Leonard Cohen’s music was often referred to as being totally dull and dreary and, as Mark Radcliffe stated “He was misunderstood and it was only the uneducated who would have thought that”.
Montreal-born Cohen was the grandson of a well-respected Rabbi and in his early years showed a passion for country music and in his teen years formed a country and western band called the Buckskin Boys, this was all whilst studying English at McGill University. He showed a natural talent for poetry and a literary career was looking promising. He began writing professionally in the mid-fifties and his first published collection was Let Us Compare Mythologies, in 1956. His second was The Spice-Box of Earth five years later and then in 1964 came the provocatively titled Flowers for Hitler which won him the Quebec literary award.
He served a brief spell at Columbia University, New York before setting off for Europe where he landed on the Greek island of Hydra which is where he met a lady called Marianne Jensen with whom he became romantically linked and she was the inspiration for his song So Long, Marianne. In the mid-sixties he headed for Nashville via New York where he met Judy Collins, he played some of his songs to her and Judy was instantly taken with Suzanne. Leonard gave her the song and she recorded it first. You can read more about this song in the Single of the Week archive which I wrote back in August. He and Collins became lifelong friends, she even helped him when, at an anti-Vietnam war benefit concert in 1967, he panicked and fled the stage, it was Judy who calmed him and coaxed him back to the stage.
He began touring in 1970 across the USA and his native Canada and even appeared at the Isle of Wight festival later the same year. He released a number of albums at regular intervals – Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967), Songs from a Room (1969), Songs of Love and Hate (1971), New Skin for the Old Ceremony (1974), Death of a Ladies’ Man (1977), Recent Songs (1979), Various Positions (1984) and I’m Your Man (1988). Arguably his best known song, Hallelujah, which came from the 84 album Various Positions, has been cover by a number of artists including Jeff Buckley and Alexandra Burke.
In the early 2000s Cohen was running into financial trouble and it was revealed that he fired his manager, Kelley Lynch, in 2004 amidst allegations she had stolen all of his money, leaving him on the brink of bankruptcy, and forcing him to begin touring again to raise funds. Lynch initially denied everything and insisted on a jury trial which she got. It didn’t go her way, she was found guilty and served 18 months of her five year sentence. Cohen issued this statement after the verdict was announced, “I want to thank the defendant, Ms Kelley Lynch, for insisting on a jury trial, thus exposing to the light of day her massive depletion of my retirement savings and yearly earnings, and allowing the court to observe her profoundly unwholesome, obscene and relentless strategies to escape the consequences of her wrongdoing”.
In 2008 Leonard’s friend, Simon Cowell, whose company, Syco, owns the rights to the song introduced it into the X-Factor. The song was chosen for Alexandra Burke who won the series. On the back of Burke’s win both Cohen and Buckley’s versions were all released and the Christmas chart of 2008 had Burke at number one, Buckley at number two and Cohen at number 36. The Daily Mail reported that Syco was earning £250,000 a day in royalties. Cohen must have a happy man as, not only did he earn a stack of royalties, he was also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
He only recorded one album in the nineties but then was back on form in the 2000 releasing Ten New Songs (2001), Dear Heather (2004), Old Ideas (2012), Popular Problems (2014) and his most recent album, You Want It Darker, which was produced by his son Adam, which was completed just five weeks before his death.
This year there have been a few surprising celebrity deaths, surprising in as much as the details of their illnesses were kept secret, David Bowie, Prince, Terry Wogan to name three and one has to wonder if the signs for Leonard were there because in a recent interview in the New Yorker magazine which he gave to tie-in with the album release, he declared his determination to keep working at his craft until the end. He said, “I’ve got some work to do, take care of business. I am ready to die. I hope it’s not too uncomfortable. That’s about it for me.”
Not only did Leonard pass away on the same date as the legendary broadcaster Jimmy Young, he was born on the same date too (21st September) albeit 13 years apart. Cohen was 82 and Young wasn’t – he was 95.