Biography of Leonard Norman Cohen
Leonard Norman Cohen, CC, GOQ (born September 21, 1934) is a Canadian singer-songwriter, musician, poet, novelist, and artist. Cohen published his first book of poetry in Montreal in 1956 and his first novel in 1963. His work often deals with the exploration of religion, isolation, sexuality and complex interpersonal relationships.
Musically, Cohen's earliest songs (many of which appeared on the 1967 album, Songs of Leonard Cohen) were rooted in European folk music. In the 1970s, his material encompassed pop, cabaret and world music. Since the 1980s his high baritone voice has evolved into lower registers (bass baritone and bass), with accompaniment from electronic synthesizers and female backing singers.
Over two thousand renditions of Cohen's songs have been recorded. He has been inducted into both the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame and is also a Companion of the Order of Canada, the nation's highest civilian honour. While giving the speech at his induction into the American Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on March 10, 2008, Lou Reed described Cohen as belonging to the "highest and most influential echelon of songwriters."
Cohen was born in 1934 in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, into a middle-class Jewish family. His father was of Polish ancestry. His mother, of Lithuanian Jewish ancestry, emigrated from Lithuania. He grew up in Westmount on the Island of Montreal. His father, Nathan Cohen, owned a substantial Montreal clothing store, and died when Leonard was nine years old. Like many other Jewish families with names like Cohen, Kahn, and Kagan, Cohen's family claimed descent from the Kohanim: "I had a very Messianic childhood," he told Richard Goldstein in 1967. "I was told I was a descendant of Aaron, the high priest." He attended Herzliah High School, where he studied with poet Irving Layton. As a teenager he learned to play the guitar, subsequently forming a country-folk group called the Buckskin Boys. His father's will provided Leonard with a modest trust income, sufficient to allow him to pursue his literary ambitions.
In 1951, Cohen enrolled at McGill University, where he became president of the McGill Debating Union. Literary influences during this time included Yeats, Whitman and Henry Miller. His first published book of poetry, Let Us Compare Mythologies (1956), was published under Louis Dudek as the first book in the McGill Poetry Series while Cohen was still an undergraduate student. The Spice-Box of Earth (1961) made him well known in poetry circles, especially in his native Canada.
After completing an undergraduate degree, Cohen spent a term in McGill's law school and a year (1956-7) at Columbia University.
Cohen applied a strong work ethic to his early and keen literary ambitions. He wrote poetry and fiction through much of the 1960s, and preferred to live in quasi-reclusive circumstances. After moving to Hydra, a Greek island, Cohen published the poetry collection Flowers for Hitler (1964), and the novels The Favourite Game (1963) and Beautiful Losers (1966). The Favourite Game is an autobiographical bildungsroman about a young man who discovers his identity through writing.
1960s and 1970s--
In 1967, Cohen moved to the United States to pursue a career as a folk music singer-songwriter. During the 60s, he was a fringe figure in Andy Warhol's Factory crowd. Warhol speculated that Cohen had spent time listening to Nico in clubs and that this had influenced his musical style. His song "Suzanne" became a hit for Judy Collins and remains his most covered work to date. After performing at a few folk festivals, he came to the attention of Columbia Records representative John H. Hammond.
Cohen's first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967), was too dark to be a commercial success but was widely acclaimed by folk music buffs. He became a cult name in the UK, where the album spent over a year on the album charts. He followed it with Songs from a Room (1969) (featuring the often recorded "Bird on the Wire"), Songs of Love and Hate (1971), Live Songs (1973) and New Skin for the Old Ceremony (1974).
In 1971, Cohen's music was used in the soundtrack to Robert Altman's film McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Though pulled from the existing Cohen catalog, the songs melded so seamlessly with the story that some believed they were written for the film.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Cohen toured the United States, Canada and Europe. Beginning around 1974, his collaboration with pianist and arranger John Lissauer created a live sound praised by the critics. During this time, Cohen toured twice with Jennifer Warnes as a back-up singer (in 1972 and 1979). Warnes would become a fixture on Cohen's future albums and she recorded an album of Cohen songs in 1987, Famous Blue Raincoat. Laura Branigan also sang back-up vocals with his 1976 tour band, but she never recorded with him.
In 1977, Cohen released Death of a Ladies' Man (note the plural possessive case; one year later in 1978, Cohen released a volume of poetry with the coyly revised title, Death of a Lady's Man). The album was produced by Phil Spector, well known as the inventor of the "wall of sound" technique, in which pop music is backed with thick layers of instrumentation, an approach very different from Cohen's usually minimalist instrumentation. The recording of the album was fraught with difficulty; Spector reportedly mixed the album in secret studio sessions and Cohen said Spector once threatened him with a crossbow. Cohen thinks the end result is "grotesque," but also "semi-virtuous".
In 1979, Cohen returned with the more traditional Recent Songs. Produced by Cohen himself and Henry Lewy (Joni Mitchell's sound engineer) the album included performances by a jazz-fusion band introduced to Cohen by Mitchell and oriental instruments (oud, Gypsy violin and mandolin). In 2001 Cohen released an album of live recordings of songs from his 1979 tour, entitled Field Commander Cohen: Tour of 1979.
In 1984, Cohen released Various Positions, including "Dance Me to the End of Love" and the often recorded "Hallelujah." Columbia declined to release the album in the United States, where Cohen's popularity had declined in previous years. Throughout his career, Cohen's music has sold better in Europe and Canada than in the U.S.; he once satirically expressed how touched he is at the modesty the American company showed in promoting his records.
In 1986 he appeared in the episode French Twist of the TV series Miami Vice. In 1987, Jennifer Warnes's tribute album Famous Blue Raincoat helped restore Cohen's career in the U.S., and the following year he released I'm Your Man, which marked a drastic change in his music. Synthesizers ruled the album and Cohen's lyrics included more social commentary and dark humour. It was Cohen's most acclaimed and popular since Songs of Leonard Cohen, and "First We Take Manhattan" and the title song became two of his most popular songs.
The use of the album track "Everybody Knows" (co-written by Sharon Robinson) in the 1990 film Pump Up the Volume helped to expose Cohen's music to a younger audience. The song was also featured prominently in fellow countryman Atom Egoyan's 1994 film, Exotica. In 1992, Cohen released The Future, which urges (often in terms of biblical prophecy) perseverance, reformation, and hope in the face of grim prospects. Three tracks from the album - "Waiting for the Miracle", "The Future" and "Anthem" - were featured in the movie Natural Born Killers.
In the title track, Cohen prophesies impending political and social collapse, reportedly as his response to the L.A. unrest of 1992: "I've seen the future, brother: It is murder." In "Democracy," Cohen criticizes America but says he loves it: "I love the country but I can't stand the scene." Further, he criticizes the American public's lack of interest in politics and addiction to television: "I'm neither left or right/I'm just staying home tonight/getting lost in that hopeless little screen."
Nanni Moretti's film Caro diario (1993) features "I'm Your Man", as Moretti himself rides his Vespa along the streets of Rome.
In 1994, following a tour to promote The Future, Cohen retreated to the Mt. Baldy Zen Center near Los Angeles, beginning what would become five years of seclusion at the center. In 1996, Cohen was ordained as a Rinzai Zen Buddhist monk and took the Dharma name Jikan, meaning 'silence'. He served as personal assistant to Kyozan Joshu Sasaki Roshi. He left Mount Baldy in 1999.
In 2001- following the five years' seclusion as a Zen Buddhist monk at the Mt. Baldy Zen Center, Cohen returned to music with Ten New Songs, featuring a heavy influence from producer and co-composer Sharon Robinson. With this album, Cohen shed the relatively extroverted, engaged, and even optimistic outlook of The Future (the sole political track, “The Land of Plenty,” abandoning stern commandment for yearning but helpless prayer) to lament and seek acceptance of varieties of personal loss: the approach of death and the departure of love, romantic and even divine. Ten New Songs' cohesive musical style (perhaps absent from Cohen's albums since Recent Songs) owes much to Robinson’s involvement. The album includes the song "Alexandra Leaving," which is a striking transformation of the poem "The God Abandons Antony," by the Greek poet Constantine P. Cavafy. Although not Cohen’s bitterest album, it may rank as his most melancholic.
In October 2004- he released Dear Heather, largely a musical collaboration with jazz chanteuse (and current romantic partner) Anjani Thomas, although Sharon Robinson returns to collaborate on three tracks (including a duet). As light as the previous album was dark, Dear Heather reflects Cohen's own change of mood - he has said in a number of interviews that his depression has lifted in recent years, which he attributes to the aid of Zen Buddhism. Dear Heather is perhaps his least cohesive, and most experimental and playful album to date, and the stylings of some of the songs (especially the title track) frustrated many fans. In an interview following his induction into the Canadian Songwriters' Hall of Fame, Cohen explained that the album was intended to be a kind of notebook or scrapbook of themes, and that a more formal record had been planned for release shortly afterwards, but that this was put on ice by his legal battles with his ex-manager.
On October 8, 2005- Cohen alleged that his longtime former manager, Kelley Lynch, misappropriated over US $5 million from Cohen's retirement fund along with the publishing rights to his songs, leaving Cohen with only $150,000. Cohen was sued in turn by other former business associates. These events placed him in the public spotlight, including a cover feature on him with the headline "Devastated!" in Canada's Maclean's magazine. In March 2006, Cohen won the civil suit and was awarded US $9 million by a Los Angeles County superior court. Lynch, however, ignored the suit and did not respond to a subpoena issued for her financial records. As a result it has been widely reported that Cohen may never be able to collect the cash. Cohen has been under new management since April 2005.
Blue Alert, an album of songs co-written by Anjani and Cohen, was released on May 23, 2006 to positive reviews. The album is sung by Anjani, who according to one reviewer "sounds like Cohen reincarnated as woman. . . . though Cohen doesn't sing a note on the album, his voice permeates it like smoke." The album includes a recent musical setting of Cohen's "As the mist leaves no scar," a poem originally published in The Spice-Box of Earth in 1961 and adapted by Spector into "True Love Leaves No Traces" on Death of a Ladies' Man.
Cohen's book of poetry and drawings, Book of Longing, was published in May 2006; in March a Toronto-based retailer offered signed copies to the first 1500 orders placed online, which saw the entire amount sold within hours. The book quickly topped bestseller lists in Canada. On May 13, 2006, Cohen made his first public appearance for thirteen years, at an in-store event at a bookstore in Toronto. Approximately 3000 people turned up for the event, causing the streets surrounding the bookstore to be closed. He sang two of his earliest and best-known songs: "So Long, Marianne" and "Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye", accompanied by the Barenaked Ladies and Ron Sexsmith. Also appearing with him was Anjani, the two promoting her new CD, along with his book. 2008 concert tour
January 13, 2008- Cohen quietly announced to fans a long-anticipated concert tour . The tour, Cohen's first in 15 years, began May 11 in Fredericton, NB to wide critical acclaim, and was prolonged until Fall of 2009. The schedule encompassed Canada and Europe, including performances at The Big Chill (music festival), the Montreal Jazz Festival, and on the Pyramid Stage at the 2008 Glastonbury Festival on 29 June 2008. His performance at Glastonbury was hailed by many as the highlight of the festival, and his performance of 'Hallelujah' as the sun went down received a rapturous reception and a lengthy ovation from a packed Pyramid Stage field. He also played in Dublin in what has come to be regarded as a "milestone concert". The London performance was later released on CD and DVD under the title Live in London.
In January 2009- the tour arrived in New Zealand. Simon Sweetman in The Dominion Post (Wellington) of 21 January wrote "It is hard work having to put this concert in to words so I'll just say something I have never said in a review before and will never say again: this was the best show I have ever seen." The first concert of the Australian tour took place at Rochford Winery in Victoria's Yarra Valley on January 24 in perfect weather in front of an audience of about 7,000.
The Sydney Entertainment Centre show on January 28 sold out rapidly, which motivated promoters to later announce a second show at the venue. The first performance was well-received, and the audience of 12,000 responded with five standing ovations. Cohen gave generous credit to his touring band, his long-time collaborator and vocalist Sharon Robinson, who was backed up by the Webb Sisters.
On March 7, 2008- Jeff Buckley’s version of Cohen's “Hallelujah”, went to number 1 on the iTunes chart after being performed by Jason Castro on the seventh season of the television series American Idol. Another major boost for Cohen's song exposure came when singer-songwriter Kate Voegele released her version of "Hallelujah" from her 2007 Don't Look Away album and appeared as a regular character, named Mia, on season five of the teenage television show One Tree Hill.
A few days later, Cohen was inducted into the American Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in recognition of his status among the "highest and most influential echelon of songwriters". He was introduced by fellow musician Lou Reed.
In December 2008- Cohen's "Hallelujah" was placed no. 1 and 2 in the U.K. Christmas singles chart, with 'X Factor' winner Alexandra Burke at No. 1 and Jeff Buckley at No. 2. A third release, by Cohen himself, was placed at No. 36, 24 years after its original release.
On February 19, 2009- Cohen played his first American concert in fifteen years at the Beacon Theatre in New York City. He also performed at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival on Friday, April 17, 2009, in front of one of the largest Outdoor Theatre crowds in the history of the festival. His performance of "Hallelujah" was widely regarded as one of the highlights of the festival.
In February 2009- in response to hearing about the devastation to the Yarra Valley region of Victoria, he donated $200,000 to the Victorian Bushfire Appeal in support of those affected by the extensive Black Saturday bushfires that razed the area just weeks after his performance at the Rochford Winery in the A Day on the Green concert. Melbourne's Herald Sun newspaper reported: "Tour promoter Frontier Touring said $200,000 would be donated on behalf of Cohen, [fellow performer Paul] Kelly and Frontier to aid victims of the Victorian bushfires."
A scheduled concert in Ramallah was cancelled after Palestinian radicals objected to the fact that Cohen had also scheduled a concert in Tel Aviv.
In the 1960s, during his stay at Hydra, Cohen befriended the Scandinavian novelists Axel Jensen and Göran Tunström. He lived there with Axel's wife Marianne Jensen (now: Ihlen Stang) and their son Axel after they broke up. The song "So Long, Marianne" is about her.
According to biographer and filmmaker Harry Rasky, Cohen has been married once, to Los Angeles artist Suzanne Elrod. Although the two did have an important relationship in the 1970s, Cohen himself has said that 'cowardice' and 'fear' have prevented him from ever actually marrying. He had two children with Elrod: a son, Adam, was born in 1972 and a daughter, Lorca, named after poet Federico García Lorca, was born in 1974. Adam Cohen began his own career as a singer-songwriter in the mid-1990s and currently fronts a band called Low Millions. Elrod took the cover photograph on Cohen's Live Songs album and is pictured on the cover of the Death of a Ladies' Man album.
Cohen and Elrod had split by 1979. Contrary to popular belief, "Suzanne", one of his best-known songs, refers to Suzanne Verdal, the former wife of his friend, the Québécois sculptor Armand Vaillancourt, rather than Elrod. In 1990, Cohen was romantically linked to actress Rebecca De Mornay. He is now romantically involved with (and working with) Anjani Thomas.
Recurring themes in Cohen's work include love and sex, religion, psychological depression, and music itself. He has also engaged with certain political themes, though sometimes ambiguously so. "Suzanne" mixes a wistful type of love song with a religious meditation, themes that are also mixed in "Joan of Arc." "Famous Blue Raincoat" is from the point of view of a man whose marriage has been broken (in exactly what degree is ambiguous in the song) by his wife's infidelity with his close friend, and is written in the form of a letter to that friend, to whom he writes, "I guess that I miss you/ I guess I forgive you … Know your enemy is sleeping/ And his woman is free", while "Everybody Knows" deals in part with social inequality ("...the poor stay poor/ And the rich get rich"), and the harsh reality of AIDS: "… the naked man and woman/ Are just a shining artifact of the past."
"Sisters of Mercy", according to the sleeve notes of his Greatest Hits evokes his encounter with two women named Barbara and Lorraine in a hotel room in Edmonton, Canada. Claims that "Chelsea Hotel #2" treats his affair with Janis Joplin without sentimentality are countered by claims that the song reveals a much more complicated and mixed set of feelings than straightforward love. Cohen discusses the song in an interview filmed for the tribute-concert movie. He confirms that the subject is indeed Janis with some evident embarrassment. "She wouldn't mind," he declares, "but my mother would be appalled." The title of "Don't Go Home with Your Hard-On" speaks for itself.
Cohen comes from a Jewish background, most obviously reflected in his song "Story of Isaac", and also in "Who by Fire," whose words and melody echo the Unetaneh Tokef, an 11th century liturgical poem recited on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Broader Judeo-Christian themes are sounded throughout the album Various Positions: "Hallelujah", which has music as a secondary theme, begins by evoking the biblical king David composing a song that "pleased the Lord," and continues with references to Bathsheba and Samson. If it be Your Will also has a strong air of religious resignation.
In his early career as a novelist, Beautiful Losers grappled with the mysticism of the Catholic/Iroquois Catherine Tekakwitha. Cohen has also been involved with Buddhism at least since the 1970s and in 1996 he was ordained a Buddhist monk. However, he still considers himself also a Jew: "I'm not looking for a new religion. I'm quite happy with the old one, with Judaism."
He is described as an observant Jew in an article in the New York Times : "Mr. Cohen is an observant Jew who keeps the Sabbath even while on tour and performed for Israeli troops during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. So how does he square that faith with his continued practice of Zen?"
"Allen Ginsberg asked me the same question many years ago," he said. "Well, for one thing, in the tradition of Zen that I've practiced, there is no prayerful worship and there is no affirmation of a deity. So theologically there is no challenge to any Jewish belief."
Having suffered from depression during much of his life (although less so with the onset of old age), Cohen has written much (especially in his early work) about depression and suicide. The wife of the protagonist of Beautiful Losers commits a gory suicide; "Seems So Long Ago, Nancy" is about a suicide; suicide is mentioned in the darkly comic "One of Us Cannot Be Wrong"; "Dress Rehearsal Rag" is about a last-minute decision not to kill oneself; a general atmosphere of depression pervades such songs as "Please Don't Pass Me By" and "Tonight Will Be Fine." As in the aforementioned "Hallelujah", music itself is the subject of many songs, including "Tower of Song", "A Singer Must Die", and "Jazz Police".
Social justice often shows up as a theme in his work, where he seems, especially in later albums, to expound a leftist politics, albeit with culturally conservative elements. In "Democracy," lamenting, "the wars against disorder/ … the sirens night and day/ … the fires of the homeless/ … the ashes of the gay," he concludes that the United States is actually not a democracy. He has made the observation (in "Tower of Song") that, "the rich have got their channels in the bedrooms of the poor/ And there's a mighty judgment coming." In the title track of The Future he recasts this prophecy on a pacifist note: "I've seen the nations rise and fall/ …/ But love's the only engine of survival." In "Anthem," he promises that "the killers in high places [who] say their prayers out loud/ … [are] gonna hear from me."
Several Cohen songs speak of abortion, always either as something distasteful or even atrocious. In "The Future", he sings sarcastically "Destroy another fetus now/ We don't like children anyhow." In "Stories of the Street" Cohen speaks of "The age of lust is giving birth/ And both the parents ask/ The nurse to tell them fairy tales/ from both sides of the glass."
"Diamonds in the Mine" is often quoted as being a song about abortion with the lyric: "The only man of energy/ Yes the revolution's pride/ He trained a hundred women/ Just to kill an unborn child", always being used to substantiate this. However, extensive research suggests this song is actually about the demise of the hedonism of the 1960s.The "man of energy" referred to is Charles Manson and the "unborn child" is Sharon Tate's unborn baby when the Manson "Family" committed the atrocities in 1969.
In "The Land of Plenty," he characterizes the United States (if not the opulent West in general) of benightedness: "May the lights in The Land of Plenty/ Shine on the truth some day."
War is an enduring theme of Cohen's work which in his earlier songs, as indeed in his early life, he approached ambivalently. Challenged in 1974 over his serious demeanor in concerts and the military salutes with which he ended them, Cohen remarked: "I sing serious songs, and I'm serious onstage because I couldn't do it any other way. ... I don't consider myself a civilian. I consider myself a soldier, and that's the way soldiers salute." In "Field Commander Cohen" he imagines himself (perhaps metaphorically) as a soldier/spy socializing with Fidel Castro in Cuba—where he had actually lived at the height of US-Cuba tensions in 1961, allegedly sporting a Che Guevara-style beard and military fatigues. This song was actually written immediately following Cohen's front-line stint with the Israeli air force, the "fighting in Egypt" documented in an (again perhaps metaphorical) passage of "Night Comes On". In 1973, Cohen, who had traveled to Jerusalem to sign up on the Israeli side in the Yom Kippur War, had instead been assigned to a USO-style entertainer tour of front-line tank emplacements in the Sinai Desert, coming under fire. A poetic mention of then-General Ariel Sharon delivered in the same mode as his Fidel Castro allusions, has given birth to the legend that Cohen and Sharon shared cognac together during Cohen's term in the Sinai.
Deeply moved by encounters with both Israeli and Arab soldiers, he left the country to write "Lover Lover Lover," which has often been interpreted as a personal renunciation of any part in such conflict, nonetheless ending with the hope his song will serve an unspecified listener as "a shield against the enemy." He would later remark, "'Lover, Lover, Lover' was born over there; The whole world has its eyes riveted on this tragic and complex conflict. Then again, I am faithful to certain ideas, inevitably. I hope that those of which I am in favour will gain." Asked which side he supported in the Arab-Israeli conflict, Cohen has responded: " I don't want to speak of wars or sides ... Personal process is one thing, it's blood, it's the identification one feels with their roots and their origins. The militarism I practice as a person and a writer is another thing. ... I don't wish to speak about war.".
His recent politics continue a lifelong predilection for the underdog, the "beautiful loser." Whether recording "The Partisan", a French Resistance song by Anna Marly and Emmanuel d'Astier, or singing his own "The Old Revolution", written from the point of view of a defeated royalist, he has throughout his career through his music expressed his sympathy and support for the oppressed. Although Cohen's fascination with war is often as metaphor for more explicitly cultural and personal issues, as in New Skin for the Old Ceremony, by this measure his most "militant" album.
Cohen blends a good deal of pessimism about political/cultural issues with a great deal of humour and (especially in his later work) gentle acceptance. His wit contends with his stark analyses, as his songs are often verbally playful and even cheerful: In "Tower of Song," the famously raw-voiced Cohen sings ironically that he was "… born with the gift/ Of a golden voice"; the generally dark "Is This What You Wanted?" nonetheless contains playful lines "You were the whore and the beast of Babylon/ I was Rin Tin Tin"; in concert, he often plays around with his lyrics (for example, "If you want a doctor/ I'll examine every inch of you" from "I'm Your Man" will become "If you want a Jewish doctor …"); and he will introduce one song by using a phrase from another song or poem (for example, introducing "Leaving Green Sleeves" by paraphrasing his own "Queen Victoria": "This is a song for those who are not nourished by modern love").
Cohen has also recorded such love songs as Irving Berlin's "Always" or the more obscure soul number "Be for Real" (originally sung by Marlena Shaw), chosen in part for their unlikely juxtaposition to his own work.