“I’ve always felt some ambiguity for receiving an award for poetry. Poetry comes from a place where no one commands, and no one conquers so I feel somewhat a charlatan for receiving an award for an activity I do not command. In other words, if I knew where the good songs came from, I would go there more often.”
Leonard Cohen’s acceptance speech for the Prince of Asturias Award 2011 may sound like false modesty for the legendary singer, songwriter, poet, and novelist but rings true in light of Cohen’s unflagging search for true inspiration. He always pushed the boundaries in that search, often fuelled by a cocktail of drugs or his addiction to women or his five year retirement to a Buddhist monastery.
His subjects were relationships, social and political issues, and spirituality. Born in 1934 and embracing the free love and ‘dropping out’ vibe of the 1960s, he was a man of his time, giving voice to the depression and yearning that characterised his generation. Like Bob Dylan, the era’s other legendary troubadour, Cohen was Jewish, a faith he identified with his whole life.
“I had a very Messianic childhood,” he said. “I was told I was a descendant of Aaron, the high priest.”
This sense of a higher calling perhaps accounts for Cohen’s natural leadership that showed itself early at Quebec’s Westmount high school. Cohen involved himself actively beyond the school curriculum, in photography, on the yearbook staff, as a cheerleader, in the arts and current events clubs including the theatre program. He was president of the Students’ Council and it seems he was a natural to become a public figure. Before turning to writing full time, he studied law and was offered a hosting spot on a Canadian current affairs program.
But Cohen was first and foremost a poet. Poetry, his first love, sparked by the passionate and political Spanish writer Federico Garcia Lorca and the Irish mystic WB Yeats. A famous quote of Lorca’s is, “As I have not worried to be born, I do not worry to die,” and this philosophical view seems echoed in Cohen’s transcendental work, up to his calm acceptance of death in 2016 and the album that prefaced it, You want it Darker.
Describing his lyrics, producer/collaborator Jennifer Warne said they illustrated “that the whole act of living contains immense amounts of sorrow and hopelessness and despair, and also passion and high hopes, deep love and eternal love.”
Cohen wrote his novel Beautiful Losers while living with Marianne Ilhrich on the Greek island of Hydra. According to Nick Broomfield’s astute and elegiac documentary Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love, Cohen was one of the few drop out artists who actually had the immense discipline to work hard at his craft. In search of inspirational breakthrough, he drove himself to a breakdown with drug use and hours spent writing in hot sun. The book largely bombed, and Cohen turned to music to make a living.
His song Suzanne became a hit for Judy Collins who recalls that when she first met Cohen, he said he couldn’t sing or play the guitar, and didn’t rate Suzanne as much of a song. Collins thought otherwise and persuaded him to take the mic in front of a big audience for the first time
“Everybody was going crazy,” Collins said. “They loved it. And he stopped about halfway through and walked off the stage. Everybody went nuts… They demanded that he come back. And I demanded; I said, “I’ll go out with you.” So we went out, and we sang it. And of course, that was the beginning.”
Cohen’s first album was Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967) and Collins was one of many female collaborators and muses. Joni Mitchell, Nico, Janis Joplin, Suzanne Verdal, Suzanne Elrod, Rebecca de Mornay counted amongst the lovers while Sharon Robertson was his producer and collaborator for many years, and Julie Felix had a creative association which included singing a duet with him on BBC TV in 1968. Singer, songwriter and producer Suzanne Vega, a leading figure in the folk music revival of the 1980s, was strongly influenced by Cohen and became a friend, describing his songs as “a combination of very real details and a sense of mystery like prayers or spells.”
Songs became a cult favourite in America and the UK where it spent over a year on the album charts. Follow up albums were Songs from a Room in 1969 including the hit single Bird on a Wire (inspired by Marianne) and Songs of Love and Hate in 1971.
1971 saw another landmark moment when Cohen’s music and poetry intersected perfectly with other pop culture themes. Filmmaker Robert Altman had worn out his albums of Songs of Leonard Cohen by repeated playing so when he was thinking of music for his revisionist ‘anti-western’ McCabe and Mrs Miller, Cohen’s songs were at the forefront of his mind. The movie only received limited release at the time, but it won critical approval for its careful construction and beautiful atmospheric cinematography as well as the performances by Julie Christie and Warren Beatty in the title roles. But it was the songs Sisters of Mercy, Winter Lady and the mood-setting The Stranger Song that really cemented the film as a masterpiece.
There was a small echo of this success in 1992 when Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers featured three tracks from Cohen’s album The Future, based on Biblical prophecy.
Biblical allusions also permeate Cohen’s trademark song, Hallelujah, especially the stories of Samson and Delilah with ‘She cut your hair’ and David and Bathsheba, ‘Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you.’ According to legend, Cohen wrote around 80 draft verses for the song, including one writing session at the Royalton Hotel in New York where he was reduced to sitting on the floor in his underwear, banging his head on the floor. His original version was recorded on the 1984 album Various Positions. Cohen performed the original song on his world tour in 1985, but live performances during his 1988 and 1993 tours often contained a different set of lyrics.
There has been an estimated 200+ cover versions of “Hallelujah”, including renderings by Rufus Wainwright and John Cale (whose version featured on the 1991 tribute album I’m Your Fan), not to mention countless American Idol performances, but it was Jeff Buckley’s soulful version in 1997 that brought Cohen to the attention of another generation of singer songwriters and their audiences.
Bob Dylan, who performed his own cover of the song on tours in the late 1980s told The New Yorker, “ It’s a beautifully constructed melody that steps up, evolves, and slips back, all in quick time… but has a connective chorus, which, when it comes in has a power all of its own.”
In Marianne and Leonard, we see how the ex-lovers still held each other to the end when Cohen sent her a beautiful goodbye message just before her death, telling her it wouldn’t be long before he followed her. Three months later, on 16 November 2016, Cohen, who was suffering from leukemia, died in his sleep.
His last significant interview was with The New Yorker editor David Remnick who visited Cohen at his LA home. “I am ready to die,” Cohen said. “At a certain point, if you still have your marbles and are not faced with serious financial challenges, you have a chance to put your house in order. It’s a cliché, but it’s underestimated as an analgesic on all levels. Putting your house in order, if you can do it, is one of the most comforting activities, and the benefits of it are incalculable.”
In previous interviews over his career, Cohen was open about his life of unceasing exploration whether it was dabbling with Scientology and EST, dancing with the Hare Krishnas, sampling Roman Catholicism, Buddhism, LSD. “I’m for anything that works,” he said. “I participated in all these investigations that engaged the imagination of my generation at the time.”
Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love is in cinemas December 12, 2019