Leonard Cohen, the baritone-voiced Canadian singer-songwriter who seamlessly blended spirituality and sexuality in songs like Hallelujah, Suzanne and Bird on a Wire, has died aged 82.
“My father passed away peacefully at his home in Los Angeles,” his son Adam Cohen said. “He was writing up until his last moments with his unique brand of humour.”
Cohen, also renowned as a poet, novelist and aspiring Zen monk, blended folk music with a darker, sexual edge that won fans around the world and among musicians including Bob Dylan and REM.
He remained wildly popular into his 80s, when his deep voice plunged to seriously gravelly depths. He toured this year and released an album, You Want it Darker, just last month. Adam Cohen said his father died knowing he’d made one of his greatest records.
Cohen’s Hallelujah went from cult hit to modern standard and is now a staple on movies, TV shows, YouTube videos, reality shows and high school choir concerts.
Cohen, who once said he got into music because he couldn’t make a living as a poet, rose to prominence during the folk music revival of the 1960s. He travelled the folk circuit with younger artists, such as Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez.
His contemporary Kris Kristofferson once said that he wanted the opening lines to Cohen’s Bird on a Wire on his tombstone. They would be a perfect epitaph for Cohen himself: “Like a bird on a wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir, I have tried in my way to be free.”
Cohen never seemed as comfortable on stage as he did writing and recording, putting this down to being a late starter among his folk cohort. “I was at least ten years older than the rest of them,” he said in 2001.
Judy Collins, who had a hit with Cohen’s song Suzanne, recalled he was so shy that he quit halfway through his first performance of it and she had to coax him back onstage.
His voice, like Dylan’s, lacked polish but rang with emotion. This year Dylan told the New Yorker that Cohen’s best work was “deep and truthful”, “multi-dimensional” and “surprisingly melodic”.
“When people talk about Leonard, they fail to mention his melodies, which to me, along with his lyrics, are his greatest genius,” Dylan said. “Even the counterpoint lines – they give a celestial character and melodic lift to every one of his songs. As far as I know, no one else comes close to this in modern music.”
It was Dylan who recognised the potential of 1984’s Hallelujah, performing it twice in concert during the mid-1980s, once in Cohen’s native Canada.
It had gone unnoticed when it came out on an album released by an independent label after being rejected by Cohen’s label. He had filled a notebook with some 80 verses before recording the song, which he said despite its references to David, Bathsheba and Samson was an attempt to give a no-religious context to hallelujah, an expression of praise.
Cohen recorded four verses, but he sent several more to John Cale, a founding member of the Velvet Underground, who recorded Hallelujah for a 1991 tribute album.
It’s the Cale version that has become the standard and was used by its most celebrated singer, the late Jeff Buckley, whose 1994 recording really began the launch of the song as a cultural phenomenon.
Cohen was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008, telling the audience: “This is a very unlikely occasion for me. It is not a distinction that I coveted or even dared dream about.”
In songs such as Sisters of Mercy, Cohen melded romantic imagery with minimal orchestration to produce music that rang with the authenticity of traditional folk songs. Many had a dark mood, featuring black humour or sardonic social commentary.
“Destroy another foetus now, We don’t like children anyhow,” was one of the lines from his song The Future.
He told the Daily Telegraph in 1993: “I don’t consider myself a pessimist. I think of a pessimist as someone waiting for it to rain. And I feel completely soaked to the skin.”
Cohen suffered bouts of depression throughout his life that he sometimes tried to mitigate with alcohol and drugs.
In early 2009, when he gave his first US concert in 15 years, the 74-year-old received countless standing ovations at New York’s Beacon Theatre.
“It’s been a long time since I stood up on this stage in New York City,” Cohen said. “I was 60 years old, just a kid with a crazy dream. Since then I’ve taken a lot of Prozac.”
Born on 21 September, 1934, he formed a country music group called the Buckskin Boys while still in his teens.
He was at McGill University in Montreal when his poetry book, Let Us Compare Mythologies, was published in 1956 to critical acclaim. It was followed by The Spice-Box of Earth in 1961. His first novel, The Favourite Game, came out in 1963.
He published more poetry collections while living on the Greek island of Hydra in the 1960s and began to get wide notice with his experimental novel Beautiful Losers in 1966 and his first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, in 1968.
“Leonard Cohen seems on the verge of becoming a major spokesman for the ageing pilgrims of his generation,” the New York Times wrote in 1968. He told the paper’s interviewer: “I don’t even think of myself as a writer, singer or whatever. The occupation of being a man is so much more.”
In all, he published more than a dozen novels and books of poetry and recorded nearly two dozen albums.
Born to a Jewish family, Cohen considered himself both a Jew and a Buddhist.
For decades, Cohen was a student and friend of Joshu Sasaki Roshi, a Zen Buddhist monk, and from 1994 to 1999 he lived as a disciple of Roshi’s at the Mount Baldy Zen Centre in Los Angeles.
He claimed not to fully understand Buddhist concepts, but said the retreat and its hard work gave him a better sense of himself.
“I was the cook up there,” he told Magazine. “My life was filled with great disorder, with chaos, and I achieved a little discipline there. So I decided to return to music.”
He never married but had a son and daughter, Adam and Lorca, with the artist Suzanne Elrod.
He won countless awards, including being named a companion of the Order of Canada in 1991.
“No other artist’s music felt or sounded like Leonard Cohen’s,” Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau said on Thursday. “Yet his work resonated across generations. Canada and the world will miss him.”
In late July this year, Cohen received an email from a friend of his former girlfriend Marianne Ihlen, telling him she was suffering from cancer.
Cohen wrote her a letter that read: “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.”
Ihlen received the letter two days before her death.
ANDREW DALTON and ROBERT JABLON