Leonard Cohen, Epic and Enigmatic Songwriter, Is Dead at 82
By LARRY ROHTERNOV. 10, 2016
Leonard Cohen’s most well-known song has found new life through film, television and other musicians.
By ROBIN LINDSAY on November 11, 2016. Photo by Chad Batka for The New York Times. Watch in Times Video »
Leonard Cohen, the Canadian poet and novelist who abandoned a promising literary career to become one of the foremost songwriters of the contemporary era, has died, according to an announcement Thursday night on his Facebook page. He was 82.
Mr. Cohen’s record label, Sony Music, confirmed the death. No details were available on the cause. Adam Cohen, his son and producer, said: “My father passed away peacefully at his home in Los Angeles with the knowledge that he had completed what he felt was one of his greatest records. He was writing up until his last moments with his unique brand of humor.”
Over a musical career that spanned nearly five decades, Mr. Cohen wrote songs that addressed — in spare language that could be both oblique and telling — themes of love and faith, despair and exaltation, solitude and connection, war and politics. More than 2,000 recordings of his songs have been made, initially by the folk-pop singers who were his first champions, like Judy Collins and Tim Hardin, and later by performers from across the spectrum of popular music, among them U2, Aretha Franklin, R.E.M., Jeff Buckley, Trisha Yearwood and Elton John.
Mr. Cohen’s best-known song may well be “Hallelujah,” a majestic, meditative ballad infused with both religiosity and earthiness. It was written for a 1984 album that his record company rejected as insufficiently commercial and popularized a decade later by Jeff Buckley. Since then some 200 artists, from Bob Dylan to Justin Timberlake, have sung or recorded it. A book has been written about it, and it has been featured on the soundtracks of movies and television shows and sung at the Olympics and other public events. At the 2016 Emmy Awards, Tori Kelly sang “Hallelujah” for the annual “In Memoriam” segment recognizing recent deaths.
Mr. Cohen was an unlikely and reluctant pop star, if in fact he ever was one. He was 33 when his first record was released in 1967. He sang in an increasingly gravelly baritone. He played simple chords on acoustic guitar or a cheap keyboard. And he maintained a private, sometime ascetic image at odds with the Dionysian excesses associated with rock ’n’ roll.
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At some points, he was anything but prolific. He struggled for years to write some of his most celebrated songs, and he recorded just 14 studio albums in his career. Only the first qualified as a gold record in the United States for sales of 500,000 copies. But Mr. Cohen’s sophisticated, magnificently succinct lyrics, with their meditations on love sacred and profane, were widely admired by other artists and gave him a reputation as, to use the phrase his record company concocted for an advertising campaign in the early 1970s, “the master of erotic despair.”
Mr. Cohen in February 2009 during his first world tour in 15 years, which, he said, was driven partly by financial necessity. “I didn’t even know where the bank was,” he said at the time. Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
Early in his career, enigmatic songs like “Suzanne” and “Bird on a Wire,” quickly covered by better-known performers, gave him visibility. “Suzanne” begins and ends as a portrait of a mysterious, fragile woman “wearing rags and feathers from Salvation Army counters,” but pauses in the middle verse to offer a melancholy view of the spiritual:
And Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water,
And he spent a long time watching from his lonely wooden tower,
And when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him,
He said “All men will be sailors then until the sea shall free them.”
But he himself was broken, long before the sky would open,
Forsaken, almost human, he sank beneath your wisdom like a stone.
In 2008, Mr. Cohen was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which described him as “one of the few artists in the realm of popular music who can truly be called poets” and praised him for having “raised the songwriting bar.” In 2010, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, the Grammys’ group, gave him a lifetime achievement award, praising him for “a timeless legacy that has positively affected multiple generations.”
Wearing a bolo tie and his trademark fedora, Mr. Cohen dryly made light in his acceptance speech of the fact that none of his records had ever been honored at the Grammys. “As we make our way toward the finish line that some of us have already crossed, I never thought I’d get a Grammy Award,” he said. “In fact, I was always touched by the modesty of their interest.”
Leonard Norman Cohen was born in Montreal on Sept. 21, 1934, and grew up in the prosperous suburb of Westmount. His father, Nathan, whose family had emigrated to Canada from Poland, owned a successful clothing store; he died when Leonard was 9, but his will included a provision for a small trust fund, which later allowed his son to pursue his literary and musical ambitions. His mother, the former Masha Klonitzky, a nurse, was of Lithuanian descent and the daughter of a Talmudic scholar and rabbi. “I had a very messianic childhood,” Mr. Cohen would later say.
In 1951, Mr. Cohen was admitted to McGill University, Canada’s premier institution of higher learning, where he studied English. His first book of poetry, “Let Us Compare Mythologies,” was published in May 1956, while he was still an undergraduate. It was followed by “The Spice-Box of Earth” in 1961 and “Flowers for Hitler” in 1964. Other collections would appear sporadically throughout Mr. Cohen’s life, including the omnibus “Poems and Songs” in 2011.
A period of drift followed Mr. Cohen’s graduation from college. He enrolled in law school at McGill, then dropped out and moved to New York City, where he studied literature at Columbia University for a year before returning to Montreal. Eventually, after a sojourn in London, he ended up living in a house on the Greek island of Hydra, where he wrote a pair of novels: “The Favorite Game,” published in 1963, and “Beautiful Losers,” published in 1966.
“Beautiful Losers,” about a love triangle all of whose members are devotees of a 17th-century Mohawk Indian Roman Catholic saint, gained a cult following, which it retains, and eventually sold more than three million copies worldwide. But Mr. Cohen’s initial lack of commercial success was discouraging, and he turned to songwriting in hopes of expanding the audience for his poetry.
Mr. Cohen in August 1970. He released four albums in the 1970s, a prolific decade for him. Tony Russell/Redferns
“I found it was very difficult to pay my grocery bill,” Mr. Cohen said in 1971, looking back at his situation just a few years earlier. “I’ve got beautiful reviews for all my books, and I’m very well thought of in the tiny circles that know me, but I’m really starving.”
Within months, Mr. Cohen had placed two songs, “Suzanne” and “Dress Rehearsal Rag,” on Judy Collins’s album “In My Life,” which also included the Lennon-McCartney title song and compositions by Bob Dylan, Randy Newman and Donovan. But he was extremely reluctant to take the next step and sing his songs himself.
“Leonard was naturally reserved and afraid to sing in public,” Ms. Collins wrote in her autobiography, “Sweet Judy Blue Eyes: My Life in Music” (2011). She recalled him telling her: “I can’t sing. I wouldn’t know what to do out there. I am not a performer.” He was “terrified,” she wrote, the first time she brought him onstage to sing with her, in the spring of 1967.
Later that year, after being signed to Columbia Records by John Hammond, the celebrated talent scout who also signed Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, Mr. Cohen released his first album. Its simple title, “Songs of Leonard Cohen,” and its cover, a portrait of the artist gazing solemnly into the camera, matched the music, which was spare and unembellished, in stark contrast to the psychedelic style that then prevailed.
The record began with “Suzanne,” which was already being performed by folk singers everywhere thanks to the popularity of Ms. Collins’s version. It also included three other songs of great impact that would become staples of Mr. Cohen’s live shows, and that numerous other artists would record over the years: “Sisters of Mercy,” “So Long Marianne” and “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye.”
His second album, “Songs From a Room,” released early in 1969, cemented his growing reputation as a songwriter. “The Story of Isaac,” a retelling of the biblical tale of Abraham and Isaac, became an anthem of opposition to the war in Vietnam, and “Bird on a Wire” went on to be recorded by performers including Joe Cocker, Aaron Neville, Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson.
Mr. Cohen in October 2012 in Barcelona, Spain, with Javier Mas on guitar. He toured and recorded extensively throughout the past decade. His final studio album, “You Want It Darker,” was released last month. Josep Lago/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
In 1971, Mr. Cohen released “Songs of Love and Hate,” which contained the cryptic and frequently covered “Famous Blue Raincoat,” but after that his production began to tail off and his live performances became less frequent. He released three more albums during the 1970s but, amid bouts of depression, only two in the 1980s and one in the 1990s.
The quality of his songs remained high, however: In addition to “Hallelujah,” future standards like “Dance Me to the End of Love,” “First We Take Manhattan,” “Everybody Knows” and “Tower of Song” date from that era.
Mr. Cohen, raised Jewish and observant throughout his life, became interested in Zen Buddhism in the late 1970s and often visited the Mount Baldy monastery, east of Los Angeles. Around 1994, he abandoned his music career altogether and moved to the monastery, where he was ordained a Buddhist monk and became the personal assistant of Joshu Sasaki, the Rinzai Zen master who led the center, who died in 2014. He took the name Jikan, which means “silence.”
During the remainder of the decade, there was much speculation that Mr. Cohen, rather than merely taking a sabbatical, had stopped writing songs and would never record again. But in 2001, he released “Ten New Songs,” whose title suggests it was written while he was in the monastery. It was followed in 2004 by “Dear Heather,” an unusually upbeat album.
In 2005, Mr. Cohen sued his former manager, Kelley Lynch, accusing her of defrauding him of millions of dollars that he had set aside as a retirement fund, leaving him with only $150,000 and a huge tax bill and forcing him to take out a new mortgage on his home to cover his legal costs. The next year, after Ms. Lynch countersued, a judge awarded Mr. Cohen $9.5 million, but he was unable to collect any of the money.
The legal battles may have soured Mr. Cohen’s mood, but they did not seem to damage his creativity. In 2006, he published a new collection of poems, “Book of Longing,” which the composer Philip Glass set to music and then took on tour, with Mr. Cohen’s recorded voice reciting the words and Mr. Glass’s ensemble performing the music.
Mr. Cohen was never married, but was known as “the master of erotic despair.” Evening Standard/Hulton Archive
In 2008, Mr. Cohen hit the road for the first time in 15 years for a grueling world tour, which would continue, with a few short breaks, through 2010. He was driven, he acknowledged, at least in part by financial necessity.
“It was a long, ongoing problem of a disastrous and relentless indifference to my financial situation,” he told The New York Times in 2009. “I didn’t even know where the bank was.”
Combined with a pair of CDs and accompanying DVDs recorded in concert, “Live in London” and “Songs From the Road,” the constant touring, before audiences often larger than those he had enjoyed in the past, clearly eased Mr. Cohen’s financial problems. Billboard magazine estimated that the 2009 leg of the tour alone earned him nearly $10 million.
Over that three-year period, Mr. Cohen performed nearly 250 shows, many of them lasting more than three hours. He seemed remarkably fit and limber, skipping across the stage, doing deep-knee bends and occasionally dropping to his knees to sing.
The shows were not without incident: During a show in Valencia, Spain, in 2009, he fainted, and early in 2010 one segment of the tour had to be postponed when he suffered a lower back injury. He recovered, however, and in 2012 he released “Old Ideas,” his first CD of new songs in more than seven years, and embarked on another marathon tour.
That pattern of extensive touring and recording continued into the decade. In 2014, for instance, Mr. Cohen released a CD of mostly new material, “Popular Problems,” as well as a three-CD, one-DVD set called “Live in Dublin.” His final studio album, “You Want It Darker,” was released in October 2016.
Mr. Cohen never married, though he had numerous liaisons and several long-term relationships, some of which he wrote about. His survivors include two children, Adam and Lorca, from his relationship with Suzanne Elrod, a photographer and artist who shot the cover of his 1973 album, “Live Songs,” and is pictured on the cover of his critically derided album “Death of a Ladies’ Man” (1977); and three grandchildren.
To the end, Mr. Cohen took a sardonic view of both his craft and the human condition. In “Tower of Song,” a staple of live shows in his later years, he brought the two together, making fun of being “born with the gift of a golden voice” and striking the same biblical tone apparent on his first album.
Now you can say that I’ve grown bitter, but of this you may be sure
The rich have got their channels in the bedrooms of the poor
And there’s a mighty judgment coming, but I may be wrong
You see, you hear these funny voices in the tower of song.
“The changeless is what he’s been about since the beginning,” the writer Pico Iyer argued in the liner notes for the anthology “The Essential Leonard Cohen.” “Some of the other great pilgrims of song pass through philosophies and selves as if through the stations of the cross. With Cohen, one feels he knew who he was and where he was going from the beginning, and only digs deeper, deeper, deeper.”
Correction: November 10, 2016
An earlier version of this obituary misstated the awards show on which Tori Kelly sang “Hallelujah.” It was the 2016 Emmy Awards, not the Grammys.
Correction: November 11, 2016
An earlier version of this obituary referred incorrectly to Mr. Cohen’s survivors. They include his two children, Adam and Lorca, and three grandchildren; the singer, songwriter and pianist Anjani Thomas has not been Mr. Cohen’s companion for many years.