Leonard Norman Cohen, CC, GOQ (born September 21, 1934) is a Canadian singer-songwriter, musician, poet and novelist. Cohen published his first book of poetry in Montreal in 1956 and his first novel in 1963. His work often deals with the exploration of religion, isolation, sexuality and complex interpersonal relationships. Famously reclusive, spending years in a Zen Buddhist monastery, and possessing a persona frequently associated with mystique, he is extremely well-regarded by critics for his literary accomplishments and for producing an output of work of high artistic quality over a five-decade career.
Musically, Cohen's earliest songs (many of which appeared on the 1967 album, Songs of Leonard Cohen) were rooted in European folk music. In the 1970s, his material encompassed pop, cabaret and world music. Since the 1980s his high baritone voice has evolved into lower registers (bass baritone and bass), with accompaniment from a wide variety of instruments and female backing singers.
Over 2,000 renditions of Cohen's songs have been recorded. Cohen has been inducted into both the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame and is also a Companion of the Order of Canada, the nation's highest civilian honour. While giving the speech at his induction into the American Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on March 10, 2008, Lou Reed described Cohen as belonging to the "highest and most influential echelon of songwriters".
Cohen was born in 1934 in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, into a middle-class Jewish family. His mother, of Lithuanian Jewish ancestry, emigrated from Lithuania while his great-grandfather emigrated from Poland . He grew up in Westmount on the Island of Montreal. His father, Nathan Cohen, owned a substantial Montreal clothing store, and died when Leonard was nine years old. Like many other Jewish families with names like Cohen, Kahn, and Kagan, as well as legendary singer, The Legendary Danny O'Doul, Cohen's family claimed descent from the Kohanim: "I had a very Messianic childhood", he told Richard Goldstein in 1967. "I was told I was a descendant of Aaron, the high priest." He attended Herzliah High School, where he studied with poet Irving Layton. As a teenager he learned to play the guitar, subsequently forming a country-folk group called the Buckskin Boys. His father's will provided Leonard with a modest trust income, sufficient to allow him to pursue his literary ambitions.
In 1951, Cohen enrolled at McGill University, where he became president of the McGill Debating Union. Literary influences during this time included Yeats, Whitman and Henry Miller. His first published book of poetry, Let Us Compare Mythologies (1956), was published under Louis Dudek as the first book in the McGill Poetry Series while Cohen was still an undergraduate student. The Spice-Box of Earth (1961) made him well known in poetry circles, especially in his native Canada.
After completing an undergraduate degree, Cohen spent a term in McGill's law school and a year (1956-7) at Columbia University.
Cohen applied a strong work ethic to his early and keen literary ambitions. He wrote poetry and fiction through much of the 1960s, and preferred to live in quasi-reclusive circumstances. After moving to Hydra, a Greek island, Cohen published the poetry collection Flowers for Hitler (1964), and the novels The Favourite Game (1963) and Beautiful Losers (1966). The Favourite Game is an autobiographical bildungsroman about a young man who discovers his identity through writing.
Cohen's writing process, he told an interviewer in 1998, is "like a bear stumbling into a beehive or a honey cache: I'm stumbling right into it and getting stuck, and it's delicious and it's horrible and I'm in it and it's not very graceful and it's very awkward and it's very painful and yet there's something inevitable about it."
1960s and 1970s
Leonard Cohen in 1969
In 1967, Cohen moved to the United States to pursue a career as a folk music singer-songwriter. During the 60s, he was a fringe figure in Andy Warhol's Factory crowd. Warhol speculated that Cohen had spent time listening to Nico in clubs and that this had influenced his musical style. His song "Suzanne" became a hit for Judy Collins and was for many years his most covered song. After performing at a few folk festivals, he came to the attention of Columbia Records representative John H. Hammond.
Cohen's first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967), was too dark to be a commercial success but was widely acclaimed by folk music buffs. He became a cult name in the UK, where the album spent over a year on the album charts. He followed it with Songs from a Room (1969) (featuring the often recorded "Bird on the Wire"), Songs of Love and Hate (1971), Live Songs (1973) and New Skin for the Old Ceremony (1974).
In 1971, Cohen's music was used in the soundtrack to Robert Altman's film McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Cohen had been in Nashville when Altman phoned to ask permission to use some tracks off Songs of Leonard Cohen. Coincidentally, earlier that same day, Cohen had viewed Altman's film, Brewster McCloud, in a Nashville theater. He hadn't paid attention to the credits, though; when Altman asked permission to use Cohen's songs in his new film, Cohen asked him who, exactly, he was. Altman mentioned MASH, but Cohen had never heard of it. Altman then told him of the lesser-known Brewster McCloud. Cohen, likely astonished, replied, "Listen, I just came out of the theater. I saw it twice; you can have anything of mine you want!"
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Cohen toured the United States, Canada and Europe. Beginning around 1974, his collaboration with pianist and arranger John Lissauer created a live sound praised by the critics. During this time, Cohen toured twice with Jennifer Warnes as a back-up singer (in 1972 and 1979). Warnes would become a fixture on Cohen's future albums and she recorded an album of Cohen songs in 1987, Famous Blue Raincoat.
In 1977, Cohen released Death of a Ladies' Man (note the plural possessive case; one year later in 1978, Cohen released a volume of poetry with the coyly revised title, Death of a Lady's Man). The album was produced by Phil Spector, well known as the inventor of the "wall of sound" technique, in which pop music is backed with thick layers of instrumentation, an approach very different from Cohen's usually minimalist instrumentation. The recording of the album was fraught with difficulty; Spector reportedly mixed the album in secret studio sessions, and Cohen said Spector once threatened him with a crossbow. Cohen thought the end result to be "grotesque", but also "semi-virtuous".
In 1979, Cohen returned with the more traditional Recent Songs. Produced by Cohen himself and Henry Lewy (Joni Mitchell's sound engineer) the album included performances by a jazz-fusion band introduced to Cohen by Mitchell and oriental instruments (oud, Gypsy violin and mandolin). In 2001 Cohen released an album of live recordings of songs from his 1979 tour, entitled Field Commander Cohen: Tour of 1979.
Leonard Cohen (1988).
In 1984, Cohen released Various Positions, including "Dance Me to the End of Love" and the often recorded "Hallelujah". Columbia declined to release the album in the United States, where Cohen's popularity had declined in previous years. Throughout his career, Cohen's music has sold better in Europe and Canada than in the U.S.; he once satirically expressed how touched he is at the modesty the American company showed in promoting his records.
In 1986 he appeared in the episode French Twist of the TV series Miami Vice. In 1987, Jennifer Warnes's tribute album Famous Blue Raincoat helped restore Cohen's career in the U.S., and the following year he released I'm Your Man, which marked a drastic change in his music. Synthesizers ruled the album and Cohen's lyrics included more social commentary and dark humour. It was Cohen's most acclaimed and popular since Songs of Leonard Cohen, and "First We Take Manhattan" and the title song became two of his most popular songs.
The use of the album track "Everybody Knows" (co-written by Sharon Robinson) in the 1990 film Pump Up the Volume helped to expose Cohen's music to a younger audience. The song was also featured prominently in fellow countryman Atom Egoyan's 1994 film, Exotica. In 1992, Cohen released The Future, which urges (often in terms of biblical prophecy) perseverance, reformation, and hope in the face of grim prospects. Three tracks from the album - "Waiting for the Miracle", "The Future" and "Anthem" - were featured in the movie Natural Born Killers.
In the title track, Cohen prophesies impending political and social collapse, reportedly as his response to the L.A. unrest of 1992: "I've seen the future, brother: It is murder." In "Democracy", Cohen criticizes America but says he loves it: "I love the country but I can't stand the scene." Further, he criticizes the American public's lack of interest in politics and addiction to television: "I'm neither left or right/I'm just staying home tonight/getting lost in that hopeless little screen".
Nanni Moretti's film Caro diario (1993) features "I'm Your Man", as Moretti himself rides his Vespa along the streets of Rome.
In 1994, following a tour to promote The Future, Cohen retreated to the Mt. Baldy Zen Center near Los Angeles, beginning what would become five years of seclusion at the center. In 1996, Cohen was ordained as a Rinzai Zen Buddhist monk and took the Dharma name Jikan, meaning 'silence'. He served as personal assistant to Kyozan Joshu Sasaki Roshi. He left Mount Baldy in 1999.
Ten New Songs
In 2001, following the five years' seclusion as a Zen Buddhist monk at the Mt. Baldy Zen Center, Cohen returned to music with Ten New Songs, featuring a heavy influence from producer and co-composer Sharon Robinson. With this album, Cohen shed the relatively extroverted, engaged, and even optimistic outlook of The Future (the sole political track, ?The Land of Plenty,? abandoning stern commandment for yearning but helpless prayer) to lament and seek acceptance of varieties of personal loss: the approach of death and the departure of love, romantic and even divine. Ten New Songs' cohesive musical style (perhaps absent from Cohen's albums since Recent Songs) owes much to Robinson?s involvement. The album includes the song "Alexandra Leaving", which is a striking transformation of the poem "The God Abandons Antony", by the Greek poet Constantine P. Cavafy. Although not Cohen?s bitterest album, it may rank as his most melancholic.
In October 2004, Cohen released Dear Heather, largely a musical collaboration with jazz chanteuse (and current romantic partner) Anjani Thomas, although Sharon Robinson returns to collaborate on three tracks (including a duet). As light as the previous album was dark, Dear Heather reflects Cohen's own change of mood - he has said in a number of interviews that his depression has lifted in recent years, which he attributes to the aid of Zen Buddhism. Dear Heather is perhaps his least cohesive, and most experimental and playful album to date, and the stylings of some of the songs (especially the title track) frustrated many fans. In an interview following his induction into the Canadian Songwriters' Hall of Fame, Cohen explained that the album was intended to be a kind of notebook or scrapbook of themes, and that a more formal record had been planned for release shortly afterwards, but that this was put on ice by his legal battles with his ex-manager.
Blue Alert, an album of songs co-written by Anjani and Cohen, was released on May 23, 2006 to positive reviews. The album is sung by Anjani, who according to one reviewer "sounds like Cohen reincarnated as woman. . . . though Cohen doesn't sing a note on the album, his voice permeates it like smoke." The album includes a recent musical setting of Cohen's "As the mist leaves no scar", a poem originally published in The Spice-Box of Earth in 1961 and adapted by Spector into "True Love Leaves No Traces" on Death of a Ladies' Man.
Book of Longing
Cohen's book of poetry and drawings, Book of Longing, was published in May 2006; in March a Toronto-based retailer offered signed copies to the first 1500 orders placed online, which saw the entire amount sold within hours. The book quickly topped bestseller lists in Canada. On May 13, 2006, Cohen made his first public appearance for thirteen years, at an in-store event at a bookstore in Toronto. Approximately 3000 people turned up for the event, causing the streets surrounding the bookstore to be closed. He sang two of his earliest and best-known songs: "So Long, Marianne" and "Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye", accompanied by the Barenaked Ladies and Ron Sexsmith. Also appearing with him was Anjani, the two promoting her new CD, along with his book.
2008 concert tour
2008 concert tour
January 13, 2008, Cohen quietly announced a long-anticipated concert tour . The tour, Cohen's first in 15 years, began May 11 in Fredericton, NB to wide critical acclaim, and was prolonged until Fall of 2009. The schedule encompassed Canada and Europe, including performances at The Big Chill (music festival), the Montreal Jazz Festival, and on the Pyramid Stage at the 2008 Glastonbury Festival on 29 June 2008. His performance at Glastonbury was hailed by many as the highlight of the festival, and his performance of 'Hallelujah' as the sun went down received a rapturous reception and a lengthy ovation from a packed Pyramid Stage field. He also played in Dublin in what has come to be regarded as a "milestone concert". The London performance was later released on CD and DVD under the title Live in London.
The Sydney Entertainment Centre show on January 28 sold out rapidly, which motivated promoters to later announce a second show at the venue. The first performance was well-received, and the audience of 12,000 responded with five standing ovations. Cohen gave generous credit to his touring band, his long-time collaborator and vocalist Sharon Robinson, who was backed up by the Webb Sisters. In January 2009, the tour arrived in New Zealand. Simon Sweetman in The Dominion Post (Wellington) of 21 January wrote "It is hard work having to put this concert in to words so I'll just say something I have never said in a review before and will never say again: this was the best show I have ever seen." The first concert of the Australian tour took place at Rochford Winery in Victoria's Yarra Valley on January 24 in perfect weather in front of an audience of about 7,000.
On March 7, 2008, Jeff Buckley?s version of Cohen's ?Hallelujah?, went to number 1 on the iTunes chart after being performed by Jason Castro on the seventh season of the television series American Idol. Another major boost for Cohen's song exposure came when singer-songwriter Kate Voegele released her version of "Hallelujah" from her 2007 Don't Look Away album and appeared as a regular character, named Mia, on season five of the teenage television show One Tree Hill.
A few days later, Cohen was inducted into the American Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in recognition of his status among the "highest and most influential echelon of songwriters".. He was introduced by fellow musician Lou Reed.
In December 2008 Cohen's "Hallelujah" was placed no. 1 and 2 in the U.K. Christmas singles chart, with 'X Factor' winner Alexandra Burke at No. 1 and Jeff Buckley at No. 2. And mp3 downloads of Cohen's original version placed at No. 36, 24 years after its initial release. Not since the early days of the UK Singles Chart had three versions of the same song charted simultaneously.
On February 19, 2009, Cohen played his first American concert in fifteen years at the Beacon Theatre in New York City. He also performed at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival on Friday, April 17, 2009, in front of one of the largest Outdoor Theatre crowds in the history of the festival. His performance of "Hallelujah" was widely regarded as one of the highlights of the festival.
In February 2009, in response to hearing about the devastation to the Yarra Valley region of Victoria in Australia, he donated $200,000 to the Victorian Bushfire Appeal in support of those affected by the extensive Black Saturday bushfires that razed the area just weeks after his performance at the Rochford Winery in the A Day on the Green concert. Melbourne's Herald Sun newspaper reported: "Tour promoter Frontier Touring said $200,000 would be donated on behalf of Cohen, Kelly and Frontier to aid victims of the Victorian bushfires."
A scheduled concert in Ramallah was cancelled after Palestinian human-rights activists objected to the fact that Cohen had also scheduled a concert in Tel Aviv contrary to a proposed cultural boycott of Israel. Tickets for the Tel Aviv concert, Cohen's first performance in Israel since 1975, went on sale on August 1, 2009, and were sold out in less than 24 hours. It was announced that proceeds from the sale of the 47,000 tickets would go into a charitable fund in partnership with Amnesty International and would be used by Israeli and Palestinian peace groups for projects providing health services to children and bringing together Israeli veterans and former Palestinian fighters and the families of those killed in the conflict. However on August 17, 2009, Amnesty International released a statement saying they were withdrawing from any involvement with the concert or its proceeds. Amnesty International later stated that its withdrawal was not due to the boycott but "the lack of support from Israeli and Palestinian NGOs." The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) led the call for the boycott, claiming that Cohen "is intent on whitewashing Israel's colonial apartheid regime by performing in Israel."
On , at a concert in Valencia, Spain, Cohen collapsed halfway through performing his song Bird on the Wire. It was reported that Cohen had stomach problems, and possibly food poisoning.
On at the Ramat Gan Stadium, Israel, Cohen was highly emotional about the Israeli-Palestinian NGO Bereaved Families for Peace. He mentioned the organization twice, saying "It was a while ago that I first heard of the work of the 'Bereaved Parents for Peace'. That there was this coalition of Palestinian and Israeli families who had lost so much in the conflict and whose depth of suffering had compelled them to reach across the border into the houses of the enemy. Into the houses of those, to locate them who had suffered as much as they had, and then to stand with them in aching confraternity, a witness to an understanding that is beyond peace and that is beyond confrontation. So, this is not about forgiving and forgetting, this is not about laying down one's arms in a time of war, this is not even about peace, although, god willing, it could be a beginning. This is about a response to human grief. A radical, unique and holy, holy, holy response to human suffering. Baruch Hashem, thank God, I bow my head in respect to the nobility of this enterprise." At the end of the show he blessed the crowd by the Priestly Blessing.
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Recurring themes in Cohen's work include love and sex, religion, psychological depression, and music itself. He has also engaged with certain political themes, though sometimes ambiguously so. "Suzanne" mixes a wistful type of love song with a religious meditation, themes that are also mixed in "Joan of Arc". "Famous Blue Raincoat" is from the point of view of a man whose marriage has been broken (in exactly what degree is ambiguous in the song) by his wife's infidelity with his close friend, and is written in the form of a letter to that friend, to whom he writes, "I guess that I miss you/ I guess I forgive you ? Know your enemy is sleeping/ And his woman is free", while "Everybody Knows" deals in part with social inequality ("...the poor stay poor/ And the rich get rich"), and the harsh reality of AIDS: "? the naked man and woman/ Are just a shining artifact of the past".
"Sisters of Mercy", according to the sleeve notes of his Greatest Hits evokes his encounter with two women named Barbara and Lorraine in a hotel room in Edmonton, Canada. Claims that "Chelsea Hotel #2" treats his affair with Janis Joplin without sentimentality are countered by claims that the song reveals a much more complicated and mixed set of feelings than straightforward love. Cohen discusses the song in an interview filmed for the tribute-concert movie Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man. He confirms that the subject is indeed Janis with some evident embarrassment. "She wouldn't mind", he declares, "but my mother would be appalled". The title of "Don't Go Home with Your Hard-On" speaks for itself.
Cohen comes from a Jewish background, most obviously reflected in his song "Story of Isaac", and also in "Who by Fire", whose words and melody echo the Unetaneh Tokef, an 11th century liturgical poem recited on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Broader Judeo-Christian themes are sounded throughout the album Various Positions: "Hallelujah", which has music as a secondary theme, begins by evoking the biblical king David composing a song that "pleased the Lord", and continues with references to Bathsheba and Samson. The lyrics of "Whither Thou Goest", performed by him and released in his album "Live in London", are adapted from the Bible (Ruth 1:16-17, King James Version). If it be Your Will also has a strong air of religious resignation.
In his concert in Ramat Gan, Israel, on the 24th of September 2009 Cohen spoke to the audience in Hebrew when using Jewish prayers and blessings. He opened the show with the first sentence of Ma Tovu. At the middle he used Baruch Hashem, and he ended the concert reciting the blessing of Birkat Cohanim.
In his early career as a novelist, Beautiful Losers grappled with the mysticism of the Catholic/Iroquois Catherine Tekakwitha. Cohen has also been involved with Buddhism at least since the 1970s and in 1996 he was ordained a Buddhist monk. However, he still considers himself also a Jew: "I'm not looking for a new religion. I'm quite happy with the old one, with Judaism."
He is described as an observant Jew in an article in the New York Times