This Montreal poet, novelist and singer commanded attention with the singular quality of his voice and stroke of his pen. In the mid-60s, after making his mark as a writer, Cohen chose to dedicate himself to music. His bare-bones folk-style serves as a ground for his words on the human experience, a commentary at once beautiful and profound. Among his best known songs are Suzanne, So Long Marianne, and Hallelujah. While his body of work has not been highly successful in a commercial sense, he remains a source of fascination to legions of devotees.
Leonard Norman Cohen was born in Montreal on September 21, 1934. Even as a very young child, his mother encouraged him to write. He wrote poetry when boys his age were still playing with toy soldiers. He was also drawn to music, especially country music, but not yet completely absorbed by it. Once enrolled in McGill University, he embraced his literary pursuits with a passion.
Fresh out of university, Cohen published his first collection of poems, Let Us Compare Mythologies. He then left town in search of adventure. After a stay in London, he settled on the Greek island of Hydra, where he continued to write page after page. He also amused himself by strumming away on the guitar. Upon his return to Montreal, Cohen published more poetry collections and two novels, among them Beautiful Losers (1966), which was very well received by critics.
At 32, Cohen decided to try his hand at song-writing. He dreamt of recording in Nashville but stopped by New York. There in the Big Apple, his circle of acquaintances included Nico, Joni Mitchell and Judy Collins. Indeed, Judy Collins would be the first to perform one of his songs, named Suzanne. Around the same time, appearances at the Newport Festival and a number of shows in New York helped to put Cohen on the musical map.
Cohen, the singer
After hearing a number of Cohen's compositions, John Hammond offered him a first opportunity at Columbia. His first album was released in 1968. Called The Songs of Leonard Cohen, it featured a warm, bass voice, with a minimalist style of accompaniment-a far cry from the baroque and psychedelic productions then in vogue. On the album were Suzanne, So Long Marianne, and Sisters of Mercy.
The two albums that followed, Songs from a Room (1969) and Songs of Love and Hate (1971), confirmed his talent. A live-concert recording called Live Songs came two years later, marking the end of his "first period."
In New Skin for the Old Ceremony, Cohen presented his songs in more lush wrappings. In Death of a Ladies' Man (1977), producer Phil Spector added a layer or two to Cohen's compositions, Cohen then accusing Spector of mixing the pieces without consulting him.
He's our man
While his pace slowed down in the 1980s, Cohen continued to write and to record. His landmark album, I'm Your Man, released in 1988, had a mildly electronic flavour in tune with the times. The title piece and others such as Tower of Song introduced him to a new audience.
In 1993, a tour to promote The Future, an album released a year earlier, brought him to the Montreal Forum.
Cohen devoted the following years to a spiritual quest that led him to the Mount Baldy Zen Centre, a Buddhist retreat in California. For a period of time, he even wore a monk's robes. Upon leaving the Centre in 1999, he published Ten New Songs, co-written by Sharon Robinson, a former back-up singer. In 2004, the year he turned 70, Cohen then launched Dear Heather, with some of its texts produced by collaborators.
The following year, he initiated a lawsuit against his ex-manager for embezzlement of funds, the amount totalling millions.
A full quota of honours
In March 2008, Cohen was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. A veritable monument and icon of song as well as literature, he has long been considered one of the most important and influential author-songwriters of his time.
The same year, Cohen again returned to the touring stage for a series of 84 concerts taking him from the Saguenay to Dublin, and from Bucharest to Aukland. For the first time in 15 years, he would again perform for Canadian audiences.
The poet and musician would also make a first visit to the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal, giving three performances as a prelude to the event in Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier at Place des Arts, before ecstatic crowds.
Cohen did not leave empty-handed. He was the third artist to receive the Montreal Jazz Festival Spirit Award, one that singles out the quality and innovation in his body of work as well as the author-songwriter-performer's unqualified influence on popular music the world over.
A memorable tribute
The feasting would go on with a concert paying tribute to Cohen on the Festival's opening night. What did Katie Melua, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Madeleine Peyroux, Serena Ryder, Chris Botti and Thomas Hellman have in common? A love for a great Montreal poet, novelist and singer, all of them converging on the scene for the show.
Among the other artists present were Zachary Richard, with a performance of Bird on a Wire, Garou, with Everybody Knows, and Pagliaro, with The Future. Leonard Cohen himself, already off to far-flung places, was present on video screen and closed the concert with Closing Time and Suzanne. Some 100,000 were present at this happening.
In 2009, after the launch of his DVD-concert Live in London, shot the previous year, Cohen continued on his world tour. He released the another live document, Songs from the Road, in 2010, followed Old Ideas, an album of original material, two years later.