If this wretched, ill-starred year has taught us anything, it’s that the greats are a vanishing species, and once gone, they can be remembered, but never replaced. Leonard Cohen’s incomparable catalogue of music, poetry and literature, spanning seven decades, stands alone among those greats. As a recording artist, Cohen didn’t simply write songs; he set wisdom to music. Oftentimes, that wisdom could be bleak, uncomfortable, even suffocating in its elegiac gloom and despair, but you never doubted the truth of it. He had a gift for finding beauty in words and language, even as those words probed into the darker recesses of the human experience.
Born into a middle-class Jewish family in the affluent Montreal suburb of Westmount in 1934, Cohen’s “Messianic childhood” (his maternal grandmother was a Talmudic writer, while his parents told him that he was a direct descendant of Aaron, the first high priest of the Israelites) would later manifest itself in his music, which was often concerned by questions of religion and spirituality. Yet his first love was poetry: he published his first collection in 1956, and twelve more would follow throughout the course of his life, as well as two novels, 1963’s ‘The Favorite Game’ and 1966’s ‘Beautiful Losers’, both written at his home on the Greek island of Hydra.
Cohen might have continued to eke out a respectable – if not particularly lucrative – literary career for himself, but in 1966, he decided to move back to Canada and try his luck as a songwriter. Shortly after that, he encountered the folk singer Judy Collins, who was so impressed by his songs that she decided to record two of them, ‘Suzanne’ and ‘Dress Rehearsal Rag’. “I was moved by his singing voice, and by the songs, and by his whole presence,” she later recalled of their first meeting. “There was something very ethereal and at the same time earthy about his voice. When Leonard sang, I was entranced.”
It was Collins who urged Cohen to overcome his anxiety about performing live, convincing him to join her at a Vietnam War protest in New York in April 1967, and coaxing him back to the stage when he abandoned ‘Suzanne’ halfway through the first verse. Soon after, he was haunting the hallways of the Chelsea hotel and fraternising with Andy Warhol’s Factory crowd, before coming to the attention of John Hammond, the Colombia Records scout who had discovered Bob Dylan. By the end of that year, he had released his debut album, ‘Songs of Leonard Cohen’, the response to which set a precedent for much of his early work: critics loathed him, but audiences – particularly British ones – were moved by the evocative imagery of his lyrics and the sparseness of his arrangements. To them, Judy Collins wrote, Cohen’s songs, “were like water to a person dying of thirst. They were songs for the spirit when our spirits were strained to breaking point.”
His 1969 follow-up, ‘Songs from a Room’, was even more austere (though it yielded one of his most beloved – and most-covered – songs, the funereal ‘Bird on the Wire’) but it was 1971’s ‘Songs of Love and Hate’ that gave Cohen his commercial breakthrough, its eight songs delivered with a spiritual and emotional intensity unlike anything seen in rock music before or since. Cohen eventually felt the urge to wriggle out of his miserablist pigeonhole, but the libidinous, unbridled bombast of 1977’s Phil Spector-produced ‘Death of a Ladies Man’, recorded amidst a chaotic atmosphere of guns, booze and pharmaceuticals, probably wasn’t the best way to do it. The album appalled many of the same audiences who had embraced him, and it wasn’t until 1984’s ‘Various Positions’ that he managed to redeem himself, with one track in particular doing most of the heavy lifting.
‘Hallelujah’, the centrepiece of ‘Various Positions’, was a transcendent hymn to love, loss and the mysteries of the metaphysical that ultimately became – thanks to the 300-or-so artists who went on to cover it – the most famous Cohen ever wrote. Yet the reach of ‘Hallelujah’ goes far beyond its mere popularity, the benefits of which Cohen didn’t begin to reap until Jeff Buckley’s version arrived ten years later: indeed, it may be one of the most analysed and pored-over pieces of music written in the 20th century, a song that’s had an entire biography – Alan Light’s ‘The Holy or the Broken’ – dedicated to deciphering its meaning and understanding its appeal.
Much like that song, Cohen himself remained a mythic riddle. He spent most of the ’90s living in seclusion at Mount Baldy monastary, a Zen retreat in California’s San Gabriel mountains, where he went by the name of Jikan, or the Silent One. When a visiting journalist asked him what he was doing there, he shrugged that, “I don’t think anybody really knows why they’re doing anything. If you stop someone on the subway and say, ‘Where are you going – in the deepest sense of the word?’ you can’t really expect an answer. I don’t know why I’m here. It’s a matter of, ‘What else would I want to be doing?'”
His semi-retirement came to an end in 2001, with the release of ‘Ten New Songs’, but it was the discovery that his former manager had stolen almost $10m of his life savings that prompted Cohen to return to the stage in 2008 after fifteen years away from it. Now in his mid-70s, his famous baritone had grown even deeper and gravellier, so that every word sounded like it was being read from tablets of stone. He had never exactly been at ease with life on the road, but much like his final trio of albums – 2012’s ‘Old Ideas’, 2014’s ‘Popular Problems’ and last month’s ‘You Want It Darker’ – Cohen’s later tours were some of the finest, and best-reviewed, of his career.
The title-track of ‘You Want It Darker’ contains a lyric that only be interpreted as the words of a man who had come to terms with his own death and was ready to face whatever comes after it: “Hineni, hineni/ I’m ready, my lord.” Yet it’s an old quote from a 1976 interview, reflecting on the death of his friend (and former lover) Janis Joplin, that seems to best sum up his long, remarkable career. “There are certain kinds of artist that blaze in a very bright light for a very brief time: the Rimbauds, the Shelleys, Tim Buckley – people like that; and Janis was one of them. Then there’s the other kind, like Sartre or Bernard Shaw, who are careful about themselves and what the risks are. You can’t get too safe, but as you get older you learn something about survival. The game is rough from a lot of points of view, because the prizes are big and the defeats are big, too. The life is rigorous, and the invitations to blowing it are numerous and frequent. Me? I’m careful as I can be without it getting too much of a drag.”
For many of us, Leonard Cohen’s music might have served as the soundtrack to our dark nights of the soul, but it was never, ever a drag.