Leonard Cohen was a novelist, poet, actor, artist, singer, songwriter and a gentleman. He created a body of work that that will be forever cherished and prized amongst those who admire him. Cohen had a respectability that few could match and I imagine that even kings, queens and lauded academics would have bowed to his stately gravitas and intelligence. He emanated the aura of knowing everything – even though his tremendous modesty meant he would be the first to tell you that he did not.
Cohen first came into the public consciousness of the masses during the 1960s folk movement, alongside the likes of Columbia Records label-mate Bob Dylan, but he wasn’t really part of that ilk. The Canadian was older and wiser than his contemporaries, and had already been a published poet and novelist. His words and music struck a chord with a youth looking forward to a future that leaned towards love rather than hate, but many were put off by the bleak and bare sounds of Cohen’s early records. Dylan may have had more fury in his music, but Leonard Cohen always took a more measured response. His songs are little pieces of art, shaped by their sparsity and coolness. However, there’s a wryness within his lyrics, a humour that isn’t evident to those who only give a cursory listen to his music. Religion, politics, love, loss and sex were the main themes of Cohen’s work, and they stayed with him until the end.
Born in Montreal in 1934, Cohen was the eldest son of a middle-class family. He was just nine years old when his father died and this may have had an impact on his outlook and why he often appeared older and wiser beyond his years. Cohen was born into Judaism, but he would spend his life dabbling in multiple religions, becoming a Buddhist monk in the 1990s. At this point it looked like music and touring may become a thing of the past, but financial troubles arose when his business manager embezzled funds and he was forced to hit the road, something he never truly enjoyed. However he was delighted with the process and this kicked off a period of creative energy that lasted until the end. He would bound onto the stage and deliver three hour concerts. Impressive for anyone; remarkable for a man in his late seventies.
Hallelujah will likely be the Leonard Cohen song that most of the general public will remember. Many think of it as a hymn, but listen to the lyrics and you’ll find a very different song. All Cohen songs are great though and he would often spend years honing their lyrics, crafting them into what they would eventually become. You shouldn’t feel the need to start with Hallelujah, pick any Leonard Cohen album between his 1967 album Songs of Leonard Cohen and his final release You Want It Darker and you will discover that each track is glorious.
Robert Altman’s Warren Beatty-Julie Christie starrer McCabe & Mrs Miller used Cohen’s music to perfection – the sparseness of his arrangements against the matching cold winterscapes of Altman’s bleak western. His music punctuated many films and television shows, and on the big-screen, featuring in Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, Curtis Hanson’s Wonder Boys and Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers. Nevermind, a track from his 2014 album Popular Problems was also used as the main theme to Nic Pizzolatto’s woefully misunderstood True Detective Season 2.
Cohen left behind a perfect body of music and a legacy that has inspired (and will continue to inspire) generations of writers and musicians. Before his passing he mentioned that he was ‘ready to die’, once again illustrating that that he was a man filled with an almost celestial insight and knowledge. A gentleman to the end, Leonard Cohen will be sorely missed, but we can take solace in his words, his music and his humility.
Leonard Cohen was 82 years old when he died on 7 November 2016.