Leonard Cohen

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Leonard Cohen

Leonard Norman Cohen CC (born September 21, 1934) is a Canadian poet and novelist, and a well-known singer-songwriter, residing in Los Angeles, California.

His early songs are in a folk-influenced style; beginning in the 1970s his work began to be influenced by various types of rock music and cabaret music. Cohen's lyrics are often emotionally heavy and lyrically complex, owing more to the metaphoric word play of poetry than to the conventions of folk music. Since the 1980s he typically sings in a deep bass register, with female backing vocals.

Cohen's music has become very influential on other singer-songwriters, and more than a thousand cover versions of his work have been recorded.



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Leonard Cohen on the "treeless Argolic island" of Hydra, where he wrote in seclusion during the 1960s

Cohen was born to a middle-class Jewish family in 1934 in Montreal, Quebec. His father worked as a tailor. They made a proud claim to descent from the priestly 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." [1] (http://www.webheights.net/speakingcohen/craw375.htm) As a teenager he learned to play the guitar and formed a country-folk group called the Buckskin Boys.

In 1951, Cohen enrolled at McGill University, where he was President of the debating union and pursued a career as a poet. His first poetry book, Let Us Compare Mythologies (1956), was published while he was an undergraduate. The Spice-Box of Earth (1961) made him well-known in poetry circles, especially in his native Canada.

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 even as a young man 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 finding his identity in writing. In contrast, Beautiful Losers can be considered as an 'anti-bildungsroman' since it — in an early post-modern fashion — deconstructs the identity of the main characters by means of combining the sacred and the profane, religion and sexuality in a rich, lyrical language. Reflecting Cohen's Quebecois roots, but perhaps unusually for someone from a Jewish background, a secondary plot in Beautiful Losers concerns Tekakwitha, the Roman Catholic Iroquois mystic. Beautiful Losers, greeted initially with shock by Canadian reviewers (who berated it for its explicit sexual content), is today considered by many critics to be among the finest literary novels of the 1960s. For a good early survey of Cohen's written work, see Leonard Cohen by Steven Scobie (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1978).

In 1967, Cohen relocated to the United States to pursue a career as a folk singer-songwriter. His song "Suzanne" became a hit for Judy Collins, and after performing at a few folk festivals, Cohen was discovered by John Hammond, the same Columbia Records representative who discovered Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, among others.

The sound of Cohen's first album Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967) was much too downtrodden to be a commercial success but was widely acclaimed by folk music buffs and by Cohen's peers. He followed up with Songs from a Room (1969) (featuring the oft-covered "Bird on the Wire"), Songs of Love and Hate (1971), and New Skin for the Old Ceremony (1974). His recorded sound became a bit more accessible through the use of background vocalists.

Throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, Cohen toured the United States, Canada and Europe. In 1973, Cohen toured Israel and performed at army bases during the Yom Kippur War. Beginning around 1974, his collaboration with pianist/arranger John Lissauer created a live sound that was almost universally praised by the critics, but never really captured on record. During his time, Cohen often toured with Jennifer Warnes as a back-up singer. Warnes would become a fixture on Cohen's future albums and would even record an album of Cohen songs in 1987, Famous Blue Raincoat.

In 1977, Cohen released an album called 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 much different from Cohen's usually minimalistic instrumentation. The recording of the album was a complete fiasco. Spector reportedly mixed the album in secret studio sessions and Cohen said that Spector once threatened him at gunpoint. The end result was a sound critics considered gaudy and ostentatious and Cohen's songs were considered some of his weakest as well. In 1979, Cohen returned with the more traditional Recent Songs.

In 1984, Cohen released Various Positions, featuring the oft-covered "Hallelujah," but Columbia declined to release the album in the United States, where Cohen's popularity had declined in recent 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 has shown in promoting his records.)

In 1986 he made a guest appearance in an episode of the TV series Miami Vice.

In 1987, Jennifer Warnes' 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, although in a much more subdued manner than on Death of a Ladies' Man, and Cohen's lyrics included more social commentary and dark humour. The album 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.

He followed with another acclaimed album, The Future, in 1992. The Future showed a very bitter, almost misanthropic view of life. The grim, socially detached notes found in songs like "First We Take Manhattan" became an almost explicit cry of hatred expressed in songs like "The Miracle," "The Future" and others. Cohen always maintained a cynical, outsider-like view of the world, which was expressed here in its extreme.

In 1994, following a tour to promote The Future, Cohen retreated to the Mount 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 silent one. He left Mount Baldy in 1999.

In 2001, Cohen returned to music with Ten New Songs, featuring a heavy influence from producer and co-composer Sharon Robinson. With Ten New Songs, Cohen detached himself from the dark, misanthropic themes of The Future and adopted an approach of reconciliation with the world. The album's recurring themes and cohesive musical style (a thing that was absent from Cohen's albums almost since "Songs from a Room") helped maintain this feeling, as if Cohen's years in seclusion made him accept this world that fell from grace with him. In October 2004, he released a follow-up named Dear Heather.

Following a feud over investments gone wrong, the Boulder, Colorado-based investment company Agile Group sued Cohen and his attorney Robert Kory for "civil conspiracy and extortion" in June 2005.[2] (http://home.businesswire.com/portal/site/google/index.jsp?ndmViewId=news_view&newsId=20050609005828&newsLang=en) Calling the suit a "surprise attack in an effort to besmirch the reputation of one of its notable clients," Kory said the firm's actions had "resulted in the loss of Mr. Cohen's retirement savings." A countersuit was in the works alleging Agile permitted "improper and unauthorized withdrawals by Cohen's former business manager" and that the firm "knowingly misled [Cohen] by providing inaccurate financial reports."[3] (http://www.leonardcohenfiles.com/latest.html)

Cohen broke with longtime business manager Kelley Lynch in 2004,[4] (http://www.leonardcohensite.com/forum/index.php?PHPSESSID=f15fa9d285d32b08f6a07938ce7327f7&topic=213.msg1258) and has been under new management since April 2005. A new book of poetry is in the press, and a new album is slated for 2006 with subsequent touring.

Family life

Cohen has never married. In the 1960s he lived together with Marianne Ihlen and her son at Hydra. The song "So Long, Marianne" is about her.

He fathered two children with artist Suzanne Elrod. A son, Adam, was born in 1972 and a daughter, Lorca, named after poet Federico Garca Lorca, was born in 1974. Adam Cohen began his own career as a singer-songwriter in the mid-1990s.

Contrary to popular belief, "Suzanne," one of his best-known songs, refers to Suzanne Vaillancourt, the wife of a friend, rather than Elrod.

Around 1990, Cohen was romantically linked, and by some accounts formally engaged, to actress Rebecca De Mornay.


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.

Love and sex are common enough themes in popular music; Cohen's background as a novelist and poet brings an uncommon sensibility to these themes. "Suzanne," probably the first Cohen song to gain broad attention, 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 with the harsh reality of AIDS: "… the naked man and woman/ Are just a shining artifact of the past." "Sisters of Mercy" evokes of genuine love (agape more than eros) found in a hotel room encounter with two Edmonton women, whereas "Chelsea Hotel #2" treats his Janis Joplin one-night stand rather unsentimentally, and 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 in "Who by Fire," whose words and melody echo the Unesaneh Tokef, an 11th century liturgical poem recited on Rosh Hashanah. 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"; "Coming Back to you" and "If It Be Your Will" are clearly addressed to a Judeo-Christian God. In his early career as a novelist, Beautiful Losers grappled with the mysticism of the Catholic/Iroquois 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." [5] (http://www.guardian.co.uk/arts/fridayreview/story/0,12102,1305765,00.html)

Having had issues with psychological depression during much of his life (although less so as he has aged), Cohen has written much (especially in his early work) about depression and suicide. The wife of the protagonist of Beautiful Losers commits a gory suicide; "Seems So Long Ago, Nancy" is about a suicide; suicide is mentioned in the darkly comic "One of Us Cannot Be Wrong"; "Dress Rehearsal Rag" is about a last-minute decision not to kill oneself; a general atmosphere of depression pervades such songs as "Please Don't Pass Me By" and "Tonight Will Be Fine." A reviewer once remarked tongue-in-cheek that Cohen's albums should be sold with razor blades.

Besides the aforementioned "Hallelujah", music itself is also the subject of "Tower of Song", "A Singer Must Die", and "Jazz Police".

While politics often show up as a theme in his work, he does not seem to be expounding one particular political view. He clearly has a prediliction for the underdog, the "beautiful loser," whether the WWII French resister of Anna Marly and Hy Zaret's The Partisan (which he covered) or the royalist of his own "The Old Revolution." Cohen's approach to war and the world's aggression developed during his first albums, coming to its zenith with New Skin for the Old Ceremony, his most "militant" album.

"First We Take Manhattan" speaks in the angry voice of someone regaining power long denied; "Democracy" is a calmer version of the same. Several Cohen songs speak of abortion, always either as something distasteful or even atrocious. "Diamonds in the Mine" bleakly declaims, "The only man of energy/ Yes the revolution's pride/ He trained a hundred women/ Just to kill an unborn child." In "The Future", he sings sarcastically "Destroy another fetus now/ We don't like children anyhow." In "Stories of the Street" Cohen speaks of "The age of lust is giving birth/ And both the parents ask/ The nurse to tell them fairy tales/ from both sides of the glass."

This may suggest a uniformly bleak and serious body of work, but in fact Cohen's songs are often verbally playful and even cheerful. Some of his songs, such as "Ballad of the Absent Mare" and "Hallelujah" are simply beautiful, and "Democracy" looks at a future as hopeful as that of "The Future" is bleak. In "Tower of Song", the famously raw-voiced Cohen sings ironically that he was "… born with the gift/ Of a golden voice"; the generally dark "Is This What You Wanted?" nonetheless contains playful lines "You were the whore and the Beast of Babylon/ I was Rin Tin Tin"; in concert, he often plays around with his lyrics (for example, "If you want a doctor/ I'll examine every inch of you" from "I'm Your Man" will become "If you want a Jewish doctor …"); he will introduce one song by using a phrase from another song or poem (for example, introducing "Leaving Green Sleeves" by paraphrasing his own "Queen Victoria": "This is a song for those who are not nourished by modern love").

Cohen has also covered such love songs as Irving Berlin's "Always" or the more obscure soul number "Be for Real" (originally sung by Marlena Shaw), presumably chosen in part for their unlikely juxtaposition to his own work.

Titles and honours


  • "I don't consider myself a pessimist at all. I think of a pessimist as someone who is waiting for it to rain. And I feel completely soaked to the skin." — from interview with The Daily Telegraph (1993)
  • "Now, I don't want to give you the impression that I'm a great musicologist, but I'm a lot better than what I was described as for a long, long time; you know, people said I only knew three chords when I knew five." — from interview with BBC Radio 1FM (1994)
  • "I feel that, you know, the enormous luck I've had in being able to make a living, and to never have had to have written one word that I didn't want to write, to be able to have satisfied that dictum I set for myself, which was not to work for pay, but to be paid for my work — just to be able to satisfy those standards that I set for myself has been an enormous privilege." — (same)
  • "It was only when you walked away I saw you had the perfect ass. Forgive me for not falling in love with your face or your conversation." — from The Energy of Slaves (1972)
  • "So the great affair is over/ but whoever would have guessed/ it would leave us all so vacant/ and so deeply unimpressed/ It's like our visit to the moon/ or to that other star/ I guess you go for nothing/ if you really want to go that far" — from "Death of a Ladies' Man" (1977)
  • "Everybody knows that you've been faithful/ Ah give or take a night or two/ Everybody knows you've been discreet/ But there were so many people you just had to meet/ without your clothes." — from "Everybody Knows" (1988).
  • "Ring the bells that still can ring/ Forget your perfect offering/ There is a crack in everything/ It's how the light gets in." — from "Anthem" (1992)





Cohen's music has often been used in film soundtracks.

  • McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) uses three songs from his debut album, Songs of Leonard Cohen: "Stranger Song" is McCabe's theme, "Winter Lady" is Mrs. Miller's, and "Sisters of Mercy" is the theme of the prositutes who work in their establishment. He also composed some incidental music for the movie.
  • Bird on a Wire (1990) uses "Bird on a Wire" sung by The Neville Brothers.
  • Natural Born Killers (1994) uses "The Future," "Waiting for the Miracle," and "Anthem," all from the album The Future.
  • Exotica (1994) uses "Everybody Knows" from the album I'm Your Man.
  • Wonder Boys (2000) uses "Waiting for the Miracle."
  • Secretary (2002) uses "I'm Your Man."
  • The Life of David Gale (2003) uses "The Future."
  • A Home at the End of the World (2004) uses "Suzanne" from Songs of Leonard Cohen.

Tribute albums

Cover songs

Many of Cohen's songs have been interpreted by other artists, occasionally receiving more popular attention than Cohen's own, typically minimalistic arrangements. Some of Cohen's most covered songs include:

As of March 24, 2005, the site www.leonardcohenfiles.com (http://leonardcohenfiles.com/covlist.html) had counted a total of 1002 published cover versions of Cohen's songs.

See also

External links


General sites on Cohen

Sites about specific albums

Articles, conferences, academic papers

Foreign-language sites

bg:Леонард Коен da:Leonard Cohen de:Leonard Cohen es:Leonard Cohen fr:Leonard Cohen fy:Leonard Cohen he:לאונרד כהן nl:Leonard Cohen no:Leonard Cohen nn:Leonard Cohen pl:Leonard Cohen sv:Leonard Cohen


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