MONTREAL — Leonard Cohen — writer, poet, composer, singer, renowned seducer and, for many, the epitome of cool — has died at the age of 82.
His sonorous, tobacco-painted baritone was once described as “the musical equivalent of rotgut whisky” and his lyrics and texts relentlessly studied spirituality, sex, power and love.
Just weeks ago Cohen released a new album, You Want It Darker, produced in part by his son Adam. Cohen was still performing to sellout crowds and drawing new generations of fans at an age when most people would have settled back in their rocking chairs to reflect on their life’s accomplishments.
Now all that’s left is his prodigious body of work, which includes the oft-covered Hallelujah, which was sung by k.d. lang during the opening ceremony of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
Pointing to W.B. Yeats, Walt Whitman and Canadian poet Irving Layton among his literary influences, Cohen himself had fans among some of music’s top names, including U2, REM, Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan.
In reviewing his 2008-10 world tour, Britain’s Independent newspaper declared that “to hear him sing is still an experience to truly make young women and romantics shiver and sweat.”
Cohen’s compositions endlessly entranced audiences, who usually treated the reclusive performer with awe. However, his poetic songs were far from being toe-tappers, with some clocking in at seven minutes long and dealing more in substance than sass.
His songs prompted him to be dubbed the “godfather of gloom,” the “poet laureate of pessimism,” the “grocer of despair” and the “prince of bummers.” One reviewer in the 1970s described his songs as “music to slit your wrists to.”
But he was hailed for his intelligence, humility, curiosity and generosity, donating unpublished poems, poems-in-progress, drawings and archival material to a fan website where it could be enjoyed by followers.
The 2003 Order of Canada inductee is said to have had a fantastic sense of humour and loved to crack jokes.
He wasn’t adverse to poking fun at himself, as he did before a sold-out crowd at Montreal’s Bell Centre during a 2012 concert.
“Sometimes, I stumble out of bed, look at myself in the mirror and say to the mirror, ‘Lighten up, Cohen’,” he said to laughter.
Compared to some entertainers who march through their famous lives with brass-band personalities, Cohen glided along unassumingly, although any tidbit of news or sighting was almost treated with second coming-type excitement.
He could show up in the darndest places other than the sun-drenched streets of Los Angeles, where he often recorded. Cohen was so taken with the Greek island of Hydra that he bought a house there in 1960 for $1,500 and lived in it even though it had no electricity or running water.
He also stayed in a Zen Buddhist monastery on Mount Baldy near Los Angeles for five years and popped up in his Montreal hometown where he strolled around the city. The singer once left a TV reporter doing man-in-the-street interviews gobsmacked when the journalist unknowingly tapped him for an opinion. Cohen shyly declined.
He also liked to slide into a booth at the fabled Montreal deli The Main for a smoked-meat sandwich.
“A lovely man,” recalled Diane Bass, whose husband owns the restaurant.
But the 2008 inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame struggled to define the location of the creative well that spawned his offerings.
“If I knew where the songs came from, I’d go there more often,” he said in a 1992 interview with The Canadian Press.
“Some people write great tunes in the back of taxicabs but it takes me endless amounts of writing and rewriting to come up with something I can wrap my voice around.”
Another time he compared it to being like a “bear stumbling into a beehive.”
The ever-dapper Cohen, who favoured black suits, fedoras and tweed caps, was born in Montreal on Sept. 21, 1934, to a middle-class family. His father, who ran a well-known clothing store, died when he was nine.
He pursued undergraduate studies at McGill University and became president of the debating union. He flirted with a legal career and attended McGill law school for a year after completing his bachelor’s degree. He also went to Columbia University for a year.
But literature had a stronger call than litigation.
Let Us Compare Mythologies, his first book of poetry, was published in 1956 when he was an undergrad. The Flowers For Hitler poetry collection and the novels The Favourite Game and Beautiful Losers followed in the 1960s.
But as eloquent as he could be on the printed page, establishing himself as a poet and novelist of renown by the age of 32, Cohen decided that songwriting might pay better.
It was a career change that raised a few eyebrows and agents in New York reportedly asked him, “Aren’t you a little old for this game?”
It didn’t stop him.
A big break came in 1966 when Judy Collins recorded his standard Suzanne, and he came out with his first album Songs of Leonard Cohen the same year.
That was followed up with Songs from a Room in 1969, which included the popular Bird on the Wire.
He had a fairly steady output although his popularity dipped in the 1970s as disco, not doom, was deemed to be the treat for consumers’ ears. But Cohen began a comeback in 1984 with Various Positions, which included Hallelujah.
At the height of his popularity in France in the 1960s, it was said that if a French woman owned one album, it was likely to be by Cohen.
But he dismissed it all with a resigned shrug.
“No one masters love and I don’t seem to ever master the song,” he said. “You have to struggle with it, like it was the first time you ever did it.”