September 21, 1934 – Leonard Cohen:
“There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”
When I first heard Cohen’s anthem Hallelujah, the original version, from his album Various Positions (1984), I never would have thought that it would become one of pop music’s most enduring songs, certainly not with lyrics with stark biblical imagery.
Cohen’s first album, Songs Of Leonard Cohen, was released more than 50 years ago, and it gained a devoted cult following by literary types with its thoughtful songs about religion and romance, such as Suzanne and Bird On The Wire.
Yet, Cohen’s record company initially refused to release Various Positions, telling him:
“We know you’re great, but we don’t know if you’re any good.”
After the album came out, Hallelujah was ignored by radio, but a seemingly endless series of cover versions, each one weepier than the last, has made it somehow the go-to song for grieving.
John Cale‘s version was used on the soundtrack of Shrek (2001). The West Wing used Jeff Buckley‘s cover during a climactic moment. Justin Timberlake sang it during a telethon for survivors of the 2011 earthquake in Haiti. k.d. lang sang it at the opening ceremony of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver, before television audience of three billion. Last year Tori Kelly sang Hallelujah during the “In Memoriam” sequence to recently departed showbiz figures at the Emmy Awards. This spring, Madonna performed a version of the song at the Met Ball. With over 300 versions, including Bob Dylan, who covered it first in 1988, Regina Spektor, Willie Nelson, Susan Boyle and Bono. The song continues to be used in film and television soundtracks and on televised talent contests.
Although Hallelujah overshadows Cohen’s legacy, his original version against everyone else’s makes me wonder if it is the right way to honor Cohen, an artist who never seemed to care much about having hits. He might have been embarrassed by the increasingly maudlin treatment that Hallelujah receives.
In 2009, he called for a moratorium on the song’s use in films and television, although the royalties were very lucrative.
The simple sound of his Hallelujah was a way to avoid sentimentality, just like his first few albums with their austere arrangements, using little more than acoustic guitar. Cohen relied on other musical tools to put emotion across, which in 1984 was a primitive Casio synthesizer that makes Hallelujah sound like it was recorded in a storefront church.
Cohen’s own version of Hallelujah brings an awkward rawness as he admits that all he ever learned from love “was how to shoot somebody who outdrew you.”
Early in his career, his novel Beautiful Losers (1966) caused the Boston Globe reviewer to rejoice: “James Joyce is not dead. He is living in Montreal under the name of Cohen.” Still, Cohen wanted to be a songwriter, having fallen in love with Rock ‘n’ Roll. Cohen:
”I always loved rock. I remember the first time I heard Elvis Presley, how relieved and grateful I was that all this stuff he and all of us had been feeling for so long had finally found a particular kind of expression.”
In his later years, Cohen became a Zen monk and spent much of the 1990s in a monastery in California. Fans seek spiritual guidance from their idols, and Cohen was an example of someone who might have been capable of providing it.
He published his first collection of poetry, Let Us Compare Mythologies, in 1956. Next was The Spice-Box Of Earth (1961), and the provocatively titled Flowers For Hitler (1964).
Stopping in New York City in 1966 on the way to Nashville, he was introduced to the folk singer Judy Collins, and played some of his songs to her. Collins became the first artist to cover Cohen’s material when she recorded Suzanne and Dress Rehearsal Rag for her album In My Life (1966), giving Cohen a nice boot to his career.
She also mentored him. When Cohen ran offstage in panic at a 1967 anti-Vietnam war concert, Collins persuaded him to go back out and finish his set. Over the decades, she would record many of his most famous pieces. Collins:
”His songs carried me through dark years like mantras. They were songs for the spirit when our spirits were strained to the breaking point.”
Cohen caught the attention of Columbia Records talent scout John Hammond, who had signed Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. Cohen signed a contract with Columbia and recorded his debut album. He followed with three more albums of folk music: Songs From A Room (1969), Songs Of Love And Hate (1971) and New Skin For The Old Ceremony (1974) with the single Chelsea Hotel No 2, a song offering explicit details about his brief relationship with Janis Joplin.
Death Of A Ladies’ Man (1977) was co-written and produced by Phil Spector, which made a break from Cohen’s minimalist sound. Recent Songs (1979) blended his acoustic style with Jazz, Asian and Mediterranean influences.
I’m Your Man (1988) with Cohen’s return to synthesized productions is my own favorite, or maybe I would choose The Future (1992), with its dark lyrics and prophetic references to political and social unrest. 30 years ago, I’m Your Man brilliantly showed Cohen as a wise, world-weary, witty survivor, singing about sexual politics in the era of AIDS.
Cohen often recorded with Jennifer Warnes, starting with Live Songs (1973). Warnes contribute to all Cohen’s albums up to Old Ideas (2012). In 1987, Warnes released Famous Blue Raincoat, an album of covers of Cohen songs including First We Take Manhattan. She sang it first; Cohen’s own recording appeared on I’m Your Man the next year.
I’m Your Man Your Fan (1991) is a collection of Cohen songs performed by admirers including REM, John Cale and Nick Cave. Another tribute album, Tower of Song: The Songs Of Leonard Cohen (1995), features Bono, Elton John and Peter Gabriel.
In the aughts, after a monastic life, Cohen claimed that Zen Buddhism helped to dispel the depression which had hung over him for decades. It must have helped during a long legal battle with his former manager who had embezzled millions of dollars. A California Court ordered her to pay Cohen $9.5 million but recovering the money was not that easy, and he never saw a dollar.
The emptying of the the Cohen retirement bank account seemed to spur his creativity. Book Of Longing (2006), a collection of poems and drawings, was a bestseller, and in 2007 it was staged as a concert work with music composed by Philip Glass.
In 2008, Cohen was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and he began a two-year world tour, but concerns about his health arose when he collapsed onstage in Valencia. He performed in Israel, which brought a lot of controversy at a time when other musicians were boycotting the country.
He continued touring into 2010 and he received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Cohen went out on another world tour in 2012-13.
He released Old Ideas (2012) with songs that looked at mortality, love and redemption and became the highest-charting album of his career, reaching Number One. His 13th studio album, Popular Problems (2014) was released a day after Cohen’s 80th birthday.
In autumn 2016, he released You Want It Darker, a somber set of songs produced by his son, Adam Cohen with Cohen taking stock of his life while contemplating its approaching end. Cohen sings:
”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.”
I was always drawn to themes of political and social justice in his songs. In Democracy he sings:
“… from the wars against disorder/ from the sirens night and day/ from the fires of the homeless/ from the ashes of the gay/ Democracy is coming to the USA.”
In my favorite song The Future he notes:
“I’ve seen the nations rise and fall/ But love’s the only engine of survival.”
2016, what a year for the passing of my musical heroes David Bowie and George Michael. Cohen was gone on November 7, 2016, taken by leukemia at 82-years-old. His death was announced on November 10, the day of his funeral in Montreal. In accordance with his wishes, Cohen was laid to rest with a Jewish rite, in a simple pine casket, in the family plot.
This year, Cohen won a Grammy Award for Best Rock Performance for You Want it Darker; pretty good for a dead guy.
On the eve of the first anniversary of Cohen’s passing, artists from all over the globe came together for a celebration of his life that included performances by k.d. lang, Elvis Costello, Sting, Damien Rice, Courtney Love, The Lumineers, Lana Del Rey. Justin Trudeau spoke about his personal connection with Cohen’s music.
“I don’t consider myself a pessimist. I think of a pessimist as someone who is waiting for it to rain. And I feel soaked to the skin.”