Born Leonard Norman Cohen on September 21, 1934, in Montreal, Quebec, Canada; son of Nathan B. (a clothing business owner) and Marsha (a nurse; maiden name, Klinitsky) Cohen; companion of Suzanne Elrod; companion of Rebecca De Mornay (an actress); children: (with Elrod) Adam, Lorca. Education: Bachelor's degree, McGill University, 1955; graduate study at Columbia University. Addresses: Record company--Columbia Records, P.O. Box 4450, New York, NY 10101-4450, website: http://www.columbiarecords.com/. Website--Leonard Cohen Official Website: http://www.leonardcohen.com.
Leonard Cohen, known primarily as a folk singer-songwriter with a modest but impassioned cult following, is perhaps better described as a poet who occasionally sets his words to music. While his lyrical subjects cover a broad range, recurring themes include love and longing, suspicion and betrayal, despair and doom. Cohen has written abundantly of his many relationships with women, and he has also repeatedly explored issues of religious faith. He earned critical praise as a poet and novelist during the 1950s and 1960s; the 1956 McGill Literary Award was the first of several honors awarded his writings. During those years Cohen also wrote songs, though he made no attempt to record or sell them. An introduction to popular folk singer Judy Collins in the mid-1960s led to unexpected success for Cohen as a songwriter. Impressed with his abilities, Collins chose to record several of Cohen's songs for upcoming albums, including "Suzanne," "Sisters of Mercy," and "Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye." The success of those songs led other singers to seek out Cohen's songs for their recordings. Soon Cohen decided to record an album of his own works, and in 1968 he released The Songs of Leonard Cohen. Approaching his mid-30s, Cohen entered a new phase of his career, one that would endure for decades.
Cohen became a successful coffeehouse singer during the 1960s and 1970s, never achieving major commercial success but inspiring intense devotion among his fans. At a time when interest in his music seemed to have subsided, singer Jennifer Warnes recorded Famous Blue Raincoat, a well-received and beautifully sung collection of Cohen songs released in 1987. The following year Cohen released I'm Your Man, his best-selling album in years. At the dawn of the 1990s, a middle-aged Cohen found himself in the midst of a resurgence. His blend of observant, insightful lyrics and stirring, sorrowful melodies had attracted the attention of a new generation of musicians whose reverence elevated Cohen even higher on the cult-hero totem pole. Respected artists from the alternative-rock scene as well as A-list rock stars clamored to participate in two Leonard Cohen tribute albums, I'm Your Fan in 1991 and Tower of Song in 1995. The renewed appreciation for Cohen's works led to the release of several best-of collections over the next several years, as well as two new recordings, The Future in 1992 and Ten New Songs in 2001. His 2004 album, Dear Heather, released just after his seventieth birthday, presents a reflective Cohen looking back on his life and loves.
A Short Hop from Poet to Singer-Songwriter
Cohen was born September 21, 1934, in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. He explored his artistic leanings from an early age, writing poetry and fiction as a teenager. Cohen learned to play the guitar from the father of a friend, and during his years studying at McGill University, he played in an amateur country band called the Buckskin Boys. After he graduated from college, his first volume of poetry, Let Us Compare Mythologies, was published. Within a few years Cohen's verses had received wide critical acclaim, both in his native land and in the United States. He traveled throughout North America giving poetry readings during the late 1950s, and at these readings he was often accompanied by a musician who played while Cohen read. This practice reawakened the poet's interest in music, and he began playing the guitar again and singing for groups of friends.
By 1966 Cohen had published three more volumes of poetry and two novels, The Favorite Game and Beautiful Losers. Both novels eventually became bestsellers, with The Favorite Game achieving something of a cult following. In spite of the favorable reception of his writings, Cohen struggled to make a living as a writer. During a trip to New York in 1966, Cohen encountered an opportunity that altered the course of his life. After he showed some of his folk songs to Judy Collins, the established singer chose to include "Suzanne" and "Dress Rehearsal Rag" on her 1966 album In My Life; the former track became a successful number for Collins. She featured several Cohen songs on her subsequent album as well. Other singers began to record Cohen's songs, and his friends persuaded him to begin performing them himself. Cohen did so, and his act met with warm receptions at the Newport Folk Festival, the Rheingold Music Festival, and Montreal's Expo '67.
Cohen soon landed a recording contract with Columbia Records and released his debut album, The Songs of Leonard Cohen, in 1968. While not a blockbuster, the album was embraced by a significant audience and achieved gold-record status. Critics at the time and in years since have approved as well, with some expressing ecstatic support; Jason Ankeny of All Music Guide described the album as "a breathtaking and perfect debut." The album was later used as the soundtrack for the 1971 Robert Altman film McCabe and Mrs. Miller. In addition to his own version of "Suzanne," The Songs of Leonard Cohen includes his classics "So Long, Marianne" and "Sisters of Mercy."
Cohen followed his debut effort with 1969's Songs from a Room, which features what is perhaps Cohen's best-known song, "Bird on the Wire." A long string of critically successful albums ensued; one of the most popular was 1971's Songs of Love and Hate. Throughout the 1970s Cohen composed and released several songs that have become folk standards, including "Joan of Arc," "Famous Blue Raincoat," "Story of Isaac," "Tonight Will Be Fine," and "Please Don't Pass Me By."
Tribute Albums Lead to Renewed Appreciation
In the later 1970s, Cohen briefly left Columbia Records to work at Warner Bros. with famed rock producer-composer Phil Spector. Blending their widely divergent styles, they produced an album that combined Cohen's words and Spector's music, 1977's Death of a Ladies' Man. Critical response was mixed, ranging from execration to exaltation. The album was extremely popular with fans in Europe but did not sell well in the United States. Two years later, Cohen went back to Columbia to release Recent Songs. On several tracks he sang duets with Jennifer Warnes, one of several women throughout Cohen's career who played a significant collaborative role in his music.
In 1985 Cohen released Various Positions, an album that features synthesizers and lush backing vocals provided by a chorus. It includes such stirring songs as "Coming Back to You" and "Hallelujah" and again showcases the vocals of Warnes. Sales figures for the album were disappointing, contributing to a downward trend that had begun in the 1970s. The release of Jennifer Warnes's Famous Blue Raincoat in 1987 helped give Cohen's career a lift. Her interpretations of Cohen's songs, warmly and richly sung, triggered a reevaluation of his career that paved the way for the unparalleled success of his 1988 album I'm Your Man. In a 1998 interview with Susan Nunziata of Billboard, Cohen acknowledged his debt to Warnes: "Jennifer Warnes practically revived me from the dead in America by putting out Famous Blue Raincoat.... She's been an invaluable help in my life." I'm Your Man sold close to two million copies worldwide and marked a comeback of sorts for Cohen.
Evidence that a new generation of musicians looked to Cohen as a master songwriter came in the form of the 1991 tribute album, I'm Your Fan, which includes performances from such alt-rock artists as R.E.M., the Pixies, and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. The next tribute album, 1995's Tower of Song, features a much higher wattage of star power---artists such as Bono, Sting, Elton John, and Billy Joel all contributed---indicating that Leonard Cohen, the perpetual outsider, had actually become trendy.
Meditation and Collaboration
Cohen's breaks between albums grew longer during the 1990s, a decade that began with his 1992 release of The Future, a brooding, pessimistic take on the late-twentieth-century geopolitical landscape. For nearly ten years after that album, fans had to content themselves with the release of a live album and a couple of greatest hits collections. For several years during the mid-1990s, Cohen lived at a Zen monastery atop Mount Baldy, near Los Angeles. He had struggled with clinical depression for many years and, seeking a dramatic change in his life, had chosen to spend time at the monastery. While living there, he adhered to a rigorous eighteen-hours-a-day schedule of meditation, chores, and intense conversation with the Zen master, his friend Kyozan Joshu, known as Roshi.
While writing songs was not the goal of living at the monastery, Cohen found that ideas flowed freely there, and by the end of the 1990s, he had amassed abundant new material. To a greater extent than ever before, he developed his new songs in collaboration with another person---Sharon Robinson, an old friend and former backup singer. Robinson set Cohen's words to music and is credited with cowriting every track on the 2001 release Ten New Songs. Robinson also sang harmonies for the recording and appears beside Cohen on the cover. Writing in Maclean's, Brian D. Johnson asserted that while the album---released in the month following the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States---has a tone of "luxurious solitude," it also has the capacity to comfort and console listeners in the wake of the attacks. Describing the album as "spare, hypnotic, and wise," Johnson wrote that "it plays as a psalm of reconciliation. It's an aftermath album, finding beauty in the ruins of a life." As Cohen ages, his fans and reviewers half-suspect that each new album will be his last. Some critics wrote that Ten New Songs would be a fitting swan song, and the same was said of his next album, 2004's Dear Heather. Thom Jurek of All Music Guide ascribed an "air of finality" to the album. He described the recording as "mellow, hushed, nocturnal"---familiar features of Cohen's work---while at the same time declaring it "Cohen's most upbeat offering."
For most of his career, Cohen has released his albums on one label, Columbia. Each new effort is launched with minimal fanfare and eagerly grabbed up by Cohen's fans, who constitute a modest following in the United States and a considerably larger one in Canada and Europe. While Cohen has acknowledged that he occasionally experiences disappointment that he has never broken through to a wider audience, he also described his career to Nunziato in Billboard as one of "incredible privilege." He explained to Nunziato that what his fans lack in number, they make up for in the intensity of their devotion and understanding: "the audience is of a quality that just stuns me.... I write one word at a time. I sweat it. And there are people who get it word for word.... I have people who listen to my work who hear it with my own ears. That's an incredible affirmation for a writer. And that's something that nourishes me very much."
by Elizabeth Thomas and Judy Galens
Leonard Cohen's Career
Poet and novelist, late 1950s--; released debut album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, 1968; composed film scores, including The Angel, The Ernie Game, McCabe and Mrs. Miller; songs covered on two tribute albums, I'm Your Fan, 1991, and Tower of Song, 1995; collaborated with singer-musician Sharon Robinson on Ten New Songs, 2001; released Dear Heather, 2004.
Leonard Cohen's Awards
McGill Literary Award, 1956; Canada Council Grant, 1960-61; Quebec Literary Award, 1964; Honorary L.L.B., Dalhousie University, 1971.
- Selected discography
- Songs of Leonard Cohen Columbia, 1967.
- Songs from a Room Columbia, 1969.
- Songs of Love and Hate Columbia, 1971.
- Live Songs Columbia, 1973.
- New Skin for the Old Ceremony Columbia, 1974.
- Death of a Ladies' Man Columbia, 1977.
- Recent Songs Columbia, 1979.
- Various Positions Columbia, 1985.
- I'm Your Man Columbia, 1988.
- The Future Columbia, 1992.
- Ten New Songs Columbia, 2001.
- Dear Heather Columbia, 2004.
August 16, 2005: Cohen announced that he will sue his ex-manager, Kelly Lynch, along with a lawyer and tax consultant hired by that manager, for at least $21.5 million in damages. According to Cohen, Lynch wrongfully took more than $5 million of his earnings between 1997 and 2004. Source: Globe and Mail, August 26, 2005.
November 16, 2005: The Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame named Cohen as an inductee. Source: Globe and Mail, November 17, 2005.
May 9, 2006: Cohen's poetry collection Book of Longing was published by Ecco. Source: HarperCollins, www.harpercollins.com, June 9, 2006.
June 23, 2006: Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man, a documentary about Cohen's songwriting and influence on others, was released by Lions Gate Films Source: Internet Movie Database, www.imdb.com, June 23, 2006.
May 2006: Cohen's poetry collection, Book of Longing, was published. Source: Toronto Star, May 1, 2006.
- Billboard, November 28, 1998, pp. LC-2, LC-3.
- Chatelaine, October 1985; September 1988.
- Entertainment Weekly, January 8, 1993, p. 26.
- Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, October 15, 2001, p. K7253.
- Maclean's, October 15, 2001, p. 52.
- People, March 25, 1996, p. 118.
- Rolling Stone, June 16, 1988.
- Saturday Night, October 1988.
- "Leonard Cohen," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (November 8, 2004).
- "Leonard Cohen," RollingStone.com, http://www.rollingstone.com (November 8, 2004).
- "Take This Longing from My Tongue," Salon, http://www.salon.com/people/bc/1999/06/15/cohen/ (November 10, 2004).
- "Who Held a Gun to Leonard Cohen's Head?," Guardian Unlimited, http://www.guardian.co.uk/arts/fridayreview/story/0,12102,1305765,00.html (November 10, 2004).