Monday, September 21, 2015

Leonard Cohen—Ageless Canadian Cultural Treasure

At age 81 Leonard Cohan continues to tour and record and is probably more popular today than ever before in his long career.

For most Americans Leonard Cohen is a raspy voiced singer-song writer best known for the many covers of his compositions.  Judy Collins introduced him to the audience in 1967 when she recorded Suzanne.  His other early and widely recorded songs included Sisters of Mercy, So Long, Marianne, Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye, and Bird on the Wire.  Later Hallelujah, a powerful, haunting song became almost ubiquitous with more than 150 recorded versions by artists as diverse at Jeff Buckley, Ruffus Wainwright, Willie Nelson, Justin Timberlake, and k. d. lang, who sang it at the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver, before a world-wide TV audience estimated at 3 billion viewers.  Cohen himself has made successful tours presenting his words and music to increasingly adoring crowds.
But to Canadians Cohen is something more—a renaissance man recognized as virtually the national poet and the author of brilliant post-modern novels as well as a musician and song writer.  He has been called a national treasure and the most significant Canadian cultural figure of all time.
Leonard Cohen was born on September 21, 1934 in Montreal, Quebec to two Jewish emigrants.  His mother was Lithuanian and his father, Polish.  His father, who died when the boy was only 9, had owned successful men’s clothing stores and left a trust fund for his son which, though modest, enabled him to pursue studies and then a career in the arts. 
As a child Cohen felt the weight of being in the lineage of the High Priests of the Temple.  He attended Herzliah High School, a Jewish day school.  Despite the traditional European education, young Cohen was drawn to North American folk music and began to play the guitar and sing with his own group, the Buckskin Boys.
In 1951 Cohen enrolled in Canada’s most prestigious school, McGill University and also began exploring the bohemian coffee houses and bars that were nurturing experimental young poets.  He excelled at school and became captain of McGill’s renowned Debating Union.  His first collection of poetry, Let Us Compare Mythologies was published as the first book in the new McGill Poetry Series in 1956 while Cohen was still an undergraduate.  After graduating he went on to one semester of McGill Law School, and then studied at Columbia University in New York City.
Cohen’s second book, The Spice-Box of Earth published in 1961 when he was 27 years old, won considerable attention in Canada as well as notice in Britain.  Many of its poems have become staples of Canadian poetry anthologies and literature texts.  Following its publication he retreated for several years to the island of Hydra in Greece, where worked on the sharper, darker poems collected in Flowers for Hitler published in 1964.
During the same period of self-imposed exile, Cohn turned his attention to the novel.  His autobiographical The Favourite Game about a young man discovering himself through writing and sexual adventures was published in England and the U.S. after being rejected by his Canadian publisher.  Even then, the manuscript was cut nearly in half.  The book was not a success, although due to his popularity as a poet attracted some attention.  It was a bitter experience.  
The young poet reading in 1966.
None the less, Cohen pressed forward and in 1966 published Beautiful Losers, a highly experimental novel of an unusual love triangle among devotees of the Mohawk Catholic Kateri Tekakwitha who has officially been beatified and is a candidate for sainthood.  The book is widely considered a masterpiece.
In the late 1960’s Cohen tuned much of his attention to music.  He relocated to the Untied States in 1967 to pursue a career as a song writer and with the encouragement of Judy Collins and his then love interest Joni Mitchell and got a contract with Columbia for an album, The Songs of Leonard Cohen.  It became a cult record in the U.S., not achieving Gold Record status for nearly twenty years.  But it was a major hit in Canada, Britain, and in Europe.  The songs on the album became known by the covers by Collins, Fairport Convention, Roberta Flack, Johnny Cash and many other artists.
Cohen had a relationship with fellow Canadian Joni Mitchell, but Judy Collins encouraged him to become a performing musician.  In addition to popularizing his songs like Suzanne, she brought him on tour and here joins him on stage in Newport in 1967.

Cohen concentrated on his music career, but continued to issue new poetry every few years.  Selected Poems 1956-1968 which included previously un-collected pieces, work from his earlier books, and song lyrics became the kind of battered paperback book stuffed into the back pocked of jeans worn by aspiring poets across the globe.  In 1978 Death of a Lady's Man, a major collection of poetry and prose came out.  After years of study of Zen Buddhism, Book of Mercy 1984, the winner of the Canadian Author's Association Literary Award for Poetry was published containing 50 prose poems influenced by the Bible, Torah, and Zen writings which have been categorized as psalms or prayers.  1993 saw Stranger Music: Selected Poems and Songs, the Book of Longing came out in 2006, Poems and Songs in 2011, and Fifteen Poems in 2012.
But the bulk of the 70’s and 80’s were consumed by Cohen’s active musical career which included active touring of Canada, Europe, and the U.S. and more than half a dozen albums recorded in a variety of musical styles.  He even collaborated with producer Phil Spector on Death of a Ladies’ Man, but it was an unhappy project and the notoriously unstable Spector threatened Cohen with a cross bow after one row.  Cohen also collaborated with other artists on scores for short films, a rock opera, and other projects.
In 1994 Cohen interrupted his career to enter the Mt. Baldy Zen Center near Los Angeles for what became five years of solitude and study culminating in his ordination as a Rinzai Zen monk.  His Buddhism did not constitute an abandonment of his Jewish faith, however.  He remained an observant Jew.  Cohen pointed out that there were neither petitionary prayer nor a god figure in Zen practice and that the two were not incompatible.
After leaving the monastery, Cohen resumed writing poetry, sending new material to be posted on a fan website.  By 2001 he was back in the studio recording Ten New Songs which became a phenomenal international hit.  After 2004’s Dear Heather  album which reflected a lifting of years of depression due to his Zen practice, Cohen became embroiled in dispute with his long time manager, who he accused of embezzling more than five million dollars in funds supposed to be invested for his retirement.  After long court battles including counter suits, Cohen was vindicated, but unable to force his manager to repay the money.  He was forced into bankruptcy in 2005.
Induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Cohen launched a hugely successful world tour in 2008 that continued intermittently for two years.  With the success of cover versions of Hallelujah he drew big crowds in the U.S. as well as with his established international audience.
  In recent years honors have been heaped on Cohen including Companion of the Order of Canada, Canada's highest civilian honor in 2003; Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2006; Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008; Grand Officer of the National Order of Quebec the same year; a Grammy Life Time Achievement Award and the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in 2001; the PEN Award for Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence; and three Juno Awards—a top Canadian music award for his most recent work in 2013 and ’15.
Today Cohen lives in Los Angeles with his long time companion and collaborator jazz singer and songwriter Anjani Thomas.   and is at work on a new album.


  1. Excellent history, thanks Patrick! I have been a fan of Cohen's since his first publications. A singular figure, no one like him, a true original!

  2. So it's a Leonard Cohen concert in Chicago and he's gonna be starting in 10 minutes and I'm still waiting for my date, a beautiful (a thing I've never been) folk singer from Michigan City, under the marquis and its pouring like the Niagara... I surrender to being stood-up and, with one last look, turn to join the couple I came with... and there's Cohen and his entourage walking through the lobby (no back-stage entrance in this place) and I wave and I holler to him, "It's OK, Uncle Leonard!...You don't have to address women from a prone position anymore!...Most of them don't even like it!", (but I only imagined doing that)...and I return to our table and the distaff side of the couple gives me a pitying look but the spear says, "You're gonna enjoy this evening more than we are.", which is just about the cleverest thing ever said to me...

    My favorite of his is still, "Nancy"....I sing it to young men... when appropriate