For 50 years, over 14 albums, 9 volumes of poetry, and two novels, Leonard Cohen-- poet, novelist, troubadour, songwriter, spiritual tourist, social provocateur, and ladies' man---has shared his romantic vision.
It's been good honest work.
A major writer of the English language, Leonard-- inducted into the Juno Hall of Fame in 1991-- gives importance and dignity to songwriting. His songs are discussed, analyzed, agonized over and made love to the world over.
They have been recorded by acts as diverse as Rufus Wainwright, Jeff Buckley, Sting, Elton John, Jennifer Warnes, Billy Joel, Willie Nelson, R.E.M, and The Neville Brothers.
"Songwriting is very compelling," Leonard once remarked. "One of the reasons it's so compelling is that there is a financial pay-off -and I have many dependants-and secondly, it does get you out of the room."
Leonard has written of love: random love and hate; slaves and masters; saints seduced by the evil and sordidness of lechery; as well as war, slaughter and the harsh light of the existential furnace. And a real Suzanne-but not (in this case) a lover-- did take Leonard to her place by the river (the St. Lawrence) and did feed him tea and oranges (actually, orange-flavoured Constant Comment).
Of course, his language, the clarity, daring, and passion of his imagery, and the open-hearted approach to his life has touched and inspired fans, writers and musicians the world over.
"I would not know how high to jump or how far I was falling without Leonard Cohen,'' says U2's Bono. "His songs are conversations I have been trying to have all of my life with some of the same people... Jesus Christ, Judas Iscariot, Yahweh, all the women in the world, Buddha."
Canada first met Leonard as a brooding young poet of the 1960s--"flourishing dark and magnificent as Othello"-- to quote the self-penned blurb on the jacket of his 1966 novel "The Favourite Game." His first book of poetry "Let's Compare Mythologies" was published in 1956, while he was still an undergraduate at McGill University in Montreal. It was followed by "The Spice Box Of Earth" in 1961 that catapulted him to international literary fame.
In 1968, with the release of the anthology "Selected Poems: 1956-1968," Cohen was awarded the Governor-General's Award, Canada's highest literary distinction. He declined the honour, stating "The poems themselves forbid it, absolutely." In 2003, however, he agreed to accept the Companion of the Order of Canada, our country's highest civil honor for achievement in the arts.
Yet, it is apparent that there's no measure in Canada's culture to absolutely guage Leonard Cohen. His staggering command of several genres places him alongside traditional giants of each while his ability to amalgamate art and popular culture has made him an icon of popular culture.
Born in Montreal Sept. 21, 1934, Leonard is the son of an engineer who owned a clothing concern, and who died when Leonard was nine. A great-grandfather was the first Zionist in Canada; a grandfather was a Hebrew scholar; and a great uncle was Chief Rabbi of Canada.
Leonard still calls himself a Montrealer though he is a man forever on the move. He has lived in New York, London, Nashville, Los Angeles, and on the Greek Island of Hydra. From 1994-1999, he lived at the Zen Center on Mount Baldy in California, and was ordained as a Zen monk and given the Dharma name of Jikan (Silent One).
"For the writing of books, you have to be in one place," he said in 1988. "You tend to gather things around you when you write a novel. You need a woman in your life. It's nice to have some kids around, 'cause there's always food. It's nice to have a place that's clean and orderly. I had those things, and then I decided to be a songwriter."
He was raised in Westmount with a governess and chauffeur, and attended public schools. He graduated from McGill University with insignificant standing, He dropped out of a Master's program at Columbia University in New York. He also worked as an elevator operator in New York but was dismissed because he wanted to run the elevator attired in civilian clothes.
Leonard was touched as a child by the music he heard in the synagogue. The first singers he listened to with genuine pleasure were the American folksingers Pete Seeger, and Josh White and American country stars George Jones, and Johnny Cash that he heard on radio station WWVA in Wheeling, West Virginia. And he once thought of Elvis Presley as the first American singer of genius.
Leonard started playing guitar at summer camp in 1950. He wasn't attracted to the instrument so much as for a musical reason. He used it as a courting tool. But he also thought one day he'd become a singer, however. He used to stand and sing in front of the mirror to see how he looked.
At McGill University, he began writing poetry, and formed the country and western trio, The Buckskin Boys. He also worked in a nightclub above Dunn's deli called Birdland. He'd read poems or improvise them while Maury Kaye and his bebop group played.
After he dropped out of a Master's program at Columbia University in New York Leonard obtained a grant, and was able to travel through Europe. He eventually settled on Hydra, staying on and off for seven years. He wrote two more collections of poetry, "Flowers For Hitler" (1964) and "Parasites of Heaven" (1966) there; and the novels, "The Favorite Game" (1963), and "Beautiful Losers"
As he finished "Beautiful Losers," he realized he was full of music (if only because he'd written the book to the accompaniment of the American Armed Forces radio service). He decided to go to Nashville, and become a country songwriter. On his way there, he met Toronto-born manager Mary Martin who persuaded him to stay in New York.
Leonard was soon swept into a circle of folk musicians hanging out at the Chelsea Hotel including Phil Ochs, Judy Collins, Tim Buckley, and Buffy Sainte-Marie. When he heard Bob Dylan, he knew he didn't need to journey any further. "It wasn't his originality which first impressed me, but his familiarity," Leonard recalls. "He was like a person out of my books."
In March 1966, Leonard made his public debut as a singer at a poetry reading at the New York YMHA. He sang "Suzanne" and "The Stranger Song." Later that year, he toured western Canadian colleges, doing readings and singing.
In 1967, Leonard played 15-20 concerts, including the Newport Folk Festival where he stole the audience cheers from established stars with the Mariposa Folk Festival in Toronto; and two concerts with Judy Collins who recorded "Suzanne" and "Dress Rehearsal Rag" on her 1966 album, "In My Life."
A few months after Newport, Columbia Records released his debut album, "The Songs of Leonard Cohen." It had such signature Cohen songs as "Suzanne," "Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye," "So Long, Marianne," and "Sisters of Mercy."
Since then, despite several sabbaticals from the musical wars, Leonard has continued to stretch the borders of the pop music landscape with such songs as "Bird On a Wire, "The Song of Isaac," "Joan of Arc," "Famous Blue Raincoat," "Hallelujah," "First We Take Manhattan," "Tower of Song," "Ain't No Cure For Love," "Joan Of Arc," and "Death of a Ladies Man."
In early 1999, Leonard came down from Mount Baldy armed with new lyrics and poems. He settled in Los Angeles where he released three records, the live album entitled "Field Commander Cohen - Tour of 1979," the collection, "Ten New Songs" and "Dear Heather" in 2004.
Today, Leonard Cohen is at work on songs for his next album for a possible mid-2006 release as well as co-writing with singer Anjani Thomas for her upcoming album "Blue Alert," also to be issued this year.
Writer: Larry LeBlanc