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LEONARD COHEN: MUSICIANS & COMPOSERS OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY (Salem Press)
A piece that I wrote in 2007 for Salem Press's Musicians and Composers of the Twentieth Century encyclopedia....
Musician's name as best known: Leonard Cohen
Index name: Cohen, Leonard
Pronunciation: LEH-nurd, CO-ihn
Full name: Leonard Norman Cohen
Musical identity: Folk singer and songwriter
Born: September 21, 1934; Montreal, Quebec
Influence: Cohen, having established himself as a poet and a novelist before embarking on a career as a folk singer, wrote lyrics of a uniquely literary depth and emotional sophistication. Although his albums have sold modestly, his songs remain among those most recorded by other performers, guaranteeing him and the spiritually charged universe he evokes a place in popular music rivaled only by Bob Dylan.
The Life: Leonard Norman Cohen (LEH-nurd NOR-mihn CO-ihn) was born into one of Montreal’s most prominent Jewish families. From his mother Masha, the daughter of a scholarly rabbi, he inherited a love of the literary arts. From his father, a successful clothier who died when Cohen was nine, he inherited a trust-fund that provided him sufficient income to devote himself to his literary and musical interests. Although he had begun playing the guitar and performing country music while a teenager, it was as a poet that Cohen first distinguished himself, publishing his first book, Let Us Compare Mythologies, under the auspices of the Canadian modernist poet Louis Dudek in 1956, five years after enrolling at Montreal’s McGill University.
Let Us Compare Mythologies made Cohen a local celebrity and led to his first recordings: readings of his poetry for an album released by Folkways Records. His second volume of poetry, The Spice-Box of the Earth, followed in 1961, strengthening and spreading Cohen’s reputation. By this time Cohen had moved to the Greek island of Hydra, where he would live and work for several years.
His next work was the semi-autobiographical novel The Favorite Game (1963), in which Cohen, under the pseudonym Lawrence Breavman, traced his life and coming of age. After another book of poems, Flowers for Hitler (1964), Cohen wrote and published what would become his best-known prose work, the ambitiously experimental and controversially explicit Beautiful Losers (1966). His fourth volume of poems, Parasites of Heaven, appeared shortly thereafter.
By the publication of his Selected Poems 1956-1968, Cohen had been “discovered” as a songwriter and performer by the folksinger Judy Collins, who recorded his “Suzanne” (a poem from Parasites of Heaven set to music) to considerable acclaim on her 1966 album, In My Life.
From 1969 to 2004, Cohen released seventeen albums (ten original, three live, and four compilations), published five books (consisting, either totally or in part, of poetry) and was the subject of two video documentaries. He also advanced the career of his occasional background singer Jennifer Warnes, whose most critically well-received recording, Famous Blue Raincoat: The Songs of Leonard Cohen, appeared in 1986.
During the 1990s he practiced meditation at the Mount Baldy Zen Center in California and was ordained a Buddhist monk in 1996. In 2006 he oversaw the recording of Blue Alert, an album of unpublished Cohen lyrics, by Anjani Thomas, a singer with whom he was romantically involved.
Although popular musicians have occasionally been known to publish books of poetry or fiction, Cohen is the only poet and novelist to have successfully made the transition from a literary career to a musical one. Likewise, although popular musicians have been known to undergo religious conversions and in turn reflect these conversions in their work, no other popular musician during the last forty years has so consistently, thoroughly, and unabashedly integrated the traditions, language, and sensibility of his faith into his music as Cohen has. It is this combination of highly developed literary and religious sensitivities, even more than Cohen's nearly obsessive exploration of the spiritual dimensions of romantic despair, that sets his work apart from that of other serious, verbally gifted performers and that along with his preference for fashion-defying instrumental settings gives it a uniquely timeless quality.
Songs of Leonard Cohen. Released in December 1967 at a time when pop music was becoming increasingly ornate, the hauntingly stark acoustic mood of Cohen's debut album established the tone of his first four albums and resulted in his being categorized along with Neil Young and Joni Mitchell as part of a “new folk” movement. Although “Suzanne,” which had been previously covered by Judy Collins, was the album’s best-known track, three others (“Sisters of Mercy,” “So Long, Marianne,” and “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye”) would become official fixtures in the Cohen canon.
Songs from a Room. Even more sparse sounding than Songs of Leonard Cohen, Cohen’s second album (1969) became a cult classic as much for its unrelenting bleakness as for its inclusion of “Bird on a Wire,” a song that would become Cohen‘s best-known song after “Suzanne” and that, like “Suzanne,” had previously been recorded by Judy Collins.
Songs of Love and Hate. Released in 1971 and similar in mood to Songs from a Room, its concluding track “Joan of Arc” joined “Suzanne” and “Bird on a Wire” as an archetype of Cohen’s finding of erotic epiphanies in traditionally religious subject matter and vice versa.
Live Songs. Unlike most live albums of its time, this 1973 document of Cohen’s 1970 and 1972 performances in London, Paris, Berlin, Brussels, Tennessee, and the Isle of Wight was not padded with jams and drum solos, enhanced with post-production studio overdubs, or marketed as a surrogate “greatest hits.” Instead, it captured the extent to which an audience could bring out the performer in Cohen and therefore help transform his songs from solitary meditations into a kind of communal liturgy.
The Best of Leonard Cohen. For almost thirty years, this 1975 sampling of Cohen’s first four studio albums was the only remotely comprehensive Cohen compilation. It remains his best-selling title to date.
Death of a Ladies' Man. Following as it did the canon-defining The Best of Leonard Cohen, this 1977 album was scrutinized for indications of the new directions, if any, that Cohen would take during his next phase. Instead it was an anomaly. With the legendary “Wall of Sound” producer Phil Spector at the controls, the album was 180 degrees out of synch with the spare, hushed intensity that had characterized Cohen’s previous recordings.
Various Positions. Because Columbia, unconvinced of the music's commercial potential, refused to release this album, it suffered from the under-promotion inevitable in its being released by the independent Passport Records. In retrospect, its combination of bare-bones electronics and Cohen’s seductively sinister whisper-singing indicated that he had discovered a sound that would both honor his past and allow him to age gracefully. The album’s fifth track, “Hallelujah,” would be recorded by more performers than any other post-1970 Cohen composition. Along with “If It Be Your Will,” it imbued the album with a devotionally religious mood and made it a soundtrack of sorts to Cohen’s 1984 literary collection, Book of Mercy.
I'm Your Man. Stylistically similar to Various Positions, this 1988 recording became Cohen’s most celebrated and bestselling album in over a decade, with the video to “First We Take Manhattan” transforming the reclusive Cohen into a presence on MTV.
The Future. In the wake of the renewed interest in Cohen created by Various Positions and I’m Your Man, this ambitiously diverse and uncommonly (for Cohen) topical and political 1992 album found an eager audience among the public in general and the Hollywood film directors Oliver Stone, Curtis Hanson, and Alan Parker in particular, who included music from The Future in the soundtracks to Natural Born Killers, Wonder Boys, and The Life of David Gale respectively.
Ten New Songs. A 2001 collaboration with the American singer-songwriter and former Cohen background vocalist Sharon Robinson, who also produced the album.
Dear Heather. Like Ten New Songs, this 2004 album found Cohen collaborating with Sharon Robinson. Unlike Ten New Songs, it also found Cohen collaborating with Anjani Thomas and covering or setting to music everything from “Tennessee Waltz” to the poetry of Lord Byron and Francis Reginald Scott, opening Cohen to charges that, at seventy, he was finally running out of ideas and, perhaps, energy.
The Essential Leonard Cohen. This two-disc 2002 compilation judiciously (and democratically) covered the highlights of every Cohen studio album from his debut through Ten New Songs.
The power of Cohen’s music arises in large part from his ignoring of traditional boundaries. Whether as a poet who wrote novels, a novelist who wrote songs, a Jew who mastered Zen Buddhism, or a religious devotee committed to the exploration of erotic love, he defied the expectations and conventions of his various audiences at every turn, discovering in the process a method for perpetually renewing the timelessness and sacramental appeal of humankind’s most enduring archetypes. By choosing music as the medium most hospitable to his carefully crafted words, he imbued his notoriously dark meditations with a fragile buoyancy that kept them from succumbing to the downward pull to which the relentlessly serious are particularly vulnerable.
He also defied the notion that popular music was the exclusive domain of the young or that success was best measured in terms of airplay and album sales. Already thirty-three years old at the time of his first album’s release, he was from the beginning a kind of elder statesman, a forceful if quiet voice of maturity and reflection in a genre usually identified with prolonged adolescence. Without ever placing a single in the Billboard Top Forty or selling a million copies of any one of his albums, he created an immensely influential body of work.
From 1971 to 2007, his songs were used in the soundtracks of over twenty films, and the roster of performers who have recorded his songs, which includes Sting, Elton John, the Neville Brothers, and U2, is as varied as it is stellar.
Cohen, Leonard. Beautiful Losers. New York: Vintage, 1966. The better known of Cohen’s two novels, notorious at the time of its publication for its explicit depiction of the seamier details of a love triangle among “losers” obsessed with the seventeenth-century saint, Catherine Tekakwitha.
Cohen, Leonard. Book of Longing. New York: HarperCollins, 2006. Drawings, song lyrics from the Ten Songs and Dear Heather albums, and poems, most of which were composed during Cohen’s 1990’s residence at a California Buddhist monastery.
Cohen, Leonard. Book of Mercy. Toronto: McClelland & Stuart Ltd., 1984. Contemporary psalms and poems in the mystically biblical vein of the lyrics comprising Cohen’s Various Positions album.
Cohen, Leonard. The Spice-Box of the Earth. Toronto: McClelland & Stuart Ltd., 1961. The second and best known of the four volumes of poetry that Cohen published before beginning his career as a recording artist.
Green, Roger. Hydra and the Bananas of Leonard Cohen: A Mid-Life Crisis in the Sun. New York: Basic Books, 2003. A quixotic multi-faceted memoir by the British poet Green, using his obsession with Cohen’s life on the Greek island of Hydra and the music that Cohen composed there as a point of departure.
Nadel, Ira Bruce. Various Positions: A Life of Leonard Cohen. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007. Originally published in 1996, the latest version of this most thorough of the Cohen biographies takes into account Cohen’s recordings through 2006 and benefits from the author’s access both to Cohen’s unpublished writings and to Cohen himself.
Sheppard, David. Leonard Cohen. New York: Da Capo, 2000. An examination of the complex intersection of the religious and the romantic in Cohen’s work.
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