There are few artists in the realm of popular music who can truly be called poets, in the classical, arts-and-letters sense of the word. Among them are Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Joni Mitchell and Phil Ochs. Leonard Cohen heads this elite class. In fact, Cohen was already an established poet and novelist before he turned his attention to songwriting. His academic training in poetry and literature, and his pursuit of them as livelihood for much of the Fifties and Sixties, gave him an extraordinary advantage over his pop peers when it came to setting language to music. Along with other folk-steeped musical literati, Cohen raised the songwriting bar.
Cohen’s recording career spans 40 years, commencing with the 1967 release of his debut album, Songs of Leonard Cohen. He was in his early thirties and seven years older than Dylan, and his age set him apart from the young musicians who dominated the rock and folk worlds. Cohen was born and raised in the city of Montreal, a city whose rich history and thriving culture served to train his writer’s muse on three fundamental preoccupations: romance, religion and politics. His first musical group, the Buckskin Boys, played traditional music at square dances. He studied poetry at Montreal’s McGill University and published his first collection, Let Us Compare Mythologies, as part of the McGill Poetry Series. His favorite literary figures included the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, the Canadian poet Irving Layton, and Beat Generation figurehead Jack Kerouac.
In 1958, Cohen lived in New York, where he briefly attended Columbia University. He received a grant for his writing that allowed him to travel the world and make the Greek island of Hydra his on-and-off home for a fertile seven-year period. Cohen relocated to the States in 1966 and tried his hand at songwriting, largely as a reaction to having experienced the starving lot of the poet and novelist. By then he’d published four books of poetry and two novels (including the celebrated Beautiful Losers). “But I found it was very difficult to pay my grocery bill,” Cohen said in 1971. “I’ve got beautiful reviews for all my books, and I’m very well thought of in the tiny circles that know me, but…I’m really starving.”
Beyond the promise of better income, his entrée into the music world greatly increased the audience for his poetry. Cohen has always been adamant about the power of words to change individual lives and even entire societies for the better. “I always feel that the world was created through words, through speech in our tradition, and I’ve always seen the enormous light in charged speech,” Cohen told interviewer Robert Sward. “That’s what I’ve tried to get to [and] that is where I squarely stand.”
Cohen found an early supporter and sponsor in Judy Collins, who introduced his songs to the world via her recordings of “Suzanne” (still his best-known song) and “Dress Rehearsal Rag” on her 1966 album In My Life. Legendary A&R man John Hammond signed Cohen to Columbia Records, and his first three albums for the label – Songs of Leonard Cohen, Songs from a Room and Songs of Love and Hate - represent the fruitful first phase in an episodic recording career. The hallmarks of Cohen’s style were his plainspoken vocals, spare arrangements, deep but accessible lyrics, and an abiding preoccupation with the feminine mystique. Cohen’s tightly constructed verses served the rhyming and meter demands of pop-song form without sacrificing the higher ends of poetry.
As a songwriter, Cohen seemed somewhat less comfortable in the Seventies than he had in the Sixties, recording only four albums of new material –Songs of Love and Hate (1971), New Skin for the Old Ceremony (1974),Death of a Ladies’ Man (1977) and Recent Songs (1979) – in that decade. The first and last of these were marked by strong songwriting and sympathetic production, whereas Death of a Ladies’ Man was marked by difficulties with producer Phil Spector.
Cohen’s output was lesser still in the Eighties, but the pair of albums he did release – Various Positions (1984) and I’m Your Man (1988) – are indisputable classics. The first of these found Cohen writing about spirituality; one of its songs (“Hallelujah”) is among his best-loved and most-recorded, having been covered by Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright and Allison Krauss. The release of Various Positions was accompanied by the publication ofBook of Mercy, a self-described “book of prayer.” I’m Your Man was arguably Cohen’s greatest set of songs since his 1967 debut, containing such classics as “Tower of Song,” “Everybody Knows” and “First We Take Manhattan.” In 1992, some of rock’s most respected acts, including R.E.M., the Pixies, and Nick Cave, contributed to the Leonard Cohen tribute album I’m Your Fan. Another Cohen tribute album, Tower of Song: The Songs of Leonard Cohen(1995), included cover versions from more mainstream artists, including Don Henley, Billy Joel and Elton John.
Cohen’s most disenchanted and apocalyptic work, The Future, appeared in 1992. In the title track, he sang, “Get ready for the future, it is murder.” Not surprisingly, Cohen retreated to a mountaintop monastery in Southern California for five years, during which he studied with and served his Zen master, Joshu Sasaki-Roshi. “It was one of the many attempts I’ve made in the past 30 or 40 years to address acute clinical depression,” he acknowledged in a 2001 interview. That year, he released Ten New Songs, his first studio album in nearly a decade. He has since issued Dear Heather(2004) and produced Blue Alert (2006), an album by backup singer Anjani. Between their releases came the documentary I’m Your Man, which featured live performances of Cohen’s songs from U2, Beth Orton and others.
On his ties to Columbia Records, similar in mutual loyalty and longevity to the careers of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, Cohen told writer William Ruhlmann: “I never sold enough records to make them dependent on my next record or to make them anxious about it. On the other hand, I never lost them any money. [The records] seem to sell themselves in modest quantities with very little money necessary for promotion.”
Cohen has earned a better living as a singer-songwriter than he would have as a poet and novelist alone. Yet he’s enjoyed the poet’s advantage of not having to compromise his dignity by indulging in the often-distasteful rituals of pop celebrity. In other words, he’s drawn the best from both worlds, forging a wholly unique and remarkable niche for himself. There’s no denying that Cohen’s voice has deepened and coarsened over the years, but there’s still a marvelous musicality to his phrasing and poetical lilt to his lyrics that attests to an unquenchable spirit.
In his notes for The Essential Leonard Cohen, writer Pico Iyer noted, “The changeless is what he’s been about since the beginning…Some of the other great pilgrims of song pass through philosophies and selves as if through the stations of the cross. With Cohen, one feels he knew who he was and where he was going from the beginning, and only digs deeper, deeper, deeper.”
Cohen’s artistic outlook might best be expressed in his own words with this lyric from “Anthem”: On Anthem (1992), he wrote: “There is a crack, a crack in everything/ That’s how the light gets in.” He remarked, “That’s the closest thing I could describe to a credo. That idea is one of the fundamental positions behind a lot of the songs.”