Leonard Cohen: 1934-2016
Writing an obituary for any artist is never an easy task and 2016 has already witnessed the departure of some true greats in Prince and David Bowie, to name just a couple. But in the case of Leonard Cohen that task becomes much more daunting, as it means finding the words that would do justice to a man who was, arguably, the greatest lyricist of the 20th century.
Born in the English-speaking Montreal suburb of Westmount, Quebec, Cohen's beginnings as a writer were as poet rather than a songsmith, gradually earning critical acclaim with early publications of his poetry including The Spice-Box of Earth and Flowers for Hitler before authoring two novels, 1963's The Favourite Game and 1966's Beautiful Losers. By the late 1960s however, Cohen was becoming frustrated with the lack of commercial success as a writer and relocated to New York, where he became loosely associated Andy Warhol's 'Factory' group and embarked on a career in music, releasing his first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, in 1967.
From the outset of his musical career, Cohen quickly gained a cult following in the United States, but it was in Europe where his music gained the greatest attention, with his debut album spending more than a year on the UK Album Chart and songs such as 'Suzanne' also becoming hits for other artists, including the folk singer Judy Collins. Cohen himself would go on release a total of 14 studio albums, a number that may well have been greater had he not retreated to the Buddhist monastery of Mt. Baldy near Los Angeles for much of the 1990s, returning to action in 2001.
From his 1967 debut to his fourteenth and final full-length offering You Want It Darker, released just weeks before his death, Cohen had steadily established himself as a writer of extraordinary skill and while he may not have enjoyed the level of commercial success he perhaps deserved – critics often found his unusual singing voice something of an acquired taste - his artistic legacy is one of huge importance. The fact that he is mentioned by name in the songs of artists as diverse as Marillion and Kurt Cobain offers some idea of the scale and scope of Cohen's influence in the sphere of popular music. As a performer, Cohen was a class act right up until the years and months before his death, but as a lyricist he was virtually unparalleled.
Anyone leafing through a book of his lyrics and poetry could blindly stick a pin into almost any page and land on a phrase of achingly beautiful prose on themes of loss and remembrance ('Dance Me to the End of Love'), of social justice and politics ('First We Take Manhattan') and of love and religion ('Hallelujah').
The latter of these is perhaps his most well-known, having been covered by everyone from Jeff Buckley to Alexandra Burke, but even those who have never owned a Leonard Cohen record will no doubt be familiar with some of his other songs; Joe Cocker, Tori Amos, Nina Simone, R.E.M., Roberta Flack, Anna Calvi and Lana Del Rey are just some of the artists who applied their own touch to Cohen's incredible compositions. As Cohen himself once wrote: “There's a blaze of light in every word”.
It might be of some comfort to any budding authors or songwriters to know that even Leonard Cohen sometimes found it difficult to wrestle the words onto the page; he famously wrote as many as 80 verses for 'Hallelujah' over a period of more than two years before deciding on the ones to use, once describing a scene with him laying in the floor of his room at New York's Royalton Hotel, in just his underwear, banging his head on the carpet in frustration.
Here, then, was a man who struggled and fought to produce his art and rather than attempt to conjure the words to describe the magnitude of the legacy that Leonard Cohen leaves behind, we thought it better to leave you with some of his own, the closing verse from the song that people will remember him by the most:
I did my best, it wasn't much.
I couldn't feel, so I learned to touch.
I've told the truth, I didn't come all this way to fool you.
Yeah even though it all went wrong,
I'll stand right here before the Lord of Song,
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.
Rest in peace, Leonard Cohen. You will be greatly missed.