influential songwriters of his generation. Known for cultivating a deeply personal oeuvre of song-poems addressing issues of sexuality, identity, morality, religion, politics, existence, and isolation, Cohen’s work stands today as a watershed for the song as an artform for literary expression.
His words are deeply personal, yet deeply universal. They can be strikingly ambiguous, yet equally brusque, even American in style, echoing the influence of 1960s Californian counterculture on his writing. Cohen’s peers were Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, fellow Canadian Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, and Judy Collins.
Cohen, however, stands alone as a wordsmith of not just songs, but also of novels and poetry. His first collection of poems, Let Us Compare Mythologies, was released in 1956, comprised largely of poems Cohen wrote between the ages of 15 and 20, including while a student at McGill University. Famed Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye gave the collection “restrained praise.” Cohen’s voice, though green and bearing the strong influence of Yeats and Lorca, was markedly assured. And all the landmarks were there: religion, sex, love, and identity.
In “When This American Woman”, Cohen approaches sexuality with arresting frankness.
When this American woman,
whose thighs are bound in casual red cloth,
comes thundering past my sitting place
like a forest-burning Mongol tribe,
the city is ravished
A decade later, Cohen became known for his many love affairs, including those with Janis Joplin (about whom the song “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” is written), Joni Mitchell, who cites “Suzanne” as one of the greatest songs she’s ever heard, Marianne Ihlen, about whom the songs “So Long, Marianne” and “Bird on a Wire” are written, and Suzanne Elrod, with whom Cohen had two children: Adam and Lorca, named after Cohen’s literary idol. (In the 2005 tribute film Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man, Cohen gingerly admits that he switched from poetry to music because it seemed a surer way to pick up women, and the habit stuck.)
In his second collection, The Spice-Box of Earth, Cohen’s work deepened with stunning confidence. Cohen approached social taboos with honesty and an oft acerbic tone. In “The Genius” he writes:
I will be a Broadway jew
and cry in theatres
for my mother
and sell bargain goods
beneath the counter
His 1963 novel The Favourite Game, a bildungsroman about a man discovering his passions through writing, is a deeply engaging view of the Jewish immigrant experience in the ghettos of Montreal in the 20th century. His 1866 novel Beautiful Losers caused controversy amongst press and publishers for its graphic depictions of sex and post-modernist literary techniques. An equally influential Canadian ran in the same circles as young Cohen: Mordecai Richler, author of literary works such as The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1959) and Barney’s Version (1997).
It was not until Cohen was 33 and had ostensibly failed in both poetry and prose that he released his first album of music, noted for its husky, gravelly baritone voice and simple harmonic progressions, often to folksy sounding guitars and backed by sacred-sounding vocals. It is here that we distill Cohen’s fraught brand of genius.
Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967) remains his most financially successful album to date. Unique, however, was Cohen’s ability to maintain both commercial appeal and artistic integrity into his Eighties: his final album, You Want It Darker,was released three weeks before his death to warm reception.
Cohen’s most famous (and recorded) song may be “Hallelujah.” In it he employs some of his most trademark Cohenisms: a preoccupation with the divine against a Judeo-Christian backdrop (with the vocabulary to boot), an “erotic despair”, as his work was marketed by recording companies, a balance of the granular and the epic, an unflinching romanticism, a resemblance to liturgy, and a “confessional” style.
Yet “Hallelujah” represents a single facet of Cohen’s varied milieu; in writing his early work, Cohen fasted and consumed amphetamines to help focus, and in composing “Hallelujah”, Cohen was once reduced to sitting on the floor of his Royalton Hotel room in New York, banging his head on the floor.
The song’s enduring popularity has been bolstered by its many covers, including those by John Cale, Jeff Buckley (whose cover was ranked by Rolling Stone as the 259th greatest song of all time in 2004), k.d. lang, and Rufus Wainwright, whose version was featured in the 2001 film Shrek.
In his later years, Cohen’s work turned further inward. Cohen explained his spirituality in an interview given a week before his death. He said, “I’ve never thought of myself as a religious person. I don’t have any spiritual strategy. I kind of limp along like so many of us do in these realms. Occasionally, I’ve felt the grace of another presence in my life, but I can’t build any kind of spiritual structure on that. So I feel that this is a vocabulary that I grew up with. This biblical landscape is very familiar to me so it’s natural that I use those landmarks as references. Once they were universal references…that’s no longer the case today but it’s still my landscape… Outside of that, I cannot — I dare not — claim anything in the spiritual realm for my own.”
Cohen’s recent single, “You Want It Darker”, references the biblical phrase, “Hineni”, meaning “Here I am” extensively. Cohen seems to be prophesying: “Hineni, hineni, I’m ready, my Lord.” In his final album, which Cohen felt was an artistic success, his voice is lower, his themes darker, his music more liturgical. It is a Leonard Cohen aged and wizened, and ironically in the peak of his artistry.
Cohen, who passed peacefully in his Los Angeles home at age 82, was survived by two children and three grandchildren. A memorial is planned to take place at a future date in Los Angeles. Cohen was paid tribute by numerous celebrities, artists, and musicians. In a recent New Yorker feature, Cohen stated that he was “ready to die.” Recently, however, he suggested, “I intend to live forever.” Through his work and its influence on a generation of poets and musicians after him, he may
Essential Leonard Cohen songs:
Famous Blue Raincoat
Who By Fire
“And who by brave assent, who by accident,
who in solitude, who in this mirror,
who by his lady’s command, who by his own hand,
who in mortal chains, who in power,
and who shall I say is calling?”
If It Be Your Will
“Let the hills rejoice
Let your mercy spill
On all these burning hearts in hell
If it be your will
“And everybody knows that the Plague is coming
Everybody knows that it’s moving fast
Everybody knows that the naked man and woman
Are just a shining artifact of the past
Everybody knows the scene is dead
But there’s gonna be a meter on your bed
That will disclose
What everybody knows.”
First We Take Manhattan
“I don’t like your fashion business, mister
And I don’t like these drugs that keep you thin
I don’t like what happened to my sister
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin.”
Chelsea Hotel No. 2
“And clenching your fist
For the ones like us
Who are oppressed by the figures of beauty
You fixed yourself
You said “Well nevermind
We are ugly but we have the music.”
“Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew her
She tied you
To a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair