RIP Leonard Cohen: The night has grown colder

Cohen will be remembered as one of the world’s best-loved singer-songwriters, write Sherna Noah and Laura Harding

LEONARD Cohen released his last album, You Want It Darker, just three weeks ago. 

With lyrics like “I’m leaving the table / I’m out of the game,” the 82-year-old singer-songwriter and poet was facing his own mortality.

And he told The New Yorker: “I am ready to die. I hope it’s not too uncomfortable. That’s about it for me.”

His son, Adam Cohen, said his father died “with the knowledge that he had completed what he felt was one of his greatest records”.

Cohen will be remembered as one of the world’s best-loved singer- songwriters. But he once said that he got into music because he could not make a living as a poet.

Cohen was born in Westmount, Montreal, Canada, on September 21, 1934. Born to a Jewish family, he later considered himself both a Jew and a Buddhist. He formed a country music group called the Buckskin Boys while still in his teens, saying that “guitars impress girls”.

He published his own book of poetry, Let Us Compare Mythologies, to critical acclaim, in 1956, while still at university.

It was followed by The Spice-Box of Earth in 1961, when he was 27.

After a stay in London he moved to the Greek island of Hydra and published his first novel, The Favourite Game, in 1963.

He lived there with Marianne Ihlen, and wrote her the song ‘So Long Marianne’. Her death earlier this year inspired his final album.

After moving to New York, Cohen decided to embark on a career as a songwriter and musician.

He released his first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, in 1968 and travelled the folk circuit with younger artists like Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell,and Joan Baez.

His most famous song, ‘Hallelujah’, has been covered by hundreds of artists and is now a staple in movies, TV shows, and YouTube videos.

The song, which would later take both first and second positions in the UK chart with different cover versions, featured on Cohen’s 1984 album Various Positions.

Marianna Ihlen, left, with her son Axel and Leonard Cohen. Ihlen inspired a number of Cohen’s songs and poems. Picture: James Burke/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Marianna Ihlen, left, with her son Axel and Leonard Cohen. Ihlen inspired a number of Cohen’s songs and poems. Picture: James Burke/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

But the singer-songwriter told how he enjoyed a “mild sense of revenge” over its success because his record label did not think the album was good enough.

According to Alan Light’s book about the song, CBS chief Walter Yetnikoff was unimpressed with the whole album. “What is this?” he is quoted as saying. “This isn’t pop music. We’re not releasing it. This is a disaster.”

Asked about the song’s success in 2009, Cohen told the Canadian Broadcasting Service he had “a mild sense of revenge in my heart”.

“The record that it came from... was called Various Positions (1984) — a record the label wouldn’t put out. They didn’t think it was good enough,” he said.

“It had songs like’ Dance Me To The End Of Love’, ‘Hallelujah’, ‘If It Be Your Will’. So, there was a mild sense of revenge in my heart.”

The record was eventually released on an indie label but ‘Hallelujah’ was not put out as a single.

One artist who had discovered it early on, though, was Bob Dylan, who sang it at his concerts in 1988.

It was John Cale recording a version of the song in 1991, and whose arrangement inspired a recording by Jeff Buckley a few years later, which made the song the success it is today. Buckley once said of the song’s meaning: “Whoever listens carefully to ‘Hallelujah’ will discover that it is a song about sex, about love, about life on earth.

“The ‘hallelujah’ is not a homage to a worshipped person, idol or god, but the ‘hallelujah’ of the orgasm. It’s an ode to life and love.”

Cohen himself is said to have taken five years to write the song, at one point sitting in his underwear in his room at a New York hotel, filling notebooks, banging his head against the carpeted floor.

“To find that song, that urgent song, takes a lot of versions and a lot of work and a lot of sweat,” he once said.

There are now said to be around 300 covers of ‘Hallelujah’, which Bono — who also sang it — dubbed “the most perfect song in the world”.

Leonard Cohen pictured in January 1980. He recently told The New Yorker: ‘I am ready to die. I hope it’s not too uncomfortable. That’s about it for me.’ Picture: Evening Standard/Getty Images
Leonard Cohen pictured in January 1980. He recently told The New Yorker: ‘I am ready to die. I hope it’s not too uncomfortable. That’s about it for me.’ Picture: Evening Standard/Getty Images

The song soared in popularity after Rufus Wainwright’s version appeared on the Shrek soundtrack in 2001. It became ubiquitous on American Idol and The X Factor and in 2008 it became the first song in 51 years to take the first (Alexandra Burke) and second spots (Buckley) on the UK singles chart.

It has been performed by everyone from Bon Jovi, Norah Jones, KD Lang and Susan Boyle, and was featured in TV shows The OC and The West Wing.

Cohen has said of the song: “This world is full of conflicts and full of things that cannot be reconciled.

“But there are moments when we can reconcile and embrace the whole mess, and that’s what I mean by ‘Hallelujah’.”

He has stated, modestly, of its success: “I think it’s a good song, but too many people sing it.”

As he aged and his voice got deeper, Cohen remained hugely popular into his 80s, touring as recently as earlier this year and singing on the Pyramid stage at Glastonbury in 2008.

The ‘Suzanne’ and ‘Bird On A Wire’ singer was also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008, saying: “This is a very unlikely occasion for me. It is not a distinction that I coveted or even dared dream about.”

Cohen suffered bouts of depression throughout his life that he sometimes tried to mitigate with alcohol and drugs.

Once asked if he was a pessimist, he responded: “I don’t consider myself a pessimist at all. I think of a pessimist as someone who is waiting for it to rain. And I feel completely soaked to the skin.”

Cohen will also be remembered as a poet, novelist, and aspiring Zen monk.

For part of the 1990s he lived as a disciple of Zen Buddhist monk Joshu Sasaki Roshi at the Mount Baldy Zen Centre in Los Angeles.

“I was the cook up there,” he said. “My life was filled with great disorder, with chaos, and I achieved a little discipline there. So I decided to return to music.”

Cohen had two children, Adam and Lorca, with artist Suzanne Elrod.

Leonard Cohen poses after being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in New York. Picture: AP Photo/Evan Agostini, File
Leonard Cohen poses after being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in New York. Picture: AP Photo/Evan Agostini, File

FLAGS flew at half-mast in his native Montreal yesterday as Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau hailed him for reaching “the highest of artistic achievement”.

He added: “He will be fondly remembered for his gruff vocals, his self-deprecating humour and the haunting lyrics that made his songs the perennial favourite of so many generations.

“Leonard Cohen is as relevant today as he was in the 1960s. His ability to conjure the vast array of human emotion made him one of the most influential and enduring musicians ever. His style transcended the vagaries of fashion. His music had withstood the test of time.

“On behalf of all Canadians, Sophie and I wish to express our deepest sympathies to Leonard Cohen’s family, friends, colleagues and many, many fans.

“Leonard, no other artist’s poetry and music felt or sounded quite like yours. We’ll miss you.”

Mr Trudeau tweeted lyrics to Cohen’s oft-covered song, ‘Hallelujah’: “There’s a blaze of light In every word It doesn’t matter which you heard The holy or the broken Hallelujah #RIPLeonard.”

Harry Potter author JK Rowling, actress and activist Mia Farrow, model and activist Bianca Jagger, and American composer Eric Whitacre tweeted: “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in,” from his song ‘Anthem’.

Jagger added: “In this dark moment after the US election let’s remember Leonard Cohen,” while Whitacre called him “one of the truest and purest poets I know”.

Singer Rosanne Cash, the daughter of country music star Johnny Cash, referred to the same song, writing: “Leonard Cohen is dead. There’s a crack in everything. No light yet.”

Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator and star of Broadway musicals Hamilton and In The Heights, tweeted: “Like a bird on the wire, Like a drunk in a midnight choir, I have tried, in my way, to be free,” from Cohen’s much-covered song ‘Bird On The Wire’.

Miranda added: “& when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him, he said all men will be sailors then, Until the sea shall free them,” from ‘Suzanne’.

Cohen’s manager Robert Kory told Rolling Stone: “Unmatched in his creativity, insight and crippling candour, Leonard Cohen was a true visionary whose voice will be sorely missed.

“I was blessed to call him a friend, and for me to serve that bold artistic spirit first hand, was a privilege and great gift. He leaves behind a legacy of work that will bring insight, inspiration and healing for generations to come.”

Awoman places a candle in front of the home of legendary singer and poet Leonard Cohen in Montreal, Canada. The singer-songwriter died at age 82. Picture: Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press via AP
A woman places a candle in front of the home of legendary singer and poet Leonard Cohen in Montreal, Canada. The singer-songwriter died at age 82. Picture: Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press via AP

Neil Portnow, chief executive of The Recording Academy, who honoured Cohen with a lifetime achievement Grammy in 2010, said: “During an influential career that spanned more than five decades, Leonard became one of the most revered pop poets and a musical touchstone for many songwriters. His extraordinary talent had a profound impact on countless singers and songwriters, as well as the wider culture.

“We have lost a cherished artist and our sincerest condolences go out to Leonard’s family, friends, and collaborators. He will be missed terribly.”

Culture Club singer Boy George wrote: “We have lost a great artist, poet and poignant force of energy. R.I.P Leonard Cohen.”

Singer and actress Bette Midler said: “Leonard Cohen has died. Another magical voice stilled.”

Canadian singer Alanis Morissette simply wrote Cohen’s name with a crying face emoji, while fellow Canadian singer KD Langtweeted: “Thank you Leonard Cohen. Swift rebirth my friend.”

Singer and actor Justin Timberlake hailed Cohen as “a spirit and soul beyond compare”, while former Rage Against The Machine guitarist Tom Morello said the artist was “one of the greatest, deepest and wisest to ever bless us with his songs”.

Russell Crowe wrote: “Dear Leonard Cohen, thanks for the quiet nights, the reflection, the perspective, the wry smiles and the truth #towerofsong”.

US comedian Sarah Silverman tweeted: “RIP Leonard Cohen. Ugh. It feels pointed, this death. It’s making us remember songs like Come Healing which is a good one for these days.”

Lily Allen tweeted: “As if the week could get any worse. Thank you Leonard Cohen, for all the things. Rest In Peace.”


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