He had so many ways of taking his leave, whether it was saying so long to Marianne, or slipping out while the sisters of mercy still slept, or sending a more ambiguous salute to a man in a blue raincoat. But for his many fans around the world, there will be no easy way to say goodbye to Leonard Cohen.
Mr. Cohen, who died Monday at the age of 82, was a writer and musician whose muse sang most strongly when he transformed the incidents of ordinary lives into poetic tales of legendary proportions. His art was personal, aggrandizing and often dark, but it echoed widely through the world from which he habitually recoiled.
Mr. Cohen’s label, Sony Music Canada, confirmed his death on the singer’s Facebook page.
“It is with profound sorrow we report that legendary poet, songwriter and artist, Leonard Cohen has passed away,” the statement read. “We have lost one of music’s most revered and prolific visionaries. A memorial will take place in Los Angeles at a later date. The family requests privacy during their time of grief.” A cause of death was not given.
Mr. Cohen was a life-long manipulator of his own image, and regarded all appearances as suspect. He courted paradox, sometimes brutally, and wrote poems and songs designed to pull the rug out from under us all. And yet long before the end, his fans saw him as a wise and comforting presence. Even when he told us that life was a gory riddle with no solution, we received that old news as if it were a benediction.
Leonard Cohen was born in Montreal in 1934, to a prosperous Jewish family with roots in Eastern Europe. His grandfathers were pillars of the community: on one side, a high-powered businessman and cultural leader; on the other, a rabbi whose Talmudic habit of parsing layers of meaning and paradox strongly impressed the young Leonard.
His father died when Mr. Cohen was nine. “My uncles prophesied wildly, / promising life like frantic oracles,” he wrote in the deathbed poem, Rites, while noting also the gifts of flowers and sweet nuts brought as offerings for the dying man. In this early poem (from his first collection, Let Us Compare Mythologies ), Mr. Cohen marked out some of his most characteristic territory: the intersections of blood and beauty, of festivity and decay, of personal events and cosmic narratives.
“It is important / to understand one’s part in a legend,” he wrote in Story, another poem from the same 1956 debut. Mr. Cohen found the fabric of legend woefully tattered in post-war Montreal, where saints’ names were written on street signs but where miracles had become rumours from far away and long ago. He needed to rewrite the legends and saints’ lives to accommodate himself and those he loved or hated. As Michael Ondaatje wrote in his 1972 study of Mr. Cohen’s writing, his perennial hero was a damaged figure, a “wounded man yearning for the glorious death that is sainthood.”
As an English student at McGill University, Mr. Cohen came into contact with other writers and poets, including Hugh MacLellan, Louis Dudek and F. R. Scott, who mentored his efforts and helped him find his first publishing opportunities. Mr. Cohen was also affected by the poems of Federico Garcia Lorca, who “taught me that poetry can be pure and profound, and at the same time popular;” and by the work of Montreal poets A. M. Klein and Irving Layton, who became a close friend.
Mr. Cohen formed a country-folk music trio at McGill called the Buckskin Boys, and played at social events for three years. From the start, his verse favoured song forms, and he soon felt the need to bring poetry “back to the jukebox, which is really where you have to have it, or at least where I like to have it.”
In 1956, he moved to New York to continue his studies at Columbia University, but dropped out to devote himself to the writing life. He caught the tail end of the Beat scene and recited his poems in clubs with live accompaniment by the now-legendary Canadian jazz guitarist Lenny Breau. More travels took him to London, Athens and Havana, where he arrived just in time for the Bay of Pigs invasion – an experience that bobbed up later in his song, Field Commander Cohen. He spent much of the sixties on the Greek island of Hydra.
Mr. Cohen’s successive books of verse, and especially his two experimental novels (The Favourite Game, published in 1963; and Beautiful Losers, which followed in 1966) made him a literary celebrity in Canada. He gained a reputation as a flamboyant enfant terrible. It was widely assumed that his precise imagistic writing was simply a mirror of his own life. Mr. Cohen’s response was to treat his fame as a quasi-fictional con job of which he was a partial author, while affecting to stand aloof from it.
His songwriting breakthrough came in 1966 when he recorded Suzanne, a song quickly taken up by Judy Collins, who recorded three more Cohen tunes the following year. His debut album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, came out in 1967, a year before his Selected Poems won the Governor-General’s Award for poetry (which he declined).
Songs From A Room, Mr. Cohen’s album of 1969, reached No. 2 in England and charted well in the U.S. In 1971, several of his songs were used in one of Robert Altman’s greatest films, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, giving him a wider audience than ever (Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, which used three songs from Mr. Cohen’s album The Future, had a similar effect in 1994).
Mr. Cohen’s song lyrics stand out for their concise language, their vivid imagery, and their wide scale of reference. Many are about love and desire, but the loved one is often surrounded by symbols of other needs, above all the need to discover who it is that feels this love in the first place. Mr. Cohen’s songs, like his poetry, are many short acts in a theatre of the self. Though he wrote in English, his mordant song-writing sensibility was closer to that of French popular chanson than to any form of North American pop.
He had a rare gift for hearing the musical sense within a line of verse, and of finding a harmonic correlative for it. His tunes, as distinctive as his thumb-print, can be as simple as a hymn, and rarely make any sudden moves that might have taxed the narrow range of his own voice. That lethargic baritone carried him through 17 albums. In later life, it developed into a deep rumble that sounded both ravaged and luxuriant.
Mr. Cohen’s reputation dipped during the seventies, especially in the U.S., even as his studio productions became more elaborate ( Death of a Ladies’ Man was produced by the wall-of-sound champion, Phil Spector). The 1985 album Various Positions was refused by an executive at Columbia Records, Mr. Cohen’s long-time label, who famously said, “Leonard, we know you’re great, but we don’t know if you’re any good.” The disc contained Hallelujah,which eventually became one of Mr. Cohen’s best-known and most-performed songs.
Famous Blue Raincoat, an album of Cohen songs recorded by his some-time backup singer Jennifer Warnes, began a renewal of mainstream North American interest in his work in 1986. His successful 1988 album I’m Your Man was followed by another covers album, I’m Your Fan, featuring prominent figures from a more recent stratum of pop, including Nick Cave, R.E.M. and the Pixies.
Mr. Cohen spent five years during the nineties in retreat at a Zen Buddhist centre in California. He said later that the experience helped dispel the depression that had afflicted him all his life. He also said that Zen didn’t conflict with anything he had learned at Hebrew school.
“I certainly wasn’t looking for a new religion,” he said. “I was very happy with my own and old religion.” The Book of Longing, a collection of poems published in 2006, included several poems that allude playfully or fiercely to his real and rumoured connection with Buddhism and the faith of his fathers.
Mr. Cohen spent much of his life outside Canada, sojourning in Greece, Tennessee, New York and Los Angeles, though he maintained a home in Montreal. He logged many miles as a travelling musician, returning to the road for the long and highly successful tours he undertook in 2008, after suffering a contentious financial loss. He once quipped that when he started writing songs, “I had no idea I’d end up in hotel rooms for the rest of my life, banging my head on the carpet trying to find the right chord.”
He usually did find it. Like a god sheltering at the Holiday Inn, he did the hard, stubborn work of creation, and slowly built a tower of song from which, some days, you can see forever. The resonance of his chords, and his words, will stay with us for a long time.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story states Leonard Cohen died Thursday. In fact, he died Monday. This has been corrected.
The Globe and Mail
Published Thursday, Nov. 10, 2016 8:59PM EST
Last updated Friday, Nov. 11, 2016 9:03AM EST