Leonard Cohen’s song Democracy is a virtual clarion call when you consider that Cohen, who has died in New York, aged 82, passed away as Donald Trump accepted the American presidency. An overt political message was rare in Cohen’s work, but Tiananmen Square, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the LA riots disturbed him enough to release his 1992 album The Future, which includes this devastating song. It reflects his awareness that the innocent, bohemian joy of the 1960s had crumbled to ashes and something darker was emerging.
Yet Leonard Cohen was disturbed by many things: social problems, broken love, loss and if not angst, then definitely a Jewish melancholy. You can hear it in Hallelujah, one of the world’s most covered songs; in Story of Isaac and in his explicit poetry like The Genius from his collection The Spice-Box of Earth; For you/ I will be a ghetto jew/and dance/and put white stockings on my twisted limbs/and poison wells/across the town.
Quintessentially a poet who published two novels The Favourite Game (1963) and Beautiful Losers – his voice has a darkness, a depth and an edge that can be missed in the singing. It also has more than a touch of self parody. Some have argued that Cohen might well have shared the Nobel prize for literature with this year’s surprise laureate Bob Dylan, who praised his melodies as “beautifully constructed.” Cohen’s voice is clearer, deeper, sadder. His hymnal Hallelujah, referencing King David, Bathsheba and Samson – It goes like this/the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift/The baffled king composing Hallelujah – defines the mystery and the pathos of life as well as the painful art of composition, in which he finds his biblical resonance. But it is the cold and broken Hallelujah which really speaks to us. Jeff Buckley’s popular version which reached No 2 in the iTunes chart intensified its message, partly because he died not long after.
“I have a deep tribal sense”, Cohen told The New Yorker Magazine earlier this year. “I grew up in a synagogue that my ancestors built. I sat in the third row. My family was decent. They were good people, they were handshake people. So I never had a sense of rebellion.” His Jewish background certainly had an influence. You can hear in some of his music the flowing lilt of a Chassidic chant; in others a definite sound of Klezmer. His own voice has a slow drawl, the words ring out meaningfully, where other singers might slur them.
Born in Westmount, an affluent suburb of Montreal, Canada, Cohen was the second child of a prominent Jewish family. His father Nathan, ran Freedman Company, the family clothing business. His mother Masha née Klonitski, “a loving, depressive, Chekhovian,” was the daughter of Solomon Klonitski-Kline, a distinguished Talmudist from Lithuania. Her family had emigrated more recently to Canada. Cohen described the men on his paternal side as the “dons” of Jewish Montreal. His philanthropic grandfather founded many Jewish institutions and brought countless refugees to Canada in the wake of the Russian pogroms. But Leonard Cohen lost his father at the age of nine. It was a “primal wound” which made him use language as a kind of sacrament. After the funeral he cut one of the wings off his father’s bow tie and buried it with a farewell note in the back yard. Clearly this early loss invaded Cohen’s young soul and deepened the talent that would eventually surface in So Long Marianne, an ode to his lover Marianne Irhen, or Bird on a Broken Wire, or Sisters of Mercy, which speaks to his personal sense of isolation.
His first musical venture was into country and western. Aged 16,he formed The Buckskin Boys, strutting in his father’s old suede jacket, while reading English at McGill University. He published several poetry collections, including Let Us Compare Mythologies, his first in 1956, followed by Spice Box of Earth (1961) and Flowers for Hitler (1964) which won him the Quebec literary award. He studied briefly at Columbia University in New York before touring Europe and settling on the Greek island of Hydra where he met his muse, Marianne.
He studied for many years in a Zen monastery, combatting his demons of loneliness and shadows. The folk singer Judy Collins helped his career as a performer, often boosting his confidence if he suffered stage fright, to which he was prone. One night, having fled the stage he heard the audience singing Shalom Aleichem to him. Hearing it from his dressing room gave him the courage to go back onstage .
Columbia Records produced his debut album, soon followed by Songs in a Room (1969). The following year he performed at the Royal Albert Hall and at rock festivals in Bath and the Isle of Wight.
Despite the lugubrious note in his songs Cohen himself had a striking beauty; his quirky, brooding, Semitic features seemed only to intensify his melancholy voice, and soon he was dubbed the godfather of gloom.Two years before the release of his next album New Skin for the Old Ceremony, which contained a song about his brief relationship with Janis Joplin, he published another poetry book The Energy of Slaves.
Between bouts of spiritual renewal in Greece, Cohen produced several albums which discussed relationships and religion. In 1977 he released Death of a Ladies Man followed by Recent Songs two years later which featured duets with Jennifer Warnes who contributed to his next albums up to 2012.
Two tribute albums followed, including Cohen songs performed by REM, John Cale, Nick Cave and Ian McCulloch in the first, and Bono, Don Henley, Elton John and Peter Gabriel in the second. In 1991 he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada, promoted to Companion in 2003.
In Dear Heather Cohen mixed technology with traditional instruments, including settings of poems by Byron and Frank Scott.
It also included On That Day, a reflection of 9/11, and a homage to the women in his life.
At the age of 70 he won a successful lawsuit to recover millions of dollars siphoned by his agent from his estate, but the actual process of recovering the money proved difficult. The loss of his retirement fund, however, boosted his creativity.
He released Blue Alert, an album written with Anjani Thomas and began a world tour. In 2008 Cohen was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and won rapturous applause with his rendition of Hallelujah at Glastonbury. In 2009 he performed in Israel, and in 2010 won the Grammy Lifetime Award, bolstered by further albums and awards.
In October this year Leonard Cohen launched his final,fatalistic set of songs, You Want it Darker, produced by his son Adam. In his New Yorker Magazine interview with David Remnick, he discusses the Kabbalistic thrust of Judaism — “the repair of the face of God, a reminder that we were once a unity.” He said he could still hear the voice of God, but it was different now, not the incessant voice of judgment, but calmer. The powerful lyric of You Want it Darker could hardly be more Jewish: Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name/Vilified, crucified, in the human frame/A million candles burning for the help that never came/You want it darker/Hineni, hineni/I’m ready, my lord.
Leonard Cohen is survived by his son Adam, a singer-songwriter,and a daughter Lorca, a photographer and videographer from his relationship with the artist Suzanne Elrod.