There has arguably never been an artist more adored for more than just his music in Canadian history than Leonard Cohen. Born in Montreal in 1934 into a middle class Jewish family, his grandfather was president of the Canadian Jewish Council. His father, owned a substantial Montreal clothing store, but died when Cohen was only nine years old. As he grew older, it came as no surprise to those who knew him best that his favourite subjects in school were music and poetry.
As a teenager, he learned to play the guitar, and formed a country-folk group called the Buckskin Boys. The singer/songwriter, novelist, and poet published his first book of poetry, “Let Us Compare Mythologies,” in 1956, shortly after he left his English Literature studies at McGill University, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree. Selected poems also showed up in the compilation, “Six Montreal Poets” that same year. He spent some time in McGill’s law school, then a year at Columbia University where he enrolled in General Studies. But uninspired, Cohen left New York and returned to Montreal, working various odd jobs and focusing on writing fiction and poetry. The result was the book “The Spice-Box of Earth” in ’61.
After being awarded a government grant, he spent a year on a remote Greek island. Upon his return, his first novel, “The Favourite Game,” found its way to print in 1963. For his efforts, he was awarded the Québec Literary Competition Prize. He continued adding poetry to his resume, with “Flowers For Hitler” a year later.
In ’65 he was the subject of the National Film Board of Canada documentary “Ladies and Gentlement…Mr Leonard Cohen,” which explored the life of one of Canada’s fastest rising poets. But disappointed with not being able to make it as a writer, Cohen moved to the United States to pursue a career as a folk music singer-songwriter. John Hammond signed him to a songwriting contract with Columbia Records, a year after his music appeared in the NFB animated short “Angel” in 1968, the same year that Judy Collins and Noel Harrison both recorded his song “Suzanne.”
After releasing his next book of poems, “Parasites of Heaven” came his second novel, “Beautiful Loser,” whose graphically sexual content stirred imaginations, but also caused a backlash from prudes, thus killing sales. By this time Cohen had talked the label execs into letting him record an album himself, and in 1967 his first album saw the light of day. A blend of pseudo-folk and early contemporary music, SONGS OF LEONARD COHEN was panned by many critics, calling it one of the most depressing albums they’d ever heard, not able to grasp the emotional outpouring that would become Cohen’s trademark. Although Columbia president John Hammond was originally supposed to produce the record, he had to withdraw due to illness. His replacement was John Simon, but unfortunately he and Cohen butted heads on the arrangements. Cohen wanted less, Simon wanted more, complete with strings and horns.
Still, Cohen’s own version of “Suzanne” became his first single, albeit overseas. And along with “Winter Lady,” and “One of Us Cannot Be Wrong,” the record was well received in Canada, reaching the top 40, while it all but flopped in the US, peaking at only #83 on Billboard’s chart. In the UK, however, it reached #13, spending nearly a year and a half on the charts there. “Winter Lady,” “The Stranger Song,” and “Sisters of Mercy,” were all used in the 1971 Robert Altman film, “McCabe & Mrs. Miller.” “The Stranger Song” was also used in “The Ernie Game” in ’67, directed by Don Owen, one of the people behind behind the NFB film about him. Based on the stories of Bernard Cole Spencer, he also had a bit part in the movie, singing the song.
In ’68, he made headlines at the time, not for winning the Governor General’s Award for his latest book of poetry, “Selected Poems – 1956 – 1968,” but for refusing it when he was notified he’d won. His sophomore album came a year later with SONGS FROM A ROOM, which featured his first domestic single “The Partisan,” which would later be adopted as the unofficial hymn of the Polish Solidarity movement. The b-side was what would become one of his signature songs, “Bird on the Wire” (covered by over a dozen artists over the years, including Jennifer Warnes, The Neville Brothers, and Johnny Cash). Cohen was living in Nashville at the time, and the album was recorded there with producer Bob Johnston. The material was slightly more diverse than on his debut, although just as depressing at times. “Seems So Long Ago Nancy” told a story of a Montreal woman who committed suicide after her parents forced her to give her child up for adoption.
“Story of Isaac” is based on the Old Testament story of God’s demand that Isaac be sacrificed by his father Abraham. At the time, it was widely assumed Cohen was making an indirect plea for parents not to let their sons enlist in the Vietnam War. The album barely made a scratch on the Canadian or American charts, but UK audiences were getting it, and it shot to #2 there. Because of his growing popularity overseas, he spent a good deal of his time touring there, including back to back appearances at the Isle of Wight Music Festivals to close out the sixties, as well as hosting his own BBC special.
Cohen welcomed in the ’70s by releasing the album SONGS OF LOVE & HATE a year later. Recorded in Nashville and in London, England, featured several songs which had been written years earlier. “Dress Rehearsal Rag,” a song Cohen had only played live twice due to its depressing nature, was actually recorded by Judy Collins five years earlier. Other tracks included “Joan of Arc” and “Famous Blue Raincoat,” two songs that have been covered by other artists several times since the album’s release. It made no impact whatsoever on the US Billboard charts, but peaked in the top 20 at home, and #4 in the UK and #8 in Australia. As his popularity grew throughout Europe, he appeared in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s “Beware of a Holy Whore” film later that year.
For the most part, Cohen stayed out of the limelight for the next few years, but released a collection of poems called “The Energy of Slaves” in ’72. Cohen was already establishing himself as one of Canada’s biggest exports, and the Italian LIVE SONGS a year later became the first of many imports over the years, which featured several songs that hadn’t been recorded yet, or since, during a European tour earlier that year.
He returned in August 1974 with NEW SKINS FOR THE OLD CEREMONY. With new producer John Lissauer, Cohen strayed away from the raw sound of his previous albums, with a more orchestrated presence with more post production and used banjos, mandolins, and even violas. Along with what would become considered a Cohen classic in “Chelsea Hotel #2” (about sex he had with Janis Joplin), it featured “Leaving Green Sleeves” (a reworking of the 15th century traditional folk song “Greensleeves”) and the duet with Janis Ian “Who By Fire” (recanting his Jewish roots, based on a prayer for the Day of Atonement). Although the album failed to live up to expectations, its impact was felt 36 years later, when it was used as the backdrop and inspiration to an art video exhibit in LA’s Hammer Museum.
Columbia released THE BEST OF LEONARD COHEN in 1975, and eager to get to work on his next album, tentatively titled SONGS FOR REBECCA (for his friend & actress Rebecca DeMornay), Cohen and Lessauer had actually completed half a record, and several had been performed live. But execs at Columbia didn’t like the direction the material was going, so the project was scrapped. Songs were re-worked with new producer Phil Spector, and the result was DEATH OF A LADIES’ MAN in 1977.
Bob Dylan was among the over 50 contributing musicians for the album, and although it was several years in the making, it flopped. Jazz, funk, and rock were mixed into an album that Spector had reportedly not involved Cohen in for the final mix, and even pointed a loaded gun at him at one point. Featuring the nine-minute long title track, “True Love Leaves No Traces,” and “Paper Thin Hotel,” Rolling Stone Magazine called it a nightmare and critics generally couldn’t figure out what Cohen (or in some cases Spector) was trying to say musically. The record was released by Spector’s label, Warner, and was returned to Columbia’s Cohen catalogue in the late 1980s. Cohen was so frustrated with the end product that he declined to take part in the album’s promotion, much to Columbia execs’ shagrin. In his subsequent tours, he only performed two songs from the album, “Memories” and “Iodine,” and refused to allow anything from the album to be included in later compilations.
“Death of a Ladies’ Man” also worked well as the title for one of two books of poetry in 1978, the other wasn’t so inventively titled – “Selected Poetry of Leonard Cohen.” His next album was a year later, and like its predecessor, RECENT SONGS was largely a collection of songs that had been written over the previous few years. With new producer Henry Lewy behind the controls, the album was a return to Cohen’s acoustic folk roots, with jazz and traditional Oriental influences, and even a Mexican Mariachi band. Featured tracks included “Came So Far For Beauty” (originally intended for the scrapped SONGS FOR REBECCA album in 1975), “Ballad of the Absent Mare” (covered years later by Emmylou Harris as “Ballad of a Runaway Horse”), and Cohen’s English interpretation of the Quebecois traditional song “Un Canadian errant” (The Lost Canadian”). Long time Cohen collaborator and vocalist Jennifer Warnes appeared prominently in several tracks, as did The Band‘s Garth Hudson. As well, members of the band Passenger, whom Cohen met through Joni Mitchell, played on four of the songs, and also wound up being his touring back up band for the next couple of the years.
Cohen all but disappeared off the planet for the next half decade, but returned in full force in 1984, with the novel “Book of Mercy” (which was 50 pieces of poetic prose, influenced by the Bible, Torah, and Zen-Buddhist writings, for which he received the 1985 Canadian Author’s Association Literary Award for Poetry), and then a made for TV short musical film called “I Am A Hotel.” Based on his music, it earned him the Golden Rose, the main award at the International Television Festival, Rose d’Or in Montreux, Switzerland.
Just in time for the Christmas rush that year, he released his new album, VARIOUS POSITIONS. A return to his experimentations in modern recording with synthesizers, it also featured Jennifer Warnes sharing vocal duties on nearly every track, including what would become one of signature songs “Hallelujah,” the lead-off “Dance Me to the End of Love” which prompted his first ever music video, and “Hunter’s Lullabye.” But scared about the drastic shift in sound again, Walter Yetnikoff, new president of Columbia Records, refused to release the album in the US, prompting Cohen to have it on the American shelves the following February through the independent label Passport Records. Cohen set out on the road on his biggest tour ever, playing to packed houses in Europe and Australia, and with his first North American tour in nearly a decade. Along with just about every major jazz and folk festival in the world, he also gave several highly emotional and politically controversial concerts in Poland, which was under martial law.
In 1986 he was awarded the Genie Award (Canada’s Oscar) for Best Original Song for “Angel Eyes,” from the made for TV movie “Night Magic.” Two years later saw the release of I’M YOUR MAN, which continued his foray into a more modern sound, filled with synthesizers and effects. Cohen’s lyrics included more social commentary and dark humour, and the album eventually went gold in both Canada and the US, as well as several other markets. It went straight to the top in Norway for 16 weeks, and featured “Everybody Knows,” and was one of Cohen’s first writing collaborations with Sharon Robinson, who would become a frequent collaborator in the future, “First We Take Manhattan,” the iconic “Tower of Song,” and “Take This Waltz,” an adaptation of a Federico Garcia Lorca poem (one of Cohen’s earliest poetic influences).
Touring as many markets as possible, Cohen was making a sincere effort to become more mainstream, and so several shows were broadcast on European and US television and radio stations. He even performed on PBS’s Austin City Limits show for the first time in his career. For all his efforts, he was awarded Columbia Records’ Crystal Globe Award for selling more than five million copies of the album worldwide. He also received a pair of JUNO nominations a year later, for Entertainer of the Year and Male Vocalist of the Year, the first year his name had been mentioned at the ceremonies.
Cohen was the subject of a BBC documentary in 1988, which also contained live clipings, resulting in the British import SONGS FROM THE LIFE OF LEONARD COHEN album. In 1991 he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada, and although he was nominated for another JUNO for Songwriter of the Year but didn’t win, and still hadn’t taken home the prize, he was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame.
A year later saw the release of THE FUTURE, which eventually saw almost every song make it to a film score over the years, and generally regarded as one of his most commercially accessible albums. Recorded over six months earlier in the year, the album also featured several songs co-written by Sharon Robinson, and production from actress Rebecca de Mornay. The lyrics were often dark, making references to political and social unrest. But musically, the marching band bits in “Democracy,” the synthesizers-laden ballad “Waiting For The Miracle,” the gospel choir in the title track, and the country tinged “Closing Time” also made it one of his most musically diverse projects.
The title track, “Waiting For the Miracle,” and “Anthem” were featured in the movie “Natural Born Killers.” The title track and “Closing Time” also spent time in Canada’s top 40 chart, a rather rare feat for him. He also picked up his first JUNO that year, for Best Male Vocalist, then his second – for Best Video for “Closing Time.” He was also nominated for Producer of the Year for that song, as well. He was also nominated in two categories for THE FUTURE in 1994, for Best Video for the title track, and for Album of the Year, but won neither, though he did pick up the JUNO for Songwriter of the Year.
Still in ’94, he released COHEN LIVE, but for the most part spent the rest of the decade to himself, rarely performing and even less often recording. Retreating to the Mt. Baldy Zen Center near Los Angeles, he spent a few years of seclusion at the center, during which time he was ordained a Rinzai Buddhist monk, adopting the Dharma name ‘Jikan,’ meaning ‘silence.’ He returned with MORE BEST OF LEONARD COHEN in 1997. Not just another hits compilation, it also included a pair of previously unreleased tracks, “Never Any Good” and “The Great Event.”
In 1998 he released a collection of poetry, uncreatively entitled “The Lyrics of Leonard Cohen,” and then put pen to paper again in 2000, releasing the book of poetry “God is Alive. Magic is Afoot.” That same year, Columbia released FIELD COMMANDER COHEN, a double live album recorded throughout Europe and Asia Minor earlier in the year.
His friend and sometimes co-writer Sharon Robinson figured prominently again when he returned to the studio for 2001’s TEN NEW SONGS, co-producing it, co-writing every song, and playing several instruments on every track. The highly anticipated project eventually peaked at #4 on the Canadian chart, #6 in the UK, and #1 in both Poland and in Norway, certified platinum in all four markets. It however bombed in the US, not even making the top 100. Along with “Alexandra Leaving” (loosely based on a Greek poem called “The God Abandons Antony,” it also featured several tracks which were later covered by other artists, including Eric Burdon, Katie Melua, and Till Bronner all doing versions of “In My Secret Life,” Jonathon Richman recording “Here It Is,” and Luciana Souza doing a version of “Here It Is.” “A Thousand Kisses Deep” was also used for the soundtrack to the movie “The Good Thief.” His name was mentioned four times at that year’s JUNOs, for Best Songwriter, Best Artist, Best Pop Album, and Best Video for “In My Secret Life,” but walked out empty handed. He did however win the 2001 Nagroda Muzyczna Fryderyk, the annual Polish music award, for best foreign album, and sold over 100,000 copies in France.
After Columbia released THE ESSENTIAL LEONARD COHEN double album set in ’02, they also issued MOJO PRESENTS AN INTRODUCTION TO LEONARD COHEN a year later. Although it was an official release, it contained several songs, both live and studio, that Cohen hadn’t authorized the release of.
After becoming a Companion of the Order of Canada (the country’s highest civilian honour) in 2003, He returned a year later with a new album. But much of the material for DEAR HEATHER was actually abandoned years earlier, and then resurrected. He again hooked up with Sharon Robinson for it, and it again featured a marked increase in female vocals, as well as read poetry as opposed to sung lyrics. In a stark contrast, it also featured poetry from other writers, “Go No More A-Roving” with words by Lord Byron, and the jazz flavoured “Villanelle For Our Time” with words by FR Scott. Once again it failed to make much impression on the American buying public, but made the top 5 in Canada, the UK, and Norway, helped in part by songs like “The Letters,” “Morning Glory,” and his rendition of the country classic “Tennessee Waltz,” recorded in 1985 from his Montreaux Jazz Festival performance. As well, his longtime friend R&B performer Carl Anderson, who’d died recently, served as the inspiration for “Nightingale.” “On That Day” was a song about the 9-11 terrorist attacks, and the music for “The Faith” is an outtake from the RECENT SONGS sessions in 1979, with completely new lyrics, re-mixed and with new vocals added.
In October 2005, Cohen found himself in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. He filed for bankruptcy, alleging that his longtime former manager, Kelley Lynch, misappropriated over US $5 million from Cohen’s retirement fund. In turn, Cohen was sued by other former business associates. The negative press included several magazine, radio, Internet, and television stories on the matter, including a cover story in MacLean’s magazine. The following spring, Cohen was awarded US $9 million by a Los Angeles County superior court. Lynch, however, ignored the decision, moving out of the country.
With the exception of his next poetry collection in 2006, “Book of Longing,” ten years in the making, he again pretty much dropped off the radar, although the documentary “Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man,” featuring a tribute concert held a year earlier in Sydney, Australia was also released. Along with appearances by Nick Cave, Antony and the Johnsons, Rufus & Martha Wainwright, and Beth Orton, it also featured Cohen’s personal memories, and a performance of “Tower of Song” he’d done a year earlier with his common-law wife Anjani Thomas and U2.
Still in 2006, he released an album with Thomas called BLUE ALERT to generally positive reviews. On it Thomas did the singing, and Cohen did the production and the majority of the writing, in some cases putting music to 40 year old poems.
In ’07, his financial wranglings returned, when he filed a US $4.5 million lawsuit against Colorado investment firm Agile Group. He lost, but the firm’s counter defamation claim was as well.
In the spring of 2008, Cohen came back to the spotlight for more positive reasons, embarking on the biggest musical world tour of his career. It was his first tour in over 15 years, and over the next three years, he performed nearly 250 shows throughout Canada, the US, Australia, Scandinavia, Israel, and Europe. The overwhelming response led to the live album & DVD, LIVE IN LONDON in 2009. The tour gained rave reviews all over the world, and received over 100 five-star reviews from critics.
The same year, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, as well as became a Grand Officer of the National Order of Quebec, the province’s highest honour. In 2010, he received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Among his other achievements and awards, Cohen has been inducted into the Canadian Folk Music Walk of Fame and the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Over 2,000 renditions of Cohen’s songs have been recorded, and he’s also been given honourary degrees from both Dalhousie University and McGill University. During his career, dozens of other artists have accompanied Cohen on tour as part of his backing bands, which have varied in size from tour to tour, depending on the arrangements of the songs he planned to incorporate. Among that list are Jennifer Warnes, Garth Hudson, Laura Branigan, and Charlie Daniels, among many others.