Singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen dead at 82
Legendary Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen has died at the age of 82.
“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 humour,” said his son, Adam, in a statement.
Cohen carved out a unique place in pop music. In an industry where many artists burst onto the scene with a supernova of activity in their 20s and then dine out on past glories for decades, Cohen released some of his most vital work after age 50.
He released his 14th studio album, You Want It Darker, in October 2016, which his son helped to produce.
“There were only a few hours a day that we could work. I was dealing with an ailing old man, but an ailing old man who was showing paranormal levels of devotion and focus, and that rubbed off on everybody,” Adam told Maclean’s.
Cohen also had a daughter, Lorca. Their mother is artist Suzanne Elrod.
There will be a memorial in Los Angeles at a later date. The family is requesting privacy now.
Cohen’s manager, Robert Kory, said he was “unmatched in his creativity, insight, and crippling candor,” and a “true visionary whose voice will be sorely missed.”
“He leaves behind a legacy of work that will bring insight, inspiration, and healing for generations to come.”
Sony Music Canada also put out a statement, saying Cohen “was an unparalleled artist whose stunning body of original work has been embraced by generations of fans and artists alike.”
Cohen’s late career renaissance was in part related to the “gift of a golden voice.”
Derided by many early in his career as flat and atonal, his voice by the 1980s had grown deeper — whiskey and cigarettes helped on that score, he liked to say — and gave Cohen an authoritative air for his sombre songs and a sly, gritty finish for his ballads.
Cohen wrote Hallelujah, what is likely the most-covered song of recent years. Bob Dylan performed it at a 1988 Montreal concert, John Cale soon followed with a version for a Cohen tribute album, and Jeff Buckley heard Cale’s version and brought the song to a generation of younger fans.
At one point on the U.K. charts in 2008 there were three versions of Hallelujah present, including Cohen’s original, and the song has been performed in hundreds of versions, in several languages.
Accolades for Cohen poured in from all corners over the years, from the CBC Prize for New Literary Writing (1961) to the Canadian Music Hall of Fame (1991), the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame (2006), and the International Glenn Gould Prize (2011).
“We’re so lucky to be alive at the same time Leonard Cohen is,” Lou Reed said while inducting the Canadian into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008.
Cohen was born Sept. 21, 1934, in Montreal, the oldest of two children to a father who was a clothier and a mother who sang Yiddish and Russian folksongs to her children. His father died when he was nine.
As a teen, Cohen was enchanted by Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, and jazz and folk music. While at McGill University he would fall under the sway of writers and teachers like Hugh MacLennan and, especially, Irving Layton, so much so that he abandoned law school to pursue a literary career.
Cohen spent much of the early ’60s in Hydra, Greece, with longtime girlfriend Marianne Ihlen, and would embark on two novels there.
A publicity ad for The Favourite Game described a protagonist “born into the conventional world of Westmount’s moneyed Jewry,” who “throws aside convention in his pursuit of love and life.” It wasn’t autobiographical, Cohen protested.
Beautiful Losers followed, an experimental and sexually explicit book that was inventive to some and off-putting to others — Robert Fulford of the Toronto Star called it “the most revolting book ever written in Canada.”
Cohen struggled to make a living in his literary career, he later said, and found encouragement for songs he’d written for the New York folk scene.
He auditioned for talent scout John Hammond (Billie Holliday, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin) and was signed to Columbia Records. Singer Judy Collins was Cohen’s most ardent new fan, recording about a half-dozen songs of his before his debut came out, including Suzanne and Sisters of Mercy.
Those songs as well as So Long, Marianne were on his first album Songs of Leonard Cohen, released at the end of 1967.
“In hindsight it seems like a mad decision that I was going to rectify my economic situation by becoming a singer,” he told the CBC’s Adrienne Clarkson in 1989.
Cohen’s audience was small but devoted, more likely to be found in the U.K. and Europe or among tastemakers and musicians already in the industry.
Songs from a Room (1969) was arguably weirder and starker, recorded with seasoned Nashville players but also containing some vocals in French and a synthesizer. Lead track Bird on a Wire became a touchstone Cohen composition, one songwriting ace Kris Kristofferson said he’d like on his tombstone (“I’ve tried in my way to be free.”).
Cohen’s ability to depict women in their complexity, not to mention his dapper attire and self-effacing manner, saw his fanbase skew female. He had female singers and musicians in his band throughout his career, with the likes of Jennifer Warnes, Laura Branigan and Anjani Thomas going on to release their own work.
After a relationship with actress Rebecca DeMornay ended, Cohen later said he got burned out and drank too much on tour. He sought quietude at the Mt. Baldy Buddhist retreat near L.A. for a period of years and later admitted that depression held sway for a good chunk of the ’90s.
“I tried all the conventional remedies — wine, women and song,” he said upon his musical return with 2001’s Ten New Songs. “Nothing worked, including religion.”
He returned to touring in 2008 for mostly prosaic reasons, after a longtime business manager had swindled millions he wouldn’t recover. She would later be jailed for harassing Cohen.
Cohen chose Fredericton, N.B., for his long-awaited return to the stage in May 2008, wanting to avoid the hubbub of a major international market until he found his performing legs.
Cohen had once likened live shows to a bullfight, but he would come to cherish the communion with his fans.
In England, Cohen referred to his previous London show 15 years earlier: “I was 60 years old, just a kid with a crazy dream.”