Leonard Cohen

  • Canadian singer, songwriter and guitarist from Montreal Canada. Born in 1934, he died in his sleep in 2016 after a fall at his home. Leukemia also was a contributing cause of his death.
  • Cohen grew up in a middle class Jewish family and became interested in music and poetry in high school. He taught himself how to play the acoustic guitar, and he formed a folk group called The Buckskin Boys. He went to college and started writing poetry, winning a literary award. In 1954, his first poetry was published in a magazine, and in 1957 his first book of poetry was published. He also wrote novels, publishing two books in the mid-60s.
  • Disappointed that his career as a writer was not financially rewarding, he moved to the U.S. to become a folk singer and songwriter. He wrote the poem Suzanne in 1966, and then set music to it. Judy Collins heard it and recorded it that year, including it on her album In My Life. Collins loved his music, and she sang duets with Cohen on a TV special in 1966, increasing his exposure. He played at a few folk festivals, and then was signed to a record label.
  • Cohen’s debut album was 1967’s Songs of Leonard Cohen, followed in 1969 by Songs from a Room. The albums had moderate success in the U.S., but were much more popular in Europe. Many of the songs from these albums were covered by other artists, including James Taylor, Judy Collins and Joan Baez. In fact, Cohen’s legacy is largely due to covers of his songs. For example, Cohen’s version of Bird on the Wire from Songs from a Room only charted at #137, and only in France. However, it has become a signature song for Cohen, thanks to over 30 cover versions by artists from Joe Cocker to The Neville Brothers to Johnny Cash to Joe Bonamassa.
  • In the 70s, Cohen released 4 studio albums. They barely sold in the U.S., and in Europe each became less successful as they were released. During this time, he changed his musical arrangements, hoping to sound more contemporary, but nothing worked. Even with extensive touring, his records did not sell. And, the music during this time was only occasionally covered by other artists.
  • After 5 years of working on new songs, he released his seventh studio album in 1984, Various Positions. It marked a new sound with the use of synthesizers, featuring a changing vocal, as Cohen’s voice had deepened considerably. As usual, the album did not chart in the U.S., but it signaled a return to popularity in Europe that would continue with all of his subsequent releases. The album features his masterpiece, Hallelujah. It’s a remarkable song – Cohen wrote over 80 versus to it. As such, many different versions have been used in recordings and performances. Over 300 artists have covered the song, and it has become a staple in talent contests and film/television soundtracks. The best known versions were performed by John Cale, Jeff Buckley (#264 on Rolling Stones Greatest Songs list), and Rufus Wainwright. A version by a capella group Pentatonix was released in 2016 – it reached #23 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. It is not a religious song, though it has biblical references. Rather, the song is about the hardships of love, with strong sexual undertones. Cohen’s version did not chart in the U.S. until after his death, reaching #59 – the only song performed by Cohen ever to chart in the U.S. See my November 15, 2017 post for more information on covers of this wonderful song, and to watch Buckley’s and Pentatonix’s versions of it.
  • He continued to record and tour, with studio albums released in 1988 and 1992. After his dark album The Future, he became reclusive, ordained as a Buddhist monk.
  • He returned to music in 2001 with Ten New Songs and in 2004 with Dear Heather. That year, Cohen discovered that his longtime business manager had stolen most of his money, and had sold the rights to his music without his knowledge. He sued the manager, and won the case, but never recovered the money. Since he was nearly broke, the 74 year old Cohen began a 2½ year tour in 2008 – his first in 15 years.  It was a huge success, with young and old celebrating his legacy. Three more albums were released, and he did a final tour from 2012 to 2013. With his re-discovery as an artist, his last albums finally charted in the U.S., and were top 10 recordings throughout Canada and Europe.
  • Cohen was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2008. The title track to his final album, You Want It Darker, won a Grammy award for Best Rock Performance in 2008. He received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010.
  • Watch his performance of the classic folk song Suzanne. 

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