In terms of people leaving us the year 2016 will go down in history; David Bowie, Prince…and now Leonard Cohen.
Leonard Cohen, the hugely influential singer and songwriter whose work spanned nearly 50 years, died at the age of 82. Cohen’s label, Sony Music Canada, confirmed his death on the singer’s Facebook page. Mr. Cohen’s best-known song may well be “Hallelujah,” a majestic, meditative ballad infused with both religiosity and earthiness. It was written for a 1984 album that his record company rejected as insufficiently commercial and popularized a decade later by Jeff Buckley. Since then some 200 artists, from Bob Dylan to Justin Timberlake, have sung or recorded it. A book has been written about it, and it has been featured on the soundtracks of movies and television shows and sung at the Olympics and other public events. At the 2016 Emmy Awards, Tori Kelly sang “Hallelujah” for the annual “In Memoriam” segment recognizing recent deaths.
Leonard was active to the last minute. He celebrated his 82nd birthday with the announcement of his upcoming LP, You Want It Darker, that arrived on October 21st. The veteran musician released the mesmerizing title track, which, according to a press release, “delves into an unflinching exploration of the religious mind.”
“It is with profound sorrow we report that legendary poet, songwriter and artist, Leonard Cohen has passed away,” the statement read. “We have lost one of music’s most revered and prolific visionaries. A memorial will take place in Los Angeles at a later date. The family requests privacy during their time of grief.” A cause of death and exact date of death was not given.
“My father passed away peacefully at his home in Los Angeles with the knowledge that he had completed what he felt was one of his greatest records,” Cohen’s son Adam wrote in a statement to Rolling Stone. “He was writing up until his last moments with his unique brand of humor.”
“Unmatched in his creativity, insight and crippling candor, Leonard Cohen was a true visionary whose voice will be sorely missed,” his manager Robert Kory wrote in a statement. “I was blessed to call him a friend, and for me to serve that bold artistic spirit firsthand, was a privilege and great gift. He leaves behind a legacy of work that will bring insight, inspiration and healing for generations to come.”
Leonard Norman Cohen was born on September 21st, 1934, in Westmount, Quebec. He learned guitar as a teenager and formed a folk group called the Buckskin Boys. Early exposure to Spanish writer Federico Garcia Lorca turned him toward poetry – while a flamenco guitar teacher convinced him to trade steel strings for nylon. After graduating from McGill University, Cohen moved to the Greek island of Hydra, where he purchased a house for $1,500 with the help of a modest trust fund established by his father, who died when Leonard was nine. While living on Hydra, Cohen published the poetry collection Flowers for Hitler (1964) and the novels The Favourite Game (1963) and Beautiful Losers(1966).
He remained wildly popular into his 80s, when his deep voice plunged to seriously gravelly depths. He toured as recently as earlier this year and released a new album, You Want it Darker, just last month. His Hallelujah went from cult hit to modern standard, now an unending staple on movies, TV shows, YouTube videos, reality shows and high school choir concerts.
Cohen, who once said he got into music because he couldn’t make a living as a poet, rose to prominence during the folk music revival of the 1960s. During those years, he traveled the folk circuit with younger artists like Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez and others. His contemporary Kris Kristofferson once said that he wanted the opening lines to Cohen’s Bird on a Wire, on his tombstone. They would be a perfect epitaph for Cohen himself: “Like a bird on a wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir, I have tried in my way to be free.”
When the Grand Tour ended in December 2013, Cohen largely vanished from the public eye. In October 2016, he released You Want It Darker, produced by his son Adam. Severe back issues made it difficult for Cohen to leave his home, so Adam placed a microphone on his dining room table and recorded him on a laptop. The album was met with rave reviews, though a New Yorker article timed to its release revealed that he was in very poor health. “I am ready to die,” he said. “I hope it’s not too uncomfortable. That’s about it for me.”
The singer-songwriter later clarified that he was “exaggerating.” “I’ve always been into self-dramatization,” Cohen said last month. “I intend to live forever.”
Over a musical career that spanned nearly five decades, Mr. Cohen wrote songs that addressed — in spare language that could be both oblique and telling — themes of love and faith, despair and exaltation, solitude and connection, war and politics. More than 2,000 recordings of his songs have been made, initially by the folk-pop singers who were his first champions, like Judy Collins and Tim Hardin, and later by performers from across the spectrum of popular music, among them U2, Aretha Franklin, R.E.M., Jeff Buckley, Trisha Yearwood and Elton John. His impressions on contemporary music is widely acknowledged:
Some of the world’s biggest artist count Cohen among their influences. He was a songwriting peer and friend of Bob Dylan, who told the New Yorker: “When people talk about Leonard, they fail to mention his melodies, which to me, along with his lyrics, are his greatest genius … As far as I know, no one else comes close to this in modern music.”
Speaking in Los Angeles this month at a Q&A session for his most recent album, You Want It Darker, Cohen returned the favour, speaking of Dylan’s recent Nobel Prize win: “To me, [the award] is like pinning a medal on Mount Everest for being the highest mountain.”
Kurt Cobain was also affected by the writing of Cohen; in Nirvana’s Pennyroyal Tea, from the album In Utero, he sung: “Give me Leonard Cohen afterworld, so I can sigh eternally.”
In an interview with MTV in 1995, the year after Cobain’s suicide, Cohen revealed the band had attended a performance of his in Seattle in 1993. “I’m sorry I couldn’t have spoken to the young man,” he said. “There are always alternatives, and I might have been able to lay something on him. Or maybe not.”