Biographies of Leonard Cohen are either too long for the uninitiated, or beside the point for fans, for which his story is as part of the history of art as DaVinci or The Beatles, artists whose stories ought to be known by heart.
Born in Montreal in September 21, 1934, Cohen has achieved heights few artists have reached, with all the accolades both artistically (induction into both the Canadian Music and Rock and Roll Hall of Fames, and the Canadian songwriters Hall of Fame) and civic (recipient of the Order of Canada and the National Order of Quebec). But his meaning goes beyond the awards and adulation he has usually accepted with bemused grace at best.
Cohen has explored the pain and ecstatic joys of sex, creativity and religion with a combination of naked confession and dizzying poetic muscle as few others have; you need to reach back and think of prophets and mystics, or decadent outcasts of any faith. His music, poems and novels have sought to mine only the big, messy questions, and to face their absurdities as well as their offerings of redemption.
He began as a poet, through his exposure as an undergrad in the 1950s at McGill University to such Canadian literary heavyweights as Louis Dudek and Irving Layton and soon to be heroes such as Whitman, Henry Miller and Lorca. His first published work was a 1956 collection of poems, "Let Us Compare Mythologies."
After an aborted trip to New York for grad school at Columbia (an experience which he described to Ira Nadel as a time of "passion without flesh, love without climax."), he returned to Montreal in the late 50s and published a few more books of poems, each earning him a growing reputation as one of Canada's bright young literary stars. It was during this time also that he began to write prose. His first novel, 1963's "The Favourite Game," was a fairly standard struggling artists' story. It did not prepare readers for the 1966 "Beautiful Losers," one of the most graphic and poetic explorations of the creative life in isolation as have been written. It is easily one of the best novels of the last 50 years.
Though he continued writing poetry-most noteworthy being the epic "Death of a Lady's Man" and the hermetic, moving "Book of Mercy," Cohen began writing songs in late 1967, moving back to New York out of frustration over lack of financial success with his writing. Lingering on the outskirts of the hip scene in Greenwich Village, Cohen was "discovered" by John Hammond, and he released his first record, "Songs of Leonard Cohen" in 1967. His style at the time was as a folk singer-songwriter, who accompanied himself on acoustic guitar, and who soon developed his own semi-flamenco finger picking.
Like Dylan, his first flush of success came through other artists covering his songs, the most notable being Judy Collins' hit with "Suzanne;" this would be the case throughout his career, especially given the recent crazes for covering his "Bird on a Wire" and "Hallelujah."
In the 70s he became a well respected cult career, semi-successful but almost universally revered for his writing and honesty. Perhaps his most notable release during the period was a musical companion record to "Death of a Lady's Man" (featuring the classic "Don't Go Home With Your Hard On," with backing vocals by Dylan and Allen Ginsberg)and 1979's "Recent Songs." His next release was 1984's "Various Positions," (memorable for the inclusion of "Hallelujah" He did not record again until 1988's "I'm Your Man," a surprising hit fueled by his new sound, a mix of literate, decadent euro-disco and noir-ish grooves. Hits from that release included the title track and the classic "Tower of Song." This and his next record, 1992's "The Future," ushered in arguably his most successful period, which included his songs appearing in hit films such as "Pump up The Volume" and "Natural Born Killers."
And then in 1994, a curveball: Cohen entered the Mount Baldy Monastery and began a five year period as a Zen monk, with the Dharma name "Jikan," which means "silence." His return to the world began slowly, with his sending poems and drawings to a fan site, The Leonard Cohen Files. His return was complete in 2001, with the release of "Ten New Songs."
2004's "Dear Heather" began collaboration with singer/lover Anjani Thomas, a union which continues to this day. This new period of creativity and success in love was soon to be blended with the type of pain of betrayal often depicted in his music. Cohen alleged in a 2005 lawsuit that he was bankrupt, blaming his longtime manager Kelley Lynch of misappropriating more than $10 Million (US) from his retirement fund. He won his case, but the likelihood of him getting those funds back is still remote. Thus his 2008-10 world tours were, while triumphal, tinged with the poignant reality that this aging artist perhaps needed to tour to make money.
These tours were hugely successful, artistically as well as financially, and served as prolonged opportunity to assess Cohen's lifetime body of work and to publically laud him for it. It was a love-fest long overdue.
Fast forward to today. In January 2012, Cohen released his first studio album of new music since 2004, with "Old Ideas." His voice aged into a deeper, authoritative resonance; his subject matter is still the same, and is explored with the same sense of passion, exposure and deeply human questioning as ever. Leonard Cohen never gets tired of diving straight into the marrow of what really matters in the human experience; we never get tired of the lessons he has to pass on.
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