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Singer songwriter Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen (1934–2016)

by Linnea Crowther

Leonard Cohen, a legendary Canadian-born singer-songwriter, died Monday, Nov. 7, 2016, according to multiple news sources. He was 82.

“It is with profound sorrow we report that legendary poet, songwriter, and artist Leonard Cohen has passed away. We have lost one of music’s most revered and prolific visionaries,” his label wrote on his Facebook page. “A memorial will take place in Los Angeles at a later date. The family requests privacy during their time of grief.”

The writer and performer of classics including “Hallelujah,” “Suzanne,” and “Everybody Knows,” Cohen tackled subjects like religion, isolation, and love in his music as well as his poetry. His recording career began in the 1960s and was held in similar critical acclaim to fellow folk artist Bob Dylan. He continued to record and perform into his 80s, releasing his final album, “You Want It Darker,” just three weeks before his death.


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Cohen was born Sept. 21, 1934, in Montreal, Canada. Though he later relocated to the U.S. and lived in other places including Greece, he was embraced by Canada as a native son. He turned to music after failing to find success as a writer, having struggled as a poet for more than a decade before beginning his musical career.

He recorded his first album, “Songs of Leonard Cohen,” in 1967. His well-crafted songs were soon covered by other famous artists like James Taylor and Judy Collins, though Cohen’s own early records didn’t gain more than a cult following. As a performer, Cohen’s unpolished voice was authentic and delivered his emotional lyrics in a way that resonated with audiences. Although he was not a frequent chart-topper, he became one of the most influential and respected artists among fellow musicians. His career was built upon word of mouth rather than chart success, with fans discovering his music via other artists’ covers or college radio airplay or friends’ recommendations.

Yet there are iconic songs in his catalog. The earliest was “Suzanne,” first published as a poem and later recorded for his debut album. Written about Cohen’s friend, Suzanne Verdal, it has been widely covered as well as praised for its evocative lyrics:

Suzanne takes your hand and she leads you to the river
She’s wearing rags and feathers from Salvation Army counters
And the sun pours down like honey on our lady of the harbor
And she shows you where to look among the garbage and the flowers
There are heroes in the seaweed, there are children in the morning
They are leaning out for love, and they will lean that way forever
While Suzanne holds her mirror

“Bird on the Wire,” from his 1969 album, “Songs From a Room,” is another of Cohen’s signature songs, written during a bout of depression. Urged by his girlfriend to compose music to find his way out of despair, he produced lyrics and chords that went on to deeply move his fans:

I saw a beggar leaning on his wooden crutch
He said to me, “You must not ask for so much”
And a pretty woman leaning in her darkened door
She cried to me, “Hey, why not ask for more?”

“Hallelujah,” first recorded in 1984 for his “Various Positions” album, is widely considered to be Cohen’s masterwork. It was a song he had agonized over before recording, working on it for years and writing about 80 verses that he eventually pared down to four. Many of the early draft verses included clear biblical references, but those were toned down and made more opaque for the largely secular final version. Yet its opening lyrics, instantly recognizable to millions, invoke religious figures:

Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?

The irony of Cohen’s best-known song is that many who love it have never even heard the composer’s recording of it. Cohen’s voice didn’t make the song famous — it was in cover versions that it achieved its legendary status. John Cale’s was the first to attract notice with its placement on the 1991 Cohen tribute album, “I’m Your Fan.” Cale coordinated with Cohen, asking for the lyrics and receiving a 15-page fax from which he picked and chose his favorite verses.

Jeff Buckley’s 1994 cover was the one that brought the song to its current heights, though it was a slow rise that began with its inclusion on Buckley’s lone album, “Grace.” Over the years, Buckley’s version began being used in media, finding its way to television shows including “The West Wing” and “ER.” As more and more movies and TV shows turned to the song — including the 2001 movie “Shrek,” which included Cale’s version — it became a ubiquitous classic, covered by dozens of performers and serving as a rite of passage for many contestants of competitive singing shows such as “American Idol” and “The Voice.”

Some find “Hallelujah” transcendent; others call it overplayed. As for Cohen, he showed mixed feelings on the life his composition took on. In a 2009 interview, he told The Guardian, “I think it’s a good song, but I think too many people sing it.” Yet in 2012, he told the same publication, “There’s been a couple of times when other people have said can we have a moratorium please on Hallelujah? Must we have it at the end of every single drama and every single Idol? And once or twice I’ve felt maybe I should lend my voice to silencing it but on second thought no, I’m very happy that it’s being sung.”

“Hallelujah” may have been Cohen’s best-known song to a mainstream audience, but to his fans, it was one of scores of songs to love from dozens of albums. 1988’s “I’m Your Man” was one of his most critically acclaimed albums, marking a move to more electronic production and featuring three of Cohen’s most noteworthy songs, the title song, “Everybody Knows,” and “First We Take Manhattan.”

Among Cohen’s inspirations was his one-time girlfriend, Marianne Ihlen, about whom he wrote his well-known 1968 song, “So Long, Marianne.” The two lived together for a period in the 1960s, and it was she who suggested he write “Bird on the Wire” when they were in Hydra, Greece. Though they moved on after their breakup and she later married another, her influence on Cohen was indelible. She died just a few months before Cohen’s death. Upon hearing of her terminal illness, Cohen wrote her a farewell letter that was widely shared online:

Well Marianne it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine. And you know that I’ve always loved you for your beauty and your wisdom, but I don’t need to say anything more about that because you know all about that. But now, I just want to wish you a very good journey. Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road.

Cohen himself had other high-profile relationships after Ihlen, linked with women including artist Suzanne Elrod, photographer Dominique Issermann, and actress Rebecca De Mornay. With Elrod, he had two children, Adam and Lorca, who survive him. Cohen never married.

In recent months, Cohen had begun to discuss his impending death. Though he didn’t have a publicly known illness, he was frank about his advanced age and what he knew that meant. “I am ready to die,” he told The New Yorker in October. “I hope it’s not too uncomfortable. That’s about it for me.” He was tying up loose ends, he said: “I am a tidy kind of guy. I like to tie up the strings if I can. If I can’t, also, that’s OK. But my natural thrust is to finish things that I’ve begun.”

Born to a Jewish family, Cohen was observant throughout his life, even as he also began to explore Buddhism in the 1970s and was ordained as a Buddhist monk in 1996.

Cohen was honored widely during his decades-long career. He was a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Songwriters Hall of Fame, and Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. Cohen won and was nominated for a number of Grammy and Juno awards, including being honored with a Grammy for lifetime achievement in 2010. In 2012, he won the prestigious Glenn Gould Prize, and in 2013 he was awarded the inaugural PEN Award for Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence.

Many musicians spoke out after hearing of Cohen’s death. Here are some of their words:

“For many of us, Leonard Cohen was the greatest songwriter of them all. Utterly unique and impossible to imitate no matter how hard we tried. He will be deeply missed by so many.” —Nick Cave

“Leonard Cohen standing before the Lord of Song making good on his promise no doubt. Every songwriter I know in awe of him. His songs endure.” —The Mountain Goats

“So long Leonard, thank you for your words, your songs, your life – a gentleman a master a hero – thank you for looking so deeply, for sharing your time giving us your finely wrought diamonds, for lighting the dark corners where the soul lives, for translating the otherness we recognize but fail to express, tonight we celebrate you and send you our gratitude x” —Beck

“Dear God, no. The darkness just got so much darker. Such a beautiful man, such a beautiful soul. Please rest in peace, Leonard.” —Moby

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also honored Cohen: “No other artist’s music felt or sounded like Leonard Cohen’s. Yet his work resonated across generations. Canada and the world will miss him.”

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