Leonard Cohen died this past week at the age of 82. Cohen was a man of many parts, having worked as a poet, novelist, singer and songwriter. Larry Rohter’s New York Times obituary is here. Ruth Wisse’s memorable 1995 Commentary essay/memoir “My life without Leonard Cohen” draws an engaging portrait of the artist as a young man. In 2013 Sylvie Simmons gave Cohen’s life the full-scale biographical treatment.
Cohen worked in the written word from a young age, publishing his first book of poetry as an undergraduate at McGill. In Canada he drew adoring crowds to his poetry readings, but he abandoned poetry in his early 30’s to make a living. He drew on his skills as a poet to write songs that gave him the prospect of making a financial go of it.
I bought Cohen’s first album on Columbia after Judy Collins introduced us to Cohen when she snapped up “Suzanne” for In My Life. “Suzanne,” incidentally, was Suzanne Verdal, not Suzanne Elrod, who, though not the Suzanne, was the mother of Cohen’s two children (thanks to the reader who corrected me on this point). I couldn’t stand the drone of Cohen’s voice, but Cohen’s songs cried out for performance and interpretation by others. Jeff Buckley’s recording of Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” the one of his songs everyone must know, has some 82,000,000 views on YouTube (and a book by Alan Light about Cohen and Buckley and the song).
Cohen’s Selected Poems was published in the United States to take advantage of the boost that Judy Collins had given him. I bought that too. I thought Cohen’s poetry was the work of a poseur. It certainly isn’t very good. He was nevertheless a mordantly witty man on a genuine spiritual quest. He wasn’t faking that. Moreover, his poetry worked better in song that it did on the page.
Jennifer Warnes recorded a fantastic album of Cohen’s songs that led off with “First We Take Manhattan” (video below, guitar by Stevie Ray Vaughan). Quotable quote: “They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom…”
Several artists pay tribute to Cohen in the 2005 concert film I’m Your Man. In the video excerpt below Teddy Thompson gives “Tonight Will Be Fine” a heartfelt reading.
In the film U2 joined Cohen on a version of “Tower of Song” that is both funereal and funny.
Cohen expressed a premonition of his death earlier this year in connection with the death of his former lover Marianne Ihlen (of “So Long, Marianne”). He wrote her shortly before she died: “[W]e are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.” RIP.
UPDATE: Reader Irwin Chusid interviewed Sylvie Simmons about her biography of Cohen on his November 14, 2012 WFMU show that is accessible here. Highly recommended.