I loved the music of David Bowie and Prince, but they were larger than life to me. They were comets shooting across the sky who existed in a stratosphere well above my own. I looked up at them in awe. On the other hand, I felt like if I walked into just the right bar on just the right night, Leonard Cohen might be sitting there. I'd buy him a drink. I'd thank him. We’d talk about the state of the world, especially this week, and we’d pound back a few cocktails, probably whiskey. I’d tell him about the first time I heard “Suzanne,” how much “Hallelujah” meant to me when I was in college, and maybe even quote one of his masterpieces back to him (this week it would probably be "Everybody knows the fight was fixed, the poor stay poor, the rich get rich"), but he would make me feel comfortable. Cohen always felt like one of us. He was a people's poet. He was someone who opened his heart in song after song, capturing something about the fight for love and faith and passion and freedom and hope that others tried to replicate but so often failed to do. As Justine Smith, one of our contributors who actually grew up in the same neighborhood as Cohen says about his accessibility, "Throughout my entire life, through the darkest moments, I always felt somehow I could just write a letter to Leonard Cohen and it would all be all right. I never did, but now I wish I did." When Bob Dylan won his Nobel Prize, I honestly said aloud to no one, “I hope Leonard Cohen is next.” He was that good, and he will be sorely missed, but his impact will go on forever.
Leonard Norman Cohen was born on September 21, 1934 in Quebec, Canada. He started his career as a poet and a novelist, releasing a book of poetry in 1956 called Let Us Compare Mythologies and writing fiction in the ‘60s, including the well-loved Beautiful Losers. Failing to make money as a poet, he turned that talent to songwriting. He didn’t release his first album until he was in his 30s, late for a rock star, but 1967’s Songs of Leonard Cohen introduced the world to a different kind of singer/songwriter. Cohen’s songs felt deeply personal while also tapping into themes common to all of humanity, and a song from that album which had first been written as a poem, “Suzanne,” became a hit for Judy Collins in the late '60s. It became one of Cohen’s most-covered songs, including versions by Nina Simone and Peter Gabriel.
Writing songs that others would cover became something of a pattern for Cohen. “Bird on the Wire,” from 1969’s Songs from a Room and “Everybody Knows” from 1988's I'm Your Man became popular tracks to cover, but perhaps none more than “Hallelujah,” which Jeff Buckley made particularly famous with his brilliant cover and then somehow became a staple in movie after movie after that, including "Shrek" of all things. Like Dylan, he was a poet in the clothes of a songwriter, and people who admired him took those poems and made them their own. Many people heard Cohen for the first time through someone covering his work, and that often happened on film soundtracks.
As for film, it's surprising to say that Cohen's greatest impact was arguably in a Western. When Robert Altman was shooting “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” with Warren Beatty and Julie Christie, he used a lot of period music of the time in the scenes in the saloon, and the performers in the film expected that to be the soundtrack when it was released. In fact, Keith Carradine reveals on the new Criterion Blu-ray that he was surprised to hear Leonard Cohen’s music as the film’s soundtrack. But Altman’s use of music from Songs of Leonard Cohen, including the masterful “Sisters of Mercy,” helped bring the artist to an even bigger audience and, somewhat inexplicably, and in a way it feels like only Altman could have known, fit the film perfectly.
Film would regularly catapult Cohen back into the spotlight, including fantastic use of “Everybody Knows” in “Pump Up the Volume” and “Exotica,” “Hallelujah” in multiple films, and several songs, including “Waiting for the Miracle” and "Anthem" in Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers.” Cohen had a deeply poetic way of capturing the world, and that translated well to cinema. There's also a fantastic tribute/concert film from 2005 called "I'm Your Man" that you should seek out when you get a chance.
Near the end, Leonard Cohen seemed keenly aware of his mortality, addressing it in his latest masterpiece, You Want it Darker, released just last month to critical raves. He also sent his girlfriend Marianne Ihlen a note when she was dying this past summer that seems prescient and heartbreaking now: “Well Marianne, it’s come to this time when we 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. And you know that I’ve always loved you for your beauty and your wisdom, but I don’t need to say anything more about that because you know all about that. But now, I just want to wish you a very good journey. Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road.”
For this fan of Leonard Cohen, it’s always going to be about the music, so here are a few of my favorites for you to appreciate, share, and return to. Once you start listening to Leonard Cohen, you don’t stop. He’s someone you return to again and again. I did so earlier this week and have lately been listening to him almost every time I write. And even though he’s gone, I will do so again soon. Probably tomorrow. We send our condolences to his friends and family. Excuse me, I’m going to the bar to see if I can find Leonard Cohen. Or at least his spirit.
Our wonderful critic Susan Wloszczyna shares some thoughts as well: Like many, the first Leonard Cohen song I ever heard was the intoxicating “Suzanne.” Being a budding elementary-school narcissist, I naturally related to the title that turned my plain Jane name into something exotic. Much better than “Wake Up, Little Susie” (which will, however, be played at my funeral someday) by the Everly Brothers or “Susan” by the Buckinghams. But it was the sweeter radio-ready rendition by Judy Collins instead of Cohen’s own gruffer, more melancholic version that was my first exposure, the aural equal of a seductive dish of ice cream swirled with sticky caramel and studded with buttery pecans. When I eventually heard Cohen’s own deep-throated “Suzanne,” however, I realized it wasn’t just an ode to a bohemian temptress who haunts his thoughts but also a cry for salvation (hence, the verse that concerns Jesus) and an expression of desire that goes beyond the merely physical. That is pretty heady stuff for someone who hadn’t even experienced puberty yet. But I was hooked. While his half-spoken singing style was an acquired taste, I adored his lyrics, poems disguised as pop hits infused with wry introspection. If you have never been introduced to what is the probably the best female interpreter of Cohen’s work, do yourself a favor and locate the tribute album “Famous Blue Raincoat” by Jennifer Warnes (she of “I Had the Time of My Life” and “Up Where We Belong” movie soundtrack fame). You will thank me.