Singer-Songwriter Leonard Cohen Dies at 82

Christopher Morris
Variety

Leonard Cohen, the Canadian poet and novelist who became a singular international presence as a singer-songwriter, has died. He was 82.

A statement on his official Facebook page read, “It is with profound sorrow we report that legendary poet, songwriter and artist, Leonard Cohen has passed away. 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.”

Only last month, Cohen released his final album, “You Want It Darker,” a deeply introspective work that focused thematically on mortality.

His elegantly penned songs, authored during a musical career that spanned six decades, won him comparison with such other songwriters of his era as Bob Dylan and Paul Simon. His best-known song, “Hallelujah,” has been recorded more than 200 times. Cohen never recorded a chart single and didn’t place an album in the top 10 until he was in his 70s, but his ardent fans and musical peers viewed him as a musical craftsman with few equals.

As a songwriter, his themes encompassed love in all its manifestations, religion, faith and the tenuous state of the world. Like “Hallelujah,” many of his tunes — his breakthrough composition “Suzanne,” “Bird on the Wire,” “Tower of Song” — became much-covered keystones of the popular songbook. His longtime accompanist Jennifer Warnes recorded several of his best-known works on her 1987 Cohen recital “Famous Blue Raincoat.”

Like his art, his life evidenced a dynamic tension between sexuality and spirituality. He was a well-known womanizer whose many romantic partners included fellow Canadian musician Joni Mitchell and actress Rebecca De Mornay. Yet he would famously reject the world of the flesh: Torn by depression and doubt about his life and career, he withdrew to spend more than five years in a Buddhist monastery; he later studied at a Hindu ashram in Mumbai.

A financial crisis late in life led to a fresh burst of fame. After his business manager embezzled millions from him, the impecunious Cohen embarked on a 2008-10 world tour that restored his fortune and renewed his reputation. His 2012 album “Old Ideas,” released at the age of 77, became his highest-charting release ever, debuting at No. 3 in the U.S.

He was born in Montreal. His father was a wealthy clothier, and he grew up in the city’s affluent Westmount neighborhood. He was the grandson of Jewish European immigrants, and his maternal grandfather was a rabbi and Talmudic scholar. As a teen, he developed an admiration for the poetry of Spanish martyr Federico Garcia Lorca and a fondness for American country music.

At Montreal’s McGill U., he was mentored by Irving Layton and Louis Dudek and rapidly acquired a reputation as one of the country’s most brilliant young poets. He published a widely praised volume of early verse, “Let Us Compare Mythologies,” in 1956, before brief post-graduate stints at McGill’s law school and Columbia U. in New York.

Three more volumes of poetry soon followed; Cohen completed novels “The Favorite Game” (1963) and “Beautiful Losers” (1966) on the Greek island of Hydra, where he maintained a residence for years. But frustration with his literary career and a burgeoning interest in songwriting led him to move to New York City in 1966.

Through transplanted Canadian manager Mary Martin, Cohen met the popular folksinger Judy Collins, who began enthusiastically recording his songs. Her 1966 album “In My Life” included his “Suzanne” (his best-known early composition) and “Dress Rehearsal Rag”; the following year, another three songs were featured on Collins’ No. 5 set “Wildflowers” (alongside a hit version of “Both Sides Now,” written by Cohen’s then-companion Joni Mitchell).

Cohen was ultimately signed to Columbia Records by legendary A&R man and producer John Hammond. Though it rose no higher than No. 83 in the U.S., his first album, 1968’s “Songs of Leonard Cohen,” included “Suzanne” and several other staples of the musician’s repertoire. He was 34 when it was released. His moody, spoken-sung renditions of three songs from the album were later employed to powerful effect in Robert Altman’s 1971 revisionist Western “McCabe & Mrs. Miller.”

Cohen’s next two albums, “Songs From a Room” (1969) and “Songs of Love and Hate” (1971), were both produced by Bob Johnston, who previously helmed Bob Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde” and “John Wesley Harding.” Johnston also assembled the Nashville-based band that supported Cohen on a chaotic, drug-suffused 1970 tour that climaxed at England’s massive Isle of Wight Festival.

A 1974 album with producer-keyboardist-bandleader John Lissauer, “New Skin for the Old Ceremony,” won critical praise but did nothing to enhance Cohen’s American sales. Sessions for a second album with Lissauer were shelved, and Cohen set to work in the studio with another client of his manager Marty Machat, producer Phil Spector.

Cohen and Spector co-wrote eight sex-steeped songs, which were recorded in L.A. sessions that saw guest appearances by Dylan and poet Allen Ginsberg. The notorious, hard-drinking producer’s behavior became erratic. Spector famously held a gun to the musician’s throat and said, “I love you, Leonard”; Cohen replied, “I hope so, Phil.” The resultant album, the opulently produced “Death of a Ladies’ Man,” was released by Warner Bros. to mixed reviews in 1977.

Cohen returned to Columbia for the jazzy, Middle East-infused “Recent Songs” (1979). He collaborated with Canadian musician Lewis Furey on the 1984 film “Night Magic.”

In ’84, Columbia refused to release Cohen’s album “Various Positions,” and the collection was issued by independent label Passport. Ironically, the John Lissauer-produced set contained the song that ultimately became the songwriter’s best-known composition: After a potent cover appeared on Jeff Buckley’s 1994 album “Grace,” “Hallelujah” took on the status of a contemporary standard. The same year, Cohen released a new book, a collection of modern psalms, “Book of Mercy.”

The dark, often bleakly humorous “I’m Your Man” (1988) and “The Future” (co-produced by then-fiancee Rebecca De Mornay in 1992) were solid and well-reviewed latter-day additions to Cohen’s catalog. But, suffering from a deepening depression, he retreated to L.A.’s Mt. Baldy Zen Center in 1994. There, he lived as a monk in a sparsely furnished hut for more than five years, acting as personal assistant to his master Kyozan Joshu Sasaki, known as Roshi.

After leaving Mt. Baldy to study with Hindu teacher Ramesh Balsekar in Mumbai, Cohen returned to L.A. and to music. His albums “Ten New Songs” (2001) and “Dear Heather” (2004) were collaborations with producer-musician Sharon Robinson and his companion Anjani Thomas, respectively; he also produced the Anjani album “Blue Alert” (2006).

In 2005, Cohen discovered that his longtime manager and onetime lover Kelley Lynch had stolen $5 million from his accounts. Though he won a civil suit against Lynch, he was unable to recover the money. (Lynch was also found guilty of harassing Cohen and sentenced to 18 months in jail in 2012.)

In 2006, Cohen gave what amounted to his first public performance in more than a decade — an impromptu appearance with Anjani Thomas during a signing of his new “Book of Longing” at a Toronto bookstore.

It set the stage for Cohen’s 2008 world tour, which stretched to two years, featured dates at the Montreux and Glastonbury festivals and played to rapturous audiences. It also grossed an estimated $50 million and restored the musician to solvency. Nearing 80, Cohen had attained the greatest celebrity of a 50-year career in literature and music.

The top-10 arrival of the spare and drily witty “Old Ideas” in 2012 was succeeded by another series of concert dates in Europe and America that year and in 2013. “Popular Problems” was released in fall of 2014, shortly after Cohen’s 80th birthday.

Cohen’s many honors included his 2008 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and a 2010 Lifetime Achievement Grammy.

He is survived by a son and daughter from his relationship with Suzanne Elrod.

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