Leonard Cohen - Biography

By Michael Keefe


              Leonard Cohen was an established novelist and poet before becoming one of music's great songwriters. His gravelly baritone is a distinctive voice in contemporary music, Cohen's non-emotive delivery providing stark contrast to his beautiful written portraits of longing, depravity, and spiritual struggle. Since 1968, and till his passing in 2016, he has issued 14 studio LPs and three live albums. His songs have been the source of two major label tribute albums, as well as numerous covers by other artists. The Hall of Fame musician was also the subject of a 2006 documentary, I'm Your Man (Lion's Gate).


            Leonard Norman Cohen was born in Westmount, Quebec, Canada, on September 21, 1934. His family were middle-class Jews. His father, Nathan, a clothing store owner, died when Leonard was nine years old. For the remainder of his childhood, Cohen was raised by his mother, Masha, who encouraged her son to write poetry as a means of coping with the death of his father. At age fifteen, Leonard purchased his first guitar, but words remained his primary creative focus. At Herzliah High School, he was mentored by the famous poet and activist Irving Layton. While attending McGill University in Montreal, Cohen published his first book of poetry, 1956's Let Us Compare Mythologies. Around this same time, Cohen also made his foray into music with the short-lived country band The Buckskin Boys. 1961's book of verse The Spice Box of Earth won him international acclaim as a promising new poet. During the mid-1960s, he traveled to New York and settled for a time in Greece, experimented with LSD, and wrote two books of poetry (Flowers for Hitler in 1964 and Parasites of Heaven in 1966) and a pair of novels (The Favorite Game in 1963 and Beautiful Losers in 1966). Anyone would have guessed that Leonard Cohen was at the beginning of a prolific literary career.


            Yet, it was music that won the day. Leonard Cohen had also been composing songs, two of which folk singer Judy Collins recorded for her In My Life (1966Elektra) LP. Collins' take on Cohen's "Suzanne" received strong airplay. Collins encouraged the burgeoning songwriter to perform his own material, leading Cohen to move back to New York City in 1967 and try his hand in the music business. He got a slot at the legendary Newport Folk Festival, where famous Columbia Records scout John Hammond saw him perform. After a few sold-out shows and even a TV appearance, Hammond signed Leonard Cohen.


            His debut album, Songs of Leonard Cohen (1968 Columbia), saw limited release in December 1967, hitting most markets the following February. Brooding, introspective, and lovely, the record is considered a classic today. At the time, it was modestly successful in the US, reaching #83 on Billboard, while enjoying more fans in the UK, where it hit #13 and remained on the charts for more than a year. In addition to Cohen's own version of "Suzanne," Songs of Leonard Cohen features melancholic beauties "Sisters of Mercy," "So Long, Marianne," and "Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye."


            Cohen followed his debut with Songs from a Room (1969 Columbia). Riding the surge of popularity garnered by its predecessor, Cohen's sophomore album performed even better on the charts, peaking at #63 in America and nearly topping the charts in England, reaching #2. Despite this, the album isn't as strong as his debut effort. Bob Johnston's production lacks dimension, leaving the tunes a tad too bleak sounding, even for Leonard Cohen. Still, "Bird on a Wire" is an absolute classic Cohen track, and the brisk arpeggios in "The Partisan" (a non-Cohen composition) are enthralling. The use of mouth harp throughout the record, however, is not.


            Johnston wrangled a fuller-bodied sound out of the mixing board for Leonard Cohen's third album, Songs of Love and Hate (1971 Columbia). The LP saw Cohen's traction on the US charts slipping (it peaked at #145 on Billboard), but he continued to have strong appeal in England (#4) and had also earned a following in Australia, where the LP reached #8. "Diamonds in the Mine" showed a new intensity from Cohen, while the music in "Avalanche" picked up where "Partisan" left off. "Famous Blue Raincoat," one of Cohen's most popular songs, is a sad and yearning dirge that's full of grace.


            Two years later, Cohen released his first concert album, the simply titled Live Songs (1973 Columbia). Recorded during 1970 through 1972, the batch of tunes featured then-session man (and future popular country artist) Charlie Daniels on guitar and fiddle and future Cohen interpreter Jennifer Warnes (known as Warren at the time) on backing vocals. Rather than a "greatest hits" survey of his best songs to date, the record focused on material from Songs from a Room, as well as a few new numbers. The live setting brought out the charms of the Room tunes, and the LP provided a good stopgap for fans awaiting Cohen's next studio album.


            New Skin for the Old Ceremony (1974 Columbia) was studio LP number four from Leonard Cohen. It was his least folk-sounding record to date, sporting a fuller rock band sound on several tracks. Still, New Skin definitely sounded like a Leonard Cohen record, with the poet-singer's trademark combination of monochromatic baritone and lyrics of battered love. Cohen, however, emphasized his sly sense of humor to counter-balance his darker themes, along with a greater levity to his music. The LP is among his strongest, despite its lack of popularity at the time (it failed to chart in America and reached a modest #24 in the UK). The following year saw The Best of Leonard Cohen (1975 Columbia), a very well chosen 12-track compilation of songs from his initial quartet of LPs.


            The trend toward a rock sound culminated in a big way with Leonard Cohen's next album, Death of a Ladies' Man (1977 Columbia). Oddly, Phil Spector – famous for creating the dense, reverb-heavy "Wall of Sound" in the late '50s and '60s – was chosen to produce. Clearly, the two men's sonic approaches were antithetical to one another. Also, as has become more apparent in recent years, Phil Spector is extremely eccentric. Allegedly, he kept Cohen locked out of the mixing sessions by means of firearms. The critical reception to Ladies' Man was understandably mixed, although the gritty "Don't Go Home with Your Hard-On" is a gem, as is the more elegant "True Love Leaves No Traces." Still, Cohen's fans also weren't particularly enthused, resulting in the album hitting only #35 in Britain. America, too, remained largely disinterested in Cohen, despite the record's rock 'n' roll sound.


            After the borderline failure of Death of a Ladies' Man, Leonard Cohen went back to being Leonard Cohen. Recent Songs (1979 Columbia) was humble both in name and in execution, with Cohen returning to the spare instrumentation of his earliest efforts. Emergent in his lyrics was a growing sense of spirituality, balanced with more wry humor and sorrow. A solid album, it nonetheless offered nothing new, and his sales slipped off the charts completely.


            After a five-year gap that saw no new material from the somber singer-songwriter, Cohen began a comeback with album seven, Various Positions (1984 Columbia). This release began a new and lasting approach from Cohen, more prominently utilizing female vocalists to complement his ever-deepening baritone. In this case, his backup singer Jennifer Warnes stepped up her role, offering co-leads throughout the record. The result was the best Cohen record in ten years and a return to the UK charts (#48). The LP yielded two of his finest songs, as well: the Serge Gainsbourg-esque "Dance Me to the End of Love" and the beautiful "Hallelujah," a modern standard that perfectly mixes Cohen's pet themes of sex and spirituality. Two years later, Warnes found success on her own with Famous Blue Raincoat (1987 Private Music), an album of Leonard Cohen covers that charted in both the US and the UK. The record previewed two new tunes that would appear on Cohen's next LP.


            Leonard Cohen consolidated his increased exposure with one of his very best albums, I'm Your Man (1988 Columbia). Warnes returned on vocals, as did newcomer Anjani Thomas, who would go on to become a longtime Cohen collaborator. Along with the rich harmonies these women provided, a cadre of producers stepped in to give the LP a modern pop/rock feel. The result was a success, with a four-star review from Rolling Stone and a burgeoning fanbase of US baby boomers. Though the album did not chart in America, it hit #48 in the UK and fully returned Leonard Cohen into the public consciousness. Three cuts on the album – "First We Take Manhattan," "Everybody Knows," and the title track – are among Cohen's very best. Pitchfork would later place I'm Your Man in its list of the best 100 albums of the 1980s.


            Cohen's surge in popularity resulted in his music being used in three films in 1990, including Pump Up the Volume, a Christian Slater vehicle that introduced Cohen to a younger audience. The following year, many well respected alternative acts came together with their interpretations of Leonard Cohen songs for I'm Your Fan (1991 Atlantic). With the likes of REM, Nick Cave, and Pixies showing their love for Cohen's material, he became something like the "cool uncle" of the alternative scene.


            Not surprisingly, Leonard's next album, The Future (1992 Columbia), was another success. It hit #36 in the UK and won rave reviews from critics. Though generally more subdued than I'm Your Man, The Future was a well-crafted and a mostly moody meditation on, of course, the future. The country-inflected "Closing Time," the relatively perky "Democracy," and the loose and bluesy "Always" offered just the right amount of sonic diversity, making for a thoroughly enjoyable and extremely listenable Leonard Cohen album that was pleasing to old-time fans and newcomers alike.


            In 1994, Cohen began a five-year retreat at the Mount Baldy Zen Centre in California, leading to him being ordained as a Zen Buddhist monk. Although Cohen had disappeared from the limelight, the momentum of his popularity rolled on. He issued his second concert album, Cohen Live (1994 Columbia). One year later, a decidedly more mainstream group of artists gathered for their own takes of Cohen's canon on Tower of Song (1995 A&M). Sting, Elton John, Don Henley, Bono, and others offered their generally bland renditions of Leonard Cohen classics. Two years further on, his second "greatest hits" compilation came out, More Best Of (1997 Columbia). The album was built of tracks from I'm Your Man, The Future, and Cohen Live, and also boasted two new cuts recorded two years earlier, during a short break from Cohen's retreat.


            Nine years after his last studio album, Leonard Cohen returned to recording and issued Ten New Songs (2001 Columbia). Working with another female collaborator, Cohen co-wrote the record with producer Sharon Robinson, who also recorded nearly all the synth-heavy instrumentation. Spare and almost New Age in tone, Ten New Songs was warmly received by critics and eager fans, landing Cohen on Billboard (#143) for the first time in 30 years. In the UK, the album reached #26.


            The following year, a career-spanning two-disc retrospective, The Essential Leonard Cohen (2002 Columbia), hit the shelves. The compilation's 31 tracks lean heavily on Cohen's best and most popular albums (Songs of Leonard Cohen, I'm Your Man, and The Future), offering a great survey of his work. On the other hand, Death of a Ladies' Man is ignored completely (it wasn't all bad) and the quite good Songs of Love and Hate is represented by only one track, "Famous Blue Raincoat." Nonetheless, music fans wanting a satisfying introduction to Leonard Cohen could do no better than Essential.


            Cohen's second album of the 2000s (and 11th studio LP) was Dear Heather (2004 Columbia). Here, the poet-singer teamed up with a smattering of co-writers and producers, including Sharon Robinson and Anjani Thomas. Leanne Ungar – an engineer on earlier Cohen LPs as well as on works by Laurie Anderson and others – produced half the tracks. This scattershot approach yielded mixed results. Traditionally structured songs sat alongside spoken word pieces, and the LP closed with an ill-fitting 1985 live recording of "Tennessee Waltz." Far from a bad album, it hit #34 in the UK and provided some good cuts in the more-read-than-sung "Because Of" and the lovely "There for You," which could have easily come from any Cohen album of the last two decades. Less successful was the use of soft rock saxophone and the overlapping vocals on "Morning Glory."


            Cohen's next project was a stronger album, but does not bear his name on the cover. Cohen produced and wrote the lyrics for girlfriend Anjani's Blue Alert (2006 Columbia), a very satisfying record that blends vocal jazz with moody pop/rock. It peaked at #16 on Billboard's Jazz Album chart. In 2008, Lou Reed ushered Leonard Cohen into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, providing fitting recognition of an exceptional career.


            Cohen's death of complications from cancer in November of 2016 shocked and saddened the world. Over the course of nearly 50 years, Leonard Cohen has proved one of music's unique voices. He was among the first solo acoustic performers to break free of the folk movement, straying from politics and traditional songs to focus on original material based on self-examination, relationships, and other themes more common to pop and rock writing. He levitated these themes, though, with his poet's attention to detail and his melding of imagery both sacred and profane, all delivered with dry humor and winking resignation. As is evidenced by the two star-studded 1990s tribute albums devoted to his music, Cohen has influenced countless musicians. In 2005, a documentary on his life and music, I'm Your Man, revealed the man behind the songs to legions of fans who'd only ever experienced his music on album. A legendary figure the world over, Leonard Cohen has been inducted into both the Canadian Music and American Rock and Roll Halls of Fame.



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