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Looking back at Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen

A late starter in music, he made up for it with a blazing Indian summer

A late starter in music, he made up for it with a blazing Indian summer

Tim de Lisle | september/october 2014

On November 11th 2016 Leonard Cohen died aged 82. Two years ago, we told the story of his life and career in pictures

 

1950s THE STUDENT
Born in 1934, Leonard Norman Cohen (with his sister, Esther) grew up in affluent Jewish Montreal. His father, who ran a menswear business, died when Leonard was nine. His mother, a contralto, liked to sing Yiddish folk songs; her father, a rabbi, wrote a 700-page Talmudic thesaurus. He played guitar in a country band, the Buckskin Boys, but rock’n’roll didn’t exist: Elvis, his junior by a few months, hadn’t reached the building. In the 1951 high-school yearbook, Leonard wrote, “ambition: world-famous orator”. At McGill university, he was president of the debating society.

 

EARLY 1960s THE MAN OF LETTERS
Using a trust fund left by his father to buy a house on the Greek island of Hydra for $1,500, he scraped a living as a poet. A few rock stars have written novels, but it’s hard to think of another who has put in a solid decade as a writer. Cohen’s debut album was preceded by four books of precise, sensual poetry and two lush novels, including “Beautiful Losers” (1966). One critic called it “the most revolting book ever written in Canada”; another said, “James Joyce is not dead.”

 

1967 THE SINGER-SONGWRITER
Watching Bob Dylan soar, Cohen thought he could make more money writing songs. A folk star, Judy Collins (right), gave him an instant boost by recording “Suzanne”. Cohen started singing himself, moved to New York and touted his songs around. “Aren’t you”, he was asked, “a little old for this game?” But Dylan’s mentor, John Hammond, handed him a contract, saying, “Watch out, Dylan!” Cohen’s voice, softly pleading, was just good enough; his theme – love, and other agonies – was timeless; his turn of phrase was gorgeous. “Like a bird on the wire/Like a drunk in a midnight choir/I have tried, in my way, to be free...”

 

1970s THE LOVER
Kingsley Amis wrote a book called “Stanley and the Women”. If there was a book called “Leonard and the Women”, it would be a lot longer, encompassing friends, lovers, co-writers, the manager who robbed him, Janis Joplin and two Suzannes: the friend who inspired the song, and the lover (left) who bore Cohen’s children. Adam, 41, is a singer with a touching new album, “We Go Home”. Lorca, 40, became a chef and had a child with Rufus Wainwright. On Leonard’s last world tour, she designed the merchandise, including some rather cool cufflinks.

 

1988 THE REINVENTION
After a lean spell and an LP produced by Phil Spector, who put a gun to his neck, Cohen discovered synthesisers, lowered his voice and laced his angst with wit. “I’m Your Man”, his funniest and best album, contains six classics. “Take This Waltz” is translated from F.G. Lorca (it took 150 hours). “Tower of Song” is Cohen’s Poetics: “I was born like this, I had no choice/I was born with the gift of a golden voice”.

 

1990s THE BUDDHIST
After foreseeing half the troubles of the 21st century in “The Future” (1992), Cohen retreated to a Zen centre on Mount Baldy, the only cold part of LA. Ordained as a monk, he served as PA to the abbot, Joshu Sasaki, who was later accused of sexual misconduct, aged 105.

 

2008 THE X FACTOR
Say what you like about Simon Cowell’s toxic TV show, it did at least give Cohen a hit. When Alexandra Burke sang “Hallelujah”, the most biblical of all his ballads, her version went to No.1 in Britain, Jeff Buckley’s to No.2, and Cohen’s, all too characteristically, to No.36.

 

2008-14 THE INDIAN SUMMER
When his manager of 17 years ripped him off to the tune of $9m, Cohen set out on a world tour, playing for three hours, filling arenas, wowing Glastonbury, making the Fedora his own and finally becoming more than a cult figure. Another lapidary album, “Old Ideas”, led to another lap of honour. As he turns 80, there are ten new books about him, the tally of covers of his songs has reached 2,700, and his place in the pantheon is secure. Hallelujah indeed.

 

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