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Leonard Cohen

One of the greatest singer-songwriters to emerge from the 60s folk/beatnik boom, the enigma that is LEONARD COHEN overhauled subjective critical opinion and created a figure to cross over all boundaries of popular music and cultures – he is undoubtedly the high priest of romantic, world-weary miserabilism.
Born September 21, 1934 in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, Canada (a year before ELVIS!), intellectual Jewish boy Leonard graduated from McGill University with a McNaughton Prize for literature; his earliest poems were published in 1956 as Let Us Compare Mythologies. A second book of verse, The Spice Box Of Earth in ’61, saw the Leonard gain worldwide recognition for the first time, while late-night recitals mainly at Montreal’s boho-friendly Birdland jazz club found him an intimate platform. After time spent in London and as a semi-recluse on the Greek island of Hydra, he subsequently published two novels, The Favourite Game and Beautiful Losers, while around the same mid-60s period, one could also shop for poetry collections Flowers For Hitler and Parasites Of Heaven; the literary star was even the subject of a 50-minute documentary, Ladies And Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen in 1965.
Always interested in the composition side of poetry (DYLAN for one was an immediate inspiration), COHEN moved to Nashville in 1966 with intentions to write a C&W album. Thankfully, when he surfaced from this inaugural sabbatical, two songs at least proved worthy of attention. His metamorphosis into a folk singer began after he sang a couple of his poems down the phone to JUDY COLLINS, who purified two COHEN cues, `Suzanne’ and `Dress Rehearsal Rag’ on her first Top 50 entry, `In My Life’ (early ’67). By the end of this transitional year (which saw COHEN signed to Columbia Records after sold-out gigs in New York and a debut at Newport Folk Festival), Brit-actor NOEL HARRISON also had a relatively minor US hit with `Suzanne’.
SONGS OF LEONARD COHEN {*8} was unleashed late in ‘67, a record still regarded by many as his finest work. Including two of his best-loved and best-known songs in `Sisters Of Mercy’ and the aforementioned `Suzanne’, the 33 year-old COHEN delivered other lovelorn monochromatic tales such as `So Long, Marianne’, `Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye’, `Winter Lady’ and `The Stranger Song’. Musically, the album was sparse, with fragile acoustic guitar accompanying Leonard’s highly distinctive, tortured sliver of a voice. All ravaged sophistication and doomed romance, COHEN was inevitably compared with the likes of JACQUES BREL, although the richness of the folklore imagery he employed immediately set him apart. While the seemingly self-pitying, bedsit-friendly visage saw him panned and parodied by critics, he found an appreciative audience among disillusioned hippies as the singer/songwriter movement began to gather strength. Always more popular in Britain and Europe than in the USA, it reached Top 20 in the UK charts.
Now produced by Bob Johnston, LC’s Top 3 follow-up, SONGS FROM A ROOM (1969) {*7} was almost as good, another opus cloaked in a melancholic intensity and an aching sense of loss, boasting such timeless COHEN fare as `Bird On The Wire’, `The Partisan’, `Seems So Long Ago, Nancy’, `Tonight Will Be Fine’ and `Lady Midnight’. Recorded in Nashville (he was a massive fan of JOHNNY CASH), pseudo-C&W-tinged dirges `The Butcher’, `A Bunch Of Lonesome Heroes’ and `The Old Revolution’ showed off another flipside to the man, although for many critics the use of Jew’s harp and gospel organ on the latter was a tad ambitious – one who must’ve been listening was singer-cum-actor KRIS KRISTOFFERSON.
Extensive tours of Europe followed in 1970, but an appearance at the prestigious Isle Of Wight festival led to at least one reviewer describing the bard as a “boring old drone”.
Album number three (also from deep Nashville), SONGS OF LOVE AND HATE (1971) {*7}, was, as the title would suggest, just what one would expect – emotionally venomous scribes, uncompromising in their bittersweet, self-pitying mood. There was now finally space on record for the aforementioned `Dress Rehearsal Rag’, although it’d be alongside a few other tracks like the anthemic `Diamonds In The Mine’ (the shortest song here at just under four minutes), `Famous Blue Raincoat’, `Joan Of Arc’ and `Love Calls You By Your Name’.
A favourite with filmmakers and the movie hierarchy alike, a handful of COHEN’s best songs (`Sisters Of Mercy’, `Winter Lady’ and `The Stranger Song’) appeared on director Robert Altman’s 1971 western flick, `McCabe And Mrs. Miller’; a limited-edition EP surfaced a year later.
The singer subsequently embarked on another sojourn to foreign shores, even playing for Israeli soldiers at various military bases during the build-up to the Yom Kippur war in 1973, an experience that informed a large part of the lyrical themes on an accompanying, stop-gap concert set, LIVE SONGS (1973) {*5}. Among the brooding intro and improvisations there were a handful of fresh numbers, none more poignant than Rob Blakeslee’s `Passing Through’, the painful and personal `Please Don’t Pass Me By (A Disgrace)’ and finale `Queen Victoria’.
Once again cerebral and yearning, in NEW SKIN FOR THE OLD CEREMONY (1974) {*8}, COHEN voiced his poetic imagery through song, enlisting metaphors of love and romance through war and battlegrounds, primarily on `There Is A War’ and `Field Commander Cohen’. With backing vocals from JANIS IAN, classics like `Who By Fire’, `Lover, Lover, Lover’, `Take This Longing’ and `Chelsea Hotel No.2’ (the latter jewel depicting his heartfelt liaison with JANIS JOPLIN) re-established Leonard as raconteur extraordinaire.
It was to be another three years before his next studio release, DEATH OF A LADIES’ MAN (1977) {*4}. It was met with puzzlement and derision, COHEN’s subtle, quasi-mystical lyricism suffocated under a typically high-powered Phil Spector production. Commercial, but at the same time challenging, his normally horizontal highs livened by light, uptempo backbeats, and the odd, funky, explicit lyric on `Don’t Go Home With Your Hard-On’, was indeed limp. With COHEN in the studio were harmony vocalists, RONEE BLAKLEY (straight outta `Nashville’ – the film that is), BOB DYLAN and Allen Ginsberg (plus sax-man, Steve Douglas), but this album most certainly alienated his folk faithful. The doo-wop of `Memories’, or the plaintive `I Left A Woman Waiting’, could’ve been better donated to pop actors David Soul or Telly Savalas, while old-timey, feel-good/bad (delete as appropriate) number `Fingerprints’, was just embarrassing. The set’s saving grace was the bawdy but sedate, 9-minute title track finale. Vocal in his embarrassment over the album, COHEN returned to more complementary arrangements and structures on his follow-up.
Now produced by Henry Lewy, RECENT SONGS (1979) {*6} displayed; an abstract look at the broken-hearted and displaced, songs such as opening salvo `The Guests’ and `The Window’ (both accompanied by lovelorn gypsy-folk strings performed by Passenger) pursued his old cocktail of religion and sexual wont; COHEN was now into mind, body and soul through his newfound support for Zen Buddhism. Complete with mariachi brass, the worldly bard found a sense of homecoming through his interpretation of Gerin-Lajoie’s `The Lost Canadian (Un Canadien Errant)’, a track somewhat overshadowed by the delightful `The Smokey Life’ and allegorical “cowboy song”, `Ballad Of The Absent Mare’.
Previously blessing his faithful readership with a poetry book, Death Of A Lady’s Man (sic), in 1978, the early 80s saw Leonard further concentrating on poetry and prose, even making a TV
short, `I Am A Hotel’ (1983) written and directed by the man himself, in which he also performed five songs. A Golden Rose winner at the Montreux Film Festival, LC also contributed lyrics to fellow Canadian Lewis Furey’s 1985 Juno award-winning rock opera OST, `Night Magic’.
Having linked up with JENNIFER WARNES (herself an interpreter of his work), COHEN returned to the music scene, albeit without the patronage of Columbia Records who refused to issue his next album. As a result, Passport Records (at least in the US) finally delivered VARIOUS POSITIONS (1984) {*6}, a record that was intriguing if not a masterpiece – he’d just turned 50. From the quasi-religious `Hallelujah’ (which has since become a hit all over the world) to the Serge Gainsbourg-ish `Dance Me To The End Of Love’ to the bawdy, C&W cue `The Captain’, this indeed took up “various positions”. Tracks like `The Law’ and the lilting `If It Be Your Will’ also had merit. In 1987, WARNES released the album `Famous Blue Raincoat’, featuring of course, songs by COHEN.
Shaped by the post-dance electro-age of the 80s for I’M YOUR MAN (1988) {*8}, Leonard also worked alongside a handful of songwriters, Sharon Robinson (on `Everybody Knows’), Federico Garcia Lorca (on `Take This Waltz’), J. Fisher (`Jazz Police’) and WARNES (`Tower Of Song’) – all incidentally some of his best material for years. As a purveyor of effortlessly cool urban existentialism, the likes of `First We Take Manhattan’, `Ain’t No Cure For Love’ and the timeless title track, COHEN attracted a new generation of disaffected music fans. It seems he was also held in high regard by the younger generation of fellow artists who showed their appreciation with a 1991 tribute album, `I’m Your Fan’. Among those interpreting COHEN’s finer moments (with mixed results) were NICK CAVE, PIXIES, R.E.M. and IAN McCULLOCH.
THE FUTURE (1992) {*6} saw COHEN achieve his biggest commercial success since the 70s, and of course take the listener into some darker territory such as the sexual themes on the opening title track. Balanced by two covers (Irving Berlin’s `Always’ and Frederick Knight’s smooch-y `Be For Real’), a second slo-beat collaboration with Robinson (`Waiting For The Miracle’) and the NICK CAVE-ish `Anthem’, the album still challenged the righteous society among us; never the most prolific of artists, the record was COHEN’s sole studio release of the 90s. He nevertheless continued to record sporadically and narrated a couple of Buddhist films, The Tibetan Book Of The Dead: A Way Of Life (1994) and The Tibetan Book Of The Dead: The Great Liberation (1994). His novel The Favourite Game (1963) was also recently adapted for a TV feature by Canadian director Bernar Hqbert.
Released as another stop-gap to keep his loyal fanbase happy/unhappy (delete as appropriate), COHEN LIVE (1994) {*5}, combined old and new in-concert recordings from `Suzanne’ to `I’m Your Man’ (culled from 1988-93 tours) for one interesting if not outstanding CD. A year on, another star-studded tribute set, `Tower Of Song’ (1995), scraped into the US Top 200 (surprising when you think of his poor sales Stateside) – among the plethora of top names were STING, BONO & The CHIEFTAINS, TORI AMOS, ELTON JOHN, WILLIE NELSON, PETER GABRIEL, SUZANNE VEGA and BILLY JOEL.
As he came out of the monastery and down from the mountain, COHEN must have still thought it was the 1980s judging by the use of synth and programming on his subsequent album, the boringly-titled TEN NEW SONGS (2001) {*6}. Augmented and co-penned with long-time collaborator Sharon Robinson (who scoops all of the musical and production credits here), COHEN still managed to uphold his poetic visions and bedsit romanticism. The songs (there’s ten of them, you know) still had that “LEONARD COHEN after-world” that Kurt Cobain sang about, but musically the set opens – as always – his heart and soul. `A Thousand Kisses Deep’ revamps Robert Frost’s classic poem `Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening’ and COHEN’s deep, almost whispering vocals in `Here It Is’ were indeed spine-tingling. While not exactly about the bard himself, the cult crime film `Looking For Leonard’ (music by PORTASTATIC) has one of the main characters, Jo, reading from COHEN’s novel Beautiful Losers.
The release of DEAR HEATHER (2004) {*6} coincided with his 70th birthday, something that the newly septuagenarian bard sounded pretty at ease with on this jazzy, relatively uplifting UK Top 40 album; at times COHEN came across like a saner, more soporific TOM WAITS or a less profane SERGE GAINSBOURG, even covering country standard `Tennessee Waltz’ (live) for good measure. Other profound touches were supplied of COHEN’s recital in `Go No More A-Roving’, while partner-in-song Robinson was again responsible for a couple of duets, `The Letters’ and `There For You’; Anjani Thomas garners co-credits for `On That Day’ and `Nightingale’; COHEN’s long-since professor, Frank Scott, provides poetry for `A Villanelle Of Our Time’.
2005 was a year of personal upheaval for Leonard, as he took his business manager to court for unpaid royalties. The following year saw a film (LEONARD COHEN: I’M YOUR MAN) hit the box office, while avant-composer PHILIP GLASS transferred LC’s poetry collection Book Of Longing to a song cycle, premiered at Toronto’s Luminato Festival on June 1, 2007.
Having been covered earlier by the late, great JEFF BUCKLEY (son of Tim), COHEN’s classic anthem, `Hallelujah’, reached out to a mass British audience when it hit the top of the charts (via X Factor winner, Alexandra Burke) at Christmas 2008; BUCKLEY’s version hit Top 3 and COHEN’s Top 40!
While COHEN’s patient fanbase awaited what might be his final-curtain studio album, the double-CD concert set, LIVE IN LONDON (2009) {*7} – recorded in front of 20,000 people at the O2 Arena in July the previous year – counteracted their appetite. Demonstrating the sheer stature of COHEN the artist and performer (however aged he looked), he turned in over 20 best-loved songs from his meticulously-crafted back catalogue. The need then for a back-to-back live document in SONGS FROM THE ROAD (2010) {*6}, but it showed the man had scope all over the world from Tel Aviv and Glasgow to Helsinki and San Jose.
His seven-year-itch was put to rest with his long-awaited studio comeback, OLD IDEAS (2012) {*7}, a record that saw him work with producers Ed Sanders (a fellow 60s beatnik poet from The FUGS), his partner of several years Anjani, his sax player Dino Soldo and co-songwriter Patrick Leonard; backing singers included WARNES, The WEBB SISTERS, Dana Glover and stalwart Robinson. Top 3 on both sides of the Big Pond (his highest ever chart return), the hymn-like healing of `Crazy To Love You’, `Going Home’, `Darkness’ (a double-endre/tongue-in-cheek ode to er… drinking from the cup) and the WAITS-versus –MORRICONE-esque `Amen’ stood tall among other slow-burning gemstones.
Celebrating his 80 years on earth, Top 20 set POPULAR PROBLEMS (2014) {*7} was another in COHEN’s cool canon of country gospel. More “glory glory hallelujah” than in his “Hallelujah” heyday (as witnessed on `Samson In New Orleans’ and `Born In Flames’), or verging on sardonic OAP sex on the er… opener, `Slow’, the bard of bawdiness gets his two-penn’orth into mobility scooter-gear. With each track LC never quite ventures from past exploits, and all too much, examples `Almost Like The Blues’ and `My Oh My’ give off an air of stop-me-if-you’ve-heard-this-one-before; the heavenly `You Got Me Singing’ comes across as a type of LITTLE FEAT’s `Willin’’ some four and a half decades on.
While it seemed beyond belief that COHEN would sanction yet another concert album so soon after the deluxe triple-CD/DVD, LIVE IN DUBLIN (2014) {*8} (recorded September 12, 2013 at the O2 Arena), along came the not so memorable CAN’T FORGET: A SOUVENIR OF THE GRAND TOUR (2015) {*6}, a sort of companion piece of live soundchecks from various venues between 2012 and 2013. The good news was that there were no crossover tracks; openers `Field Commander Cohen’ and `I Can’t Forget’ matched renditions of rare pieces `La Manc’, `Choices’ and a near-forgotten FELICITY BUIRSKI collaboration `Got A Little Secret’.
A couple of things happened on the way to studio album number whatever: Leonard retracting his “ready to die” press statement and his old buddy BOB DYLAN controversially winning the Nobel prize for literature. While he agreed whole-heartedly with the latter decision “like pinning a medal on Mount Everest for being the highest mountain”, his own self-dramatization, as he put it, was a tad OTT. But the, er… die was cast for the confessional YOU WANT IT DARKER (2016) {*8}, an album produced by his son Adam (while dad was in traction for a severe back injury), with other compositional augmentation from friends Patrick Leonard and Sharon Robinson respectively. Targeting his/their redemptive blues at God, religion and death, `Treaty’, the title track and `Leaving The Table’, were indeed dark, if not funereal, and one could understand his bittersweet twists. It looked all full circle on his near 50-year musical career, and remembering he’d been a proper poet (that’s a wordsmith without musical accompaniment!) for even longer, in songs such as the classic continental café shimmy of `Traveling Light’, `Steer Your Way’ and the heavenly `It Seemed The Better Way’, COHEN might yet be considered for next year’s Nobel award. Start the ball rolling.
That would have to be posthumous due to the passing of the profound poet on November 7, 2016; announced on the 10th to let the world recover from the gruelling US presidential elections. One thing the Canadian did win over the years, was our hearts and minds. Darker? – well his death couldn’t of come at a more despondent time. R.I.P. Leonard.
© MC Strong 1994-2010/BG-GRD/GFD / rev-up Jul2012-Oct2014-Nov2016

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